I’m often thinking about the deeper questions of life, especially in those times when life gets hard. I want to know; what’s the meaning of it all? Why are we here? I was reminded of these questions one day when I was watching an old episode of Desperate Housewives. Susan was recovering from a kidney transplant. She was alive because of a string of events that at once could be considered lucky and tragic. One night, she found herself sitting in a casino at a high stakes poker table. She was up to $20,000 in winnings off of a $100 chip. She clearly had a lucky streak, but instead of being excited, she was crying at the table, bumming out the other players. When a neighbor came to console her, she explained that the chip came from a friend who had just died from the same kidney condition that she had survived. She didn’t understand why she gotten so lucky when her friend just died. She was asking why, as many of us would, when life isn't making any sense. And her neighbor told her of similar miraculous event in his own life. He was much older, maybe not the smartest man, but he had some sound advice. Why ask why? He was trying to get her to acceptance, but she was still stuck. Why do we ask such unanswerable questions? Is there an answer that would ever satisfy?
I think Desperate Housewives is a good show, but no television drama is going to have contained within it the answer to the meaning of life. One of the many things a good drama can do is make us ask ourselves some questions that make us think while being entertained. We've all had those moments in life that have tested us, made us question the order of the universe and shown us to be stronger than we thought we were. When everything seems to make sense, something unexpected can come along to shatter our arrogant notion of reality. Why do we need to know what it all means? Because we think we ought to know. We think if we knew, if we could somehow understand what it all means, the terrible things that happen wouldn't be as terrible in that larger context. But that's not how it works. We don't come to acceptance through understanding. Acceptance comes even while being confused.
It’s not the question that is ridiculous, it’s the assumption that almost always lies behind it that needs to be examined. That assumption being that there is some sort of answer outside ourselves that would be satisfying. I found myself watching a video that went viral online. It was filmed using a cell phone, and it was of a six-year-old boy asking Neal Degrasse Tyson “what is the meaning of life?” The video was so funny because what would a six-year-old need to know about the meaning of life. At that age, we’re still figuring out how the basic mechanics of life work. At that age, we're mostly asking what things are, not why they are the way they are. I could only assume an adult put him up to it, but regardless it was really cute. What was so remarkable about the video was that Tyson actually took the question seriously, knowing that many other people in the room might have asked the same question had they not been constrained by social pressures to avoid embarrassment. And his answer was remarkably brilliant. You should watch the video for yourself.
Why are we not looking for the meaning of life when we're happy? Joseph Campbell put it this way, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” There is something to be said about living life in the moment. When we're truly happy, we're not thinking about what it all means because we're too busy living. When we are aware of the experience of having experiences, we are not living in the world at all, we're just thinking about living, which only takes us further away from the thing we want the most, meaning. To me, the meaning of life will always be found within the experiences themselves. To be aware, to grow in your understanding of myself and the world, to have learned a little more today than I knew yesterday, to make the people in my life a little happier, to contribute in some small way to the wellbeing of others, that is what brings my life meaning. In my opinion, anyone looking for any deeper explanation of why we exist will always be dissatisfied.
If you’re looking for the meaning of life outside yourself take a moment to recognize that insanity for what it is. Meaning is a subjective experience, and as much as it is shared with other like minded people, even then it’s never found outside of anyone’s consciousness. It’s an idea that starts in the mind and shared with others who wish to take part in that experience. If you’re looking for the meaning of life, instead trying to find it in the world, find ways to make your life meaningful. Pay closer attention to the things that move you. Savor those moments of timeless joy. Do more of what you love, and get better at accepting the incomprehensible nature of reality.
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