Today’s Pontificate – It suddenly dawned on me the other day as I caught myself passing some thoughts through my mind that are generally reserved for those older than me (or so I thought).
Nooo.. I don’t mean I am a high school senior. Although, when I was a senior in high school I did pretty much have life all figured out and adults knew nothing… or so I thought. Sadly, I am referring to senior citizen these days.
Thank gawd there’s those three indicators to let you know when you have reached senior citizen status otherwise I might miss something.
- When you qualify for Social Security.
- When you qualify to be a Walmart greeter.
- When people expect you to know the meaning of life.
(you can’t count when you first started receiving AARP membership junk mail because they do that at 50.. well before you are a senior citizen)
Recently one of my younger work associates approached me with a perplexing question regarding her own life and what career direction she might take. Not knowing her personally very well I replied in relatively vague dialog, but nonetheless thoughtful, “The path you decide to take in life is dependent only on two things: what your heart desires and what your mind can acquire in knowledge for you to apply it properly. No relative, no friend, no member of the clergy, no government can make that choice for you. Be true to yourself.” She turned to me with an awkward measure of awe, and a smile, and said, “They are right. You ARE smart. Thanks!” Then she walked away.
Ok, I know what you are thinking. How could something I said that was so obviously lacking any substance to her problem of career choice have any meaning to her whatsoever. I wasn’t being “smart” because I wasn’t imparting any wisdom other than some common sense we all know. Well, sometimes as any of us go through life we need to hear the voice of someone else, a more impartial voice, telling us what we already know just to pop things back into focus. We take a deep breath then reply to them, “Yeah, you’re right, of course.” Nothing wrong with that at all. With life banging away at our senses and social anxieties striking us daily it’s good to hear a voice of reason in all that noise and static. Where I work I tend to get the younger crowd coming to me expressing their issues and looking for feedback. One of them told me it’s because I am old and wise. Well, the “old” part I get… it’s the wise part I can debate. “If I were all that wise I’d not be in this job.”, is my usual caddy reply.
Anyway, that little exchange made me think about reaching a point in life where the road ahead is now way shorter than the road behind me. Given that, personal reflection of my past life, raising the kids, marriage, the trial and tribulations of being an entrepreneur, tends to be a little more common these days. One day a buddy my own age asked me, “Well, Doug… do you know the meaning of life yet?” In abstract terms I might say that I know the meaning of MY life.. but I can’t speak for your’s. Or can’t I? Have I reached that point in life where my total existence.. life experiences… can provide a basis for articulating a general meaning of life? Let’s explore this a bit.
When people in general ask the question, “Do you know the meaning of life?” they are expecting the wise and sage imparting of wisdom befitting a Buddhist monk sitting in seclusion on a Himalayan mountain top (next to that big gong, of course). In other words, people expect some spiritually reflective answer. I suppose first we have to reach an answer to the question, “What IS life?” before we can venture any explanation about the meaning of it, because without life, there is nothing to assign meaning… to. (kinda like the tree in the woods that falls, and if no one is around does it make a noise) Let’s start in two areas… science and humanism.
The Science of It All –
The late astronomer, Carl Sagan (who hosted the 1980 PBS mini-series, Cosmos, years ago) would say in his TV series that we humans were all made of “star stuff”; that every molecule and atom in our bodies had its origin from space debris following The Big Bang that created everything. All those atoms floating around, bumping into each other, being manipulated by heat and cold and forming larger bodies, which in turn collided, their speed accelerating within newly created heat and cold environments that created chemical elements, that created different worlds.. that ultimately created life, where we rose out of the primordial ooze as amoebas and ultimately evolved into the folks we are today. As Sagan (a 1980’s/1990’s “Neil deGrasse Tyson“) stated in that episode when he was walking along a sandy beach, “There are more stars in the heavens than all the grains of sand on Earth.” Once life and our planet has ended then our atoms and molecules will again travel through space. Ok.. so do we accept that just because life was created in its very miniscule basic amebic form that it has meaning? What gives life meaning? Seems to me life is simply a natural result of the random existence of space and happen chance of chemical combination from heat and cold creating the carbon-base compounds of life. Life is the result of chance.
But as we can see on our own planet, most living things, even on a microscopic scale, were created “as a result of” the random convulsions of the universe, and survived based on adaptation, or evolution… which we delight in calling “nature” (as one possible alternative to the spiritual god-entity Creator that we’ve given human characteristics). Every living thing, plant or animal, has been an evolution of nature and everything contributes to the passing of time where the parts of us still are forms of star stuff traveling the universe. But while in one dimension we are simply atoms currently in a transitional form moving through the spacial void, our existence dimension is fixed into a reality bound to our ability to adapt to other atoms and molecules that create the environment to which we adapt or cease to exist.
Most living species exist to carry out evolved “programming” provided by nature’s adaptations. The most important and the most basic adaptation is being able to reproduce. Everything lives because everything is designed to reproduce. Each species must feed to live because it must convert energy to reproduce to perpetuate the species… continuing the life cycle for that species. To me, that’s more the “reason” for life… the science that dictates our existence as a result of chemical compounds meeting in space. Is “reason” also “meaning”? Admittedly not a very colorful or thrilling concept given our human species is rather self-consumed, self-absorbed, with nature’s adaptation to survive by being self-aware, able to reason, and having opposing thumbs to change the physical world in which we live.
But that’s the science of it all.
Humanism… It’s All About Us –
Generally speaking, all that science gibberish is not why people ask the question, “What is the meaning of life?” We are looking for a more down-to-Earth answer.. and a more human answer (to hell with insects, amoebas, and star stuff). It’s more like asking, “Because you are old and have naturally experienced more life than me can you offer any tips to make my life easier?” Well, the answer to THAT question is pretty easy… of course I can offer tips for living your life easier, but you are not likely to listen because you will ultimately do what you want anyway. That’s the human way. I did the same thing. But here’s a seemingly intellectual answer.
Where Meaning Begins
Think of life… being born… as the launch of personal existence. Meaning is how we answer the instinctual call in order to survive personally and as a species. Our first cry in order to breath is the first step our instinct calls to survive. Meaning exists. Instinct tells us to suck to feed. Meaning exists. As we go through life us humans are constantly aware of the instinct to reproduce.. and most of us do. Meaning exists. Here’s a quandary… as we age our ability to reproduce is reduced dramatically as nature has programmed in each of us a way to compensate for time acting against biological functions… the deteriorating of cells over time. Does meaning continue to exist? Lesser species just die off with old age. But humans can reason and that instinct seldom diminishes over our life span, at least for most of us (some of us via genetics or some deficiency can suffer from brain dysfunction over time that can affect our ability to reason as we age). Perhaps life’s meaning then is how we exist toward our own kind; “meaning” being the value we place on having existed, which doesn’t mean a damn to nature’s reproduction plan, but it means everything to humans existing together.
So.. did I answer your question? I didn’t think so. But hopefully you’ll never have to ask it again for fear of having to listen (or read) another long-winded dissertation that comes to no conclusion. Maybe that in itself IS the answer… there is no one answer and each person will have their own answer.
That’s my wise and sage advice (…and why I remain a security guard to this day).
Perhaps I surrender to the quote… The meaning of life is to give life meaning.