Don Rogers: The meaning of life?
To understand, you don’t have to climb a mountain and ask a loin-clothed wise man in the snow and wind. Don’t need to take a class, go to church, crack a book, follow these five steps or those.
Sitting still may help, but probably not. Not for us, you and I. We don’t have the patience. But life is patient. Ah, maybe a clue.
Forget about getting there through scholarship. Philosophy only nibbles at fragments. Faith is just that, no more. You don’t know simply because you believe, even with all your heart.
Raising a family, staying healthy, loving deeply, making the world safer and better only kick a can down the road, help further the species, a good of its own. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll figure it out someday if we can just keep going, regenerating, enduring, occasionally celebrating the miracle. Buying time.
Thing is, we make it complicated, maybe because there are so many of us now, so much going on, too much to keep up with.
But is that really so? With five hours a day lost to television? Such devotion to Facebook, scrolling, posting, liking and being liked?
Other cravings tug us off course, too. Signs emerge in our girth, our obscenely high intake of porn (women as well as men, according to the web traffic), this fevered following of petty politicking and celebrity while paying almost no attention at all to governance, our interest in inebriation, our inability to concentrate.
We far prefer mindlessness to mindfulness. This much is clear.
We don’t sleep. We don’t exercise. We don’t get into nature. Don’t attend services, continue our education, contribute to community, do our homework. We’re too busy. Where’s the time?
I like to think I’m exaggerating here. But am I? The data suggests no, not so much.
Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why do eye rolls and long sighs so often greet these questions, as if silly, pointless, not of the real world?
I have my theories, though I’m hardly in position to wax holier than thou even as I declare astonishment at so many of us squandering the gift.
But what sort of gift delivers such uncertainty, frustration, humiliation, heartbreak, struggle, fear, pain? Unavoidable aging and always death, with so many ways to go, including by our own hand? This has the ring of a curse.
Anyway, it’s one hell of a puzzle.
• • •
Lately, I’ve been reading about deep time in “The Ends of the World,” “The Sixth Extinction,” and the novel “The Overstory.”
We’re not talking here of decades or hundreds of years, or even back to Christ as if that were long ago, but by the tens and hundreds of millions of years. To the first mass extinction of life we know of 350 million years ago. And the big one 300 million years ago, the most recent 65 million years ago.
By this measure, our era is the thinnest of veneers, not even a full wink since life began. Then there’s Earth time compared to the universe and universe time compared to whatever came before.
The future of our planet doesn’t include us in any case. We may hasten our end, but we’ll end just the same, the briefest flicker of a spark that dies.
The atmosphere will cook off eventually, after several more ice ages, years counted by the millions and millions revealing mountains and continents indeed walking to and fro in real time. And, of course, the sun someday will dim and a black hole clean it all up.
• • •
The pure poet at my writing group this week, of course it was the poet, brought up “deep soul” after we had finished reading aloud and critiquing our excerpts and poems. “I don’t know. I feel like we’ve been here, somehow, from the beginning,” he said after I riffed on my notions of deep time, influenced as much by an ever-present theme in his poems as my books.
It so happens I’m also revisiting “The Snow Leopard,” Peter Mathiessen’s classic meditation on the trail in the Himalayas soon after the death of his wife. Time stretches and stops in Mathiessen’s account of his spiritual quest amid the duller routines of the trek and his observations of the life around him up there, high in Nepal’s mountains while he hoped to meet the Buddhist lama at the Crystal Monastery, his wise man.
• • •
There are clues. Did you know we share something like a quarter of our DNA with trees? A blade of grass is a cousin and our genome differs by only a percentage point from the chimpanzee. All of us — everything alive! — are kindred and survivors of at least five massive extinctions going back those 350 million years.
I asked a friend, a Baptist pastor with little use for the theory of evolution, whether sentient artificial life could have a soul along with consciousness, should that day ever arrive.
“Absolutely,” he replied to my surprise. “If God wills it.”
What is the meaning of life? I suspect it’s simple, ties all that lives or has lived or will ever live together, and demands nothing of us but the verb. Life doesn’t rely on human existence to fulfill its purpose, either. We’re but one expression of this phenomenon.
Life is what life does. That’s what I’d tell a befuddled pilgrim who climbed to my perch. That’d learn him.
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.