Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Meaning of Life

At some point or other, many people ponder the meaning of life … you know, why do we live? Why do we die? Why are some people more or less fortunate than others? Why do men have nipples?

Many of us spend a good deal of time considering such questions. It’s a very engaging way to pass an afternoon when there’s nothing on TV. In fact, philosophers have been contemplating these issues for thousands of years, and much has been written about them, though I have yet to hear of anything that qualifies as The Answer.

Meaning, of course, is a pretty tough nut in itself. What is the meaning of meaning? Isn’t meaning different to all people? If we were somehow to figure out the meaning of life, how would we know it? Would heavenly hosts descend, trumpets blaring and bright lights shining, belting out a chorus of “Ah-ha!” Or would it be a more quiet moment, perhaps just ourselves thinking “Oh!”

Back in the 1970’s, a book called Watership Down, by Richard Adams, told the story of a group of rabbits whose home is threatened, and who go off in search of a new, safer place to settle, led by Fiver and Hazel. They have many adventures, and at one point, take up with a friendly warren of rabbits at the invitation of Cowslip.

Cowslip’s warren all appear well-fed and healthy. Moreover, they have an extraordinary (for rabbits, I suppose) talent for the arts. Their poetry and songs are more passionate and moving than those of the Fiver’s and Hazel’s group. They even create mosaics with stones pressed into the walls of their chambers.

It turns out that Cowslip’s warren is protected by a farmer, who provides them plenty of food and protection against predators. However, the farmer himself occasionally uses snares to catch the rabbits for meat and skins. Despite their apparent comfort, the rabbits live in constant peril and fear.

And that is the source of their art. Their very mortality, and the uncertainty of life, is the inspiration. In fact, death is the meaning of life.

Death itself became necessary early in the evolution of life on earth. Simple one-celled organisms reproduced by cell division, so each offspring cell had the original genetics, and the same actual material as the original cell. But for more complex organisms to exist, and to be able to adapt to changing environments, it was necessary for sexual reproduction, with distinct parent and child organisms, to develop. This allowed genetic hybrids, so simpler life forms could spawn more complex ones.

It also meant that parent cells would eventually die, leaving room and resources for future generations. And this, itself, is the beauty, the tragedy, the irony and the meaning of life.

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