Is There a Perfect Formula for Meaning in Life?

I sometimes wonder if we humans are the only species on earth that is capable of taking pleasure in returning, after a long absence, to places we once frequented, or where we once lived.

For it seems to me that, when we do indeed take pleasure in such a thing, it is largely pleasure taken in discovery — specifically, discovery of what has changed, and what has not changed, about the place.  And so, does any other animal besides ourselves take pleasure in that sort of discovery?  The question can be interesting to ask, but how could you ever answer it.

I was reminded of that question this morning because I returned — briefly — to an internet forum that I once spent considerable time on.  As it turned out, not much seemed different from when I last frequented the forum, and so I didn’t often experience the minor excitement of, “Oh, that’s new!”  But nevertheless someone had put up a thread on the site that got me thinking — and I count it astonishing whenever someone, somehow, manages to get me thinking at any time of day, let alone the morning.

The author of the thread asked a question that I’d seen asked in one way or another many times on the site.  One of those “big” questions about the meaning of life that it has always seemed to me are at at once so simple and so ambitious they can be readily answered in three or four short sentences — but the sentences then take a book or two to properly explain. Here, now, are his precise words:

“What do you believe is required to have in your life to bring true success, fulfillment and happiness. Is there a perfect formula? Is religion necessary? A belief in god? And how does what you believe bring you that happiness?”

As I said, I’ve seen the question asked many times in many ways, and I’m a bit jaded to it.  So, it somewhat surprises me that the way he has asked it has actually got me to thinking for once.  But I suspect the main reason for my interest is this one, simple part of the larger question: “Is there a perfect formula?”

I’m sure it’s happened before that someone on that forum has asked about the meaning of life while at the same time raising the possibility that there is no one answer to his or her question, but I myself don’t recall it.  In fact, most of the time I’ve seen that questioned ask (and I find this telling) the author has at least suggested that there is only one true answer to it.  And sometimes they have even out and out stated that anyone who fails to recognize the “one true answer” is a damn fool.  An attitude that, of course, is perfectly commonplace on the net, but that, offline, usually murders the chance of someone getting invited back to the next group orgy.

As for myself, I very strongly suspect that most of our species of profoundly sophisticated, stick-poking super apes are in practice quite pragmatic about meaning(s).  That is, it seems to me that most of us do not fixate on a single, over-arching meaning for our lives.  Instead, we might dance between several meanings, often on a daily basis.  At times, the meaning that concerns us most is the work we are at the moment doing.  At other times, it’s our family.  And at still other moments, we might seek meaning in helping others, in science, in philosophy, in religion, in politics, in sex, in literature, in a hobby, and so forth.

Humans seem to have an innate need or constitutional bias — which appears to me to be rooted in the human ego — to rank things in terms of “superior” and “inferior”.  At the same time, it appears to me that we can often enough lack a genuinely profound reason for doing so — apart, of course, from when we are dealing with relatively trivial matters, such as when ranking various brands of broccoli according to their nutrition, various sports teams according to their performance, or various sticks according to their efficacy in poking other members of our noble species. But so very often, we rank things that neither need ranking, nor that it actually benefits us to rank. However, the inclination to do so appears to be reflexive.

Which seems to raise the question: Is it usually (let alone always) necessary to rank the various meanings we give life?  Perhaps the impulse to rank things is so deep rooted in us that we are uncomfortable when we don’t.  But I’ve found that feelings of discomfort are a poor guide to sound reasoning: The truth often enough makes us uncomfortable.  So that is today’s question: When (and when not) do we actually need to rank meanings?  And when we do, must we maintain forever the rank we give them at the moment?  Or are we wiser to change about their rank with changing circumstances?  For instance, if to the dire alarm of my boss, I think that having sex with my wife is more important to me at the moment than spending time on my boss’s work assignment, am I wise to always rank those things in that order?  Or, to ask a slightly more subtle question, when, and when not, do I need to think having sex with my wife is “more important” than my boss’s work assignment in order to decide to have sex with my wife?

I ask those questions because it seems to my simple mind that they in some way strike to the heart of the question posed by the author of the forum thread I read this morning.  “Is there a perfect formula?”  But enough of my own ramblings.  What do you yourself think?

The Manner in Which I Have Been Butchering the Noble Art of Painting…

Over the past three years, I’ve taken up painting portraits.  I’m by no means a prolific painter: In three years, I’ve done fewer than 30 portraits.  Yet, painting seems a bit like comfort food to me. I’ve discovered I’m never more happy than when I have a brush in my hand.  Below is one of my most recent portraits — completed within the last few weeks:

Brett Spring 2015 III-SizedBy comparison, here is one of the first portraits I did from about three years ago:

IMG_0753Although I don’t have much talent or skill as a painter, I do think I’ve made a bit of progress over the past three years.  And more importantly, it’s fun.

Just out of curiosity, what is your creative outlet or outlets for self-expression?

Dead Serious

Some years ago, I worked as  a fire fighter in order to pay my way through college.   Of all the things I can recall from those days, one of the most difficult — yet interesting — things to describe is the way in which a person’s voice — and most often his whole manner — would change when he became dead serious.

“Dead serious” might not be the best words for it.   Maybe a word like “realistic” serves better because the temperament I am trying to describe is characterized by complete realism.  But whatever word or phrase is used, it is a hard thing to describe.  And, in large part, I suspect it’s a hard thing to describe because we think that we already know what dead serious is.  But do we?

Of course most of us are quite frequently serious about something.  Even quite serious about something.  But please allow me to submit that most of us are rarely dead serious. In my own experience, I haven’t been dead serious about anything in years. And for good reason.  There has been no call to be dead serious.

I do not know for certain what causes a person to become dead serious.  I might say it is triggered by great personal danger.  But I’ve been in situations when I was in great personal danger and yet I did not become dead serious.  So it doesn’t happened every time you’re in great personal danger.   But generally speaking, great personal danger is a trigger.

At any rate, I noticed when I was fighting fires that now and then someone’s manner would change.  They would become what I am calling “dead serious”.

I remember once six or seven us were discussing abortion while we waited for a call.   One of the men was dogmatically opposed to abortion in any circumstance.   And that evening he was quite passionate in condemning any woman who might have one — even to preserve her own life.   As he spoke, his voice was raised, his face was red, and he was gesturing adamantly.  I think most of us would have said he was serious — even dead serious — about abortion being in all cases immoral.

Yet, a short time later, I was out with him on a call, and — confronted with an especially dangerous fire — both his voice and manner changed in such a way as to make me marvel that everything he’d said about abortion had been said without the deepest possible conviction!  Face to face with that fire, he was serious to a degree that he simply could not muster earlier — no matter how hard he had tried to work himself into it.

The difference between being dead serious and not being dead serious struck me on that occasion and on others.  In the years since I worked as a fire fighter, I have now and then tried to write about that difference in my journals, but I have never written about it with anymore success than I’ve had here.  Describing the difference simply eludes me — and yet, I think nearly anyone would notice the difference if they encountered it.