THE MEANING OF LIFE
I normally write about something I experienced then bounce ideas around those incidents. But this chapter follows a theme and from it, incidents came into my mind. I hadn’t planned to write this chapter but my conversation with Pippa in the café caused it to come in to being. She blew on her coffee to cool it down and the ripples it caused move through time and space to you, and you are not the end of it.
* * *
“I think agnostic but feel spiritual”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
* * *
The Meeting of Minds part 1
Curbing people’s curiosity, especially around subjects of significance, has been one of the most successful strategies of those who prefer their citizens to be compliant. You can include many politicians or big business owners in that category. Of course, it was never as simple as this, but thinking of big businesses as being at odds with the rest of society often has some validity. For instance, right now in 2018, there has been conflict between the citizens of many countries and those companies who wish to use “Fracking” to get fuel from the earth. There are plenty of other examples, but I think you get the point. One doesn’t need to be into conspiracy theories to accept that this is a common scenario in our 2018, and in the world where the story of “The Meeting of Minds” takes place, a few years hence maybe, this situation has become a little more acute. Freedom of Speech is far more limited than now, likewise, sharing information, and on-line secret groups have been banned (an actual policy proposed by the UK government in 2018). For the last few years, in this story’s world, even real-life private meetings have been viewed, by both the authorities and society at large, as breeding grounds for extremism. Therefore, they are no longer seen as acceptable.
It started with making people feel that information ought to be simple and those who would present us with complicated ideas were either trying to make us agree to a lie, or at the very least were boring. Eventually just showing two pages filled with writing would make most “readers” feel nauseous.
The best things in life are not “things”, but to many people, even though they didn’t use 99% of the things they possessed after 6 months of ownership, they still sought more things. From cradle to grave, they would crave, crave., crave… But after all that they wouldn’t feel satisfied for long and would soon be back credit card in hand. There were some though, who literally didn’t buy into that way of living, and many of them wanted to meet with others to discuss their ideas and beliefs. But these meetings, these meetings of the mind, were beginning to be viewed as dangerous, so that meant going to them was too.
* * *
The Meeting of Minds part 2
I’m in a long room with tables through the middle of it, there are men and women ambling around. On each table there are books and candles. This isn’t a dream, it’s somewhere in your imagination though.
When people say they are not creative, I point them to their imagination and dreams. Within a microsecond their minds can design beautiful rooms and landscapes. So, as we move through these spaces I’m not sure who is guiding who. Maybe it’s partly you, partly me, and partly those people walking around the room.
Around the first table are a couple of women, one’s a rabbi, the other is a Christian bishop. Nowadays, even symbolic imagery has to follow inclusive guidelines, which in this situation makes no difference, because they are all reading from the same book anyway.
The bishop clears her throat. The room falls silent.
“We are gathered here tonight to discuss the Meaning of Life. Simon is our guest and shall be writing about the proceedings as well as asking questions from a lay person’s perspective, your identities will be protected.
So, without further ado, I shall put the case from my point of view, which is just one of many a differing Christian’s perspectives. I believe that Humankind is made in the image of God, but the “Fall of Man” caused the offspring of Adam and Eve to inherit Original Sin and its consequences.”
There are a few voices of dissent from the others. “What do you define as God?”, shouts one, “Why did God let them fall, God must have known all the suffering that would cause,” says another.
“Please, I would like to finish, then I shall answer your questions,” she says in a slightly irritated voice.
“So much for turning the other cheek” a voice from the back shouts.
“shh, shh, let her speak” comes another voice. The room goes quiet.
She takes a breath and looks at me: “So I take it you want to know what Man’s main purpose is?”
I nod yes.
“Well the answer, for me, is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And, before you ask, God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”
I’m a bit confused so ask “Do you mean that in a metaphoric way, that whether we believe God exists or not if we accept that God is in us, even just as a function of our brain, then by doing that we will be happy?”
She looks at me a bit sternly. “Well, I can’t see how you can love and worship God if you believe God exists only in your mind. That sounds narcissistic to me.”
I look back at her and try to explain “Well for me I can separate different parts of my mind, I can say that I can’t prove God exists but I can also accept a part of me feels that a God-like entity exists at least in my own psyche.”
“That sounds like you’re being disingenuous if you ask me,” she says. “Listen,” she says “St. Ignatius of Loyola stated ““The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul.”” You seem to see the soul as a by-product of your brain, whereas I see your brain as a by-product of your soul. To me God is real whereas to you God is just a figment of your brain”
“But can you prove the existence of God, or souls, or heaven, or everlasting life?” I say, “To me, that’s a big problem”
She comes back with “Romans 11:33 states: “”O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”” You see, we cannot understand God but God knows all.”
“So are you saying we can never really understand?” I say
“Yes,” she says
“And we have to take all of this as the Gospel Truth without any evidence?” I ask
“Yes,” she says.
I’m not giving up, “So, how do you know it’s his word”
“I believe it to be”
I sigh then ask “So is every word in the Bible the word of God?”
“It’s quite complicated, there are mistranslations, different opinions on the interpretations and historical context to take into consideration,” She says.
“But some people interpret it very literally,” I say
She replies “Their interpretation is theirs, not mine, I can only speak for myself.”
There’s a quiet man standing just behind her, listening in. He’s not very tall, wearing glasses, a slightly greying beard.
“I can’t really relate to theistic arguments anymore.” He says, “It feels like something from a bygone age. I think if people enjoy it, that’s good, but I doubt most people could relate to it. But that’s probably a good thing, that way people can relax and drift more into real spiritual experiences. Theism has tended to downgrade the universe to a mere collection of objects that we can’t relate to, it’s something people often use and abuse as they wish. Theism and galloping technology are twins. Theism is very male and rationalistic. It is part of the story but needs the feminine to balance it. In this Century of Total War and consumerism, we seem to have lost our compassion.” He laughs then says “End of sermon”.
The bishop asks him if he’s a clergyman.
“I was”, he says, “a long time ago.”
* * *
You might think I am being a bit harsh or blinkered, but given I have experienced lots of “psychic events”, I am open minded that there might be more than just this physical existential dimension that we call life, but my logical side knows no one can prove there’s a “God” (and like that voice shouted out).
“Who or what created the universe,” you ask
“Who or what created God?” I ask
“God is timeless and has no beginning or end,” You say
“Maybe time and the universe has no beginning or end either. Maybe because we are bound by beginnings and ends it makes it impossible for us to truly understand.”
* * *
Suddenly there are police lights flashing through the windows from outside.
“Quickly”, she says, “Follow us.”
I follow everyone through a door into a dank thin tunnel away from the room. Only small dim lights along the walls illuminate the passageway. When we come to a stop we’re in a commercial kitchen although there is no one working in there. It’s immaculate.
“Do you want some tea?” the bishop asks.
“Yes I’d love some, thank you. What happened just then?” I ask
She frowns. “We don’t take any risks.”
“Surely, it’s not that bad?” I say
“I’m a female bishop, having women priests has near enough split the church. There’s a consequence to opinions and there are consequences to those consequences. Maybe you should speak to the rabbi while I make you some tea” She motions me toward her.
“So why do you think we’re here?” I ask the rabbi.
“I don’t think I’m going to be any more persuasive,” she says laughing a little. “I think we are here to elevate those in the physical world and prepare for the world to come, the spiritual afterlife. We are not so focused on personal redemption, but on the salvation of mankind as a whole as well as ourselves and God.”
I am not sure if I took all that in but feel like I got the gist of it. “I kind of get that helping others is a good thing to do, I also get that developing ourselves is a good idea as well, but I still wonder why has God made us go through all of this, all the suffering, I get it that it’s important to suffer too, especially in terms of us developing our selves, but the pain so many innocents have had to endure and the billions of people who have had awful lives, not just now but throughout history, I find all that hard to fathom. Why, if God is so powerful, did he/she bother making us in the first place if she/he knew there would be so much suffering. What is there at the end of all of this that makes it worthwhile?”.
“Paradise” she smiles. “If you or anyone that had suffered could live in paradise forever, would that not be worth it?”
“I don’t know if we’d want to live forever,” I say, “and why not just make everyone perfect in the first place, I mean so perfect they wouldn’t sin, just create them and stick them in paradise forever. Surely that would be kinder, and anyway, do you have any proof there’s everlasting life?”
The bishop hands me some tea and says “I’m sorry, but do you need help holding the cup?”
“No I’m fine,” I say as I put my arms out ready to dock with it.
“You’re amazing the way you cope. I’m very impressed” She says, “Anyway, as we were saying, the apostle Paul said in Romans 8:18 ““I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us””.
“By the way, thank you, for the tea,” I say. I feel self-conscious because everyone is watching how I hold the cup. They’re more interested in that than what we’re talking about.
“So you’re not thanking me for my very apt quote?” she laughs
“No, but I can if you think I should.” And we both laugh. “But about your quote,” I say, “Well, it still relies on evidence of an afterlife,” I say.
There are a few “hear hears” from those listening in.
Her eyebrows are raised “You do realise that this is faith, we know we can’t explain everything, but as Isaiah says ““As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”.
“So it is a kind of blind faith,” I say, “and in a way, there’s no point arguing because there’s no conclusive proof one way or the other?”
“Exactly,” she says, “how’s your tea?”
“Heavenly,” I say
“That’s good” she smiles, “I think we are going back up, you can take your tea with you, do you want me to carry it for you?” I show her the empty cup, but my mouth is full with the last gulp. “Oh you’ve drunk it all, that was quick. You should have savoured it.”
* * *
I’m walking to the bus stop about half a mile away as I just missed the bus I normally get to go to school. I’m thinking that if I can get past the next lamp post before that blue car coming towards me passes it, then they’ll be an alternative bus at the top of Wallington High Street that’ll get me to school on time. I’m beginning to do a lot more of this lately, making deals with fate or is it, God. It’s like asking fate to bring me good luck, it’s almost a kind of prayer.
As I get to the end of Park Gate road there are a load of very small shops. One of them was a junk shop. About a year beforehand I was taking jewellery I stole from my mother’s jewellery box there and selling it, telling him my mum, was desperate for the money and was too ashamed to bring it herself. I didn’t count on the guilt at the time, I just counted the money, even though I was well aware it was wrong. That shop served as a constant reminder to me for many decades afterward. Telling you now is a kind of confessional process, only it’s not that confidential.
* * *
We’re back upstairs and I’m talking to the bishop.
I say “For all my doubts about God’s existence and there being an afterlife, I do think the essence of lots of religions have a lot to offer in terms of living in a way that has meaning, even just in terms of understanding human psychology they are very important. But I have to say I tend to cherry pick from religious texts and I have a lot of problems with organised religions”
“I don’t think you’re alone in those beliefs,” she says “Most members of any religion will argue with each other. Interpretations can vary greatly. Like you, they are trying to find the truth.”
* * *
2018 Seaford “The Grumpy Chef” café
I’m with a few friends. We’re talking about this chapter. They aren’t religious or believe in God in any traditional sense. One of them is saying what many of us say, that religion has caused too much suffering and it’s hard to justify its existence given that.
“But,” I say, “There are many good things that related to religion that we’re lacking now”
“Like what?” Liz says
“Communion, being with others to discuss spiritual related matters.” I say, “People haven’t got many places they can go for that kind of discussion now. Especially if they want to consider different ways to live their lives. It’s like people have been abandoned. OK they can go to church but that is often very dogmatic, and based on unprovable principles. But in terms of spiritual matters, no one’s filled the void that’s been left.”
“My father was very big in the church, but he was a terribly cruel man.” She says.
“Yes, you see that kind of thing a lot in organised religions,” I say
“Normally,” Liz says “I can’t bear to speak about religion or politics at the table, but today, I feel comfortable to do so in our little group here”
* * *
I’m looking at the bishop and the rabbi, they’re talking to an Imam. They’re all being very chatty with each other but I know that although their religions have stemmed from similar roots, their interpretation of the texts varies greatly. Even how they see God, and which words they believe to be true, differ a lot. Behind the joviality are the ingredients that have caused so much suffering throughout history. But I’m also thinking about the historical and current attempts to purge the world of religion and I’m wondering why, for instance, why was it so important for the Soviets to get rid of religion, was it just because Marx said it was “the opium of the people”? On the surface, they said it was because they thought religion was backward and used for the exploitation and stupefaction of the working class, but probably power and control were just as much the main reasons. They killed, persecuted and imprisoned tens of millions of people in their attempt to rid their society of religion.
* * *
Most religions depend on a belief in an omnipresent and all-powerful God, a belief in the soul, a belief in heaven and hell, a belief that their ideology is the one true one, a belief that the words of their texts came from God, and often a belief in miracles. I find it hard to accept those principles. But for those who take that leap of faith, they get to adopt a very strong “Meaning of Life”. Firstly, they believe they are part of a quest that is full of ultimate meanings, even though they do not know clearly what that quest is. Secondly, they are promised the possibility of life beyond death. Thirdly they feel the presence of God even when they are alone. Fourthly, they are part of a large group of others they can identify with. And finally, often the main ethos of most religions relate to self-development, helping others, compassion and love. Such aspirations are also at the core of most non-religious approaches to finding meanings in life too. For all the benefits those first four points bring I still find it hard to make the leap of faith that would make them accessible to me.
* * *
Another priest comes up to me. He says “I overheard your conversation about suffering. You see it as a reason to doubt God, but I see it as a reason to believe in God.”
“Why’s that?” I ask
“I see this world as a preparation for another life. That life will be without suffering but it requires we reveal who we are in this world so God can see who we really are. If he just stuck us in paradise we would not have been tested, it would be as if you never became yourself.”
“Then why didn’t God just make us as we will be after being tested, in the first place?” I ask.
“Maybe God thinks this is the most truthful way to make us,” he says. “If you had a child would you just want it to suddenly be a ready-made adult or would you want it to grow and become itself through the struggle of life?”
It depends” I say “it depends on how much suffering they would have to endure. I think some beings suffer so much that it would be better they had never existed. It’s a matter of degree.”
“So, are you saying there could be a formula that could work out when there was too much suffering to make life no longer worth living?” he asks
“I suppose so, yes. After all, there are some destinies that are considered to be a fate worse than death.” I say.
“You know, God has felt all our pain, God has suffered every moment of pain that has ever been experienced. Just as a parent would rather suffer than let their child suffer, God has suffered with us out of love”
“That doesn’t justify all the suffering to me,” I say.
“Maybe if you knew God’s plan you would,” he says
“Maybe I would, but I don’t”
“Do you want to rid the world of suffering?” he asks
“Not really” I answer. He looks a bit shocked. I continue “We need some but it’s also hard to justify some too. It makes me wonder whether God is as all-powerful as you say or maybe even a little bit cruel?”
The priest is looking a bit, disbelieving.
I go on anyway. “I mean if he allowed Satan to cause the Fall of Man then that shows either he was complicit or he was not as all seeing as you say. I mean after the flood in the Noah story God said he felt regret. Some say he regretted the sinfulness of mankind and some say he regretted killing nearly all of humanity then. Either way, it indicates he was not as all seeing as we are lead to believe?”
“Maybe you are not as all seeing as you wish. If you were, you might accept there might be other possibilities” he says in an exasperated tone.
“I can only go on what I know,” I say “I have come here for knowledge but you’re telling me I have to accept not knowing.”
“In your heart, you know,” he says.
* * *
I started to cough and splutter and then I felt myself relax and looking down at the bottom of the pool I said to God “I didn’t think I was going to die this soon, but if that’s your will I’m ready” I started to blank out, everything went fuzzy, my vision went speckly and just as I thought that was it I felt myself being dragged and lifted. The lifeguard pulled me out and asked if I was alright.
* * *
I could hear a voice in me which some might say is God, and whilst I am willing to accept it could be I can’t prove it is or isn’t, so I won’t pretend I know, either way. Just like archetypes our brains are built to have a relationship with a god, whether we believe it or not. Neurotheology is a contentious field which attempts to unearth neural links and mechanisms of religious experience. Those working in this area suggest that the human brain has a systematic tendency for such experiences, and living without using them may cause an imbalance in the psyche. I have a bit of sympathy for that idea. After decades of the Soviets attempting to eradicate religion, decades of propaganda too, many Russians were quick to re-embrace it when they were finally allowed to.
* * *
So far it’s all felt like a bit of a dead end to me. Maybe Dead Ends are the real motivation behind a lot of this. We don’t want to die so we invent a possibility of everlasting life. There’s an interesting book which I have half read recently called The Worm at The Core. Its main argument is that our concerns about dying fuel nearly every human endeavour. In some ways, the question might be more appropriately put as “What is the meaning of death?”
* * *
The priest suddenly looks at me with a startled expression on his face.
* * *
There are between 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies in the “known universe” the variation in numbers is a debatable point. Either way, there are a lot of galaxies in our Universe. Even though it’s scientific methodology that brings that information to us, it is still a matter of belief that what we are told is the truth. Still, a scientist will attempt to provide evidence when called upon, and to me, that holds a lot of weight.
When I think about some of the religious-based “meanings of life”, even if they are about a way of making ourselves pure spiritually there is something in me that searches for a meaning beyond that and even beyond ridding the world of “evil”. I want to know if there is a bigger quest if there is a meaning for God to exist too.
Now, we all know those questions are not likely to be answered so outside of trusting that there is a bigger quest than we are aware of, that there is more to our existence than purifying our souls for the “next world”, there are less lofty meanings that both religious scholars and philosophers have focused on too.
* * *
“You have to get out of here, quickly,” the priest says. “Follow the bishop”
As I start to follow the bishop through the same passageway we took before I ask her what’s going on.
She semi whispers breathlessly to me. “We are splitting into two groups, some of the people are staying behind so that we can get away. We have to hurry, please, be as quiet as you can”
When we get to the kitchen someone is holding open a mirror which also serves as a door. One by one we step over the threshold wall below where the mirrors bottom edge would have been and enter a far darker, damper passageway. I hear the mirror door close behind us.
* * *
Even though we might think that there is no clear meaning to life, we can still feel very happy to be alive. There is a separation between our thoughts and our feelings. If we feel happy we don’t tend to question the meaning of life but for most of us, there will be testing times when this issue becomes extremely pertinent to us on an emotional level. It’s probably a good idea to recognise this split because one path leads to philosophical debate, whereas the other route has more to do with asking, “What has caused this emotional state?”
The answer will rarely be a clear one, but it probably won’t be helped much by philosophy. Not only does philosophy not come up with any clear-cut and simple answers it rarely deals with deep psychological issues that might be behind such feelings. If anything, a good therapist might be more beneficial.
Loss through death, separation, disconnection from others, a sudden change in our or someone we love’s health, the loss of our familiar world, the loss of work, unfulfilled ambitions, all these and many other painful aspects of life can easily provoke feelings of meaninglessness. Some philosophers and many religious people will see these as situations that will allow us to grow emotionally. But even so, God, or no God they will be a harsh test of faith, a test that may well be made easier or harder depending on the personality of the person going through these experiences. Some people can bear almost anything. Some will fall at the slightest hurdle. One could argue then that the feeling of meaningfulness may well be just as much about internal resources, such as our DNA, childhood experiences, and other influences behind a person’s attitude. My point being, that when dealing with meaning in terms of an emotional issue, personality may play a far bigger part than religion or philosophy, even if philosophy and religion affect personality too.
It’s quite easy to think that if religion helps people who can’t normally cope with life’s difficulties then that’s a good thing, but there are aspects of religion which I think are extremely dangerous. If religion was just about love, about caring for others, about developing ourselves and being less selfish, then I wouldn’t have an issue outside of doubting it’s “beliefs” as previously mentioned. But there are so many damaging and dangerous dogmas built into many religions, that fuel hatred, war, persecution, and death.
I am not advocating the Soviets’ approach of getting rid of religion but one must wonder if Jesus, Abraham, Buddha or Krishna would have wanted so much suffering propagated in their names. I have seen that so-called witches are still being burnt to death, women are still taken as sex slaves, homosexuals persecuted throughout the world. And all these things are justified in scripture and of course, this doesn’t just apply to Christianity but also Islam and many other major world religions. As you can see, I have very mixed feelings about religion.
* * *
We find ourselves in an underground chapel, it’s been carved out of the rock. There are candles flickering on the altar.
A bald man approaches me and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Not all of us here are religious, some of us have other views,” he says. “There might be supernatural elements to life but I decided long ago to focus on what I could change”
“What do you mean?” I ask
“Well if you can’t change the world change yourself, and if you can’t change yourself change the world,” he says smiling.
“I don’t understand that, it doesn’t make sense,” I say.
“Surely it does, if you think about it. I mean you can’t completely change the world, can you? So, in that case, it might help you to change yourself. Likewise, you can’t completely change yourself, therefore, you could try your best to change the world, even just a little.”
“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” I ask.
“Well the shorter version fits better on Twitter and makes people think about it more,” he says.
“So, what is your main reason for telling me?” I say.
“Everything comes to pass right?” he says
“Yes,” I agree.
“So, what can you do about that?” He asks
“Nothing,” I say.
“Are you sure?” He says.
“Well I can’t stop it from happening,” I say
“That’s true,” he says “So, why is it a problem?”
“Because I don’t want to lose the people I love, the health I have, the world I feel is home.”
“So, if you didn’t fear that, would that help?” he says
“I don’t think that’s very realistic for most people. I think part of being human means fearing and grieving loss. It’s a part of life. I can’t see how we can switch off our natural emotions.”
“I agree,” he says “But how you react to the loss may well affect the meaning of your life. When people die, they change and the people who loved them change due to their death as well. But accepting that this is the way of the universe may help people change in a more loving way. They can choose to fill themselves with love or to fill the world with hate”
I am touched by his words and can sense some truth in it, but I can also see that it must take a great deal of struggle to react to life in that way. It is almost saintly.
I tell him my oft-used line I stole from a Mark Knopfler record about being a part-time saint. “What if you’re like me, only a part-time saint, how do you deal with the less saintly aspects of your personality?”
He starts to walk off but says as he does, “Whichever one you focus on will be the dominating influence, there is an element of choice in the matter, even though that choice might be very limited.”
“Thank you,” I say.
I hear another voice from behind me, I turn and there’s a man with a walking stick, he’s in his 60’s, black oiled hair combed back, he’s in an old-fashioned tweed suit.
“What he said, it’s kind of what I believe in too.” He says. “I’m what you might call a secular humanist. We believe in evolution; we don’t believe we were made by a supernatural being. We still believe in following ethical guidelines through life though. To us it’s about not only fulfilling ourselves but also humanity overall. We call it enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we help ourselves and by developing ourselves we help others. Do you not think most of those gathered here are similar to each other in that way? Can you see the connection?”
I’m just about to agree with him when another man says “We don’t, we believe in enjoying life as much as we can. As long as we don’t directly hurt others”
There’s a woman with him who says “I think this is the only life we have. I agree you can’t just go roughshod over others, mainly because they’ll probably kill you if you do, but I can’t pretend to care about things when I don’t. I have had a good life and I have suffered too, it’s just I try to enjoy what I can in life. I think a lot of what people go on about in this group can’t apply to everyone, different strokes for different folks. I think we should live and let live”
“Here here,” says the man in tweed. “Although I do wonder if deep down inside you would be happier if you paid more attention to others”
“I can’t pretend to feel what I don’t feel. You’d prefer me, to be honest, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes,” he says “I agree that each person may find meaning in things other people might not and vice versa, I think that’s called subjectivism. I remember a Taoist once telling me that through introspection we can attempt to find our innermost reasons for living, he felt that the answer is within ourselves. Some people are searching for bliss some aim to help others live with less suffering.”
“I’m not being rude, or anything,” She says, “but for someone who’s not a priest you’re very good at preaching”
“I suppose,” he says “that there’s a big crossover between many of our points of view because nearly all of us recognise that we are linked to others, so that if we hurt another person it somehow hurts us too. Even though you say you just want to live and enjoy your life, you still don’t want to hurt others. You say it’s for self-preservation reasons, but I wonder if it’s also because you have compassion too.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think I’m anywhere near as caring as others in this group, but sometimes I wonder how caring they really are. Are they just trying to get a golden ticket in to Heaven, and anyway, there are plenty of psychopaths in the world who don’t care if they hurt someone. I think you’re being a bit of idealist?”
I am still worrying about whether we’re going to be caught. “Do you not feel worried?” I ask
“About what?” The man in the tweed suit asks.
“The police finding us”
The woman nods her head. “Nah, we’ll be ok. This is always happening. The ones we left behind will be questioned but they’ll be ok. They’re raising money for the poor or druggies.”
“Actually,” the humanist says smiling slightly “maybe I’ll take that bit back about you having compassion”
She almost snarls as she says “I can’t pretend to love everyone equally like some of you say you do. My family and friends come first to me. I wouldn’t feel right in myself if I didn’t put them first. I’m not a hedonist, I’m more like an Epicurean.”
“Are you sure?” says the man in Tweed, “I thought they abstained from sex and other sensual pleasures. They did try to avoid pain including mental anguish, but I get the feeling that you’re not as strict as they were.”
“I was referring to them in terms of them not believing in an immortal soul, they believed in a soul but they saw it as a physical part of us.” She said.
“Do you think you’re referring to your consciousness when you say, soul?” He asks
“Yes, maybe. Ok, I’m not an Epicurean then. That’s a bit annoying I spent days learning how to say that word too.”
* * *
If there was a clear cut definite meaning in life, then it would probably be written in the stars or in our genes and it wouldn’t be a debatable issue. If you firmly believe in God you will probably think I have been foolish to speak as openly as I have done here, but I imagine that many of us have similar thoughts and if there’s a God then God will understand. To me, the main questions remain unanswered. What is the endpoint we are aiming for? What is God’s purpose? What possible good reason did God have to create so many lives that are so full of suffering that they would rather have never lived? And besides all of that how can you prove that this is the will of God.
To me, as time has passed, our view of the universe has changed which in turn has altered our perception of the meaning of life. The ancients looked at the stars and built religions around them, then later their gods changed, but still, humans were at the heart of religious meaning. But as we started to get a clearer view of space, we realised we were no longer at the center of the universe, so our place in the order of things changed too. As science became more able, the question “why” became somewhat interchangeable with “how”. If a scientist can prove that life occurred because of this or that happening, then is that “why” we were created? If there was no superintelligence involved, then was there no greater meaning than us being a by-product of evolution. “How” we were made is “why” we were made.
I once heard someone define themselves as a traditional Catholic. I didn’t know what that meant, but he said that as far as he was concerned there could never be a conflict between science and religion because both should be primarily concerned with the truth. But what if science could ever prove there wasn’t a God? I admired him for his focus on the truth but history tends to show people who follow a strong ideology tend to ignore the truth if it doesn’t coincide with their beliefs.
* * *
There was an imam, a rabbi, and a priest. God says “This better be a good joke”. But by the time they finished killing each other no one was laughing.
* * *
Do you remember that friend of mine, the one who bought my Saab, Ian Owles? Shortly before he died he said to me “The stars are souls waiting to experience living, life is a miracle” and I kind of knew what he meant. When I think about how good my life has been so far I can understand that idea, it’s just, when I look around and see people suffering for a lifetime through no fault of their own, or whole lives that are racked with pain and torment, then if I believe there’s an all-powerful God involved in that, I see a harshness that is hard for me to understand.
* * *
Leap of Faith
One way to assess the strength of a “meaning of life” could be to think about whether that meaning would still hold value to someone who finds themselves in a very difficult situation, would the meaning help them through? Let’s say, someone had lost their family, their home, and job. Would they be able to use the meaning in question to help them carry on living? When we are in desperate situations we may turn towards desperate measures, especially to nullify the pain, a worthwhile “meaning” would hopefully help a person avoid turning to such dangerous things.
Plato once defined humans as ‘A being in search of meaning’. Even without the bigger, supernatural, or lofty aspirations to help others or develop ourselves, people will often find meaning in all kinds of things, for instance fulfilling an ambition, being creative, mastering something, even our biology provides meaning. A lot of people are driven to find a mate and create a family. Even just feeling significant may hold the promise of meaning, hence people striving to become famous or even infamous. Then there are those whose significance may never be known because their work must remain a secret.
Somewhere in the moments between things people find desperate feelings of loneliness and insignificance. Doing worthwhile things or being with those people we feel connected with can help us get through those moments, but remembering that our significance is never really known can be a small comfort. We will never know the true extent of our significance because we can never know the furthest consequences of not only our actions but also our mere existence.
There’s an irony in that idea because even people who feel they are the least significant, for example, substance abusers, compulsive gamblers, or the homeless. Their existence provides a meaning for those who want to help them. It might not be a meaning they want to be part of but nevertheless, they are significant. Even those caught up in a cycle of consumerism are providing meaning for everyone in the retail and production chain plus all those people dealing with the consequences of consumerism (waste disposal, pollution, anti-slavery activists). I realise I’m being a bit provocative but you can get a sense of our interdependence from such examples.
* * *
I was thinking about my point about the meaning of life tending to be a more pertinent question to those in a more anxious state and wondered if we would find it acceptable to deal with it medically. For instance, we could take a pill and our emotional focus would move to the real issue that was upsetting us.
Most of the time that might work, but would it be somewhat like a drug addict escaping their pain or would it be more akin to therapy? Drug misuse tends to be about not facing the truth whereas this imaginary medication would be about focusing on the true cause of pain, not so much about escaping it.
Frankl, who was a psychoanalyst who spent a lot of time as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps wrote a very famous book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” as well as developing a school of psychoanalysis which in part focused on meaning. He asked the question of his fellow therapists, he wanted to know how they could label a patient as being mentally unwell if the patient felt life was meaningless? Especially given a “meaning of life” wasn’t provable. Whilst I thought it was a good point, I would still think that citing the lack of a meaning of life as the main cause of anxiety tends to obscure that it is part of a host of other possible causes which ought to be focused on too. Maybe both points are valid to an extent.
There is also the possibility that some causes of anxiety are linked directly to thinking about meaning, especially things like facing one’s own death or the death of loved ones. Likewise, becoming seriously ill or losing all we have strived for may well prompt questions relating to whether we should continue living.
* * *
2017 May Hastings Hospital
When I was in intensive care and told I was very ill with a heart condition and life-threatening infections from the burst appendix I thought I might die at any moment. Whether that was true or not, that’s how I perceived it. I wasn’t in a lot of pain but was uncomfortable, had I been in agony I may well have wanted to end it all.
I did feel though that there could be more to life and this was a situation that would pass. I promised myself, and if there was a God who could hear me that whatever time I had left would be used to help others via my creative endeavours. Just as other’s creations had helped me. I realise to some that it’s an arrogance to think we have things to offer that might help others, maybe in a way it is, but we can try and hope we are helping, that’s probably the best we can do.
* * *
Victor Frankl, who I mentioned a bit earlier, also felt that people should cease endlessly reflecting on themselves and instead try to engage in life as much as they can. That way questions about the meaning of life would tend to fade. He still thought it would be a good idea to question oneself regarding why we may neglect our loved ones, or block our enjoyment of life, and to seek to be honest about ourselves as best we can, amongst other things, but focusing on the “why” would rarely produce a definitive answer.
Studies relating to people being engrossed in the process of doing something consistently suggest that humans experience meaning and fulfillment when mastering challenging tasks, and it’s not so much the choice of task but more about the way tasks are approached and performed. The more we lose ourselves within an activity or the more focused we are on others, the greater the sense of meaningfulness we experience. It’s not an ultimate quest like meaning but on a day to day level it’s probably one of the many things that help many of us get through.
* * *
2017 May Hastings Hospital
As I watched the series “Cosmos” I could see that venturing out into space has become our latest meaningful quest for other worlds to live in, the truth and finding God. Even if it’s futile, it feels worthwhile. Plato would have probably approved as for him attaining the highest form of knowledge was very much wrapped up in meaningfulness.
* * *
A teacher says to her class, “In 100 million years the sun will enlarge and engulf the earth”
One of the pupils asks “Excuse me, Miss. Did you say a million or 100 million years?
The teacher says “A hundred million years”
“Phew!” says the student “That’s a relief”.
* * *
“It’s time,” the bishop says as she clicks off her phone. “The coast is clear, so we are going to make our way through the garden and out to the boat. There is a small party going on in the garden if any of you wish to disperse into it.”
“I’ll have a bit of that,” says the woman who prefers to be honest about not caring much.
So, we make our way through another door along a passageway that seems to incline to a door to the outside. It’s dark, but the stars are brightly filling the sky.
Once we are all outside the bishop says in a slightly raised voice “OK, those of you who want to go to the party follow Father Peter, those of you who wish to take the boat follow me.”
I quite fancy going on a boat, although a party sounds fun too, however, I think it’ll be safer to get the boat. It will drop us off in the harbour and from there it’s an easier journey home.
There are about 18 of us in the boat group, the party group which consists of around 8 people walk with us till we get to near where the party is going on. We can hear talking, music and laughter but cannot see the people as we are slightly downhill from them and the main house, when I say house I mean stately home. It’s big with many rooms and stories.
We walk on toward the jetty where a small ferry boat is waiting for us. We are helped on by the crew and within minutes the electric engines silently glide us away. As we move out toward the sea we can still hear the party. From a few hundred meters away we can just about make out the illuminated marquee. Everyone on the boat is silent, taking in the stars and the house and its party.
The marquee suddenly goes dark, then within seconds, there are a few distant crackling sounds and a couple of thuds. I thought I could hear a scream, then high above the house a beautiful neon blue rocket type firework bloomed illuminating the sky. As we moved away we watched the display as it got smaller and smaller then faded away.
* * *
Significance can mean very different things to different people. To have reared children might be one of the most significant role a person could take, but the list of ways to be significant is probably almost endless. In some ways though, focusing on it as a main meaning of life might be a possible diversion from the truth yet at the same time may be many people find their meaning via an attraction towards significance. Some people might head towards a path but on the way, find their true purpose. I have met many people who seemed successful in terms of stardom but during that process found what they were looking for.
* * *
Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who lived during the 1800’s, recognised an absurdity about our search for meaning. Firstly, there were those who might wish to escape existing, but that didn’t seem viable. Then there were those who would lean towards religion or other supernatural beliefs, but to do so would require letting go of rationality and to many philosophers that was tantamount to philosophical suicide. So finally, at least to him, what was left was the absurdity of continuing to live without any true understanding of a significant meaning.
* * *.
Sometimes though, you will hear a piece of music, or look out at the world or the stars, and you can feel meaning even if you cannot put it into words.
* * *
We are getting near the end of our journey. The bishop comes up to me, puts her hand on my shoulder and says “It’s been a bit of an unexpected adventure”
“Yes,” I say, but it’s been interesting, it’s given me lots to think about.”
I can hear a strange noise coming from the other end of the boat. I look round, but it’s so dark I can’t really see anything. It sounds like muffled voices. Then everything goes very dark and I feel cold.
* * *
Do you feel, do you feel like you need to know? Is it time for you to know or are you willing to accept you can’t?
* * *
I’m in the water, I feel like someone is holding me under. It’s pitch dark, I feel paralysed and can’t resist.
* * *
There are hundreds of archetypes and each of them have scripts they follow. Do you know the main archetypes that dominate your internal world; do you know if their script has a happy ending? Do your archetypes stop you from finding a meaning?
* * *
I don’t want to be alone in this cold darkness. I want to be with those I connect with, singing, talking, laughing, crying, living.
* * *
I feel myself come to the surface, biology is in control, I am gasping for air and coughing. I still can’t see anything, there’s a mist all around, I feel it cold on my face.
* * *
For me, life has been beyond good, even with the suffering I have experienced. I accept things might change and maybe my suffering might become overwhelming. But for me, existing has been a miracle and I don’t want to die yet.
* * *
One translation of the word “Religion” is “Re-Connected”. (ligo “bind, connect”, re- (again) + ligare “to reconnect,”). One of the biggest meaningful aspects of life for me is connecting with others who I feel a “connection” with.
* * *
I let my legs come up to the surface and float on my back for a while. I can hear others are nearby. Were we attacked by some of the people in the group or did something else happen? Could the boat have exploded? I am feeling confused and frightened. I am scared to call out in case it was an attack.
There’s only so much time that I will last before hypothermia will set in. I also worry that some massive sea creature will attack me. The mist starts to clear a bit so I can see the stars again. I recognise some of the constellations. They feel like old friends. Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Cygnus, and Pegasus are right above me.
I feel something push against my head. I panic thinking a sea monster is just about to pull me under. Then I recognise it’s the side of a dingy and there are hands grabbing at me. I can’t see much, there’s a bright light shining in my face. I feel myself being pulled in to the boat. Even if it is the police I would rather it was them than the monster I had just imagined. I realise I can’t hear properly, just dull voices.
Once they get me in the boat they keep me lying down and put something over me. I’m shivering uncontrollably. Whoever these people are they are being kind to me. I feel like I’m in the world of good people and start to cry. Someone starts to talk to me but I can’t hear them. I can feel their hand stroking my face. I look at them and don’t recognise them. We’ve never met but I know we will be bonded by this moment forever.
* * *
There’s that song, The Impossible Dream. Amongst its lyrics are some very pertinent lines. I probably won’t be able to put them in a print version of this, so enjoy them while you can.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear the unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the un-rightable wrong
To be better far than you are
To try when your arms are too weary
The reach the unreachable star
This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into hell
For a heavenly cause
And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will be peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest
* * *
Thank you, for connecting.
* * *