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The Meaning of Life

How can life provide such an unlikely cycle of sadness and happiness in such a short span of time?


Ever since the first protozoa became self-aware millions of years ago, our species has spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to figure out what the meaning of life is. Scores of bloviating Greek philosophers, recumbent in their gilt-edged robes, squads of nihilistic Germans and perfumed Frenchmen have all attempted to define our mortal purpose, to very little effect. Like all amateur writers fostering a low-level case of alcoholism, I myself have ruminated at length on these very matters, and have yet to come up with an answer more satisfying than a comfortable chair and copious quantities of green chile.

I distinctly recall when I recognized my mortality. I was a towheaded ranch rat, about 10 years old, scurrying from the chicken coop, past the pig pens towards my dad's experimental earthworm farm. (Give me a break — it was 1975, and my parents wanted to be worm barons.) For some reason, it suddenly occurred to me that the breath in my lungs was on loan. Even more frightening, my parents had expiration dates, too. We all do. Holy crap, what was the point of cleaning out the chicken coops if we're all going to wind up dead anyway?

I was most disappointed in this morbid turn of events. I had no idea that this was the genesis of a personal philosophical quest embarked upon by nearly every human being, ever.

There are a lot of theories about the meaty subject of our common mortal mission. One of my all-time favorites was put forth in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. When the galaxy's most powerful computer was asked to explain the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, it considered the issue for 10,000 years. Finally, it spat out the answer: 42. Outraged at the ambiguity of the answer, the people demanded an explanation. The computer simply replied, "Only when you know what the question is, will you know what the answer means."

For those searching for a less frivolous answer, there are many alternative schools of though. Among the choices are Aristotelianism, Stocism, Kantianism, Nihilism and — one of my all-time favorites — Cynicism. There are scores of Asian religions to consult, scads of Western holy men to entertain, and even scientific aspects to consider. But don't waste your time. All these sources pretty much boil down to the point that Michael Palin delivered at the end of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life: "Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."


The meaning of life has been on my mind a lot lately due to one of the most schismatic weeks in my own mortal existence. After a brief illness, my mother died at the end of April, and we held her funeral on a Tuesday. My oldest son graduated from college on Saturday.

I was confused by how life could provide such an unlikely cycle of sadness and happiness in such a short span of time. I had to go from a grieving child to a proud parent, and both roles came far more easily than I would have predicted. It was a painfully poignant time for the entire family, but for me, it was a study in living within a moment. Each event was enormously significant in its own context. I celebrated my mom's life and my son's, all the while reflecting on the inexorable indifference of time's passage. These mortal coils shift constantly, and our desire for control is little more than an illusion that helps us cope with the vagaries of existence.

In the midst of all this, a cherished friend shared a news story about a visit the Dalai Lama had made to Santa Fe in the mid 1980s. The prospect of a visiting holy man in robes and sandals in the snow, surrounded by an entourage of Tibetian homies, is unlikely enough. However, the Dalai Lama announced he was hungry, and spontaneously visited a restaurant at a ski resort. The waitress, who wasn't necessarily a practicing Buddhist but who recognized the Dalai Lama's wisdom, asked him in all seriousness what the meaning of life is. Over the course of his entire visit, the Dalai Lama had been asked many questions, except this one. The big one. He answered immediately, "The meaning of life is happiness."

He explained further, "Hard question is not, 'What is meaning of life?' That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness? Money? Big house? Accomplishments? Friends? Or... compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?"

My mom strived to give me a happy life, and with her support and love, I feel I have done pretty well. I am trying my best to do the same for my kids, which also brings me happiness. I guess that if that's the meaning of life, then I'm way ahead of the game.



Henry Lightcap figures things out in Las Cruces.


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