“What is the meaning of life?” Besides being a question that bothers everyone at some point in their lives, it doesn’t really seem to have an answer agreed upon by all. Maybe that’s because it is a question that has more than one correct answer. Or what’s more likely? That there’s something wrong with the question itself. The question itself is wrong. Or I shall say, it is an unnecessary question, at least sometimes.
To illustrate my point, consider the context in which the question is generally asked. If you’re keen to notice, you’ll find out that we don’t ask the question when we’re happy or joyous. We only ask it when life, for whatever reason, sucks. And this is one observation that suggests the question is wrong. Because the right question should be valid universally in this case and not under one circumstance and not another.
In addition to this, the question seems to create an unnecessary space for an answer that until now was not required.
To understand this, imagine asking this question when you’re happy, or having a deeply fulfilling experience, such as eating your favorite flavor of chocolate or holding your cute little daughter in your hands as you smile and she smiles back. Imagine, then, abstracting away from the present moment reality by asking this question. To me, it sounds preposterous. It’s clearly a sign of confusion. It’s a failure to connect with the present moment, and also a failure to grasp what’s important and what’s not.
But the same rule must also apply when one is having a bad time. Asking the question when life sucks is, in my view, just as preposterous. As the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris put it, “Implicit in asking the question is that if only one had an answer to it then life would be better. But then why not simply do the thing with one’s intention that would actually make life better?”.
So imagine your washing machine breaks. Now, what makes more sense? Crying over it and wondering about the grand purpose of the cosmos? Or figuring out how to repair it? The answer I hope is clear. Or imagine you just had a breakup. Now, what makes more sense? Contemplating the grand scheme of things? Or learning how to move on? The answer I hope is again clear.
But in real life, we hardly pay attention to this sacred truth. We spend our lives lost in thought, and even when we’re aware of this fact we deliberate way too more than is necessary.
Consider, for example, my problem with getting girls. If you don’t already know, I, as of this writing, have absolutely no clue to how to pick up a girl but I desperately want one. And by clue, I don’t mean conceptual knowledge- of which I possess rather too much, but experiential knowledge in which I’m lacking.
So what do people, including girls, have to say when I bring up this issue? One answer I have begun to hear lately is that I should find a therapist. Now if you think I have some such issues that need to be managed first, that I need to heal first before I’m fit to be in a relationship, I hope to convince you in this hour that you’re wrong, at least partially.
Now I’m not discrediting therapy. It is a useful thing, and maybe I should indeed consider it for it can help me. But dispensing such advice appears to be a sign of confusion again, at least to my mind. It is in part due to institutionalization in our world. (So, learning got traded for education, health for healthcare, and as such, relationship for therapy, the last one of which is ridiculous.) But for the rest of it, it is a sign of confusion about what matters and what doesn’t.
To grasp this confused state of affairs, imagine you were lying down on the road hungry. Too hungry. Famished. And then I came over. You thought help had arrived. But I instead began to lecture on the benefits of fasting. Now seriously, which one of the two would you rather have, the food or a conceptual explanation of the benefits of fasting?
I find the answer of seeking therapy to be something along the lines of the latter. In suggesting me to seek out therapy, these people miss the answer right in front of them. And it is the direct and straight answer of finding a girlfriend or learning how to find one, given I want one so badly.
Sure, there might be issues that need to be dealt with, and as such therapy could be complementary to the process. But even then, it would be purely for practical reasons so as to avoid any relationship problems, and not because I cannot find a girlfriend. To look for therapy rather than a girlfriend is to miss the point, thanks to our ability to frame an intellectual answer to a question that demanded all but a simple and direct piece of action.
And we do this way too much in life, and if you guess, to our own disadvantage. The other day I was thinking about the topic of public speaking and how I should enroll in a course on the same or get some books on it, and the reason being that I will have to engage in a lot of it once my book comes out, in order to promote it. But then I asked a simple question that rather changed my mind. I asked myself, “Can I give a public speech right now?”. And the answer was a simple ‘yes’, unless, of course, someone held a gun to my ears demanding otherwise.
Please notice that the quality of the speech was not a concern here, but only my ability to give a speech. And as long as I had a brain and vocal chords to process speech, the answer had to be yes. So why am I bringing this up? It’s to point out to the redundancy in this example, which is a public speaking course or books. Now once again, I’m not denying the usefulness of these. But as you can see, to get started on this journey, I don’t really need them. I can simply correct course along the way, which means that I can use them once I’ve started.
At this point, I must say that the reality of life is direct and in first person terms. And there are limits to how much we can put it in intellectual terms, which is always in the third person. And here I’m referring to the nature of conscious experience itself. The reality of consciousness is in the first person. Experiencing something is qualitatively different from thinking about it. And so is doing something. And this is the point I want to bring home in the last few sentences.
And this is why there’s a space for questions that cannot have conceptual or intellectual answers. The answers are to be experienced or acted out directly. You experience or do it, and it is the answer. But in the last few examples, we noticed that there is over-intellectualization. The situation demands a direct action or experiential answer, but we instead make a conceptual fuss about it. And only to the degree we avoid doing this do we manage to survive every day in an unfathomably complex and chaotic world.
Consider a rudimentary example like breathing. How do you breathe? Again, if you paid attention to biology in school, you’ll likely answer it with details of the respiratory system. But do we really need this knowledge in order to breathe successfully? But then again, do we really need third person knowledge in the thousands of situations we think we need it before we can act?
This is, of course, not to say that the knowledge of the workings of the respiratory system doesn’t have medical value.
Even in programming, there’s a concept called abstraction. And what it basically says is as follows.
Imagine you’re lying down on your sofa, with a bag of chips in one hand and the remote in the other. Now I ask you to switch the channel or turn up the volume. Now what would you rather do? Just press the required button, or go to the library, find out the relevant book with all the information on the workings of a TV remote, read about the precise circuits involved in the operation, and then finally when you’re done with all of this, you press the button.
Now again, this is not to say that those details don’t have engineering value, or otherwise, you wouldn’t have the remote in the first place. But from a pure practicality point of view, the latter option is merely a huge roundabout that can be avoided with an intelligent awareness of the situation. So too is asking the question of the meaning of life during a bad time. Or seeking therapy before I can get a girlfriend. Or learning all there is about public speaking before getting started with it. Much ado about nothing, or little.
So to wrap this up, as some spiritual guru once said, “You don’t know enough to worry.”. And as someone on the death row once said, “Just do it.”.