Here’s the most pretzel-brain-making question there ever was in the history of human thought: “Life is ___________” (fill in the blank).
That’s the deceptively innocuous-looking problem that, given even just a little bit of space and time, can toss you smack-dab onto the back of the Chaos-Beast that takes you on a ride straight down the most convoluted and paradoxical rabbit hole a thinking being will ever encounter. Argh!
I’ll tell you right now going in: That question actually has no “Right Answer.”
Every wise guy and Smarty Pants that ever lived has had a go at it and finally just made do with whatever it was they made up when, eventually, they fell off the Beast and bit the dust big time.
MY FAVORITE STORY ABOUT THE MEANING OF LIFE
My own favorite story connected with this exercise in paradox-wrangling is the one Kurt Vonnegut presented in his deeply satirical, dystopian novel, CAT’S CRADLE, which was published in 1962.
It was a mind-boggle, that book. In its time it has been booed, banned, and vilified as well as lauded, praised, and “cultified” in varied and sundry ways. (I’ll leave it to you to read the thing and find out why.)
So, anyway, there’s this story in that book that goes like this:
Here’s God at the very beginning of Time. He’s just finished making the earth and, as Vonnegut writes, “…He looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.”
And like every other Creator there ever was, the Dude decides to gather together an audience to share and check out what He has wrought. Of all the critters God shapes out of mud and animates, the only one that can actually speak is Man.
Man blinks, looks around puzzled and politely asks, “What is the purpose of all this?”
God answers that question with another question, “Everything must have a purpose?”
Man replies, “Certainly.”
And God tells Man, “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this.”
And then, Vonnegut writes, “And He went away.”
That is probably the best meta-story I’ve encountered about the golden god-thread that runs through the whole tapestry of the history of humankind.
It’s the stuff from which legends get made and we humans are the ones who are supposed to weave it and incorporate it into Life-Its-Own-Self, it seems (at least according to Vonnegut).
COMES NOW ANOTHER BOOK FOR SELF-IMPROVEMENT AUTO-DIDACTS….
In 2017, writer Emily Esfahani Smith put together a book, THE POWER OF MEANING: Crafting a Life That Matters, that presents a clear and clean overview of the human experience of wrestling with this most annoying question.
Tapping into “maybe-this-will-work” Smarty Pants and wise guy forays into assorted fields of human brain grinding (psychology, sociology, philosophy, metaphysics, biology, literature and just plain living), Smith makes a run at laying out how we humans have tried to figure out ways to find grace and meaning in the mystery and mind-boggle of Life-Its-Own-Self.
Using what she calls the “four pillars of meaning” – belonging, purpose, story-telling, and transcendence – she makes an exceptionally fine stab at the problem.
The book does not present thoughts that are particularly “revolutionary.” You’ll probably recognize all of the different stances and such she presents.
After all, we humans have been fooling around with and trying to suss out this quintessential puzzle for thousands of years now.
By piling up and stacking together many of the varied ways that people in a wide array of human circumstances have worked out to find a life meaning for which they can gladly spend their lives living, Smith has put together a work that could help us regular sorts follow our own, individual god-thread.
You might want to check it out.
AND THEN THERE’S A VIDEO TOO….
I also stumbled across a 2013 YouTube video that was uploaded by INKtalks, a platform for creative idea-exchange in India that grew out of entrepreneur and founder Lakshmi Pratury’s penchant for using storytelling to foster community-building and her admiration for the TEDtalks format.
The rollicking exploration, “A crash course on the meaning of life,” features the amazing entrepreneur-turned-philosopher Derek Sivers.
In just under 12 minutes, Sivers lays out all kinds of possible answers to the burning life- and-its-meaning question and provides his own evocative commentary on the lot plus a bunch of bonus questions at the end.
ONE MORE THOUGHT AND ONE MORE QUESTION
The one thing that helped me dismount after my latest ride on the Chaos-Beast Express was this thought from the late deep-thinker Joseph Campbell:
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
And that’s the thing, you know. Each of us is an answer to the god-thread we are holding.
A follow-up question now is “Where are your answers to the god-thread question taking you?” As a wanna-be shaper the answers to that follow-up question might make a crucial difference between living a life filled with meaning and mana and one that is not.
Here’s a poem:
WRANGLING THE QUESTIONS
Here’s the thing about questions:
They tend to multiply.
They iterate and permutate
Into more and more.
A nest of questions await you,
All pertinent, all relevant,
All suitable for debate with self or other,
Back and forth and back.
Questions can get to be a puzzlement.
They keep on flitting, keep on morphing,
And they can just lead you down more
Alleyways and byways and definitive dead ends
And not to any hidey-places
Where some really special “meaning”
Can be found.
A labyrinth built of asking why and how and where
All the real and magic answers,
(The ones with all that good stuff) might abide
Just takes you ‘round and ‘round and
Leads you right on back to where you began.
(Because, after all, the thing’s a labyrinth
and the end is the beginning is the end.)
Questions can usher you into some
Monolithic ivory tower
Where you can sit and ponder
All day and all night,
Doing nothing more than warming
Some fluffed-up, comfy cushions
While your mind runs around in circles
And falls down all dizzy as you throw up
Watery conundrums all over the floor.
Questions can morph into branching paths
That keep you always wandering
Through a curious wilderness of strange,
Always finding more and more to inspect,
To analyze, to dissect until the world turns dark
And the stars all go away.
The wise guys say you can turn back the tide
Of this plague of trickster questions,
When you’ve had enough of the way
They trip you up and stick a ring through your nose
Then lead you roundabout and down
Yet another stupid byway that goes nowhere.
Close your eyes,
Hold onto your heart,
Shake your fist and
Stick your chin out.
Inhale deeply and keep breathing.
Choose the gnarliest of those questions
And just sit with it.
Then, choose some half-baked,
Just do it.
Go on, go on, go on.
Just gulp it on down.
You did that?
Now, live that answer ‘til it’s real.
Those wise guys are amazing, right?
[by Netta Kanoho]
Header Photo Credit: “Lantern Festival” by Wei, Shi-Hang via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
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