Seven writers attempt to unravel one of the biggest mysteries of life and living
Purpose, Meaning, Sense. It’s a question that every “self actualized” human has considered at some point in her life. Are we simply matter, as Richard Dawkins has been at pains to convince us; is our purpose fulfilled in being smart enough to procreate and dominate, ensuring the superiority of Homo Sapiens; or is there a greater calling unique to each one of us, if only we were wise enough to discover it?
In today’s Your Daily Read, More Intelligent Life speaks to seven diverse writers to find an answer to the Big Question. Here is a brief synopsis:
Novelist Yuyian Li turns to Chinese folklore, classical writers, her own experience as a researcher in a hospital lab and finally, Charlie Brown, in trying to decipher the puzzle. Like her prose, she refuses to offer any certainties, but reveals a glimmer as she talks about pain and suffering and birth and death, and finally:
to live through a moment of triviality with courage is laudable, too
Philosopher Mary Midgley believes it’s our beliefs and relationships that gives meaning to life:
the welfare, success and prosperity of whatever cause, or whatever people, we most love, honour and wish to be part of
At the other end is Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer with The New Yorker, who counsels that we should “make peace with pointlessness”. One of those rare beings who is able to look beyond the interests of humankind, she believes that:
The challenge to us as a species is to let other species pass on their genes—to allow them, too, to have a point.
Stephen Grosz is surprised at the question – his 25 years of experience as a psychoanalyst has taught him that people have many specific sorrows and difficulties that they want unravelled, but rarely do they have the luxury of speculating upon the meaning of life. Nonetheless, thinking about the challenges that cause the biggest suffering to his clients, he yearns for the ability to communicate:
We will probably never know what’s the point, but we can find meaning, and ourselves, through speaking and listening. ….From our first words to our last, we’re storytellers, but we can’t be storytellers alone—we need someone to listen.
Poet John Burnside exhorts us rebel against conformity and discover our own secret garden through the might of creativity:
since meaning is neither fixed nor universal, it is determined, to a significant extent, by the power of the individual imagination.
Fantasy writer Philip Pullman, the perennial rationalist and author of one our favourite books, argues that to be alive, as opposed to merely existing, we need consciousness – and if there is a point, then it is to be more conscious.
By teaching, or doing mathematics or science or philosophy, or writing novels and poems, or making music, or painting pictures, or studying history, or healing the sick, or bringing up our children to be generous and kind, we leave the universe a little more conscious than we found it.
But the last word comes from Ann Wroe, the obituaries editor of The Economist:
The point is love
As for the MBRB Editors, as always, we’ll turn to Calvin & Hobbes to express our beliefs:
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