Nicolae Tanase: Andrew, what is the meaning of life?
Andrew Mellen: I can tell you what it’s not—the accumulation and worship of physical stuff. So much of life seems to be a struggle between poles: fear and love, man-made and naturally occurring, stuff and people.
I marvel at anyone who can answer this question with conviction and certainty. I am both in awe and more than a little frightened of those who speak with stridency in declaring their understanding of a world order that has everything so tidily figured out. This is right, that is wrong; I am right, you are wrong.
Taken a step further, when they say out loud, “This is my divine right,” or “This is exactly as __________ [fill in the name of one’s deity of choice] planned it,” a deep skepticism and fear rises up in me.
I find that people with such conviction often seek to find those not in alignment with their worldview to either convince them to “get with the program” or to control, kill or imprison them to tidy things up and get things back on track. In a perverse way, prisons are to people what self-storage facilities are for stuff—a place to put things you can’t decide what to do with but are pretty sure you don’t want to live with right now. You’ll get around to dealing with it/them later … but as we know, later seldom arrives as we expect it to.
I find life a tremendously frustrating, exhilarating, exhausting and engaging challenge, adventure and puzzle. Why are we here? Why am I here? What should I spend this precious limited time in this form doing, being and experiencing? I wish I knew.
The curious relentless drive of reproduction and survival is what caused me to be here physically. Is there something more? Something larger? Some divine order that is revealed only to the holy? I don’t know.
I stopped asking, “Why?” some time ago since the answer often seems to be someone’s best guess or worse, their biggest fear wrapped up and packaged as a fact.
I tend to leave the mystery of “why” to those with greater certitude and these days focus instead on “how.” How can I be useful? How can I survive with the least negative impact on my neighbors? How can I help preserve the natural beauty that I see when sitting on a hillside or a riverbank or a beach? How can I help others set themselves free from delusion and disappointment? How can I support people in eradicating poverty and hunger and waste? How can I encourage people to live their values each day in a way that seems possible for them—a way that doesn’t seem so lofty or impossible that I might as well say, “Sprout wings and fly above your troubles, they are only illusions?”
What I’ve learned along the way is that my selfishness and self-centeredness are often the cause of my own suffering and sense of feeling apart from. I forget that when I am scared. So I ask myself how can I be less afraid?
I wish faith in something divine taking care of me would comfort me in those moments but to date that has proved elusive. I don’t feel lost or abandoned by a monotheistic God with a capital G, rather I feel suspended in a complicated web of interdependence with all other living things.
I have experienced that too much struggle or thrashing about on anyone’s or anything’s part puts strain on this web, so it’s probably better to release and breathe through my fear rather than wrestling with it to subdue it. Likewise stockpiling inanimate objects and stacking them up on this web doesn’t provide the comfort and security imagined, it just creates more stress. Having just enough of what I need keeps things in scale rather than risking tearing the web and falling through it. Perhaps that web is God?
I wake up each morning and say thank you for another day of unknowing. I thank the web, the sun, the water, the air. I commit myself each day to being of use to my fellows. I remind myself that my own comfort is overrated and that I’m more comfortable than many people currently alive. I don’t need to feel guilty about that but I do need to be humbled by it—to have an appreciation for the degree of privilege I enjoy every day that has a cost I alone do not bear.
While I sit in the unknowingness of this life, I recommit myself to more generosity and kindness and vow to bring greater awareness to every place my greed and selfishness crops up. How can I give of myself without fear of disappearing or giving away that which I tell myself I need to survive? How can I stop keeping score and worry less about winning and more about serving? How can I do more, be more, care less about self and care more about others? How can I reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse? How can I be less of the problem and more of the solution? And then of course taking an action based on what is revealed in that moment of questioning.
Sitting with these questions and acting on what I discover seems a good way to spend a day, if not a lifetime.
~Andrew Mellen is an organizational expert, international speaker, trainer, and the author of Unstuff Your Life! He’s often referred to as “The Most Organized Man in America.” He writes about simplifying your life everywhere from Real Simple to O, The Oprah Magazine and his clients include American Express, Bank of America, Genentech, NetApp, Time, Inc. and the US Depts. of Education and Homeland Security as well as overwhelmed individuals everywhere.
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