With Will Ross
Meaning of Life
Life is meaningless! To many people, this may sound like a bleak outlook, but in reality it is liberating. If life has no intrinsic purpose or meaning, no end goal, then we are free to create our own purpose, our own destiny. You don't have to spend your life trying to please some imaginary God, in the hope of pleasing him enough that he will look after you when this life is over. Without the hidden agenda of an all-powerful creator and administrator, you are free to choose your own lifestyle and your own goals.
Does this mean that you can treat others with total contempt, as a means to your own selfish ends? Yes and no. Yes, you can treat others as your stepping stones, free from the threat of eternal damnation. But no, because when you mistreat others, you teach them to do the same to you. You thereby set up a dog-eat-dog society in which you are constantly watching your back. With your eye constantly trained on your back, it's difficult to see where you're going, let alone see your goals.
Additionally, our society has created laws to discourage you from mistreating others. If you over step the mark in your mistreating of others, you may find yourself locked up. It's very difficult to pursue your goals from a prison cell. So, your freedom to choose your own lifestyle is tempered by the fact that you share this world with others, and you are more likely to get what you want out of life by not hampering their goals.
Now that you are free, within limits, to choose your own lifestyle, what choices will you make? Let me recommend to you two goals that will see you living life to the full. I will express these two goals in the broadest possible terms allowing you to fill in your own details.
Many of us take enormous risks with our health, thereby shortening our life expectancy. We smoke, drink too much, drive recklessly, fail to exercise, don't get regular medical check ups, forget to take time out for relaxation, engage in unsafe sex practices, swallow tonnes of junk food year in and year out etc.
In order to survive, we need clean air and clean water, but we don't think twice about driving our air-polluting cars, wasting paper that is made from the trees that naturally purify the air, clearing trees for "development", pouring our waste into rivers and oceans, using chemicals that harm our atmosphere etc.
We elect "economic rationalist" governments that would rather grant tax breaks to their rich and powerful buddies than boost our health services, protect our environment, or eliminate poverty. Governments around the world spend billions of dollars maintaining armies and creating weapons to enforce their life-threatening policy of mutually assured destruction.
When you select survival as one of your goals, you have a duty to look after your health, to look after your environment, and to elect compassionate, peace-seeking governments.
Except for short periods of rest, you can not find happiness by doing nothing. Similarly, thrill seeking, and indulgence in life's pleasures such as sex, booze, and partying are welcome retreats from the grind of daily living, however, they too become boring when over done. One ride on the roller coaster at an amusement park may be fun, but imagine doing it all day and everyday. The novelty would soon wear off.
Fulfilment comes from long-term, challenging, creative pursuits such as writing a novel, raising children, developing a scientific theory, or building a loving relationship. You will find fulfilment when you look outside of yourself. When you commit yourself to making life better for others, your own life improves as a by-product of your efforts.
The twin goals of survival and fulfilment are basic, yet they are more difficult to achieve than most people imagine. In order to reach goals that are directed towards surviving and finding fulfilment you will need to develop certain qualities.
Staying calm in the face of challenge and disappointment will help you to see your options more clearly, and it will help you to avoid choosing options that make your situation worse. Instead of lashing out or, alternatively, stewing in your own juices, you will quietly and rationally seek solutions that lead to you getting more of the things you want out of life, and less of the things you don't want. And all this without needlessly hampering the goals of others.
Many of the challenges that we face in life are permanent. There is nothing you can do to bring back a dead loved one; some diseases have no known cure, etc. If you upset yourself over these problems, you lose sight of the rest of your life and what it has to offer. When you learn to remain calm despite life's difficulties, you will be well on the way to survival and fulfilment.
Fear of failure prevents you from taking life-enhancing risks. If you allow yourself to fail from time to time, you allow yourself to try. If you only attempt those tasks at which your are guaranteed to succeed, you won't attempt much, nor will you learn much. It's more important to do than to do well.
You don't need the approval of others for everything that you do. In fact, obtaining everybody's approval is impossible. No matter what you do, you will find that some people admire you for it, some people despise you for it, and others couldn't care less. You only have to look at any well-known musician to see what I mean. They all have their fans, their detractors, and those who have never heard of them. You will lose the approval of some people whether you pursue your goals or not. Under these circumstances, you may as well do what you believe is best.
Going after your goals will take effort. You will need to get out of the comfort of your lounge chair and go to work on your goals. If you spend your life looking for the easy, soft option, you will make life harder for yourself. Don't be afraid of discomfort, it won't kill you. You will find a little effort and some discomfort is more rewarding, in the end, than doing nothing.
By reaching out to others in need, you teach them to do the same. You become a leader and set an example for others to follow. As more and more people follow your lead, you create a society where survival is easier for all. Survival and fulfilment are easier to obtain in a kinder, gentler, co-operative world, than in a mean spirited, competitive, every-man-for-himself world.
By striving to be calm, courageous, and compassionate you will probably live longer and find fulfilment in your life. The less calm, courageous and compassionate you are the more you will struggle with life. To develop these qualities requires a new way of looking at the world, but before we look at that new way, let's reshape the world.
For centuries it was thought that the world was flat. More recently, we have learned that the Earth is spherical, and that it orbits the Sun, in an insignificant corner of the universe. While I have no desire to challenge this later view, I would like to suggest that you think of your world as three-cornered. I am not suggesting this triangle is the physical shape of the world, but a metaphorical shape. Each corner of the triangle is occupied by one third of a trinity. Of course I'm not referring to the Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; I am referring to a humanist trinity, one that you can believe in without having to surrender your intellect.
What is the most important thing in your life? Many people who try to answer this question will nominate their home, their car, their family, or their health. No matter what you believe to be your most valuable asset, you can not enjoy it unless you are alive. Without you, it is impossible for you to experience life and all that it has to offer. This makes you your own most valuable asset.
You are the most important part of your world. It is imperative that you look after yourself, take responsibility for your health, and seek fulfilment. No one else can do these things for you.
The second part of the trinity is there to support you. Without your community, your survival and fulfilment would be impossible. Just as others and the environment depend on you, you depend on them. The first and second corners of the trinity, you and your community, are inter-dependent, you rely on each other.
Mother Nature rules over the universe with an iron glove. She does not care about you or your community. It is not that she is mean spirited, she does what she does out of consistency, not out of spite or out of love. Mother Nature does not need you or your community. She will survive, with or without you. But you need her.
The beauty of Mother Nature is that she is understandable. We may not know everything there is to know about her work, but at least we know that she behaves rationally, logically, and consistently. We know that she does not respond to prayer or wishful thinking. The more we know about her, the easier it is for us to survive and find fulfilment. All the great advances that have been made in technology and medicine over the last hundred years have been as a result of our better understanding of Mother Nature.
Now that we have re-shaped the world into a triangle with you, your community, and Mother Nature occupying each of its corners, let's develop a new way of looking at it. When we re-examine our re-shaped world we find five facts that will help you become calm, courageous, and compassionate.
There have been many theories advanced about the cause of our emotional experience. However, we now know that our thoughts create our feelings. So the first of the five facts is you feel the way that you think. We can control our emotions by controlling, that is, monitoring and changing, our thoughts. This means that you, not what happens to you, are responsible for the way you feel. If you don't like the way you feel, change the way you think! The remaining four facts are related to the type of thinking that creates or eliminates calmness, courage, and compassion.
This leads us to our second fact: (with the exception of Mother Nature's laws) nothing is compulsory. The major cause of human unhappiness is demanding that the world operate according to our preferences. Over the years we have learned that living our lives under certain guidelines helps us to live harmoniously and productively. However, when we turn these useful guidelines into absolute requirements that must be observed at all time, we demand the impossible.
How can you stay calm when you jump up and down, demanding that the world be different from the way that it is, or when you demand that people treat you the way you would like them to? Calmness, courage, and compassion come from preferring, and working towards certain conditions, without demanding that you always get your own way.
When you tell yourself that you can't stand a situation, you reduce your ability to cope with it. You become overwhelmed by your setbacks because you convince yourself that they represent the end of the world. Calmness, courage, and compassion come from acknowledging that you may not like a certain situation, but admitting that you will survive it, and that you can stand it.
But when you rate something as awful or terrible, you put it outside the scale. You make it 101% bad, or worse. That is like saying that someone is more than dead, or over-pregnant. It doesn't make sense. So our fourth fact is nothing is terrible or awful.
Staying calm, courageous, and compassionate is easier when you think in moderate terms that don't exaggerate the unpleasantness or inconvenience of your problems. Learn to see your molehills as molehills, without turning them into mountains.
We can rate your skill at tennis, but how can we rate you as a person? We can't base it on how well you play tennis, or for that matter, on any single trait that you may possess. So how many traits do we need to form a picture with enough detail for us to rate? Which are the important ones? How do we know that they are the important ones? Who decides? How do we rate the traits, surely being kind to children is better than being a good gardener, but how much better?
Even if we could overcome all these objections, we would still be no better off. Let's say that one of your traits is generosity. You will be more generous on some days than on others. Does this make you a better person on your more generous days? If this were the case, your worth as a person would go up and down like a yo-yo.
All of these questions lead us to the inescapable conclusion that we can not rate people. We can only rate what they do. If we can't rate people, then we can't have some people being better people than others. This leads us to the fifth fact: we are all equal.
If you aren't concerned about how you rate as person, you no longer have to worry about how well you do things, or what people think of you. You are not your behaviour. If you refuse to put others down for their weaknesses, you are less likely to hamper their goals. In other words, when you refuse to rate yourself or others, you are free to be calm, courageous, and compassionate.
You will enjoy a good quality of life by pursuing goals that ensure your survival and a high level of fulfilment. You have a duty to look after your health, to look after your environment, and to elect compassionate, peace-seeking governments. You will find fulfilment when you look outside of yourself. When you commit yourself to making life better for others, your own life improves as a by-product of your efforts.
By striving to be calm, courageous, and compassionate you will probably live longer and find fulfilment in your life. The less calm, courageous and compassionate you are the more you will struggle with life.
You live in a three-cornered world that has you in one corner, your community in another, and Mother Nature in the third corner. You and your community rely on each other, and on Mother Nature. She, on the other hand, has no need for you.
There are five facts about your triangular world that, if you bear them in mind, will lead you to a more rewarding existence. These facts are: (1) you feel the way that you think, (2) nothing is compulsory, (3) anything that doesn't kill you is bearable, (4) nothing is terrible or awful, and (5) we are all equal.
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