Meaning in Life
Meaning in Life
The Beavers Tell2) Copper Canyon is a unique and massive area situated in Northwest Mexico that consists of a complex of canyons carved as deep as 6,000 feet, covering 900 square miles -- deeper and larger than the Grand Canyon. There are about 50,000 primitive people living in cave-backed houses. Their ancient and shy lifestyle is now threatened by ever-growing tourist numbers. The 400 mile long Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad is the main artery of entrance to the area. This trip offers grand and memorable vistas which are only barely exceeded by the majesty and breath-taking drama presented by the Copper Canyon.
There is no trick to finding the meaning of life.
Just look around.
Do the trees make this same inquiry?
Ask the beaver.
Stop him as he approaches the tree.
I: “You, wise and wily rascal.
Stop for a moment.”
B: “Excuse me, I'm very busy just now. I can't be disturbed.”
I: “That's not very polite.
We let you eat our trees after all.”
B: “Your trees?
Who told you these were your trees?”
I: “Well, we planted them just two seasons ago, so there!”
B: “So there?
That does not prove anything.
This tree is mine.”
I: “How can you be so sure which trees are yours and which mine?”
B: “Not a problem.
All the trees are mine don't you know?”
I: “How can that be?
Don't you know anything of property rights?”
B: “Yes I do!
And this is all my property.
Been in my family forever.”
I: “Yes, I suppose it has.
What is there that belongs to me?”
B: “You have yourself to worry about, that should be enough.”
(IJ, January 9, 2001)
The Tarahumara were said to have escaped to this area after the arrival of the Spanish to avoid persecution and enslavement, they are not, therefore, indigenous. They found a refuge to protect their simple way of life, now changing fast. They are a tangible, vivid and contemporary example of how people can find meaning in life in the most primitive circumstances. They clearly show how the instinct for survival can be sublimated into an interesting and sustaining culture.
These shy and unspoiled people raise corn both for food and for brewing their own alcoholic beverages, and this is only one of the ways they cope with their hardships and primitive circumstances. Thus their rugged life is instructive to even the most casual outside observer of how to find useful, fulfilling meaning in life.
I cherish a round, hand-carved wood ball, (dated December 1995 when I visited there) replica of those used in their famous marathon running game. They kick or hit the ball as they run long distances and challenge each other to a trial of endurance, just for the fun of it.
3) Since Man is a social animal it is only natural that he should have developed entertaining ways to interact and 'pastime.' Just as there are many similarities between the religions developed in apparent isolation around the world, there are similarities between the games people play. Many games now thought to be mere children's pastimes are relics of religious rituals, often dating back to the dawn of mankind. 'Tug of war' is a dramatized struggle between natural forces; 'knucklebones' (Jacks) were once part of the fortune-teller's ritual; even 'hopscotch' is related to ancient myths about labyrinths and mazes, later adapted to represent the Christian soul's journey from Earth to heaven. Casting lots with dice or knucklebones gave people a way to consult their gods before making difficult decisions, and some games are used for the serious purpose of training young people as well as maintaining acquired skills for hunting and warfare. Chess is the imaginative reconstruction of a battlefield and the strategic thinking and foresight required to win provide excellent intellectual training.
“Games hold a mirror to civilization... One of these universal games is cat's cradle, known in Africa, Asia, Europe, the western hemisphere, the Pacific and among the Eskimos... The player narrates a story at each stage, and in this fashion the legends of the Inuit have been handed down unaltered from generation to generation: the individual string figures are a way of helping the storyteller remember his tales -- a mnemonic device... for most people the permanent fascination of games lies simply in the pure joy of playing. It is this intangible pleasure that distinguishes the true game from professional sport...” when playing is more important than winning. (Frederic V. Grunfeld, Unicef, Games of the World, 1982)
Playing games between children and adults, between family members and between lovers invites a natural process of bonding that contributes to the enjoyment of life, thus enhancing its meaning!
4) “'O student, even this view, [inspired teaching] which is so pure and so clear, if you cling to it, if you fondle it, if you treasure it, if you are attached to it, then you do not understand that the teaching is similar to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of.' One should not carry the raft on his head or on his back...” (Hermann Hess, Siddhartha, 1957)
This is an argument against religious fetishes, paraphernalia, special clothing and ostentation.
Meditate on the daffodil
Preparing to emerge.
6) No other people have felt so profoundly and pondered so deeply the fundamental problems of life than the people of India, the land of Gurus. For no other people have spirituality and spiritual significance taken greater precedence. There are three distinct geographic regions:
1) in the northeast the Himalayas, the traditional home of the
2) In the Northwest and in the rugged land south of the Himalayas lie the valleys of the Indus and the Ganges Rivers, fertile, densely populated areas generally known as Hindustan.
3) In the peninsular south area of Deccan and Tamil states, are the tropical tablelands, semi-arid and desert zones.
Religions and diverse cultures have developed in each of these areas, intermix today and spread throughout this nation of contrasts causing political tension and social turmoil. The first major culture of India centered around the upper reaches of the Indus river valley before the third millennium BC. As archeological research continues, this cultural area may prove to be the earliest, most advanced in the world. The fruit of this prolific spiritual tree is as diverse as it is intriguing in terms of the concepts identifying and explaining the meaning of life.
7) “The sole purpose of creation is for the soul to enjoy the infinite state of the Oversoul consciously. Although the soul eternally exists in and with the Oversoul in an inviolable unity, it cannot be conscious of this unity independently of creation, which is within the limitations of time. It must therefore evolve consciousness before it can realize its true status and nature as being identical with the infinite Oversoul, which is one without a second. The evolution of consciousness requires the duality of subject and object -- the center of consciousness and the environment (that is, the world of forms).” (Meher Baba, Discourses, 1969)
This Guru, who claimed to be an avatar, attracts very intelligent people who distinguish themselves by understanding these convoluted prose.
The Leaf9) “ 'We have the idea that the meaning of a word is an object' [this statement] is also connected with 'The application (every application) of every word is arbitrary'. And this is connected with the question, 'Can you play chess without the queen?'...this about understanding with his [Wittgenstein's] study of what it is to prove a thing,...answers the question 'What was Wittgenstein's biggest contribution to philosophy?'...people were often exasperated by his ending the discussion of a philosophical puzzle with: 'Say what you like'...he was anxious to make people feel the puzzle -- he was dissatisfied if he felt they had not done this. [As in: feel the puzzle of life.]
The dew droplet
rests on the leaf
and that's how
the leaf finds it's meaning.
(IJ - 1998)
“The idea that the several instances of a general concept all have something in common is connected with the craving for a definition, 'the idea of an exact calculus', the model, the analogy, of an exact calculus. The fascination of this model for our language is connected with the fascination of models suggested in our language -- the idea that the soul is a little man within, the model for our minds of the closed picture gallery, the model for causation of the wire connection.”
[This philosophical confusion leads to the belief in the duality of nature, Spirit vs. matter.]
“The substitution of the family resemblance model for the property-in-common model, and the substitution of 'Ask for the use' for 'Ask for the meaning' is linked with the procedure of explaining meaning by presenting not a definition but cases, and not one case but cases and cases. And this is linked with dealing with the philosophical, metaphysical, can't by presenting cases and cases.” (John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery, 1970)
So when we ask about the “Meaning of Life?” as a serious question, we need to answer the question: “What kind of answer do we want?” otherwise we spring a trap that is inherent in language (the search for “an exact calculus”). And we need to give examples (cases) of how we go about finding meaning in other circumstances, compare these and apply the results to the arena of living. (see also Vicesimus Alter Stele: Ethical Decisions, verse 10)
10) The nakhes [pleasures] we get from children are far more precious than gold. (Jewish Quotation)
“I am convinced that for the proper upbringing of children the parents ought to have a general knowledge of the care and nursing of babies... We labour under a sort of superstition that the child has nothing to learn during the first five years of its life. On the contrary the fact is that the child never learns in after [older] life what it does in its first five years. The education of the child begins with conception [and the education of the parents.]” (M. K. Gandhi, All Men are Brothers, 1960)
These formative years are when children acquire from their parents the most fundamental frame of reference and the keys to the enjoyment of life, or they don't. Thus the 'sins' of the parents are also passed down to their children and subsequent generations.
11) “I fancy I know the art of living and dying non-violently. But I have yet to demonstrate it by one perfect act... As a Jain muni once rightly said, I was not so much a votary of ahimsa, as I was of truth, and I put the latter in the first place and the former in the second. For, as he put it, I was capable of sacrificing non-violence for the sake of truth. In fact, it was in course of my pursuit of truth that I discovered non-violence... Well, all my philosophy, if it may be called by that pretentious name, is contained in what I have said...” (M. K. Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers, 1960)
This is the simple legacy Gahdhiji hoped to pass to his children and to all successive generations. It was this 'philosophy' that created the meaning for his life.
A PATH13) In our complex society a satisfactory self-concept is more difficult to accept or achieve, because there are so many choices and there is so much interference. Since this self-concept is not always crucial to the acquisition of the necessities of life, it becomes to a large extent a volitional issue. Many people model themselves after their parents, even when they ostensibly object to them in their teenage years. But since today people have choices, where primitive people had none, making these choices is an added dimension of complexity.
We are intelligence, consciousness, feeling and desire, which awakens daily in a nature machine.
As conscious desire we can train all desires to become united as desire for self-knowledge and union with our complete self.
Desire, so unified and directed, can free feeling from its attachments to nature and allow it to become feeling of love for all that is.
This balanced union of feeling and desire can lead to the Great Way of union with the total self and the restoration of the nature machine to a perfect condition.
(Reed Baker Jacob, 2000)
The tradition of modern 'scientific method' is opposed to wishful thinking, because people who reach conclusions without adequate evidence are usually uncovered and embarrassed. It is the same in society, people who present themselves as something they are not, are usually proven to be presumptuous.
There are many ways we get feedback, and learning to be objective about this feedback is a useful skill. To picture yourself as one who tries to know the truth, no matter how unpleasant or threatening this might be, is the best way to gain a solid self-concept. It is also important to be in tune with one's own feelings, not to deny or try to eliminate these, but to benefit from emotions. Use your feelings as a dependable barometer, not as a control mechanism. If we try to suppress our emotions they may lurk in our subconscious and be a powerful and disruptive influence on our thinking in the future, when we least desire such influence.
There is no pat formula about how to develop an appropriate and healthy
self-concept except to follow the above suggestions:
think objectively, observe your successes, get good advice and pay attention to your feelings without letting these control you. Strive for effective thinking rather than perfect thinking. Cut yourself some slack.
14) It is a comforting idea to explain all the curious circumstances that we find in life by way of mystical forces or by accepting esoteric theories. There is a natural tendency of man to create explanations, hypotheses that attempt to explain phenomenon by using unproved assumptions. The same error occurs when people accept explanations and then proceed to find facts and obscure details to support their preconceived conclusions. Social critics are particularly susceptible to this fallacy of logic, and their diatribes proliferate in daily newspapers as a perverse form of 'intellectual' entertainment. These theories are often complex and appealing to those who yearn for explanations, unsatisfied as they are with explanations given by organized religion, and otherwise unaided in their search to find meaning in life as Atheists.
Theosophy, Scientology, writers like Carlos Castaneda, Church of Religious Science, 'metaphysical' philosophy, Edgar Casey, Christian Scientists, assorted Gurus from India including Bhagwan Shree Rajhneesh, David Koresh and many others create intriguing explanations. They succeed in giving meaning to the lives of their adherents, people who are vulnerable to illogical, emotional appeals and accept explanations that, however plausible they sound, are no more than fairy tales and unproved assumptions. Sometimes it takes more courage to admit that you don't know all the answers and accept that those concepts that connect to infinity are inevitably unexplainable, including the ultimate meaning of life.
15) In almost all religions the summum bonum can be attained only after death. But Nirvana can be realized in this very life. He who has realized the Truth, Nirvana, (an Arahant) is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all 'complexes,' obsessions and the worries and troubles that torment others. His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present. Therefore he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without self-projections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful. As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride and all such 'defilements,' he is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance. His service to others is of the purest, for he has no thought of self. He gains nothing, accumulates nothing, not even anything spiritual, because he is free from the illusion of Self, and the 'thirst' for becoming. Nirvana is beyond logic and reasoning. (Not unlike being in true love.)
An Arahant is a person who has liberated himself from all defilements and impurities such as desire, hatred, ill will, ignorance, pride, conceit, etc. He has attained, according to Buddha, the fourth or the highest and ultimate stage in the noble qualities.
THE GEESE17) For many, service to others frames the fine art of their meaning in life. “Thus service to the Indians in South Africa ever revealed to me new implications of truth at every stage. Truth is like a vast tree, which yields more and more fruit the more you nurture it. The deeper the search in the mine of truth the richer the discovery of the gems buried there, in the shape of openings for an ever greater variety of service ...A variety of incidents in my life have conspired to bring me in close contact with people of many creeds and many communities, and my experience with all of them warrants the statement that I have known no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths, whether Mussalmans, Parses, Christians or Jews. I may say that my heart has been incapable of making any such distinctions.” (M. K. Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers, 1960)
Wherever we go,
that's the most
important place to be.
(IJ - 1998)
Thus Ghandhiji considered his life's work to be a service to humanity, and in such terms he described the meaning of his life.
THE TWILIGHT HOUR20) Does Atheism deprive life of its meaning?
‘Tis the sunset and twilight hour
And nature's time to rest.
The last rays of the setting sun
Castes a golden crown on the mountain.
The sun to other climes has gone
But twilight as our hope is left
A promise of other days to come
Before darkness covers all the earth.
Now the Chickadee warbles in his leafy bush;
And the Robin, king of twilight songsters
Chirps a love song to his mate.
Through the trees, far in the west,
The departing day glows with a golden light
Touching the green of earth.
Then upward shoot broad rays of light
From behind the western hills.
Dying blood red every cloud
That float in the arching sky.
Higher they rise and the color
Fades to pink and lavender;
Blending farther on to blue and violet
Merging with the darkness of approaching night.
Gradually the dim light fades.
The scattering clouds reflect a grayish hue
As though in sorrow at the coming night.
Still glowing in the West
Is a faint trace of the brilliance
That once covered all the heavens
But now it has faded and gone
And darkness settles around us like a cloak.
Oh blessed twilight hour
Of all times of the day the most prized.
The traveler wandering in a foreign land
His thoughts to home can turn;
And as the departing sun leaves him
In that hallowed after glow of day,
Can see again the green fields and
Hear again the loved voices of his home.
The aged are stirred with memories of youth
They live again the happy days
When love and joy filled life's measure overflowing.
When care and sorrow were unknown.
Now at life's sad close the past returns
And offers choice morsels of its bliss
Unreeling the happiness they have known;
As they wait, musing in their twilight hour.
(Joseph Reed Jacob - circa 1950)
“However, if what is meant is that an atheist cannot be attached to certain goals which give direction to his life, then the charge is quite plainly false. If what is meant is that the atheist... may not be able to justify any of his activities... even believers in God do not justify the great majority of their acts by reference to God's will... engaging in scientific research, assisting people who are in trouble, singing or dancing or making love or eating superb meals, if they ever were worthwhile, would [not] cease to be so once belief in god is rejected... if [it means] one cannot justify by reference to anything more fundamental [than self], this may be true. [On the other hand it should be obvious how elevated that makes the self.]
It is not a sign of irrationality... to accept a value judgment that is not based on another one, then the atheist is not one wit more irrational than the believer.” (Paul Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1963)
There are many enlightened reasons to justify altruistic and mundane activities of Man which are every bit as convincing as the commandments of gods, the promise of a glorious afterlife or Nirvana.
21) I consider the following an “ecumenical” poem, appropriate to both Atheists and true believers.
There is an old Jewish-Christian tradition which says:
God sends each person into this world
with a special message to deliver,
with a special song to sing for others,
with a special act of love to bestow.
No one else can speak my message,
or sing my song,
or offer my act of love.
These are entrusted only to me.
According to this tradition,
the message may be spoken,
the song sung,
the act of love delivered
only to a few,
or to all the folk in a small town,
or to all the people in a large city,
or even to all those in the whole world.
It all depends on God's unique plan
for each person.
To which I would like to add:
The greatest gift of God,
I would think,
is the gift of life.
The greatest sin of humans,
it would seem,
would be to return that gift,
ungratefully and unopened. (anonymous)
The 'gift of life' is still one of those details of the development of Man that scientists have not explained.
22) There are religions and theological teachings that suggest god is all knowing, all-powerful and that life is therefore pre-planned, subject to karma, or at the very least pre-ordained from an earlier spiritual life. All of these suggestions would place some limit on Man's ability to act freely and prevent him from making all the choices in his own life. This idea of causality gives rise to the question: does god cause evil? or the devil? or does Man? This has been a popular subject of philosophical discussions even before Kant and David Hume. Is Man culpable for misdeeds if god predetermines his actions?
“It is a very dangerous feeling, this feeling that you‘re
not totally secure in what you're doing. But it makes life so exciting.” (Andre Linde.
Tertius Stele: Physics, verse 29)
Some religions teach that Man has specific lessons He must learn in life, or penance to perform, or recompense to execute. There is the suggestion that suffering will help Man achieve grace, or, the celibate will gain spiritual progress to get off the wheel of recurring lives. Each of these concepts in one way or another restricts the freewill of Man, by superimposing a purpose or meaning from outside of Man's own life. It is, however, useless to talk about making ethical decisions unless one has the ability to make such a decision, execute it, or understand why not. The ethical significance and meaning of life grows from the very act of exercising free judgment, from living under the explicit control of ones own best reasoning.
“Can we play chess without the queen?” Yes you can play a game without a queen, but because of the definition of chess and the central role of the queen, any game commenced without the queen is clearly not chess. Any ethical discussion, action or choice that is restricted by some external force (or god), is not a free ethical decision, action or choice, but one that belongs to the power that restricts it. (see Vicesimus Alter Stele: Ethical Decisions, verse 10)
23) What Guides Our Lives?
There are times - like now
when I question the rules of living.
These moments may be quick
as the passing of a Kingfisher,
Or longer - haunting moments
like the rhythm of a repeating melody.
I hear the melody now -
a blues tune that almost makes me laugh,
then so solemn it makes me reflect
more deeply into my soul.
This location - eludes my understanding.
Its vacancy is at once the cause of the question
and source of the answer.
My movement from day to day
seeks to fill this soul
to satisfy an ideal.
Yet my actions are not
the aimless wandering of a homeless stranger.
As vacant as this soul appears
there is a code inscribed,
a gene to inform my heart how to love,
how to smile and sing.
The code attaches - enlivens the melody
and quickens the rhythm of the tune.
The song reverberates
into an emotional signal
that speaks through my intuition:
“First you need to love - then to be loved.”
And I see you - near me
and this question fades.
The answer is apparent.
“When I am with you,
my soul is quickened,
my life is full,
my path is known,
I accept the rules of society for my own,
because of you.”
(IJ, January, 15, 2001)
24) At first blush, it's not certain whether our self-concept is a result of what we conceive as the meaning of life -- or is the meaning in life dictated by our self-concept? As we develop the picture of who we are, we should clearly look at our past, review what we have studied, examine what we have achieved and the errors we have made. When people speak of needing to 'find themselves,' what state of mind is this? How can someone actually remove himself or herself from the cognizance of what they have done? Certainly that tells us something about who we are, whether we like it or not. It must be more difficult to loose oneself than to understand who we are.
Not knowing what we want to be is quite another consideration. If we think that our past 'has been without meaning,' is it that we don't feel satisfied when we compare our activities against new values and assumptions about virtue that we accept now? This feeling isn't about not having values, it's about these values changing and possibly not knowing what these are. Our collection of values is clearly related to what we see as the meaning in life; these are, if not synonymous, at least integrally related.
This intellectual effort doesn't have to run in a circle, there is a practical way out. Consider first all the good things: people we have made happy, the loves we have shared and the service we have accomplished. What about these is best and valuable? What about these can be perpetuated? Think only briefly about the bad things done deliberately which are regrettable. Don't dwell on the decisions made in good faith that turned out wrong, (marriage-divorce, etc.) judgment skills grow and improve (an expanded frame of reference can help avoid these errors). Deliberate wrongs must be corrected within reason. If you have hurt someone, usually a courageous and sincere apology is sufficient to set the record straight. Make a plan to avoid this kind of negative result. Come back to the positive record and let this be the guiding self-concept. Fill each day with more of these valued activities until there is no room or time for that which you despise or might regret. This is how we fulfill and improve gradually our self-concept, by doing what we value.
25) The success you achieve in understanding your self-concept by introspection is dependent on how effective your thinking is, how objective you are. Do you see the past and personal relationships as they really are? Check this out with friends. Most friends are only too eager to be objective, to point out each other's foibles and this frankness is a talent that can be learned. If you deceive yourself in order to protect an artificial self-concept, you reduce the effectiveness of your thinking and set traps for the future that will snare you into repeating errors of the past. Make an effort to purge this by forming new habits, like reading the newspaper, maybe the 'letters to the editor' that can be food for thought and broaden your frame of reference.
Why do all this? That's the wrong question to ask; it's wrong twice. First, living is an instinct, all animals and plants do this without needing to know why (that includes Man). Second, we have many other instincts, all animals do, the more complex the animal, the higher the intelligence, the more instructions are pre-wired in our DNA. Accepting life as an art form, where meaning is something we create like a beautiful painting, is only a small extension of these instincts. Many people have done this, they follow their compulsions. Scientists, composers, painters, priests, etc., follow their natural abilities to the limit. We can all develop our talents and creativity, then solutions to all kinds of problems suggest themselves. Little by little society grows. It is up to each of us to objectively evaluate our talents, educate them and then use them (the beaver that live in our pond do this). Most people are of modest or average talent, and that's just fine, even that is a lot. Following part of this prescription, part of the time, will make the meaning in life obvious and fulfill a rational self-concept.
26) The most severe cases of people troubled by questions of 'meaning' fall into what might be called 'Existential neurosis.' This is a clinical condition that most of us avoid by accepting some 'savior' or charismatic leader. In our fast changing society our value systems are often challenged. If we are forced to abandon the religion of our youth, and fail to replace that we can be subject to anxiety, despair and lack a zest for life. In some cases this is related to clinical depression (which can have physiological origins). Furthermore, when we come to realize our mortality, some think that they are dying a little every day, rather than living fully until the end. Or when we are disappointed with the often-capricious nature of success, being the right person in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to feeling disgruntled and disappointed. Simply deciding what to do at each turn of our lives, or the proverbial mid-life crisis can be a serious problem for many, leaving us challenging our decisions. We can suffer from cognitive dissonance, find it difficult to make decisions, regret the ones we made and feel we have lived without accomplishing anything meaningful. If we are oppressed by the force of our entire future weighing down on us at once, we are experiencing existential angst, and may need counseling to overcome this and related issues of understanding the greater meaning in life.
Existential therapy is based on the assumption that each individual has freedom and choice that heredity and environment play a recognizable role influencing our lives, forming our talents and habits but these are not decisive. We are each responsible for our 'becoming,' for the development of our future. Angst is when this responsibility becomes a burden, joy is when this opportunity becomes a feeling of freedom and empowerment. There are therapies designed to help those with debilitating problems understand ways of coping and succeeding. For the rest of us there is the concept of living life as if we were painting a masterpiece or composing a symphony. On a less exalted scale, the average run of us can get by with appreciating fine art and enjoying music, being part of the audience can be very satisfying. These skills can bring us into contact with the same sense of satisfaction, help us be in touch with a natural spirituality and teach us how to have pleasure every day.
Music of so many kinds has been pervasive in every culture. It not only soothes the savage beast, but helps us answer (or avoid answering) the most basic existential questions.
27) Nietzsche suggested this axiom: “Whoever has a reason for living endures almost any mode of life.” But that seems so close to being at zero, when with little effort we can rise above merely enduring and accomplish the joy championed by the most inspirational poets. We should never attempt to work our way out of depression or confusion over values by ourselves. Just like we should never expect to go through the changes of puberty without learning from someone who has adjusted to life as an adult (no matter how long it takes us to become adult). There is always someone nearby with whom we can share our intimate feelings, who will undoubtedly have either overcome the same confusion or be there still with empathy. Thus we can find mutual support, which often reinforces the love we share with friends, with our mate and with family members. We all have a contribution to make, so it's time we set about making the best of it.
28) 'Meaning in life' and 'Meaning of life' -- I tend to use these two phrases interchangeably rather too casually. The first would apply to a reflexive evaluation of one's own life and by extension explains the meaning that others might also discover for themselves. The latter is broader and might apply to bacteria, simple animals or to any organism or animal in the food chain. We can find an explanation to both of these puzzles in various religions or 'spiritual' teachings and Atheists can find answers by looking around at nature and seeing how diverse systems work.
“What kind of answer do you want?”
The meaning of a word in our language is frequently determined by its use. The meaning of a pronoun 'he' is usually found in the context of the discussion at hand. Likewise we might find part of the meaning for our lives by considering the different contexts where this question seems to arise most often.
I have had friends who have battled this question, then suddenly awaken to an epiphany after the arrival of their first child. Suddenly they saw that part of the meaning in their lives, and more broadly the meaning of life, was described by fulfilling their instinct to nurture and love this new child, and certainly share that and more love with their mate.
These are just two cases of how to find meaning. Certainly there are many other examples of successful answers.
“Jack had an inspiration after their last visit [to Luco, an eccentric painter.] He made an exception to his silence and shared this thought with Elder Baker. [Picture two Mormon missionaries walking along the street talking.]30) If you are trying to find something like 'meaning in life,' it is first essential that you know what the end result might look like, otherwise when you find it, how will you recognize it and be satisfied? For example, imagine forgetting where you put your shoes last night. In the morning you begin looking; you're sure you took them off; you know what they look like and there are a limited number of places where they could be located. You ask your family; no one knows. You see several other pairs of shoes in the process, but you know those are not the ones in question. Finally you look in the garage and there they are by the door where you took them off because they were unusually dirty.
“What kind of thoughts do you have when you play that repetitive music?”
“I don't really think about anything in particular. Sometimes I close my eyes and picture myself in front of a huge audience.” [Elder Baker played the pipe organs whenever possible in the local catholic churches in Pisa, Italy.]
“You can play like that with your eyes closed?”
“Sure. The Keys are always in the same place, they don't move or try to escape.”
“Ya, I guess that's true. But that's not what I meant.”
“When you practice a lot, the keys become an extension of your fingers.”
“Did you ever think about life as a painting. Like you could choose to live just like Luco begins a new painting on a blank canvas?”
“That guy's crazy but his pictures do seem to have a certain emotional appeal, if you like weird flowers.”
“Most people just live their lives like they're painting by the numbers. Did you ever do that?”
“No. That never appealed to me, but neither does doing any other form of painting.”
“But you can understand the difference can't you. I've been thinking about this lately. Life is like painting and we can create our own masterpiece, or you can paint by the numbers according to some prearranged scheme. We can each create our lives like the way you create music.”
“I'm just following the method of Bach as an exercise, I don't have the genius to create music. Most people don't have anything close to what it takes to create a masterpiece out of their lives. Do you think you do?”
“No, I'm not saying that. You like to misunderstand. I think you do it on purpose.”
“Sometimes you make misunderstanding easy, ya know?”
“Excuse me for living.”
“The two missionaries walked in silence as they continued their routine.”
(IJ, Jack and Lucky, 1968)
If we have never recognized any meaning in life, how can this story help us? Well, other people have, and as we become acquainted with descriptions of their meaning, we might make a list of the necessary characteristics the answer must have.
a. The meaning in our life must motivate us to some worthwhile goal.
b. We must feel that what we are doing contributes to this goal.
c. It must be something that can be easily understood, that we can explain to others. None of this “I just can't explain it.” because that is a symptom of some other psychological, emotional motivation, like peer pressure.
d. Being attached to this meaning must give us a sense of pride, and other kinds of constructive emotional satisfaction. (Like the desire to get up in the morning.)
e. It must be non-destructive to ourselves and to those we love. (No racial supremacists please.)
f. The satisfaction we get might run deeper than doing mundane tasks. (Numinous)
g. This meaning does not need to come from any super-natural force, or god.
h. What are the most important achievements in our lives so far? Can any of these give a clue to what we might want to do more of in the future?
i. The meaning might be more than one explanation, even a collection of answers.
j. What special talents and aptitudes do we have? Steadfastness, loyalty perhaps?
k. Under pressure, which values have been most important in directing our lives?
If finding the absolute 'meaning for life' is our goal, knowing that might be useful, but possibly it should be broken down into practical segments and personalized to apply to ourselves. Answers must be personal, so the theories end here, because all explanations must come to an end.
31) ‘...Is the resolve to be so scientific about everything perhaps a kind of fear of, and escape from, pessimism? A subtle last resort against -- truth? And, morally speaking, a sort of cowardice and falseness? ...Greeks and the music of tragedy? Greeks and the art form of pessimism? The best turned out, most beautiful, most envied type of humanity to date, those most apt to seduce us to life, the Greeks -- how now? They of all people should have needed tragedy? Even more -- art? For what -- [purpose is] Greek art?”
“You will guess where the big question mark concerning the value of existence had thus been raised. Is pessimism necessarily a sign of decline, decay, degeneration, weary and weak instincts -- as it once was in India and now is, to all appearances, among us... Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence? Is it perhaps possible to suffer precisely from overfullness? The sharp-eyed courage that tempts and attempts, that craves the frightful as the enemy, the worthy enemy, against whom one can test one's strength?...” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Attempt at a Self-Criticism, 1886)
One of the virtues of drama, tragedy and comedy, is to show, (display artfully) a range of emotions that we might otherwise take for granted or dismiss as unworthy of serious consideration. Learning to display emotions is a talent generated by participation in dramatic presentation, and to a lesser extend gained by the appreciative audience. In the same way, challenging our talent of reason and finding meaning in face of pessimism, is a Herculean challenge worthy of the most intellectually honest freethinker.
“Painting is poetry and is always written in verse with plastic rhymes, never in prose,” Pablo said to me one day when he was working on one of those still lifes. [What would it mean for our lives to be of poetry not prose?] “Plastic rhymes are forms that rhyme with one another or supply assonances either with other forms or with the space that surrounds them; also, sometimes, through their symbolism, but their symbolism mustn't be too apparent. What have leeks got to do with a skull? Plastically, they have everything to do with it. You can't keep on painting the skull and crossbones, any more than you can keep on rhyming amour with toujours. So you bring in the leeks instead and they make your point without forcing you to spell it out so obviously.” But when the painting was too nice: “That's just the trouble,” he said, “It's so well balanced it annoys me. I can't leave it like that. It's a stable kind of balance, not an unstable one. It's too solid. I prefer a more precarious one. I want it to hold itself together – but just barely.” (Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, 1964)Can we organize our lives in a similar rhyme and rhythm, with just enough balance to keep us afloat but not enough to take the spontaneity out of life?