Don Rogers: Readers add meaning
Feedback from last week’s column — “The meaning of life?” — taught me again just how much readers can bring to the writing, and the writer.
I had ruminated about life as if one giant organism with humanity only a tiny spark, one of a myriad experiments in survival against the backdrop of deep time past and future. At least that’s what was in my mind as I wrote.
Oh, throw in a splash of soul, too. Can’t take on the meaning of life without at least a nod to the soul.
And so some comments took up questions like what is a soul anyway? And would such a thing apply to a machine imbued with consciousness?
I didn’t suggest this directly, but by including a couple of sentences about asking a fundamentalist Baptist preacher friend if he thought sentient AI could have a soul, I did imply something about Life. I do wonder if the next big step will be the phenomenon evolving beyond we fragile and dim biological beings. This would be one way to become spacefaring before we’ve fouled our nest completely or the planet reaches its natural end.
One reader dug into this: “Seems by soul we humans are trying to describe some eternal part of our nature that transcends the limitations of our present organic body that is bound by biological rules of life and death. If the goal is to live beyond the time limits of your present organic container, I’m not sure a machine or artificial intelligence would need to worry about that. … What we call soul to me has some transcendent quality that is beyond our present human ability to control. The logic of a constructed being doesn’t seem consistent with that aspect.”
Get to talking about soul and existence and meaning, and God is never far away. I said almost nothing about the Almighty in the column, other than quoting my preacher friend and pointing out that belief doesn’t equate to knowing.
I realize, for instance, my belief in a God personally attentive to each of us is wholly irrational. But existence itself is impossible, yet here we are, living in a paradox or koan, if you prefer. Therefore, what you believe is no crazier than my notions. Interesting “logic,” I know, I know.
“As it happens,” a reader mentioned, “today’s sermon in church was on Ecclesiastes, and reading this tonight helped me build on that discussion.” A decent summary of Ecclesiastes might be “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the Pete Seeger song with all but one line straight from the book.
“We are merely the result of natural forces and chance,” another asserted. “We are all related to everything else, because everything came from the atoms in the Big Bang. Therefore, no one and nothing can be superior to anything else. We humans are an infinitesimal part of the universe(s). The questions ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ have absolutely no relevance.”
“I just don’t care if there’s a God,” another reader said amid an email conversation that began with feedback to the column. “To me, faith is believing in doing the right thing as just a way of life.”
Amen. Several readers shared takes along this vein.
“You have,” a healer wrote, “laid bare the heroic attempts most of us make to paper over the underlying angst of being conscious and mortal. However, … to open that door without also discussing how we can all do a better job of improving our sense of well-being, appreciation and gratitude in this shared moment-to-moment journey through life is a disservice to your readers, many of whom are certain to be struggling for the very reasons you discuss.”
Another who has been reading Viktor Frankl flipped the question, quoting from “Man’s Search for Meaning” while Frankl was in a concentration camp in Germany during World War II: “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
“Under this analysis,” the reader said, “the answer to the ‘one hell of a puzzle’ question … would be something like: What do you feel called upon to do in your life? Have children? Write a novel? Help a homeless person? That is the meaning of life.”
Another kept his feedback simple, speaking in the great code of book recommendations: “I just finished reading ‘Horizon,’ by Barry Lopez. … After reading your column I highly recommend it.”
Not a troll among the various postings of the piece, either. Some poetic comments, lots of friends. Way too much affirmation, but thank you just the same!
We’re all in it together, after all. Helps to remember this.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.