Nicolae Tanase: Joe, what is the meaning of life?
Joe Raiola: Had you asked my favorite philosopher, Alan Watts, “What is the meaning of life?” he would have struck a gong and said, “Let’s leave it at that.” But Alan is dead and, besides, you made the foolish mistake of asking me.
As I sit here tapping away at the keyboard, my cat Bella is asleep and snoring, lying comfortably on my desk. I mention this because Bella clearly doesn’t give a damn about meaning. Bella simply is. But for us humans, finding meaning is a very big deal.
I am reminded of something Henry Miller wrote: “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” I imagine that Henry came to that uplifting insight after downing a few bottles of Bordeaux with friends or spanking Anais Nin. Henry was my kind of Renaissance man.
It is worth noting, however, that “the aim of life” is not synonymous with “the meaning of life.” To have an aim is to have a goal, and Henry’s goal is a desired state of being. Reach the goal and, voilà, you will discover the meaning of life. On the other hand, the Buddhists say the path is the goal. Therefore, there is no place to arrive and no aim necessary. So where does that leave us?
In college I had a philosophy professor named Dr. Knight, which is truly a wonderful name for a philosophy professor. I took his metaphysics course, which he began by announcing that he would be killing himself after the first class.
Although he didn’t say how he was going to do it, I thought I should alert Dr. Pasotti, the Chairman of the Philosophy Department, of Dr. Knight’s intention. So I walked down the hall to Dr. Pasotti’s office and told him that Dr. Knight had told us that he was going to commit suicide. Dr. Pasotti leaned back in his chair and said, “That asshole. Again?”
In fact, Dr. Knight did not kill himself and went on to teach quite the provocative metaphysics course. “The meaning of life,” he explained, “may be found in Plato’s Republic or in Suzy’s ass.” A debatable point perhaps, but the only way I could test his hypothesis was to find my way into Suzy’s ass. But alas, I never had the pleasure of meeting Suzy, or visiting Plato’s Republic for that matter. Was I doomed then to a life of meaninglessness?
Of course not, for it would have been a grave mistake to take Dr. Knight’s comment literally. The essential thing he was getting at was that one had to engage in intimate relationship, be it with Suzy, Plato, whatever or whomever, even yourself. Meaning is only found in relationship and in relationship there are no experts.
Dr. Len, a couple’s therapist my wife and I once worked with comes to mind. He was teaching us the Imago technique, which he described as a fool-proof method of empathic listening and communication. “If I knew this method years ago my first marriage never would have broken up,” he said confidently.
A few weeks later he informed us that he was shutting down his practice and moving to Seattle because his second marriage had broken up. By the way, my wife and I never mastered the Imago technique and two decades later we are still together. Go figure.
I should probably say something here about death and the impermanent nature of all things. But I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been said. For what it’s worth, after I die I would like to be shot out of a cannon and wired to explode in midair, to exit with an actual bang. But I digress.
In “Instant Karma” John Lennon asks “why on earth are we here?” and in the next breath declares, “surely not to live in pain and fear.” That seems like a promising starting point, but it’s a negative statement.
Okay, we are not here to live in pain and fear, but why then are we here? Earlier in the song John provides a pretty good answer: “Better recognize your brother’s everyone you meet.” There we are again, back to relationship.
However, the great sage Krishnamurti said, “You are the world.” Well, if you are the world, then there is no one to be in relationship with. No duality. So while it’s fantastic to “recognize your brother’s everyone you meet,” there is a deeper teaching: You are your brother. Whoa, I’m freaking myself out, man!
I am going to have to get myself a gong.
~Joe Raiola is a satirist, performer, producer and Senior Editor at MAD Magazine.
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