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The Meaning Of Life

Biologist Lewis Thomas, in his 1974 book The Medusa and the Snail, muses about how interconnected and interdependent all the forms of life are on the Earth. Weíve all come, as far as we can tell, from the same primordial beginning, a kind of slow motion Big Bang of life, expanding from a single point into the millions of manifestations we know today. Whether we are alone in the universe or not, whether there are other examples of life on planets of far-away stars, we have only just begun to develop our potential here. We donít know yet what we are here for. Not even the various scriptures we use for guidance in our collective lives tell us what is the Purpose Of It All. Some insist that there is none. Others simply say that itís a mysteryóindeed, the Ultimate Mystery, that only God knows.

Must there be an answer to this question? Perhaps that is the answer. Maybe the purpose of all this is simply to search for purpose, to gather all the evidence we can get our minds around and try to figure out what it means. Getting there may be of less importance than the journey.

Iíve recently begun to carve wood. Invited by a neighbor to join him at the local senior center in an informal group of people who have taken up this craft, Iíve begun to train my hands and my mind to carve little blocks of wood into (I hope) recognizable shapes of objects I see or imagine. On one level, I am trying to duplicate, somehow, the exterior configuration of things. How successful I am at that will depend upon whether other people agree that "it looks just like the real thing." When I finish a carving (something Iíve yet to do), it will be "done," and Iíll set it aside to begin another one.

On another level, I am experiencing intimately the effect of tool applied to material, the satisfaction of making happen something that I visualize beforehand.

On still another level, I am observing the blossoming of a shape, a discovery of something totally new appearing in the universe. That it is a product of my own efforts is, on that level, rather beside the point. Iíve felt that same kind of amazement watching our new kitten slowly develop confidence and skill from her initial clumsy energy and curiosity.

Attempting to discover the "purpose" of the kitten (other than for our entertainment, which seems rather trivial, when I think about it), or even the purpose of the wood sculpture I make with my knives, I find that same mystery. Far from being disappointed with not knowing, Iím thrilled. Here are experiences that I donít have control over, that I canít predict with any confidence, but that fill me with a kind of awe. I love that feeling. Indeed, Iíve experienced the same feelings in the bloom of romantic love. Iíve been in love with love and mystery.

In much the same way, I contemplate life. Most of it is way beyond my comprehension. Indeed, most of it is totally unknown to me. I have to take the word of others for its existence. And itís not just the immensity that astounds me. Thereís something more.

In his essay, "The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around," Thomas recalls looking at the earliest photographs of Earth from outer space and thinking that it appeared to be like nothing so much as a living thing, a single living organism. He wrote that in that context, humanity could be thought of as the mind of Earth. We possess the features capable of making decisions for it all, and for considering the effects of different events, many of our own making.

Just as individuals are responsible, to the extent that they are able, for what happens to them and around them, humanity has the collective responsibility for what happens to the earth. Whether we want it or not, we seem to be stuck with the task. Weíve gone way past the stage where we might protest that we cannot, for we know what needs to be done. And thatís the measure of responsibility. No other species seems to be close to that stage.

In order to do that, in order to accept our responsibility, we have a few things to learn. In no small part, they require us to work together. Where we stand, the Mind of the Earth has some work to do on itself.

The thing that propels us is not simply survival. That necessity, which is real enough, is not what urges us on to do what we must. Survival has been entrusted to our genes, and so far it seems to be working. Being at the top of the food chain has seemingly just happened to us. And because of that, weíre left with other feelings that, as far as we can tell, are unique to human beings.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a "hierarchy of needs," a scale of human needs that propel us through stages of growth. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the physiological needs such as nutrition and survival. As those needs are satisfied, other needs become apparent and motivating, such as safety and security, and then (but usually not before), the need for love and belonging. Once those are more or less satisfied, we look for recognition and esteem. (By this time, weíve gone beyond the needs felt by our pets.) At the top of Maslowís pyramid is "self-actualization," the need to find our own individual place and our own way of being in the world that we know. No other creature besides the human seems to possess that need.

Self-actualization, or the realizing of oneís potential, seemed at the time to be the ultimate goal, all that one could hope for. But even Maslow later wondered if there were something else, some other motivation that urged people further. Personal growth may not just stop there. The Meaning of Life seemed an ever-receding question.

I think that perhaps the reason it recedes is because we have forgotten to look around us. Maybe we are so used to looking ahead that we fail to see what we are and what we are doing. A gardener who looks at her roses, at the beauty created, and marvels at the work of nature, still feels inside something moreóa participation in the process. That, too, is marvelous. As my block of wood begins to take the shape of something, itís not just pride I feel. The whole experience is a collaboration between me and the wood and the knife, and something else. As our kitten develops her unique personality, itís not as though that development were solely the result of her genes. Our interaction becomes part of who she grows into. And part of who we grow into.

Every action in the universe has a reaction. Simple physics. Buddhists call it karma. Whatever we do in our lives affects other things. Weíre part of the process. If recognizing that fact doesnít give meaning to life, nothing will.

July 27, 2006

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