Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On the Meaning of Life

Dear Mackenzie,

Recently your mom took you to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. You must have enjoyed it because a few weeks later you suggested we all go again together, which we did.

As we walked through the museum, I watched the different exhibits arouse your curiosity as you absorbed the various phenomena of nature. At each exhibit you took copious notes on a little spiral notebook for your science class.  How much do you weigh on Mars? Check. Are human beings distant relatives of the Dimetrodon? Check. A 1400 year old sequoia tree lived in California and stood more than 300 feet tall? Check.

Seeing your wide-eyed wonder as the universe unfolded in front of you warmed my heart and it was all I could do to not hug you every five seconds. Well, actually I did try to hug you every five seconds and after the second or third time you looked at me sternly and said “Dad, stop!”

Then we went to see “Journey To The Stars” in the museum’s planetarium. A presentation hosted by the voice of Whoopi Goldberg took us on a visual tour through our galaxy and beyond. Apparently there are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, plus trillions more in neighboring galaxies. Each star potentially fuels planets like our own that can sustain life.

Whoopi’s voice explained in scientific terms how we came to have intelligent life on our planet. She also explained that our communications technology is now so advanced that if another life form anywhere in the galaxy has similarly advanced technology, we can easily talk to them. Apparently we’re constantly dialing.

Yet the galaxy remains eerily silent. Can it be that with hundreds of billions of suns per galaxy, multiplied by the ten thousand galaxies visible through our powerful telescopes, that we alone got the magical elixir for intelligent life? The odds of that being the case make winning the lottery seem like a walk in the park.

Of all things, in the midst of so much science I started to wonder about the meaning of life. Why are we here? Why do we die? Where are we going? I’ve always been more spiritual than existential and I’ve always believed in a higher power. Yet my inner conflict between these two philosophical viewpoints rages on. Neither truly satisfies me.

On the spiritual side, what science doesn’t explain is what we’re all doing here and why no one else seems to be within earshot. There must be some grand design to our time on earth. Right?

Are we just passing through on our way to who knows where? And if so, why should death even make us sad? What the caterpillar calls the end of the world the master calls a butterfly, as Richard Bach once wrote.

The existential side isn’t completely on point either. Even without a grand design the question still remains: what are we all doing here and why does no one else seem to be within earshot? And if we have no higher purpose then why bother to move the human race forward while we’re here? The opposite seems infinitely easier.

It’s enough to make your head spin, and I don’t have any good answers. The noted author Peggy Noonan may have summed it up best when she wrote, “our generation, faced as it grew with a choice between religious belief and existential despair, chose marijuana. Now we’re in our Cabernet stage”.  

Science. Religion. Life. Death. Existentialism. Minds much smarter than mine spend lifetimes debating these issues. It’s easy to overthink it.

Then the other day I was going through some family photos and I came across a picture of you on a horse named Charlie. You may not remember by the time you read this letter, but Charlie lived on your grandpa’s farm.  He was a beautiful Tennessee Walking Horse and you rode him a few times when you were three or four years old.  Your grandpa also had a horse at the time named Sterling who you didn’t ride, but who you would feed carrots to when we visited. 

A few years ago we were heading to Michigan for your grandpa’s birthday and you started getting excited about riding Charlie again. And then shortly before our trip Charlie up and died. You were only six at the time and your mom and I worried about how best to tell you.  In the end we simply said that Charlie had died and hoped for the best. 

You got upset and started to cry, and I told you that while it was sad Charlie had died he had lived a long and happy life on grandpa’s farm. You asked me how old Charlie was when he died and I said he was almost 40, which I explained was quite old for a horse. 

You thought about that for a second, and then asked me if Sterling was still alive and how old he was.  I told you Sterling was indeed alive and that he was about 15 years old.  You paused for a moment as your mind processed that information. Then you smiled through your tears and said “oh good”.

Looking back I realize that in that exchange, you intuitively answered some of the questions I was grappling with at the planetarium. You understood at the tender age of six that we live life in the here and now and that while death is sad, we move beyond it by savoring life and by celebrating the living.

Maybe the meaning of life is as simple as that. Anything else you’d like to teach me?

All my everlasting love,

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