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...........The MEANING OF LIFE is in the everyday living of it....



First a quote from Colin Wilson's 'A Criminal History of Mankind':

"George Bernard Shaw once asked the explorer H. M. Stanley how many other men could take over leadership of the expedition if Stanley himself fell ill; Stanley replied promptly: 'One in twenty.' [ie, 5%] 'Is that exact or approximate?' asked Shaw. 'Exact.' And biological studies have confirmed this as fact. For some odd reason, precisely five per cent of any animal group are dominant. During the Korean war, the Chinese made the interesting discovery that if they separated out the dominant five per cent of American prisoners of war, and kept them in a separate compound, the remaining ninety-five per cent made no attempt to escape."

I'm not sure how well that holds up in fact - but maybe the relatively passive 95% of us would feel precisely as I did after reading Twain's 'The Mysterious Stranger' (full story). The dominant 5% would probably dismiss it as propaganda or distorted pap. (Though somehow I feel sure I'd try to escape).

Twain obviously witnessed this phenomenon (don't we all?) throughout his life, as he clearly implies in the story: that a certain few will lead while the obedient masses follow like sheep. I imagine those few - who appear (like Satan in the story) to have no conscience - would prefer not to be found out; so although their dominance makes them glaringly conspicuous, they create all kinds of elaborate scenarios to conceal the true insidious nature of their hierarchies - and, as we know, they usually succeed: our society is riddled with hierarchy. (You may have noticed that they also use ritual as a pacifying and controlling force).

As for 'the meaning of life' (for want of a less mawkish phrase), I didn't begin searching until I discovered Hesse's work when I was about 32. Before then I'd been lost in the reality of science; my bible was 'The Laws of Physics'; and I read only Science and Science Fiction. I'm not sure whether an early curiosity over some mysterious or obscure 'meaning of life' has any advantage - probably it does, if only so it can be ditched - but I suppose it took me, once I'd latched onto the quest, about a decade of reading and pondering before I homed in on what to me seemed a realistic acceptable conclusion (as, in essence, at the top of this page).

I'll explain… But first: back in the 70s when I foolishly joined a post-grad Education course, I was at a school on teaching practice when a kid of about 13 or 14 asked me - apparently in all seriousness (I'd had several weeks to get know them) - how to have a wank. As we know, teachers in training are renowned for their naïveté and aversion to conflict, and the kids are alert to this - the bolder ones being apt to exploit the fact for a lark. Taken by surprise, I said, simply: 'I'd tell you, but I think it's better for you to find out for yourself.' (These days the internet is solid with sites that would instantly answer the question).

Whether in the grand scheme of things I was right to respond as I did is probably irrelevant and of no consequence. If I'd told him and he'd repeated it to the wrong person, then I might, in the climate of the time, have got into trouble - notwithstanding the fact that there may be several possible answers.

The point I'm making is that explaining one's own personal take on 'the meaning of life' is perhaps the same, and in several ways. That is - quite apart from it depending on who's explaining - that principally it's better that we discover it for ourselves; in fact, there may be no other way, because words are just words... and besides, my meaning almost certainly won't be anyone else's meaning because another person's experience and circumstances, stage of development, position in life, etc., will not be the same as mine - hence what I think will be of no use to someone else. We can reflect on meanings, or we can ask around - for instance, by discussion or by reading what's been written about these issues - and then gradually build up a theory of our own until, with experience and observation of ourselves, our own life and what we feel inside, other people's lives and how they live.... until we've learned enough about the human condition to feel contented with our answer, provisionally at least. I settled for my 'answer' some years ago, though am always ready to modify or revise it in the light of new data - at least, so I like to think.

There are numerous excellent accounts from great minds of the past and perhaps a few from contemporoary thinkers. There are many different approaches and angles from which to view the problem, and as many fine and plausible answers. I know of several, of which Twain's story is one, that reveal a perspective or two on the enigma. Tolstoy's 'Ivan Ilych' offers (sort of) another, and again more explicitly his 'A Confession' (see also study guide) provides deeper insight still - and which isn't a million miles from Voltaire's conclusion in 'Candide' which addresses the problem obliquely, satirically. Similarly for Hesse's 'The Journey to the East' (unable to locate on the net) and Dostoyevsky's 'A Strange Man's Dream'. These are attempts to examine profound questions of existence, as do many great works of literature. Taken together they can help us move forward - if only by rejecting their analyses.

Academic philosophers, on the other hand, seem to get bogged down in detail amidst which they submerge their response to the big questions, so only a determined painstaking search can reveal what they might conclude - and then, as often as not, one finds it wasn't worth the candle.

Hesse's writings made the greatest impact on me for two reasons: first I could relate to it easily, and second it was my first encounter with such matters and was all I had at the time. Even so, I've ended up with a different solution to him. Many a time, while I was reading everything that's been translated of his, I believed I was about to stumble on the answer, only a whisker away from reading it; but later realised that it was HIS path being revealed, not mine. Tolstoy's 'A Confession' is like that too. What could be more gripping? And Voltaire in his masterwork 'Candide' likewise.

Pirandello (theatre of the absurd) wrote:

'Whoever understands the game, can no longer fool himself. But if you cannot fool yourself you can no longer derive any pleasure or enjoyment from life. So it goes; my art is full of bitter compassion for all those who fool themselves, but this compassion cannot help but be succeeded by a ferocious derision of a destiny that condemns man to deception. This succinctly is the reason for the bitterness of my art, and also my life.' 

I take issue with the second sentence of that quote: that one needs to fool oneself to derive pleasure from life. And when I looked at the last few pages again of Twain's story, I noticed about 5-pages before the end: '"What an ass you are" he [Satan] said, "Are you so unobservant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination?…"

That looks better, but still I'd say is only half the story, at least for me. True, I might be a bit of a simpleton alongside Twain and Pirandello, but while there is definitely an element of fact in their above conclusions, I don't think it needs to be quite as all-engulfing and crushing as they imply. This, I think, is because I feel confident in my own conclusion so can rest on that and balance it against what Oscar Wilde suggested: that life is too important to be taken seriously (and then failed to heed his wise notion himself).

Before I spell it out more, reflect first on this statement by Alan Watts: 'Salvation consists in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.'

Or in my words: 'Our only hope is to abandon hope'

Bearing that in mind, and from all I've read and thought, I can only conclude that the meaning of life is simply that which we choose to give it. How, I wonder, could it possibly be otherwise? (ie, see 'The Master Game' for clarification of this conclusion.) [Re-checking this conclusion at the end of 2009, I see I should qualify it with the observation that: how we choose to live our lives - in so far as we have the freedom to choose it - reflects what we regard as its meaning. This is similar to the philosophy of Camus.] The only alternative is to delegate meaning to some idea from outside ourselves, like some religion or other - which will depend on what we are told by other people or a book, in turn depending on where we grow-up: in India, Java, or the US, for instance: ie, see.

To know and accept that life is fundamentally meaningless, that it is merely a natural phenomenon like any other can form a comforting acknowledgement, I reckon - because it releases one from the shackles of religion and other fairytale myths and humbug: ghosts and devils and heaven and hell and all the rest of that strange nursery make-believe which elite authority encourages and uses to control us. To 'know' that there's no such thing as an afterlife - apart maybe from explicable equivalents such as leaving behind our influences - can only enhance one's sense of freedom (if also a vague sense of despair or gloom at the thought of our mortality). It increases the importance of focussing on living in and for this current life. All this does not mean there are no mysteries - which increase as we learn more. Nor does it mean that life has no value or purpose: 'because that other person exists, meaningless, however hard pressed you are by it, cannot be the real truth.' Martin Buber.

In other words, knowing another person, however superficially, adds meaning to life. At least, that's my perspective. So, although for me the universe is essentially cold and dead (or if not then maybe we can regard ourselves as its blossoming?), and that life is merely a chemical charade, it still abounds with 'magic' and purpose (according with whatever I choose to bestow it) - and it's truly great to be here, if only for a fleeting moment before returning to eternal oblivion!

I didn't feel so sanguine while pondering these things, now more than a couple of decades ago - even though I never believed in an afterlife (which to me is the ultimate absurdity - though I have to say, I wish right now it was true).

I was on an interior journey, after all, and it takes one right back to the simplicity of early childhood. As in Hesse's 'The Journey to the East', the protagonist searches, at first in vain, for the path of his youth, the spiritual path, which he inadvertently strayed from, as do we all - or so it seems. From the book cover:

"The Journey to the East is the story of a youthful pilgrimage that seemingly failed. As the book opens, the narrator is engaged in writing the chronicle of this remembered adventure - the central experience of his youth. As he becomes immersed in retelling the chronicle, the writer realises that only he has failed, that the youthful pilgrimage continues in a shining and mysterious way."

And this may strike you as odd now after what I've said. It may strike you also as trite, even obvious - which indeed it is. But everyone knows, I reckon, in their heart (so to speak) that it is so. It is, simply 'TAO: The Watercourse Way' (the title of a superb little book by Alan Watts).

I like to think of moving through life being a bit like driving a car… when the track is rough you give the steering wheel some leeway so the car moves amidst the dips and bumps with little strain or effort, finding its own way with your general guidance. Likewise, if you are rigid and uncompromising, if you create obstacles to another person's contentment (or for that matter another creature's, or even your own), if you unnecessarily despoil - even some remote minuscule part - of the environment…(the list is endless)… you will reduce your affinity with the world. If this happens, a little of you falls out of tune, and a little bit of you dies.

If, on the other hand, you go out of your way to enhance contentment, then disharmony can be reversed. This is Karma. To me - although I am frequently unthinkingly neglectful of it - all this is plain common sense. How could things be otherwise?

There is great confusion, it seems to me, about the apparent conflict (which is actually non-existent) of looking after one's own interests and the joys of being 'kind to the world'. Maybe I'll write an essay on it sometime to clarify what strikes me as obvious but what appears to completely elude so many people.




What are our main motivating forces in life? Sex, money, adventure, power, creative aspiration…?

If you somehow knew that you had no more than a week left to live, would any of these be important? There would be nothing to gain from fretting over the loss of them. We would do better to dwell on what brings contentment: ie, creating contentment.

Anyone who says that we need discontent in order to recognise and appreciate contentment is, I think, mistaken. Taken to the extreme, this would mean that the most contented people will have suffered the greatest discontent. (I believe it has been shown that generally speaking, contented babies become contented adults). True, discontent can alert us to certain truths that we may otherwise miss, and can help us appreciate contentment. But I don't believe discontent is necessary. Those who strive to genuinely eliminate discontent wherever they encounter it, are probably the most contented.

Those, though, who sow discontent, are probably the most discontented - although they might well appear the opposite, such as those of great wealth in a world of poverty that their wealth sustains. I'm not sure if it's possible to be content by burying one's head in the sand. Probably not, if we do it deliberately - like blocking your ears to avoid hearing a truth. Unwitting ignorance of our impact on the world around us might work, but are we really so lacking in perception - as the powerful, in their usual iniquity, would lead us to believe? I don't think so.

We KNOW when an action is a 'wrong' action. Simply ask: Does it create greater contentment? We KNOW, even if we try to fool ourselves, that power corrupts, that most of our politicians are (or behave as though they are) insane - the more-so the more powerful they are - and that they represent only business (though they throw us a few morsels to keep us sweet). We can't vote them out, that's for sure, because representatives are selected for their lack of scruples - whatever the party. For an independent like Martin Bell was, the situation is different; his conscience and his electors were his boss. He could vote for greater contentment without getting sacked, but also without any effect because our political system favours big parties.

So we are stuck. Contentment doesn't come into it - and you may ask: then what are politicians there for? Answer: POWER, BUSINESS, MONEY. Three words that mean essentially the same. That's what politicians are there for. Their many peripheral activities, and those of government, are purely, at base, to sustain those three demons. These are the people Twain so articulately scorned and satirised in his 'The Mysterious Stranger' (and other works), together with the myths, hierarchies, rituals and other humbug in which they immerse themselves, and us if they can, in an attempt to conceal from us the truth of their iniquity - which if we opened our eyes would be shatteringly obvious.

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