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Posts Tagged ‘meaning of life’

I set out to comment on this post by Thom Ingram, and realized instead that his writing had inspired more than just a comment. I’m not going to rehash his post; just read it for yourself because it’s a beautiful mindful struggle with the meaning of life.

I haven’t studied – or even read – multiple spiritual texts as Thom has – but I have this sense that in addition to the commonalities across texts that he mentions, there is also a shared thread of being fully present in the here and now; of living compassionately and empathetically towards myself and all others. And I think that is actually based on – and counterweight to – the commonalites he does bring up – that there is more than we know or sense, that we are more than we know or sense, that so much of what we think we are apprehending is not by a long shot the last word or the ultimate reality.

For me the idea of presence and humble empathy is often embodied in the squirrels I see out my window, just a representative for me of all the small and mindless little creatures living out their seemingly ultimately pointless little animal lives. I imagine what life is like in a squirrel’s mind. I empathize with this tiny furry rodent feeling warm sunlight and wintry winds on its body, its heart racing as it scurries illogically across the street in the paths of roaring automobiles, its simpleminded squirrelly chuckling laughter from a branch high in my backyard tree directed at my outraged terrier below. I think of it feeling hunger, cold, pain, and also delight, contentment, even rodent-level joy.

In the cosmic scheme of things, I am that squirrel. Except that my kind have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and there can be no unknowing, no returning to the simple thoughtless life of the squirrel. I – and you – live in a cosmos that is beyond even our most-exalted-of-all-species intellectual capacities, but we have this extra level of knowledge that as far as we know, no other animal possesses: we know we’re going to die, that no matter what, every one of us is housed in a body that is falling apart, destined for the dirt. And beyond that, our knowledge fails us**. It appears to be the last word on the reality of the human body, as far as we’ve been able to ascertain through the senses and mental capacities of these bodies.

So we turn to imagination, art, faith, drugs, anything mind-altering, to see if somehow we can transcend the painful reality of the knowledge we can’t unknow, this knowledge of the ultimate decay of all things. And sometimes we can, and do. But that transcendence never gives our intellect the words and ideas it needs to feel satiated.

Thom says in his post, “I want to be in this world. In the here and now. I want to be centered on this place. But it’s all an illusion.”

And that’s where I turn to my powers of squirrel empathy for a little help. Whether it is all an illusion or not, this is the world where I have found myself. It is the reality I know, and you are here too. You are, right? Because maybe if everything is an illusion, then all the people around me are an illusion too, and it doesn’t matter how I treat them or what becomes of them.

I wonder, is this why the Genesis account of the tree of knowledge treats the tree and its fruit as so dangerous? If I understand that the world I think I know to be real is merely a virtual reality created by my senses and fed into my mind, why not seek to rise above it all? Why not make myself a god, the god of my own life, the god of this reality? Why shouldn’t I pilfer the planet and its people for the things I want, since it’s all a sham and even that is ultimately all falling apart anyway?

But back to the squirrel. The humble life of the squirrel. Breathe in, breathe out. Sunshine. Wind. Fear, laughter, hunger, and joy. And then, the human, who asks why? Always why, always, but why, what for, where is all this going, what’s it all about?

I don’t think asking why is ever a problem on its own. Instead, I find it concerning when we stop asking why because we think we know it all and we’ve come up short, disappointed and disillusioned with all we know, and throw up our hands and sigh, who cares, it doesn’t matter anyway.

It’s a hard fight some days, and others it feels small, pointless and never-ending – but I keep trying to faithfully live like a humble squirrel and an inquisitive human. I don’t think the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only bitter poison. Maybe if you squeeze out the sweetest part of it, let it ferment and share it with your friends, it can bring you some joy too.

 

**Of course humans are intellectually much smarter than squirrels, making discovery upon discovery, building wizard-level technological masterpieces – but that to me is just a way more powerful version of the squirrel brain. I’m referring here to consciousness, a sense of me and my place in the world, and its most painful realization of death and decay, that we haven’t knowingly encountered in any other species.

 

Bonus material – here’s a song I wrote last year and the origin of this post’s title:

 

 

 

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Stars are glowing mysteries. Science and wonder collide in those incomprehensibly giant and mind-bogglingly ancient balls of fire that appear to little you and little me as tiny points of light.

They are countless. There are more stars than humans who have ever lived. A quick Google search tells me there are maybe “1 billion trillion” or “100 octillion” stars in the observable universe.

So it seems both fitting and misguided to me that we call people who have set themselves apart, people who dazzle us from dizzying heights, stars. If you can somehow distinguish yourself from the masses around you, maybe you too can rise and become a star.

Why are stars so remarkable when there are so very many of them, each shining its light out all through the universe? For all of human existence, we’ve been staring up at stars on clear nights, lost in wonder, drawn far beyond ourselves or deep within ourselves, like our parents and grandparents and distant ancestors long before us.

But you are remarkable too. And so am I. And our neighbors, and coworkers, and everybody who calls and tries to sell us something, and all the old people sitting in the assisted living place down the street. Every politician, every middle-schooler, every complaining customer and annoying coworker, every single life.

So be you, you bright star. Shine on.

And rest in peace, Prince.

The song I wrote for week 16 of #songaweek2016 has something to do with the above thoughts, but it’s still not all untangled for me. See what you can make of it:

 

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It’s already week eight of #songaweek2016! Here’s my song:

Climb up on compassion’s lap and have a good cry

Don’t be afraid to tell her how you’re afraid to die

Everybody feels it

no matter what they know

everybody wonders

where their last thoughts go

Shhh, shhhh

A pile of poached ivory burned in sacrifice

Some things should not be bought or sold at any price

Every year’s a circle

Every day’s a spin

We’re angel demons dancing

On the head of a pin

Shhh, shhhh

Maybe like an aging star you will expand

Grow brighter, hotter, stronger before the end

Shhh, shhhh

Dive down to the deeps of doubt, let the dark surround

Lose yourself where you started out, wait to be found

Let the waves wash over

let the great fish come

be swallowed whole

by this strange new home

 

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I was looking for something to publish on my blog this past week, sifting through years of my own unpublished essays and blog post drafts. But so much of that stuff is just . . . stuffy. It sounds suspiciously like my 16-year-old self’s idea of a wise old college professor. It uses big words and tosses around hefty ideas.

That’s okay. But I’m just not so interested in that right now.

I’m interested in the sugar snap peas growing in my mother’s garden, and the ensuing stir-fry I plan to cook for her tonight, while the kids and I are here visiting for a couple weeks. I’m interested in good beer, and good stories. In easygoing conversation, lively music, and running errands by bicycle. In relaxing with a good book, also in my mother’s garden. In the moments I spent last week with my aging Grammy, when I sang to her and she told us stories of her youth, and I saw tears in my aunt’s eyes, and the fireflies lit up the woods behind the house as we said goodnight, and I felt the strange strength and beauty of that fragile moment supporting all of us who were present there together.

I mean to say, I’m interested in things that don’t accommodate big words and hefty ideas very well. I’m interested in the everyday things that are happening now, while they’re happening. In the people who are living now, while they’re living.

In the actual stuff of life, at the very heart of all the stuffy things I have to say about it.

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This right here. After 38.5 years of living and on my 16th wedding anniversary (happy day, Lover!), I deeply resonate with Seth Godin’s post about the infinite game.

What is the meaning of life? Godin answers it – “To play.” In Christian religious speak (and archaic sexist language), the question and the answer go like this – “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace (which took me the past year to read!), Pierre – a Russian aristocrat taken captive by the French – discovered the same thing after being freed.

(Aw, go ahead, sit down and read this little passage! I’ve highlighted my favorite parts for you skimmers, and added a couple explanatory notes in brackets. And I acknowledge that this passage also uses sexist language.)

A joyous feeling of freedom- that complete inalienable freedom natural to man which he had first experienced at the first halt outside Moscow- filled Pierre’s soul during his convalescence. He was surprised to find that this inner freedom, which was independent of external conditions, now had as it were an additional setting of external liberty. He was alone in a strange town, without acquaintances. No one demanded anything of him or sent him anywhere. He had all he wanted: the thought of his wife which had been a continual torment to him was no longer there, since she was no more [it hadn’t been a happy marriage, and his wife had died while he was in captivity].

“Oh, how good! How splendid!” said he to himself when a cleanly laid table was moved up to him with savory beef tea, or when he lay down for the night on a soft clean bed, or when he remembered that the French had gone and that his wife was no more. “Oh, how good, how splendid!”

And by old habit he asked himself the question: “Well, and what then? What am I going to do?” And he immediately gave himself the answer: “Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!”

The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find- the aim of life- no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily- he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time.

He could not see an aim, for he now had faith- not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, ever-manifest God. Formerly he had sought Him in aims he set himself. That search for an aim had been simply a search for God, and suddenly in his captivity he had learned not by words or reasoning but by direct feeling what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere. In his captivity he had learned that in Karataev [a peasant who had befriended Pierre in his captivity] God was greater, more infinite and unfathomable than in the Architect of the Universe recognized by the Freemasons. He felt like a man who after straining his eyes to see into the far distance finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.

In the past he had never been able to find that great inscrutable infinite something. He had only felt that it must exist somewhere and had looked for it. In everything near and comprehensible he had only what was limited, petty, commonplace, and senseless. He had equipped himself with a mental telescope and looked into remote space, where petty worldliness hiding itself in misty distance had seemed to him great and infinite merely because it was not clearly seen. And such had European life, politics, Freemasonry, philosophy, and philanthropy seemed to him. But even then, at moments of weakness as he had accounted them, his mind had penetrated to those distances and he had there seen the same pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness. Now, however, he had learned to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything, and therefore- to see it and enjoy its contemplation- he naturally threw away the telescope through which he had till now gazed over men’s heads, and gladly regarded the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked the more tranquil and happy he became. That dreadful question, “What for?” which had formerly destroyed all his mental edifices, no longer existed for him. To that question, “What for?” a simple answer was now always ready in his soul: “Because there is a God, that God without whose will not one hair falls from a man’s head.”

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Thinking more about the contents of my last post  and the thoughtful comments that were made on it, I remembered this poem I had written a few years ago, a little meditation on my tussles with Stories A and B in my own life:

In the springtime of your life

When people make pronouncements

About the heights to which you’ll rise

Someone has a prophecy

Someone says you’re chosen

Don’t tuck it away for later

No, hold that sign up high

Wave that banner with all you’ve got

And go, girl, go

Because a well-preserved ticket

Is useless after the show

And no one cares to hear

About your might-have-beens.

(On the other hand,

An awakening 34-year-old

Is a powerhouse of presence.)

As I mentioned in conversation with Jodi’s comment on the previous post, I think that when I recognize my Story B, it won’t feel like I am “settling” for second-best, although it may look exactly like that to an outside observer.

In my case, I started chasing Story A as a twenty-something singer/songwriter recording my first album in a professional studio in a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis, financed by two benefactors who saw big things in my future.

Looking back on that over ten years later when I wrote this poem, I mused about how I didn’t work hard enough to actualize Story A. But you can see the seeds of Story B beginning to sprout in the last sentence.

And far from feeling like I’m settling, I feel more deeply alive.

I’ve still not fully elaborated my Story B to my satisfaction, but I feel like I am getting closer. Letting go of other people’s storylines for me, and picking up the threads that are actually there, the real living story of me that can actually be woven into something true and substantial. It may not be big and flashy, but it will be utterly valuable.

So there you go, a little case study for you, my own working out this life-story thing. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, “I am a Story B (and so can you!)”

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What is the story you tell yourself about your life? And how has that been working out for you?

That’s what Steven Pressfield writes about in his recent blog post, “Stories We Tell Ourselves.” In this post, Pressfield quotes his friend Shawn: “‘We all have stories that we tell ourselves about what our lives are—and those stories are always wrong.'” This wrong story, he calls Story A. At some point in our lives, if you and I are to escape embitterment and live free our uniquely beautiful lives, we will recognize Story A for what it is, reject it, and embrace Story B – the real story that has always been there, that we could actually grow into something amazing if we would work with it instead of against it.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” asks Mary Oliver in her poem, “The Summer Day.”

Here’s an exercise worthy of your time and attention – read Steven Pressfield’s post, and then contemplate – write it out, talk it out, walk it out, otherwise work it out – what is the Story A and Story B in your life? You could think further about how you will reject Story A and embrace Story B, but my guess is, if you’ve accurately identified these two stories, that may be all you need to accelerate the true story of your life.

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