So I was sitting on the front steps to my apartment building the other day watching the people walk by when this kid comes up to me and says, “Hey mister.”
I say, “What do you want, kid?”
He says, “Can you explain life to me?”
I think about it for a minute, and then I ask him, “Yeah? Where do you want me to start from?”
“From the beginning.” The kid says.
So I think about it some more and decide this is the first thing a kid needs to understand about life. I ask him, “Let’s say I offered you $1 to run across the continent. Would you do it?”
“No way. That’d be silly.”
“Okay, if I offered you $1,000,000,000,000 dollars or told you I’d shoot you and your whole family if you didn’t run across the continent. Would you do it?”
“Well, yeah. Sure I’d do it.”
“You certainly would. You wouldn’t even have to think about it or work up the strength. Because of the stakes at risk your motivation would be so strong there wouldn’t be a choice. There’d just be one path in front of you.
Think about how that applies to life in general. If you don’t understand why life is important or how important life is then you won’t have the appropriate motivation to take life as seriously as you should. Then you won’t put the appropriate amount of effort into living. What would you do then? Why, you’d waste all your time on immediate, shortsighted, petty, meaningless trivialities and such. But if you truly, truly, truly understood the value of life you wouldn’t have to debate with yourself or work up the strength to sacrifice any of the petty temptations of the world to pursue life’s highest purpose. Your motivation would be so strong there’d only be one choice, one path before you. So the first lesson you need to learn about life is how valuable it is and why.”
“Well how valuable is life?”
“How old are you, kid?”
“I’m 10 and half years old, going on 11.”
“No you’re not. You’re closer to 14 billion years old. All the stuff in your body was there at the big bang. Galaxies rose and fell around you as you floated to a place where the atoms in your body could finally come together in a way that makes you, you. Now I’m not saying you were supposed to be you. There were an infinite number of things that could have gone different between the beginning and now and you wouldn’t have been born. You’re infinitely lucky to be here. But don’t get too smug about it because you only get to be here for little while, and you don’t know how short of a time you’ve got before you’re gone forever. Now that might sound like that means you don’t matter, but I’ll tell ya the opposite is true. That means the finite amount of time you get to live here is infinitely valuable.
You asked me how valuable life is. Well here’s my answer. It’s infinitely valuable. Now, here’s something to think about. Given that every second of your short, little irreplaceable life is infinitely valuable, that makes the following question infinitely important: What’s the most important thing you can do with your life?
So then the kid he says to me, “Well I don’t know. What is the most important thing I should be doing?”
Right then I laugh and say, “Look here kid. There’s something you gotta understand about people if you want to make it in this world.”
He says, “Yeah, what’s that?”
I say, “I’m gonna tell you. Everybody is born lost, and most people stay lost. Matter of fact, most people are so lost they don’t even know they’re lost.”
The kid says, “I don’t get it.”
I say, “You want me to put it another way? Okay. Did you get an instruction book to life when you were born that explained everything? I see you shaking you’re head, no. Well, nobody else did either. Nobody has any idea what’s going on. There are no experts, no authorities, no grown ups. We might get taller, and we might memorize a lot of facts, but philosophically, we’re all stuck at 5 years old guessing at life and faking that we know what’s going on and what we’re doing because we don’t want anyone to know how lost we are. To make matters worse…most people end up forgetting they’re faking it and start believing this big charade we all put on is real life.
Now there’s two lessons to be learned from this if you look. One, don’t believe anything anybody tells you. Don’t get me wrong. Listen to everyone, but don’t believe anyone. Only believe what you find to be true.
Two, the most important thing you should be doing right now is trying to figure out life for yourself. Until you do that, how do you know if anything else you do matters? You don’t. So you can just go ahead and assume it doesn’t.”
After that the kid looks at me all sad and says, “But I don’t know how to get life figured out. Even if I did I don’t know if I could.”
Well, I feel bad for the kid. So I tell him, “Well, don’t take it all from me, but if you need a starting place. I’ll give you the same advice my papa gave me when I was about your age. He said, ‘Kid, all you need to know is the meaning of life.’”
I give this kid an heirloom of knowledge and he has the nerve to say to me, “Your papa didn’t give very good advice.” Kids these days. No respect.
So I gotta correct him, you know? I tell him, “That was the best piece of advice I ever got from anybody. Think about it. If you don’t know the meaning of life then what are you doing with your life? You’re wandering around lost, wasting your precious time on immediate, shortsighted, petty, meaningless trivialities and such. But if you could just figure out that one thing, the meaning of life, then absolutely everything else will fall into its proper perspective. Then you got life figured out and everything else is just details.”
“But you still haven’t told me how to figure it out.”
“What are you talking about? I just told you the first step, and I was getting to the rest anyway. If you listened more and interrupted less I might have explained it already.”
“That’s okay. You’re young. Anyway, life is like a car. You can’t understand how a car works until you understand what a car is. Same thing with life. And what’s life then? Life is being a walking, talking, breathing, thinking creature stranded in the great, big, beautiful, lonely, indifferent universe. You want to understand life? First you gotta understand the universe that gave birth to you and that you live in. Learn all the science you can, because that’ll teach you the facts that everything else is built on.
Then, once you understand ‘what’ you can start to understand ‘why.’ If you try figuring out “why” first you’re going to come up with some crazy explanations that don’t hold water.
Now don’t interrupt me because I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘But science doesn’t answer the question, ‘why?’ And that’s true. You know what answers a question? Asking a question. You know what doesn’t answer a question? Excuses and complaints.
If you want to know why you’re here then ask yourself, ‘What does my existence accomplish? What would be lost if life ceased to exist? What does a plant or animal do with their lives? Because wouldn’t the meaning of life is the same for all life?’
But let me warn you of something that might trip you up. A question is an equation, and when you change the variables in the equation you change the question…and the answer. So when you ask these questions you gotta decide whether or not there’s a God or an afterlife because that changes things.”
“Mister? Can I interrupt you?”
“Didn’t give me much of a choice there did you? Well, now that we’re here you may as well go ahead. What do you want?”
“Is there a God?”
“Oh, hell. Nobody’s had this conversation with you yet? Parents these days. Fine. I’ll do it, but you gotta think about these things yourself. Don’t take it from me, okay?”
“I’ll tell you this much flat out. God’s never been to Earth, wrote a book or spoke through a prophet. People write books. People record their history. People try to control others by claiming to deserve the power and glory of God. People create rules to live by and design their own punishments for those who don’t follow their rules. People ask for your money, and when they get it they use it to build temples to themselves. Every nation thinks its God’s favorite. Put this to the test, and I guarantee you find it holds water. Religion is a product of culture.
Having said that, there is one thing I find curious about the universe. Imagine if humans ever built rocket ships that could fly to other planets. Suppose we sent some astronauts to one far, far away to search for life. When they got there they scoured the surface searching for living organisms but never found any. Thing is though, they kept running across houses. So they knew there was intelligent life on the planet at one time because precision built structures, such as houses, don’t just occur randomly in nature.
If you can agree with that logic then you should also be able to agree with the next part. Imagine that a million years from now a group of jelly fish-like aliens were come to earth in search of life. However, long before the aliens arrived in our galaxy humans had destroyed our atmosphere; all living things died, and the harsh environment tore down all the building humans had ever built.
So the aliens, they didn’t find any living creatures or buildings to deduce our existence from. However, they found some dinosaur skeletons fossilized deep down in the Earth’s crust. Since the aliens were jelly fish-like creatures they didn’t recognize skeletons as the remains of living organisms. Nevertheless, they still used the skeletons to deduce that there was once intelligent life on planet Earth because skeletons are too precisely and consistently designed to happen randomly in nature. Of course, skeletons do happen in nature…but not randomly.
Does that mean they had an intelligent creator? I don’t know. The entire universe is precisely and consistently designed. Water doesn’t freeze randomly. Planets don’t orbit randomly. Apples don’t fall from trees randomly. Maybe all of us and are skeletons are just a manifestation of the ordered nature of the universe. Maybe we’re the universe incarnate. Of course, I guess that would make us God. Ah hell, you see what all this talking about God leads to?
Now look here, I told you not to believe anything anybody says, and you didn’t ask me, but I’m going to tell you this anyway and you can think about it. If you ask me, there’s no final proof for or against the existence of a God or an afterlife. So they shouldn’t even come into the equation at all. That’s what I say, not that anybody listens to me.
Then again, I guess it does make me sound like a crazy old man. If you take God and the afterlife out of the equation all you’re left with is a big, beautiful, lonely, indifferent universe that doesn’t offer any answers. But Hell, kid. If that’s the way it is then that’s the way it is and wishing it were any different won’t change reality one bit no matter how hard we wish, will it?
Still though, in a scientific universe, things remain in a state of rest until something acts on them. Every cause has an effect, and every effect has a cause. Something set this universe in motion, and that event happened for a reason. If there wasn’t a reason it wouldn’t have happened.”
“But…but what if there wasn’t a reason?”
“If there wasn’t a reason…then I guess we just give up and shit in our hands.”
“I’m just joking with you kid. But seriously, it doesn’t change anything if there wasn’t a reason or even if there is a reason but we never figure it out. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re still here walking, talking, breathing, thinking and hopelessly stranded in this goddamned great, big, beautiful, lonely, indifferent universe. You’re still alive aren’t you? Well, your life is still infinitely valuable. Even if it’s not you can’t prove it. So you may as well assume it is. And either way you still gotta figure out what the most important thing you can do with your life is.
And you’re still going to get farther in life by asking questions than making excuses. So ask some questions. Like, ‘What can we do? What determines the value of an action? What would the consequences be if we didn’t do anything?’
If that doesn’t help, if you can’t figure anything out then go learn some more. Or maybe it’s not that you don’t have enough of the variables in the equation to find the answer. Maybe the formula you’re using to answer questions with is broken. Spend some more time thinking about thinking. Try to improve your method of asking questions. But come to some kind of conclusion because if you don’t you’re just going to waste all your whole life wandering around completely lost and directionless, frittering away these irreplaceable moments on immediate, shortsighted, petty, meaningless trivialities and such.
Anyway, I don’t know if that helped at all, but for what it’s worth that’s what I got to say. ”
“I think it sorta helped…
I just got one more question.”
“What does a plant do?”
Now if you don’t mind, my gout is acting up. I need to go soak my feet. Run along home. Your mother must be worried to death about you.”
Check out the rest of the Old Man From Jersey series of philosophical comics:
June 20th, 2012 at 11:14 am
Thanks for the wisdom, this was a pretty interesting story to think about. You can’t really teach anyone anything, you could only make them think….
November 1st, 2009 at 11:47 am
What an amazing blog you have! Explaing to the new generations what we have learnt about life, I believe is one of the most important things to pass over… Listen to everyone but do not believe anythig.. I wish I´d have heard this when I was a kid.