Excellence Reporter: Phil, what is the meaning of life?
Phil Cousineau: The perennial question about the meaning of life is a riddle posed to us the moment we first become conscious. The very idea of meaning is as puzzling as Winston Churchill’s description of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and it’s risky as the question the Sphinx posed to Oedipus on the road to Delphi. If he doesn’t answer her riddle correctly, she purrs, he will die. (He does; she flings herself off a cliff.) The legend suggests that a part of us risks death, figuratively speaking, if we don’t at least attempt to answer the great riddles of life, that we cannot pass by the great obstacles set in front of us, we cannot advance, we cannot reach our destination. For it is the attempt that makes us human. This is the function of philosophy, mythology, and art, as most dramatically revealed in riddles, koans, paradoxes, and the Big Questions, such as the meaning of life. They are devised to get us to think for ourselves, and to use our imagination, not to claim authority and most definitely not divine revelation.
For me that is the meaning and the beauty and the numinous power of the question about any so-called meaning of life, which is easy to mock, as the Monty Python movie of the same name does so side-splittingly well, but isn’t as easy to explain away. We can laugh but eventually we will find ourselves at some hinged moment when we need to say to decide for ourselves what is important, significant, or has value, which is how meaning reveals — or doesn’t — isn’t revealed. To say there is no meaning in a moment or an experience by definition means it is “meaningless,” which is to say it has no real importance, no significance, no value. Life flattens out and torpor sets in, the psychic numbing that sociologists warn us about, or conversely, we settle for a life of doing only what we want and only for ourselves.
Even so, there will be come a time when life will throttle us and ask if there isn’t more. Such is the moment evoked by the Japanese poet Issa, who wrote so sparsely and heartbreakingly, “And yet , and yet, and yet,” after the death of his infant daughter, as he yearns for a greater meaning beyond the apparent arbitrary nature of her loss.
Not to speculate or ruminate or contemplate the question makes us a little less human, a little more robotic. The best we can do, that reflective people have always done, is to describe rather than define what the question means for ourselves. For me, the meaning of life is two-fold, personal and collective. The collective meaning is what cultures have systematically decided was of meaning, which is to say, what has lasting value and a scintilla of truth. Hence, our collections in museums and libraries and now the web are vast repositories of those people believed was of significance, value, truth. My growing sense is that art and science are meaning-making machines, to coin an expression.
Our art and poetry, inventions and innovations, make visible what is invisible in our hearts and minds. In this sense, meaning is a gleaning, a determining of wisdom out of the glut of information and the Everest of knowledge that we encounter and must climb, and which constantly threatens to overwhelm us. To paraphrase the great Mexican writer, meaning of life is to the need to make things mean, to shake life until it makes sense and reveals its significance, and occasionally gives up, like a mine revealing its veins of gold, a few nuggets of truth.
Essentially, the search for meaning is like the Quest for the Holy Grail, an inner journey for the Grail Knights to the mystery zone of the Grail Castle. The search is a paradox wrapped within a riddle. What is the sound of one mind clapping for meaning? The real work takes place in the heart and mind of lone individuals learning to think for themselves. But the danger lies in devolving into what the Greeks called omphaloskepsis, navel-gazing, the practice that drowned Narcissus in the river he gazed into. We did to find our own meaning in order to be awake, alert, and conscious. But that is never enough. The wider and more generous view entails others and the natural world, which is what our most beloved philosophers, artists, mystics, and poets have gone hoarse trying to remind us to do. “I am me plus my circumstances,” wrote the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. My meaning is inextricably connected with the meaning of the world.
That means, so to speak, that those involved in the inner realm, our philosophers, in the original sense of the term, those who love wisdom, are our meaning-makers, but from two different directions. We go to the historians and journalists and doctors and scientists to find out what happened and when, and then we turn to the poets to speculate on why it matters, or doesn’t. In that eternal exchange we discover meaning, what matters, what signifies.
On the philosophical level, which is the realm of meaning, the meaning of life, as in its purpose, which is how its is usually explored, comes to one thing, and that is contribution. Life is as meaningful as it involves others, helping, contributing, aiding and abetting, the alternative being trapped in what has recently been called the “youniverse.” As in the universe revolves around me, which means in the long run … nothing. Gazing into our electronic toys is no more gratifying, illuminating, or meaningful than Narcissus gazing at his own reflection in the woodsy pond.
In dramatic contrast is the happiness reported by people the world over by those who live for others, happiness being a kissing cousin of meaningful-ness, as art-making is our most intimate friend. For in the final glimpse, personal meaning isn’t the thing to be discovered like some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but the thing to made, the pot itself, the gold that is melted down. And as Viktor Frankl wrote in his ambrosial book about Auschwitz, “Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.” [my italics] And here is where the question of the meaning of life intersects with the urge to philosophize and to make art. These are our most courageous attempts to deal with our “fractured lives” and the broken lives of others and make sense out of the fragments. T . S . Eliot put it beautifully when we wrote about his own poetry, “These are the fragments I shore against the ruins.” Hard-won words that truly reflect our beliefs and the way we lead our lives are the bulwark against the ruins of meaninglessness. In this way, art and philosophy are comparable attempts to understand everyone’s fractures, everyone’s brokenness. Which brings us to one of the most healing thoughts that have survived from antiquity, from the philosopher Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind to everyone you meet because he or she is also enduring a great struggle.” Be kind to everyone, including ourselves, because everyone is struggling, day to day, hour to hour, with more than the abstract question of “the meaning of life.” They are struggling with the meaning of their own lives and the lives of those around them.
My sense at the beveled edge hour of 3 a.m., when the dark night of the soul gives way to the first light of dawn and reappearance of hope, is that the more we love the question, the more we love searching our hearts and the hearts of others who have relished the question, the more we can love life itself. And the more we love, as the great mystics and poets have always reminded us, the less urgent the question is because there is no momentary or ultimate meaning without love, no love without meaning.
I mean the meaning of life is meaningless without love.
~Phil Cousineau is an award-winning writer and filmmaker, teacher and editor, lecturer, screenwriter, independent scholar, travel leader, and storyteller.
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