We all look for meaning in life. Some people look for meaning only when something bad happens or at significant life events, but some people look for meaning all the time. I’m one of the latter types; my entire life has been a never-ending quest to figure out what it’s all about. At various times in my life, I’ve come up with many different meanings for my life:
· To survive high school
· To be a good Jew
· To become fluent in Chinese
· To do psychoanalysis to resolve all of my issues
· To work with dying children and their families
· To be the best possible uncle to my nieces and nephews, both by blood and by love
· To serve and enhance the lives of others
· To attain enlightenment
In the parable of the elephant and the blind men, a group of blind men approach an elephant and touch it to find out what it is. One man feels the elephant’s leg and says the elephant is like a tree. Another feels the elephant’s tail and says the elephant is like a rope. Another feels the elephant’s trunk and says the elephant is like a snake. Another feels the elephant’s tusk and says the elephant is like a spear. Yet another feels the elephant’s ear and says the elephant is like a fan. In some versions of the story, a sighted man walks by, describes the whole elephant, and the blind men then become aware they are blind. In a poetic version of the story by John Godfrey Saxe, the story concludes:
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceedingly stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right,
All were in the wrong.
When we lock ourselves into one system or one perspective we can get very good at seeing the world through that perspective. And that can be very fulfilling—we can be part of a community, we can feel confident that we know how things are and how things should be, etc. But we necessarily miss out on what could be seen through other perspectives.
That’s probably fine for some people, maybe many people, but for at least some people, including me, that’s not fine. For people who are seeking, life is a process of trying to see everything the universe offers, though of course even we can choose to live within a certain system or community. It’s not about belonging to nothing; it’s about seeing things as they are without judgment or prejudice and then making a choice. That leads to real peace and contentment.
The quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg said, “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
At this point, I know that if I want to find the meaning of life, I have to let go of looking for it directly and let life reveal its meaning in its own way and in its own time.