Dad, what’s the purpose of life?
It was asked with the same kind of uncomplicated curiosity as when he says to me: what’s the fastest anyone’s ever been on a skateboard? or (this morning on the way to school, out of the blue): Dad, can a town square be a circle?
He and his tribe of nine-year-olds devote their days to exuberance, with breaks for food and drink, preferably sugared. In their waking hours they seem to have a ten-to-one ratio between good times and bad. The bad times are felt intensely, but pass like an ocean squall.
So I responded in the spirit of the enquirer: the purpose of life is to have fun…and (thinking for a moment) to be good to others. That last bit spoken from the pulpit of the responsible parent. Blind hedonism’s no good if it hurts others, or yourself. And anyway goodness is its own reward.
But it did get me thinking, this question, and I realised how hard it is to answer without resort to values that are themselves in question. After all, how much of what I’ve been conditioned to accept, and to believe is right, can I trust? How much of it should be viewed as suspect, to the degree that it enables our kind’s shameful hegemony over the natural world? Any “purpose” to life that furthers that hegemony, surely isn’t worthy of the claim.
The starting point has to be that all of it is suspect until proved otherwise.
Being good citizens, accumulating wealth, supporting charity, pursuing happiness, acquiring wisdom, keeping our families safe, providing them with food and shelter, procreating (the purpose of life is to, er, create more life), solving world problems, extending the boundaries of knowledge, loving and being loved, giving ourselves to God and country, striving for Heaven or the next life (the purpose of life is to not be alive?), saving lives, taking lives…. all suspect. All compromised by association with the course we’re on.
How then to pick out values we can trust not to drive us further down the trail of self-destruction?
Well, we could do worse than start by looking at the nine-year-olds, a friendly tribe not yet wholly inducted into the ways of civilization.
The gift for joy they retain from when they were even younger. Their endless curiosity. Their ready appreciation of what is and isn’t fair. Their love of kindness in others and desire to be kind in return. Their ability to conjure a game from thin air, the more barmy and hilarious the better. Their willingness to do almost anything in return for an ice cream. And the way they still infuse much of the world around them, animate or inanimate, with a spirit and life-force that is as buoyant and bright as their own.
A few days after that question about the purpose of life I realised that I’d missed the opportunity to ask him back, so I did.
He looked out the window of the train for a few seconds and pondered, then said: maybe there isn’t a purpose – life is just something that happens.