The meaning of life? One would think, perhaps, that after 200,000 years, dating back to the emergence of the modern human, we would have solved the riddle. That’s a lot of staring up at the sky and ruminating.
Picture our very first philosopher: “I wonder, Ogg, if hitting one another on the head with wooden clubs is perhaps not our only purpose here. Maybe it goes deeper.”
Since that day, the unparalleled minds of countless generations have tossed themselves again and again into the sea of angst, doubt, and speculation, and where are we now?
I’ll assume for our early human ancestors that the meaning of life was simply to locate some food, avoid fatal head injury, and wake up the following morning. It can seem that way in 2015 too, depending on how much wine you drink before supper.
But the human animal grew smarter, more inventive. We drew pictures of horses on the walls of caves. The meaning of life clearly had to do with that big ball of light in the sky, and why it disappeared at the end of the day. And those horrible booming noises when the rains came through.
Don’t tick off the sun god, or the moon god, or the lightning and thunder gods, or the hairy mastodon. That was the meaning. And still, avoid head injury. That last one tends to stay relevant.
Then someone invented the stone tablet, and Moses was handed the definitive meaning of life from behind a burning bush. If you don’t believe me, look it up in the Bible. Chapter fourteen, I think.
The new improved meaning was to avoid angering “the one true God,” which soon enough translated into either “give all your chickens to the priests so they can make sure you go to heaven” or “kill the fellows across the hill for worshipping a different god and wearing funny sandals.”
Moses did some cool stuff, like parting the Red Sea and massacring the Midianite men, women, and boys – the “thou shalt not kill” commandment was an easy one to forget, especially under that hot desert sun – and his ideas have had some extra traction over the years. Plus, his grandmother painted those gorgeous primitive images of the New England landscape.
We have made a hash of this for 200 centuries and maybe the joke is entirely on us. Buddhism, Hinduism, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hedonism, Kantianism, Pragmatism, Existentialism, the Collected Wisdom of Groucho Marx. We’ve been tossing this ball back and forth and back and forth and we’ll probably still be tossing it when the final buzzer goes off.
Because maybe there is no meaning.
Because maybe, just maybe, if you say the secret word, a duck will come down from the ceiling and give you fifty dollars.
Maybe that’s meaning enough.
~Dinty W. Moore is an author, editor, teacher, specializing in memoir and literary nonfiction. Moore lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.
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