Does life have any meaning or purpose? Our gut-feeling tells us that it does. We certainly act as if each small thing we do is worth doing. We get up in the morning, set our eyes forward and walk towards the next task, and we do that all day long. We orient our behaviour towards an endless sequence of activities in a way that must look very deliberate to an outsider. We act as if our lives are meaningful.
Yet it can be hard to say what that meaning consists of. Our thoughts on the matter are likely to be feeble compared to the robustness of our behaviour. Seen from another perspective, life can easily appear to be “just one damn thing after another”, as Elbert Hubbard said. We act as if our life has an underlying plan but our experience tends to be far more digressive, episodic and fragmentary.
We go shopping, get married, pay bills, buy a house, get sick, have an argument, change jobs, watch TV, get divorced, get lucky, answer the phone, go on holiday, sell the house, do the shopping and so on, year after year. Hubbard was an inspirational writer of a stoic bent who died when a German U-boat sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in 1915. The ship went down in only eight minutes. Did Hubbard review his life and come to some grand conclusion about it in that time? I doubt it.
Biographers tackle the question of meaning by trying to make sense of an individual life. They tend to be story-tellers rather than truth-sayers, despite their often impressive skills as scholars. Many are reluctant to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and you can’t blame them. We would be disappointed with any biographer who just gave us the sequence of events, however detailed and accurate. We want biographers to shape their stories into a meaningful A-Z narrative, and to make sense of the ‘one damn thing after another’ confusion that characterises most lives.
We long to see how the accidents of birth and fortune, the mistakes and triumphs, play out according to a masterplan which is usually only obvious in authorial hindsight. If a biographer can show that Schubert or Churchill or Marilyn Monroe lived well despite their miserable ends, it encourages us to feel that our imperfect lives can make sense as well.
We typically feel that we are on a individual path through our individual lives. Assuming that this is not just a mental fiction, it is good to ask ourselves “what kind of path is it?” Does it run straight and true, guided infallibly by angels or firm beliefs or our inner vision? Or is it more like a path through a labyrinth? Is our direction simple and obvious, or are we confronted daily with forks in the path, most of which we know will be dead ends?
As it turns out, a path that seems to run straight and true is more likely to be a dead end than a labyrinthine one. Any path that we can see clearly from beginning to end must also be rather short and narrow, and incapable of development. While spiritual traditions often map out straight paths for lost souls to follow, these are typically far too simple to be real. I get unreasonably irritated by the sunny self-confidence of people who feel they have found The Way. They obviously don’t live on the same planet as me. I feel they are selling lies to the gullible and discouraging people from doing what will actually help.
Paths need to curve and twist abundantly to fit the shape of a life. The fact that we can’t see around the next corner in no way invalidates our sense of being on a path. Our brains are extremely myopic with regards to the future. Human consciousness is a resource of strictly limited capacity. We can only hold three or four things clearly in our minds at the same time, and it takes effort to retain them for more than a minute or so against competing thoughts. This greatly limits our capacity for long-term planning and foresight. We can do it but it doesn’t come naturally. For most of us, our picture of the future is more like a child’s sketch than an architect’s plan.
Our minds operate like a torch in a dark landscape. We can light up the ground at our feet in extraordinary detail, but the distance will always remain a blur. Furthermore, we see any one thing clearly only by casting everything else into deeper shadow. To see and respond to all the salient events in our minds and lives, we need to constantly switch the torch beam of our attention. We can pay high quality attention to one thing after another, but we can’t see it all at once. Only a path that turns and curves, that climbs and falls and plays hide-and-seek on itself, can eventually deal with everything that is important.
This pattern of shifting attention is equally obvious over a lifetime. What is profoundly important at one time – a new baby or career, for example – can soon become routine and eventually irrelevant with the passage of years. If these transitions happen smoothly, we feel more or less in control, and that our life has followed a clear narrative path.
But what happens if catastrophes intervene and we lose our sense of control? After a divorce or illness or business failure, we generally don’t fall into utter despair and feel that life has lost all meaning. We may feel that we’ve lost the path, or been on the wrong path, or that our plan has been interrupted, but we usually take responsibility for our choices and get going again.
If we continue to fail, we may doubt our ability to steer our lives at all and so turn to spiritual answers. Many believe that God in his infinite wisdom has a plan for each of us, but that it is beyond our understanding or control. Alternatively, we can see our unexpected suffering as the payback for evil karma committed in our past lives.
Some traditions even argue that we suffer because we believe in a path at all. Their solution is to give up all striving for the future, and to live as if the present is all there is. This is the classical path of peace through inactivity and emotional detachment – to sit down where you happen to be in the labyrinth and to believe that all future-oriented paths are doomed to failure.
Yet as biographies clearly show us, failures and set-backs are an almost inevitable part of any path. Life may be a multiple-choice labyrinth of forking paths, most of them false, but it is not an evil game played on us by a malicious deity. Nor is it beyond our control. When the mythical Greek hero Theseus entered the labryinth where so many young men and women had died before, he didn’t despair. With cunning and good female advice, he slew the minotaur and found the way out.
Theseus entered the labyrinth as a youth but he came out as the king who went on to found the city of Athens. En route he made many irreversible mistakes. He betrayed Ariadne and inadvertently caused the suicide of his father. Like so many other Greek heroes, he blundered his way to triumph despite hurting himself and others in the process.
The Greek myths repeatedly demonstrate that failures, set-backs and stupid mistakes are so commonly part of any great life that they are probably essential for it. When the Greek heroes suffered setbacks, they typically wailed and tore their hair for a while, and then got going again. They were willing to risk failure because they had the bounce-back resilience to try again.
It is said that the greatest mistake is to be afraid of making mistakes. We not only learn from our mistakes: we also need to make mistakes in order to learn anything at all. Babies have to fall over repeatedly to learn how to walk. Learning only occurs in the awkward zone of trial and fumbling that is slightly ahead of our current level of competence. The very best sportmen and women typically make more mistakes when they practice than those who are merely excellent. They excel through the strategy of constantly pushing the envelope and correcting the inevitable errors that arise.
Most of us are less comfortable with failure and mistakes. We prefer to stay within our comfort zone of easy capabilities, but at the risk of stagnation. We typically reach a modest level of competence – for example at work or in relating to others or in our sport – but never improve beyond that for the next fifty years. We get by but we don’t get better.
If we want to change or improve our lives however, we shouldn’t assume that there is something inherently wrong with making mistakes. Nor should we feel guilty about them. None of us have the mental capacity to see accurately enough into the future to avoid them.
Any genuine step forward is also likely to be a step into uncertainty and potential error. Our success comes not from foresight, but from our ability to imaginatively re-adjust to unforeseen outcomes. If we regard life as a labyrinth through the unknown, a garden of forking paths, then it is natural to repeatedly go the wrong way and make mistakes. May we all enjoy many productive errors as we step boldly into the future!
© Perth Meditation Centre 2009