When I am in a quandary and I don’t know what to write about, I tend to meander on the general landscape of something everyone — from a sixth grade student writing a school essay to an old man ruminating about his years on earth — may have wondered about. I am talking about life’s meaning and relevance.
As in every generation, many people today are searching for answers to questions about their purpose in life, the quest for happiness, how to love, and the all-encompassing “meaning of life” itself.
Poets, philosophers, sages and religious people have attempted to answer these questions through the ages. Throw in not only the best and the brightest but also the stupid and the shallow who have given us their take on these perennial questions. We know that the search for answers must have began at the dawn of man and it continues today and will do so forever.
I have sometimes wondered if there is one true answer that applies to everyone’s situation. Christians believe that Jesus is the answer and their answer is the best and the only true one. The problem with this is, other religions claim the same thing about their gods. Some cultures believe that theirs is the superior one and if only everyone could belong and adhere to the same culture, then the world would be right and peaceful. According to Joseph Campbell, every race claims to be the chosen race — probably more out of conceit than fact. But we know by now the folly of such thinking and the grief that it has brought to mankind.
I would like to throw in some observations I have on this grandest of topics: the meaning of life. I know this is such a wide subject. Allow me the sweeping view with its equally general conclusions. I don’t know if what I am about to say will qualify as brilliant or idiotic. But here goes:
1) The man who searches for answers often finds himself at odds with the values and ideals the world and his society upholds.
It has happened many times. Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, even Jose Rizal, have encountered this. They literally bumped heads with authorities as they pursued their beliefs, which went against the grain of what their milieu subscribed to. Jesus turned his back on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and even the scriptures of his time. Gautama left his palatial surroundings, which were designed to protect him from life’s vicissitudes, to understand reality and pain. Gandhi and Mandela resisted the temptation of revenge and violence and chose the more difficult but more enlightened path of peaceful resistance.
It is quite scary to face the world and stand against it. It takes a lot of courage to feel one is “going it alone.” “When you know the truth, the truth makes you a soldier.” Gandhi himself expressed this. George Orwell also wrote, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” That’s exactly what these people did.
2) Everything that is supposed to be “good” for us according to the world, is bad for us according to “the search.”
It is not uncommon to come to a point in the search where the values of a materialistic society that espouses wealth, fame, status, power, the certainty of being right and all that, become meaningless. In place of all these is a revulsion against the trappings of success, perhaps brought about by the realization that one has spent too much time chasing them and not finding happiness.
Albert Schweitzer turned his back on a flourishing musical career to build a hospital for Africa’s poorest. Mother Teresa was an English teacher in an international school when she decided to change her life’s direction and became the comforter of the poor and the sick in India. In the midst of hardship, poverty and deprivation, these people found that something which defined the meaning of life for them and for others.
3) The truth is hard to handle.
Truth demands purity of intention before it is given to the seeker to own. The truth can stare everyone in the face but those who actually go for it are few. Embracing the truth and radiating it to others demands a cleansing of intentions in both their hearts and minds. The truth, as they say, will set you free but it will probably upset you and make you angry, scared and bewildered before it begins to feel good.
Albert Einstein once said, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” He knew that to tell the truth was to disturb the status quo. It also means to get out of one’s comfort zone, which may include even facing ridicule and being misunderstood.
4) To pursue truth is an “elite” experience.
Truth is only given to those who want more of life’s meaning and are bold enough to handle it. You will find that, many times, you may be alone with no one but your conscience and it is so much easier to reject the call and just stay wherever you are and never embark on the journey. But the call is made to those who have the courage to fulfill the mission that truth wants to be undertaken.
Recall that Sir Thomas More, an English lawyer in the 1500s, who refused to sign the document that would legitimize the anomalous marriage of King Henry VIII, was beheaded for standing for the truth. He held his ground even when everyone else had consented to the King’s demand.
5) Great truths are always paradoxical.
“You must lose your life in order to gain it.”
“The mind that does not understand is the Buddha. There is no other.”
The savior of mankind is a carpenter’s son.
The beauty of paradox is that it seems conflicted on one level, but is filled with deep truth when understood on all other levels. In it lies a balance that defies the selective, judgmental mind and recognizes the place of everything and its own contradictions. Thus, it is true that one man’s curse is another man’s blessing. The wounded can be healers themselves. And the only permanent thing is impermanence. As a Japanese proverb put it so succinctly, “The reverse side also has a reverse side.”
So, what is the meaning of life? You tell me.