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Friday, November 9, 2018

“What meaning does life have for you?”


                                     “What meaning does life have for you?”

                That was the question Will Durant wrote and sent to prominent people in different walks of life in the 1930’s.  The list included Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Will Rogers and H.L.Mencken among others. The responses were included in a book with the title: On The Meaning of Life. 
 The answers were obviously different. They included faith in something beyond what we know, able to work in an area one is passionate about, such as art and writing and creativity, doing things for others and society, desire to share and appreciation of nature. Some thought that there is no purpose in life unless we find one for ourselves. One advised Will Durant not to think too much. Most approached this question with optimism and humility.
George Bernard Shaw answered: “How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?” Will Rogers answered: “The whole life is a “racket”, so get a few laughs, do the best you can, take nothing serious…. live your life so that whenever you lose, you stay ahead.”
Some of the most interesting thoughts were those of a prisoner who was spending life-sentence in the Sing-Sing prison. His remarks suggest that he was a thoughtful man, who had read a lot and had thought about life in general. Why he was chosen for this task is not clear. But, here are some of his remarks.
It (meaning of life) “depends upon my ability to recognize its (life’s)great truths and learn by the lessons they teach me. In short, life is worth what I am willing to strive to make it worth”.
In discussing what Durant has written about Truth, he says: “Custom and tradition have caused us to confuse truth with our beliefs”.  Later he says: “Confinement in prison does not cause unhappiness, else all those who are free would be happy. Poverty does not cause it, else the rich all would be happy”.
“That life was accidental is a theory I am willing to accept; but it does not follow that it need be meaningless”.
“In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression – nor prison- can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration and my treasure”. Profound thoughts indeed. 
My personal thoughts follow.
The meaning of life in general is different from the meaning in one’s life. In general, life does not seem to have any purpose or goal except to reproduce. Why would so many species of plants and animals appear and disappear in large numbers in repeated cycles?  Therefore, each one of us must make meaning out of our lives. 
Tolstoy came to the same conclusion. He says that work, family life and nature gave meaning to his life. This is probably true for most people.
The answer to the primary question will also depend upon one’s stage in life and circumstances. For me, at this age and stage – Being and bringing Peace, being useful, and sharing effort, knowledge and wealth give meaning to life.  
How does one develop meaning in life? Some avenues are the same as what gave meaning to Tolstoy’s life – working on things that is of interest to you or that are helpful to others, spending time with family and friends and enjoying nature. But those are not adequate by themselves without adding values and virtues (dharma). 
Connecting with other lives and with the universe are great avenues which will force us to develop values and virtues. In addition, we (the isolated me, the wave) need to connect with the whole (the cosmos, the ocean). I cannot understand the function of a part without understanding the whole from which it came. The cosmos will be there without “me”; but this “me” cannot exist but for the cosmos.
Other questions suggested by Will Durant worth thinking about are: What keeps you going? What help, if any, does religion give you? What are the sources of your inspiration? What is the goal or motive force for your toil? Where do you find your consolations and happiness? Where in the last resort does your treasure lie?   
Of course, one need not think about these at all to be happy. But, I am more with Plato when he quoted Socrates as saying “An unexamined life is not worth living”.




Thursday, November 1, 2018

Humility and Surrender


Humility and surrender are mentioned repeatedly in the literature of all religions that I have read. That led me to think about these two mental states.

Humility (In Sanskrit, it is vinaya (masculine gender), namrata (feminine) and amanitva (neutral). It is panivu in Tamizh) comes out of realization of one’s limitations. It comes in the presence of a mystery or in the presence of someone who knows more than you. It is self-arising. It is a positive state and leads to a better understanding or to wisdom of knowing one’s limits. It leads to an open mind and spiritual tolerance for ambiguity.

Surrender (In Sanskrit, it is saranagati or prapanna; in Tamizh, saranadai or oppuvi) is a state of mind in the sense of defeat. It may come out of fear or frustration or a sense of weakness. It is external and often demanded. It leads to obedience.

May be, I am wrong. To my thinking, humility is a healthier spiritual mode than surrender. It has another strength. It is its inherent contradiction. When I say: “I am humble”, I have lost it. That is why in an analogy I have read eighteen human virtues are compared to an army of foot-soldiers. Humility is the very last one, because it is the read-guard to protect us from attack from behind by arrogance.