Unbelievable but True

Hey Drew,

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I know the meaning of life. That’s right! The número uno of the big three existential questions. The other two being, is there a god and what’s for dinner. Pretty cool huh? And surprising coming from me, right? I’ll tell you what; I was surprised too. Not because I don’t believe I’m smart enough or old enough or worldly enough; I’m passable on all those counts but because I hadn’t known it was really and truly available and, I think this is key, I hadn’t really cared. Why should I? Why would anyone? It’s a cotton candy question. All fluff, no substance and it attracts pests.

Okay, so lets get clear that we don’t want this investigation into meaning to devolve into a messy debate about related questions. Questions like: Does anything matter? Does anything have intrinsic value? Is there good and evil? The answers to those are No, No and Yes, but only relatively speaking.


What is the meaning of life?

Is not

What is the meaning of my life?

Everyone is self centered, so the one is often standing in for the other. The answer to What is the meaning of my life, is simply, how the hell should I know? What am I, a mind reader? That’s your problem. But in the big picture the answer is nothing. Individual lives have no meaning in the big picture. Of course, ultimately even the big picture has no meaning in the big picture but let’s focus. Think of the millions who died during the reign of the Black Death. A full third of Europe. I’ll bet you can’t name one of them. The event, en masse, had far reaching consequences. It truly changed the history of the world. Lives were lost, families were destroyed, wealth and power shifted. The ensuing labor shortages alone changed the dynamic between an idle elite and the peasantry that supported them. It changed the way businesses did business. But the individuals, their sufferings and their heroics, they are forgotten, lost with no effect. It was the aggregate depletion of humanity that bore the meaning.

Even the greats, Caesar, Hannibal, the Khan’s (Genghis and Chaka) Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Einstein, Cher; they were smart, talented opportunists who were good at what they did. People care but history doesn’t. The world is full of people who are good at what they do. The names are incidental. The greats were just good at what they did at a moment when the doing needed to be done. I don’t want to minimize great achievements but If those individuals hadn’t been there, someone else would have done the doing, or not. Probably differently and still we would view it all as inevitable. Manifest destiny. The forces at play are all so extraordinary that they seem to demand meaning but that is a human issue, an issue of brain architecture. Looking for the pattern. We are pattern recognition machines and we will find patterns. Period! The greats, giants though they may be, were just in the right place doing whatever it is that they did best when the historical imperative coughed them up. Events demanded that a person fill a vacuum and voila Jerry Lewis.

Jerry and the rest may have changed the course of history but they didn’t stop history. The arrow of time continues, the end will be the end and the cosmic difference will be zero.

Additionally, this is not a philosophical discourse. I know that in the wrong hands a conversation like this can easily slip into an argument about semiotics and religion and Hegelian something-or-other until all sides end up either in armed conflict or fast asleep.

That’s what makes me so perfect for the job. I don’t know the first thing about that stuff. Syntactics, semantics and pragmatics are words that I didn’t even know until just now when I looked up semiotics. I even had to spellcheck most of that last sentence. So, not withstanding that I don’t know anything about philosophy, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides, I have the mind of a scientist. Unbelievable but true. I rely entirely on observable phenomenon and cool word play. If it involves a willingness to believe in something without a shred of evidence you’ve got the wrong guy. Quoting proverbs and muttering affirmations? Pardon me while I flatline. When people like that tell you they have the answers (and they tell you that constantly) it’s only because they haven’t bothered to ask any questions.

Finally, and most emphatically, this is not a self help tract. That would require an altruism that I do not possess and an interest in people that is as foreign to me as uninterrupted sleep and disposable income. It would also require a conviction in my cause that in itself would be cause for suspicion. There is no end to the self help books that will tell you how to create meaning in your life. I don’t read that crap. Its very existence as a genre is a backwards pointer towards meaninglessness. It creates that which it proposes to subdue. Which is not to say that I couldn’t write a manifesto.

Like the expanding universe we create meaning as we go.

As with relativity, the meaning we create exists only in contrast

to the other meanings surrounding us.

These other meanings have a dampening effect or an amplifying effect

depending on how they resonate harmonically with our meaning.

Meaning resonates with other meaning not only in its immediate

vicinity but across great distances.

Distances in both space and time.

See? Anybody can write that stuff. And you know what? People will pay for it no matter how convoluted. In fact, the weirder the better. Look at any religion. People of faith are tied together by their mutual willingness to believe in absurdly implausible creation myths. Once you’ve got them to jump through that hoop the rest is easy. Then you just tell them stuff they already know and they think you’re a genius.

Don’t kill each other

Don’t steal anything

Stop lying for one minute would ya?

Don’t take more than you need

Don’t curse around your mom

Wash behind your ears

Give a guy a break

Don’t let your jollys get the better of you

Eat your veggies

Have a nice day

Bound by this common leap into the ridiculous, faith offers the ultimate in self help. Just replace your problematic self with a standardized template of preordained behavior. And, of course, follow the leader. Deeply fascist but then there’s the promise of rich rewards down the road. So far down the road that you actually have to be dead to collect. What a load of shit. If my business plan was to borrow your money, promise interest compounded daily until the day after you expire and then sell stock in this venture I would be locked up forever. Unless I called it insurance. Either way it’s a Ponzi scheme. Just another yellow brick road with a promise of safe passage at the end.

Okay, so the key to unraveling the meaning of life started with a mundane event. Of course. Your not going to find something really important in a situation that is screaming “Look, Look”. We reserve those moments for commercial activity. No, the really important stuff is found just sitting there. Out in the open. It looks like everything else because it is everything else. It looks like something that has been discarded because it has been discarded. It looks worthless because it is worthless. It all started because the dog wasn’t feeling well. I can tell when she isn’t feeling well because she pants and paces around. Also because last night she soiled the rug in a Saint Valentines Day Massacre of shit. I’m a light sleeper so tonight her pacing and panting downstairs wakes me enough to do the calculation. It’s 3:20 in the morning. Do I want to get up and walk her or do I want to clean and mop the floor when I wake up for work in an hour and a half? After the walk I lay back down and let my mind wander.

There are other things I never cared about besides the meaning of life. For instance, I never cared where I lived even though I grew up in a large beautiful house surrounded by horse chestnut trees. I never cared what I wore, though I had parents who were happy to dress me any old way I wanted, on no notice at all. I suspect they didn’t care about clothes either. I never cared what I ate though my mother is an excellent cook. When we were growing up we would always tell her that she was the best cook in the world and we really meant it.

Aren’t those supposed to be the basic elements of survival? Food, clothing and shelter? And I never cared about any of them. And you know, I have to ask myself, Why is that? The answer could be that you don’t have to care about things that are present but invisible. Invisible because they are a given. As adults we are led to believe that we are masters of our own destinies. But as children we recognize our situation, whatever it is, as a given. That’s why it’s hard to get people to care about the air they breath. Until the air becomes visible as a hazy green monster of smog it’s just a given. When millions of people are having trouble breathing, then and only then do we ask ourselves if maybe air is important. The very euphemism, trouble breathing, seems crafted to minimize the worry factor. Trouble breathing? How many steps are there between trouble breathing and not breathing. I count one. I suppose we could throw in extreme distress but that’s really parsing things. Still, I’m feeling generous so let’s say two. We live in cities where we are routinely two steps away from expiring from the air.

So meaning is like air in that respect. When it is present, it is invisible. We notice it by its absence. We notice it by its corruption. When life fails to be meaningful we struggle, as if for breath. We are launched into crisis or its contrasting equivalents; melancholy, weariness, apathy, ennui; fast food, popular music, television and shopping; alcoholism, drug addiction, lechery and extravagance. All the awesome stuff! Bacon should be in there somewhere. Candy too. But you can’t build a life around it anymore than you can build a meal out of candy wrapped in bacon. And believe me it isn’t for lack of trying.

It’s important when talking about big themes in few words to make sure we understand exactly what each word means. I failed philosophy twice in college so believe me, I know.

“The Meaning of Life”

only has two words that need considering; two words that may help point us in the right direction.

Life is the easy one. That one doesn’t need elaboration. If you are alive you know it. You may feel numb, detached and indifferent, apathetic and dispirited. You may feel dead and describe yourself as such but only live people do that. Only the living feel dead.

The meaning of Meaning is, according to dictionary.com, “the end purpose or significance of something.” Right here it seems like we run into a problem because the end purpose of something is not knowable until after its end. Often well beyond its terminal limit. And until a moment becomes historical it is really beyond accurate evaluation. Still, meaning need only satisfy the beliefs of the individual in the moment. The sense of doing the right thing while being in the right place at the right time. And that may tell us something because we can’t choose our time and as a rule we do what we believe is correct. It is not rare for people to be deceived or deluded, stupid or selfish. It is not rare for people to be pompous, egotistical, shitheads but it is the rare person who deliberately does the thing that they themselves think is wrong.

So, if time is not of the essence and, in a subjective way, we know right from wrong, that leaves only one variable. Place. I don’t want to go too deeply into this for reasons that will become apparent but it would seem that meaning is not a what; it’s a where. Meaning is not a thing, it is a place. And we’re not talking about a metaphysical place as in:

“My head is in a good place, man.”

We’re talking about a location, an actual spot. If you’re sitting at the counter at the Soul Spot on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn you are, without a doubt, standing in high cotton. If you’re right across the street at the Dept. of Correction’s, Brooklyn House of Detention, you have most definitely left your cake out in the rain.

From this we can conclude that where you are is where you’re at.

So the question, What is the meaning of life? is really the question Where is the meaning of life? And this is great because I really have it wrapped up here. And when I say here I really do mean here. I am standing in the epicenter of life’s meaning. You should see it. If I didn’t already know it I never would have guessed. Because the only indicator is my presence.

So you see I really do know the meaning of life but it would be pointless to tell it to you because you’re somewhere else and so is everyone else. But take it from me, it doesn’t make a bit of difference. It changes nothing. I had it right from the very beginning when I said I didn’t care because, Where is the Meaning of Life is not a question, it’s a statement.

One Response to Unbelievable but True

  1. Barbara Edelstein says:

    Remarkable, as usual. You will have to add Writer to your CV.

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