Thursday, December 9, 2010

Puzzled About the Meaning of Life?: No Problemmo

Dear George,

When I went to college, my classmates and I spent an extraordinary amount of time discussing “the meaning of life”. Just what the issue was, I’m not entirely clear, but we were confident that it was the most important question of all. As18-year-olds breaking free, we rejected religion as offering viable answers, and we tried to extract clues from our various studies – philosophy, literature, psychology, even physics. But all to no avail. I graduated five years later, hopefully more knowledgeable, but, if anything, I was further from grasping the meaning of life than I’d been at the beginning.

Then something strange happened. I went to graduate school, and the question of the meaning of life vanished from my mind. For one thing, I was pretty busy. For another, my life now had lots of meaning of sorts – struggling to keep up with daily demands, passing unfair doctoral exams, doing a painful dissertation project, trying to fashion a new identity, etc. There wasn’t much occasion to ponder the metaphysical implications of it all. Something similar happened when I took a job as a faculty member. Teaching classes, getting research started, attaining tenure – the meaning of life (at least for my life) was sort of laid out in the pile of papers on my desk, so I set aside any deeper questions. Until recently, that is. Now that I’m retired, I don’t have any doctoral exams, tenure reviews, merit assessments, really external pressures of any sort. All of a sudden I find myself waking up at 2 a.m. wondering, “What, after all, is the Meaning of Life?”

Such thoughts were buzzing around in my head as I set out the other day to take some photos in nearby Burnet Woods. Just by chance I ran across a cluster of oak trees, and, it being early December, the ground was covered with acorns. They brought back many happy associations. We had large oaks in our front and back yards at river house in Menominee, and they were the vehicles for a lot of enjoyable childhood activity. My brother Steven and I would have endless acorn fights, darting back and forth behind the Norway pines. Other times we would hold up metal garbage can covers as shields and pretend we were medieval knights, flinging acorn projectiles at one another. Or one person would stand out in the open space of the yard, dodging back and forth while the other would try to hit him from a distance (usually a challenging task). Acorns, of course, were also good for other sorts of throwing, e.g., trying to hit a floating tin can that we’d tossed in the river; seeing who could throw the farthest on land or sea; or hitting the flagpole from thirty feet away. Playing by myself, I would gather big assemblies of acorns and pine cones and form them into competing armies around the big white boulder at the foot of the oak trees, carrying out their attacks upon one another. Acorns were even useful for peaceful pursuits, e.g., becoming the painted heads of tiny people constructed with pine cone bodies and pipe cleaner limbs. We would even bury acorns in the earth in order to start a new forest.

As all this came back, I suddenly realized that acorns embody more important attributes than practically anything else in the world: fun and laughter, excitement, danger, freedom, activity, mastery, growth, imagination, creativity. Hmm. If one is struggling to discover the meaning of life, it seems to me there’s a pretty obvious answer: ACORNS! And here it’s been right in front of me all these many years. Needless to say, I’m extremely relieved to have resolved this lifelong quest, and I’m even happier to pass it along to friends and family. Here are a few acorn photos from Burnet Woods. Imagine interacting with them, and see if you don’t agree with me.



G-Mail Comments

-Vicki L (12-9-10): Hi David, I have a new friend/tenant moving into the back (outside) bedrooms… In the meantime, it's meant not only re-locating/discarding things…but also dealing with my own stuff. One category has been 'future craft projects'. Thought you'd be pleased to hear that I was unable to toss a 12 oz container of acorns I'd collected in Menominee. I loved your piece and must agree .... acorns represent the meaning of life as well as anything else. Fond memories .... and a profound thought.

-Ami G (12-9): Whew! I'm glad that's settled!

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