What follows is the result of a thought experiment in which I asked myself what I would say to my son if, in the hypothetical future, he finds himself struggling with “the meaning of life.”
After nearly 50 years of life, these basic claims are the only ones I can make with full confidence.jason p. reed
The first thing I will tell you–remind you of–is that you’re having a biological experience. This is true for all of us. We experience life through the body, every part of which has been honed through the process of natural selection over millions and millions of years. Each of our organs has a job to do. The heart pumps blood to every part of our body. The skeletal system supports the tissues that allow us to move, to bear weight. The integumentary system (the skin) protects all that vital stuff from the elements. And up behind our eyes, the brain functions as a super-computer, running biological processes and sensors that, for the most part, we are totally unaware of.
Without the body, there is nothing. The body is how we participate in not just the world, but the universe. Through the body, we can come to understand that we exist, temporarily at least, within the vast expanse of the universe. We are alive here on Earth, and that planet exists within this one particular solar system, which is a tiny part of this one particular galaxy, which is one still small part of the possibly infinite vastness of space. We do not know, and (if you’re reading this), we will never know how this larger cosmic context came to be.
Do you remember what existence was like before you were born? The answer to this question is the best proof you will ever get that the body is fundamental to existence.
There are larger truths that can never be learned in the span of a lifetime. Is the universe infinite? If so, how is it possible that an infinite space can come to exist? Whether the universe is infinite or finite, how did it come to be? God? Computer simulation? Random chance? If so, how did those things come to exist? And nevermind the “how”, but why did it all come to be? Why is there something rather than nothing? We could go on and on . . . and we will, because we are naturally curious creatures.
But ultimately we are limited by the biology we have to work with. A body, driven by a powerful brain that runs the vast majority of its processes without permission from our conscious selves. We are along for the temporary ride in this pretty badass vessel of the human body.
Close your eyes. Now breathe through your nose and focus on the air you are pulling in through it. Feel the tiny hair follicles in your nose fluttering as the air passes. Feel the balloon of your lungs expanding as they fill with air. Notice the pressure in your butt as you sit. Tune into the sensation of your toes. Become aware of the minute sounds around you. Appreciate the finely tuned sensor that is your body.
At some point soon, you will be expelled from this body and existence will end. If you want to think about it in less arresting terms, you can say that your existence will revert to what it was before you were born. Either way, you will no longer have access to the body, and therefore you will no longer be you. If there is any version of existence after the body is dead, it is beyond the capacity of any living person to know (remember this anytime you hear someone claim to know what, if anything, happens “after” death).
So, if you want to improve the quality of your external life, the bedrock piece of advice I can offer is to start by appreciating the iron clad fact that existence is contained within the body. That every experience is a biological one. It’s not only true that the body is a temple . . . the body is the only temple, because you can’t think, feel, or experience anything without it.
Meditate. Exercise. Touch. Listen. Stretch. Contract.
When something is alive is it pliable and resilient. It is ever changing . . . but slowly. Evolution does not happen in short, intense bursts. It happens over the maximum timeline available in tiny, incremental movements.
So I say internalize these facts and get to know your body. Stretch it. Push it. Nurture it. And then be quiet and still while you observe it. You will not come away with answers to the grandest philosophical questions, but you will gain a sense of peace and appreciation for the lucky fact of existence. Without that fact of biological existence, nothing else matters. There is nothing else.
But what about the real world?
Find constructive things to do, and find people to love.
We are programmed through evolution to be industrious. Human beings aren’t made to sit around and watch the world go by. So you must find a pursuit . . . probably more than one over the course of your lifetime. Learn, because that’s what we are programmed to do and that’s what makes us happy. Plus, you will need money. And so you should learn to do something. Even if it’s hard to find joy in the work, dig deeper until you can find some aspect of it to be gratified. If you get stuck, realize that you have choices. You can relocate to another part of this tiny planet. You can acquire a new skill. You can use your powerful brain to step back and find a new solution to industry.
Hard is good. We are programmed to do hard stuff. Don’t be afraid to try something hard. Don’t be afraid if it takes years to accomplish. Human beings are built to do hard things. The struggle will lead to good and interesting experiences and insights. It might also lead to love.
Love other people. We must eat, sleep, work . . . and we must love. Humans are evolved to gather in small groups to cooperate and, ultimately, to procreate. Realize that it’s a biological, evolutionary imperative to find a tribe and help the people you love. Human beings are not meant to be solitary, so set aside any romantic notions you might have about living a solitary, stoic life. Find somebody to love. Find or make a tribe of your own. Care for another person and benefit from their reciprocal love.
Is there more to life than this? Yes . . . but really, the answer is no. Music? That’s just a form of human industry. Legacy? Same. What about being a good person . . . joining up with a cause? That’s just love. What about religion, prayer? It’s all grounded in the biological experience of life. I say, go live it.