Monday, August 8, 2016
Is Life Joyous or Painful or Goofy?
When we were college freshmen, my hallmates and I spent most of our time talking about The Meaning of Life. It was a discussion that went on endlessly because we could never reach a conclusion. At first we quickly agreed that life has no meaning. But then we’d conclude that you could make life meaningful if you worked at it. Then we tried to figure out just what that would be like. And we would inevitably decide that whatever we chose wouldn’t be intrinsically meaningful anyway. As it turned out, all this angst about the meaning of life was just a byproduct of being in college. It wasn’t really the meaning of life that was problematic, but rather the meaning of being an undergraduate student. Once I started graduate school, I was too busy to worry about the meaning of life, and I certainly didn’t give it much thought during my next forty-three years in the work force. But now that I’m retired and have endless time on my hands, I’ve taken to pondering the meaning of life once again. The only difference from college is that I don’t talk incessantly about it with my friends and I’m aware of more important things to be depressed about, e.g., national politics.
Here is my current sense of it. It seems to me that there are a finite number of possibilities in trying to pinpoint the meaning of life. These are the main candidates:
1) Life is joyous.
2) Life is painful.
3) Life is filled with mystery.
4) Life is challenging.
5) Life is frightening.
6) Life is boring.
7) Life is goofy.
I think you could make a case for any of these options, and probably the best answer is that life is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It definitely isn’t just one thing. But I’ve approached this question by thinking back over personal events in my life in recent months and seeing how many fit these various alternatives. I’ve had one or two occasions where something was mysterious or painful, but no more than that. I have been frightened by half a dozen things, but that’s more my anxiousness than the nature of life per se. Unfettered joy is pretty rare, if it exists at all. I’ve definitely had moments of boredom every day, but it doesn’t make sense to conclude that the meaning of life is boredom. Most of all, I can think of endless instances that suggests that Life is Goofy. Here are a few recent examples (all of these being completely true):
· After my class on modern art I decided that an outstanding project would be to take photographs of my left hand over the course of a Tuesday. I took about 50 photos over the next several hours (e.g., my hand on the computer keyboard, grasping the milk container, opening the screen door, scratching my ankle, etc.). Unfortunately none of these images had any aesthetic value whatsoever. I abandoned my project as idiotic and deleted the photos from my camera.
· Leaving the Krohn Conservatory I walked straight into a floor-to-ceiling glass panel, having mistaken it for an open doorway. The noise of my forehead smacking into the glass startled nearby patrons who asked if I were o.k. I said, “I’m fine. I just wanted to see if I could walk through that window.”
· I picked up a shiny penny off the sidewalk, then changed my mind and put it back down for a child to find. After five days the penny was still there. I couldn’t believe how nonchalant today’s children are.
· After two years I decided to finally cash in the $50 Visa gift card that I’d been given as a birthday present. Much to my dismay, it was now worth only $2, having accumulated $48 worth of bank charges. I cashed in my former $50 gift card at Graeter’s where I used it to buy half an ice cream cone.
· My hearing isn't so hot. When I went through the drive-through lane at Long John Silver's, the young woman asked, "Would you like to try our new xytroppklm frejki?" I asked her to repeat what she said, and this time it sounded like "ggryzkl merpp". So I said, "Yes, I'll try it." It was one piece of fish, one crabcake, and four fried shrimp -- not bad. I would like to try it again next time, but I don't know what to order.
· We were walking along at the zoo when a man and his ten-year-old son approached us from the opposite direction. The man's T-shirt read, "My kid shot a deer while your honor student was in school." The boy looked very morose. I would too if I had to walk around the zoo with a moron for a father.
· I was driving through a green light on Queen City Ave. when a teenage girl, talking on a cell phone, stepped right into my path. I hit the brakes and stopped a few feet from her, but she didn't notice. Then she walked right in front of another oncoming car which came to a grinding halt. I hoped she would finish her call soon.
· Recently I started doing the Stairmaster at the fitness center, and, though it was very hard, I worked up to 150 steps after a couple of weeks. I was feeling like an Olympic athlete until I noticed that the sixtysomething man next to me had just reached 1700 steps. I went from Olympic athlete to total wimp in less than a second.
· I was driving to Mt. Storm to take a couple of photos of the flowering trees when I noticed a man walking along the road carrying his 30-40 pound dog in his arms. When I came back five minutes later the man was still walking along carrying his dog. Maybe the dog was really old and the good-hearted man didn't want him to miss their daily walks. I admired the man and was happy for the dog.
· We went to a funeral recently where the preacher asked everybody to close their eyes. Then he asked people to raise their right hands if they had committed a sin and wanted Christ's forgiveness. I couldn't stand the tension so I opened my right eye and peeked around. I didn't see a single raised hand. The preacher said, "Thank you very much, is there anyone else?" I think he was faking it.
· Despite her reluctance, I talked Katja into going by herself to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast at a local suburban cinema. When she arrived after driving twenty minutes on the expressway to get there, she discovered that there was no opera scheduled for that day. I had been looking at the wrong week in the schedule.
· An elderly, well-dressed lady on Ludlow Avenue asked if I had a spare nickel I could give her. Though I never give money to panhandlers, I rummaged around in my coin purse and finally found a nickel. Later I wondered how long it takes her to get to a dollar.
· Our neighborhood pharmacy had a sign above a bin full of canned strawberry margaritas that read: “Regular Price, $1.00; Sale Price, 10/$10.00. Later I went to a yard sale where you could buy one animal trap for $37, but two for $75.
· Katja and I constantly disagree about setting the air conditioning thermostat. When the furnace man came to do a tuneup, I asked him what temperature he recommended for air conditioning in the summertime. Having had years of experience in these household questions, he said, “I recommend whatever temperature your wife prefers.”
· At the zoo I overheard a five-year-old boy ask his dad why somebody’s uniform was sitting on top of a rock in the black bear cage. The father explained that that was all that was left after the bear ate the zookeeper.
It seems pretty obvious that the best answer is that Life is Goofy. I realize that this isn’t an ennobling conclusion, but it does seem to be rooted in reality. I wish I’d realized this in college because I wouldn’t have wasted so much time suffering and worrying about this or that. Now that I’m in touch with the basic truth, I plan to go with the flow, be amused at the things that used to irritate me, and spend more time chuckling. They say that laughter is the best thing for your health and well-being, and who can argue with that? Actually that’s sort of goofy.