Big questions

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.








6 Replies to “Big questions”

  1. Yes, you should study this tribe and continue to report back on their life-ways. 🙂
    I know the feeling of being set back on one’s haunches by such a question asked so directly and guilelessly. The usual intellectualizations wither on one’s lips and one grasps for something true to say.
    To have fun is not as superficial a thing as it might seem on the surface. You can’t have much fun if others are suffering, so there’s a kind of self-interested social consciousness built in to fun, I think.

    1. Perhaps the most enlightened of all tribes and behaviors. Hopeful, playful, open. Life in process is much like the making of sausage. Seems like the ethos of approach comes into play as sentience emerges. Each arena has full gambit of options. If we can only remember the early approaches we’d all be lighter and happier. So rejoice while I go back out and play kick the can with the neighbors.

    2. ‘Fun’ seems such a lightweight concept compared with, say, shareholder value or the national interest. Fairness and kindness too, unfortunately – fine for kids but not practical for all the challenges and responsibilities of adult life. Or did we get our priorities mixed up?

  2. I love when kids are at that age. They ask the best questions! When my son was about 10 he was sitting at his desk doing homework, looking out the window as usual. Suddenly he says “Mom! Did you know if I was on the other side of this wall this side would be outside and the other side would be inside?” I laughed and said “Yes. That’s called relativity. It depends on where you’re looking from.”

    Some days I feel like we were smarter as kids than we are as adults, before the responsibilities of life capture us. But as kids we never appreciated how short this time would be. Then puberty strikes and we become narrowed by reproductive urges, with “adulthood” following on quickly. Living in society we are always under pressure to fit in.

    As adults too often we limit our thinking by telling ourselves that whimsical ideas are silly. So I agree with you that having fun and being kind to others are very important purposes of life. But I loved your son’s answer. It is very Zen! Perhaps he might enjoy you reading and discussing the Tao Te Ching with him.

    I think kids brought up in safe and nurturing homes look at life with open mindedness and curiosity. Happy Father’s Day Chris! Job well done.

    1. Thanks Jody.

      There’s a kind of integrity in the ways of kids, that guilelessness Michelle refers to above, which we shed as we mature. As you say, we need to fit in. As teenagers we want to be popular and as adults we want to thrive economically and socially, and for this we need street smarts – a bit of cynicism and a bit of cunning. Some would see that as part of what it takes to survive and multiply, a biological imperative. But the damage to our integrity (which I understand here as a congruent and holistic sense of self and surroundings) seems a heavy price to pay.

      That’s where, for me, it links back to scary, what’s-it-all-for questions about the fundamental goals and values of this culture. I’m taking solace at the moment from the fact that it’s still just about possible to delight in the here-and-now, as we did so expertly when we were children!

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