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The meaning of life

Socrates

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein

I’m currently taking a philosophy course, which, of course, involves pondering the big questions. Some people don’t concern themselves with such things (they’re the ones blathering on cell phones in the checkoout line). Me, I’ve always pondered life pretty heavily. It’s my nature, and I like it. Sure, it can make me seem a bit arrogant at times – and I suppose I am to a degree – but things have to make sense to me. It’s a classic trait of those with my personality type (“INTJ” on the Myers- Briggs scale, a topic for another time). If it doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t get behind it. This is no doubt why I have so much trouble at work, following the often non-sensical dictums of a corporate retail giant that often doesn’t have a clue as to how things go down in the real world. But I digress…

I found myself criticizing the arguments of Socrates in class this week. Yes, the Socrates, the founder of philosophical thought. The one so famous that he can go by one name, like Cher or Liberace. Everyone in the class was kissing Socratic butt, yet I was finding fault with him (so like me at times!) I figured either I was a genius, or a moron, and the professor would either love me or hate me. But something about Socrates’ arguments just wasn’t making sense, and I don’t care who he is (ha! that’s so like me, too: question authority!).

He was on trial, at age 70, accused of “impiety” (denying the gods of Athens) and of corrupting youth by teaching blasphemous things (like encouraging them to ask questions and not believe everything they’re told). So far, so good. Bogus charges. He mounted his own defense in the courtroom, though many were already against him. You see, he had a habit of going around asking lots of questions that made people really think about their beliefs, convictions and assumptions. Often, this had the unfortunate result of making them look stupid (and Socrates look smart). Not a good way to win friends (the arrogance factor). Yet Socrates was the first to admit that he really “knew” very little, but that he was smart because he was aware of his ignorance while many others were not. Hmmm… OK, that’s a good first step on the road to knowledge, I guess.

Where I started to have trouble was in his claiming one thing, yet seeming to act in a way that suggested he believed something else. He claimed to have no fear of death, arguing that while many see it as a “bad” thing, there is absolutely no evidence of this (something I also have often considered). It may be, he argued, the best thing since sliced bread (which they didn’t have in 400 BC). Yet he was in court defending himself to avoid death (which was the penalty he knew he would get if convicted). So, apparently he was uncertain, which is one reason I didn’t believe his claim to not fear death, or to not be a super smartypants, or several other arguments he made.

Apparently, the jury didn’t believe him either, because they convicted him. He was indeed put to death. This was over 2000 years ago. And at 70, he would have died soon anyway in an age when the life expectancy was much lower than it is now. This got me thinking about the importance we place on things. I used to have a fortune cookie fortune taped to my desk at work that said “will it matter a hundred years from now?” No. It gave me perspective on the dozens of things I could stress out about daily at work. In a hundred years, nobody will remember you or I (well, maybe me, because I’m arrogant and will make something of myself). Seriously, the things we worry about today will not matter one whit in a hundred years, or ten, or even one. Do you remember what you were worrying about a year ago? If you do, does any of it matter now? Probably not – at least not in the same way. Everything is subject to change. Even the thought that any of us “owns” anything is absurd. The possessions you see around you will all likely be gone a hundred years from now, and the ones that aren’t will be “owned” by someone else. Nothing is permanent. “Heaven and Earth shall pass away,” as the good book says, just as everyone who has ever lived has, or will. Personally, I find this quite comforting. Because what we’re all really afraid of isn’t death, but of being alone in it. And you couldn’t ask for more company than the billions of people who have already died ahead of you. If you don’t find that comforting, well, maybe I need my head examined. But FDR was right, you know. About fear.

But this post was supposed to be about life, not death, you say. Well, it is. They’re very related. Did you ever wonder why a baby cries when it comes into the world? I mean, hasn’t that ever struck you as odd? If the world is so great, why come into it all upset and ornery? What kind of way is that to start out the journey? People don’t leave the world making a big fuss like that. No, I think there is something much better outside this realm we call life – always have. I’ve never believed in the concept of hell, except that maybe we’re living it now compared to what lies ahead for us.

There is a teaching at the beginning of “A Course in Miracles” that explains how nothing has meaning in and of itself. Everything in your life – from objects to people’s actions to your dinner last night – has only the meaning you have ascribed to it, and this meaning is based solely on your experiences with those (and other) things. They may mean something totally different to someone else. So, what I’m getting at is (and here we get back to Socrates): ask questions. Examine your beliefs about things. Why do you believe these things? Just because you believe them, does that make them true? What would happen if you believed something else, how might your life and attitudes change? (according to your belief, so be it unto you). Are you even aware that you always have a choice what to believe about things and people (remember, they have no independent meaning, just what meaning you give them). In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet comments to his friends that Denmark is a prison. His friends strongly disagree with his assessment, to which Hamlet replies (and this beautifully illustrates my point here, and is one of my favorite quotes) “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Act II, Scene II). How easily we forget this; that we have a choice how we see things. Even death, the ultimate “bad.”

Which brings me full circle to my stated topic, the meaning of life. My favorite spiritual teacher is Eckhart Tolle, who wrote a most amazing book called “The Power of Now,” a work so profound that I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. Every other sentence was packed with such wisdom and mind-expanding thoughts that I had to sit with them for a while. In that book, he says that life has no meaning. We bring meaning to it. This is just like we discussed – things have no meaning in themselves, even life. We give them meaning. That is our power. We are the spin doctors of our lives. Perception is reality. So why are we so nearsighted most of the time?

Alex, could I have “Create Your Own World” for a hundred?

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