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Four Meanings of Life

 

I'll confess that calling these "meanings" may be cheating just a bit. Attitudes might catch the idea more accurately, but I'm beginning to suspect that, in this case at least, attitude and meaning are intertwined in critical ways. When you look over the list, you may notice that as attitudes they have a lot in common.

 

* Yes. (Joseph Campbell)
* You don't answer the questions; you follow them. (Josh Tarsky)
* We are the otters of the universe.(Richard Bach)
* Lets go exploring. (Bill Watterson in "Calvin and Hobbes")

I'm not going to vivisect (good ideas are living things) each one of these, but I will start with "Yes" anyway. Actually, I'll start with "No." It's been many years since my undergraduate philosophy days, but I remember a few things about a group called the Jainists, and they are among the extreme "no" folk. The Buddhist idea that all life is sorrowful (or another translation would be that all life is in some way unsatisfactory) is based on the realization that all life feeds on life. To some degree, we must destroy to live. Whether we eat a cow or a carrot, we are taking that form of energy and altering it into something else (ourselves). But the cow and the carrot are doing the same thing with grass and soil. Creation and destruction are companions. (Even the artist destroys the blank canvas that was there in order to show color, and the body you had five minutes ago has shoved aside some more dead skin in favor of new cells.) The question becomes how to deal with situation.

The Jainist response begins with limiting the type and amount of food. Then there's movement. Walking can cause death when you don't see that ant. Wait. Breathing means inhaling whatever may be in the air, so you have to wear some type of mask. You eat less and less, walk less and less. Eventually, of course, you die, ending your life, the life of whatever you fall upon, and the life of the various bacteria and such that depend on your living body. That's the ultimate no, and it's a failure because it breaks the rule that gives it existence. Other groups have decided that sex/procreation are wrong so the entire group becomes celibate. That also means the group ceases to exist after a relatively short time. Some people and ideas can be truly depressing. Well, I like absurd better, but let them walk the path they choose.

In the West, we're particularly fond of dichotomies, tidy pairs of ideas such as up and down, good and bad, right and left. One of those key pairs is body and soul or material and spirit. Several branches of tradition see the body as bad and the soul/spirit as good. The body and material physical world are to be resisted, while matters of the spirit are to be pursued. This is the "Maybe" in between yes and no. In this variation, parts of life/experience are to be accepted while others are rejected. Yes to this, but no to that. One thing becomes more real than another. In this split existence, the differences are usually considered clear-cut, which means individuals really have few choices or decisions to make. There's a certain attractive convenience to this path, but the dangers are there as well.

With such extreme and tidy splits, there's a tendency to deny aspects that are considered dark or wrong. When the mind wants something you don't think it should, you might start saying that's not me, I'm not that way. My stepmother is fond of saying things like, "I don't dislike him. I just dislike the things he does." It gets rather complicated, and if you try to pretend that the "No" aspects don't exist, you give them absolute power. You can't control something if you want even look at it.

Yes. Yes to it all. The universe and whatever extensions there may be exists. Good, bad or indifferent. That part of me that wants to do serious harm to certain people is just as real as the part that wants to teach them to overcome their current shortcomings. The trick is that by saying yes to that violent part is the only thing that gives me choice. When I say that it's there, I can also say that I'm not going to go break any legs. Considering my temper, it's a good thing I learned to say yes and learn control.

Those people who still read Carl Jung's work know it all as the Shadow, that place in ourselves where we shove and hide everything we think is wrong or think other people wouldn't like if they knew. Sadly, I know far too many people who are being fully manipulated by the aspects they dislike because denial eliminates the choice for control. Taking a look at your Shadow can be a bit disgusting and very disturbing, but there's also a great deal of liberation. First, you actually discover that a number of things you put there aren't bad at all. A simple one is death. (Not often that death gets called simple, is it?) Many of my students end up writing about death sometime during the term, and almost everyone apologizes for being morbid. They really think that it's wrong to wonder, wrong to be curious or furious, and they think no one else thinks about it. All subjects fall somewhere under one of two categories: life or death. Since you cannot have one of those without the other, all subjects fall under just one category, which has no name. So we wonder about death, our own, those close to us, those we're mad at, the world. If we wonder openly, we can share ideas and fears and hopes. It's when we turn it inward into the shadow that we lose control, and that's all too often when the violence explodes.

The second good thing about accepting your shadow (which doesn't mean going out and doing everything in it), is that you no longer have to expend energy denying its existence, and you can use that energy for more interesting pursuits. What you gain is self-awareness, which also means responsibility. Once you become self-aware, you can't run around blaming everyone else for your mistakes. Pain in the butt, isn't it? On the other hand, if you aren't wasting time and energy blaming someone else when you fall on your face, you have the energy to get up learn to do what works. The path of Yes means both responsibilty and fun even though many people treat fun and responsibility as mutually exclusive.

 

I'm not saying that mixing the two well is overwhelmingly easy, either, but a shift in attitude can be particularly useful, as Josh Tarsky discovered. (And if you're out there, Josh, get in touch.) Josh fell for the idea that answers are the answer, but answers are really no fun at all, even on those rare occasions that answers appear to come. Like many of my students, Josh got back on the old track from childhood. He started asking "why?" There's no end to why, and given the strength of mind behind Josh's asking he was really giving himself trouble. He was reading a journal entry about the problem when he looked up and said, "You know, I think you don't answer the questions; you follow them." There it was, one of the most brilliant bits of philosophy you'll ever come across, simple and clear.

Questions are the thrill ride, not answers. And when you realize that question leading toa answer leading to question is the ride, not the destination, life changes. What was sour frustration becomes play (which sometimes includes some sweet or bittersweet frustration). We're the otters of the universe because we love to play, and one of the biggest truths children know and adults forget is that learning is the biggest game of all. That's why you don't go out looking for set answers, you go exploring (which comes from the last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in the "It's a Magical World" collection).

There are forms of play that are destructive, sure, but play itself is essential to being human. Take a walk through philosophy, religion, and art, and you'll keep finding people saying that we must learn to be like children. They don't mean giving up what we've learned. They mean taking the attitude of wonder, adventure, and exploration. Life dumps crap on us, and it hurts. A child looks at the fire and goes, "wow," and then sticks a hand in the fire and gets burned. Pain isn't much fun, but there sure is a wonderful pleasure in knowing not to stick your hand in that fire again. Ah, but we do manage to find other fires, don't we. The trick is simply never forgetting "Wow."