There are past-life finders, soul diviners, priests, pastors, vicars, rabbis, imams, monks, nuns, shamans, Wiccans, self-help millionaires, yogis, life coaches, human development gurus, atheists, spirit channelers, a few talking dogs, birds and celebrities, all of whom will offer you some version of the meaning of life, or point you to billboards say the meaning of your life is what you say/make/want it to be.
You might stick a version or slogan in your purse or pocket for review and later, when facing that long dark tea-time of the soul, do what you always do: pull out that well-worn measuring tape you carry around and with a thoughtful look on your face capture the dimensions to the exact picometer so that you can figure out which meaning of life version or slogan is an exact fit for you.
Over time you might find that what you thought fits you no longer does and so you go back to those-in-the-know to see if there are more current meaning of life offerings that will soothe your existential heartache, headache and spirit rumbling. Or you don’t do that at all, and instead walk around with a vague unease or find diversions to keep it away or decide it’s truly not worth worrying about.
Detour to the ancestral cave
One starry, starry no-light-pollutioned-night 33,000 years ago, one of our ancestors arrived home to his huge communal cave in what is now France.
After running from wooly mammoths and bears and a hard day of hunting to bring home some kind of precursor to bacon, ancestor was too wired to sit by the fire, so he galumphed around the cave feeling restless. After a while, someone else in the cave asked, “why are you here…?” meaning why aren’t you bugging someone else?
Tired ancestor was about to grunt out some answer we wouldn’t understand today, but before he did that, he repeated the question to himself.
“Why AM I here..?” he wondered at precisely the moment some grey matter folded inside his skull, which lead to another question of “What AM I doing here?” and another fold. Emphasis is everything.
These were heady questions, previously unthought because there wasn’t a language to think them or the neurons and synapses to help do the work until that moment. Thus begat the world’s first documented case of existential angst.
Now it is also entirely possible that ancestor was chomping on a magic mushroom he found, and that affected his perception. Either way, we got some very cool cave paintings that are making waves in our understanding of how our ancestors viewed the world and their place in it.
Back at the ranch, the wagons are circling
Humans don’t like unanswered questions, and where there aren’t answers we make them up.
Some of our ancestors went off into solitude or had dreams or trances or sat around the campfire talking with each other to conceive or uncover answers about our world and our place in it. What’s remarkable is the similarity: there are creation stories, explanation for the seasons, for life and death, for the planets, how we got here, and what spirits to appease in the hope that life will be good and the hereafter will be better.
Belief systems ranged from spirits in the stones and in the trees to many gods to one God, or no god per se, but a way of living and being in the world.
Meanwhile, back at someplace in western(ish) world, there were rumblings about too many gods and too many of them being women, so emerged the concept of one male God. That idea got some legs and followers, and a couple of different prophets did their thing with the one true God idea for a while and a few cults sprang up with some variations on the stories, until a few rather shrewd people said “we have an idea!” and pulled together lots of the stories that were circulating — the world’s first anthology — aiming to provide an ultimate answer to everything in single all-knowing and powerful God. The anthology and the ideas spread, around the world and shaped a huge part of human history in many parts of the world. Then a rumour started that God is dead meaning that between the brackets of being born and dying is our life. Make the best of it. End of story.
But it isn’t the end of the story. The idea of a God is not dead. People are still fighting over it.
Not everyone believes in a God or religion. There are those whose belief is strictly in the hard sciences; that which can be seen and touched and measured and objective.
At the end of the day, people believe what they believe and some will assign meaning as a result of their beliefs. That we fight over these things and seek to convert or dominate or hurt our fellow human beans is a continuing tragedy.
Maybe it’s all about proving worth. If you get people to switch teams you get more points or something. But how much external validation is needed to prove self-worth, to give a sense of purpose and meaning?
A lot it seems. We have a voracious appetite for most things.
We seem to think we need big lives. People will sing our praises, recognize us as great and we will be loved by lots of people and somehow that is why we are here: to live a big life. Go west, do your prospecting. Find gold. Or invent something. Get rich quick. Get your name in lights. Have an entourage. Be important. Change the world. Leave it better than when you found it, although the criteria by which we do that is hardly clear.
Pitstop at the espresso bar
What’s wrong with a right-sized life? A life with love, family and friends, a home, food; work, community; a life in which we have fun, that we go experience laughter and tears and heartache and joy.
Why am I here?
Our ancestor and his progeny forged answers to the questions they asked and those answers made sense to them in their world at the time.
Perhaps the question covers a more fundamental one: do I matter? Does my one life make any difference?
The world has changed. We wear suits now. And we think we’re better than our hairy ancestors, smarter. More rational. More sophisticated. Less like an animal. Less superstitious. I’m not so sure.
Frame of reference is clearly important.
Consider double rainbow guy. A spectacular sight in the natural world was right there in front of him, and he was gobsmacked: forgetting all about water and refracted light and how double rainbows are not all that rare, he was bursting and ecstatic at the stunning glory of it all; laughing and weeping at its beauty. Then for a moment, he lost sight of what was in front of him, distanced himself from it for a second before crashing into tears to ask, “oh my god, what does this mean?
There is much in our world we have yet to understand that we file under unexplained and mysterious, like love, like connectedness, like wonder, like community. These are experiences, not things; states of being with other. But somewhere we moved from human being to human doing.
Sometimes, when I skip stones on the water, I think I’ve caught glimpse or felt something that I want to hold closer for a moment, but then it’s gone so I go for ice cream, linking arms with friends and loved ones, bouncing with the dogs, taking hold of a thought that hints at a certain reverence for life, for living: “I am alive. I have a precious human life”. And I’ll take it with a double espresso.