Journey into the Unknown
Life sometimes poses more questions than answers. Where did we come from? Do we have a future? What is the purpose of it all? What is the meaning of life?
Throughout our lives we struggle to find answers to these questions, and in the struggling we may begin to see a glimpse of ultimate meaning.
This text is to help us sharpen our awareness of the questions. It does not give any trite or simplistic answers. But a better awareness of the search itself may give us some sense of direction.
The Mysterious Gift of Life
On a recollection day for college students I had spoken about the mysterious gift of life. One of them came to see me. He told me the following story – which really happened.
Last year I had a terrifying experience that really shook me. It has been with me ever since.
I’m not very good at sports, but I like pottering about in the garden. A number of us volunteer to work on the college grounds from time to time. We cut hedges, look after the flowerbeds and so on. On this particular afternoon, Terry and I were together gathering leaves and carting them to the compost heap.
Terry was a fine lad. Rather quiet. Irish from the usual traditional Catholic background. I got on quite well with him. He wasn’t stuck up or anything like that. A really good companion.
While we were working, suddenly the weather changed. A dark cloud hung over us. Raindrops began to fall. I took shelter under one of the tall elm trees that dot the lawn in front of the main building. The tree leaned over slightly and standing on the lee side of the wind I felt perfectly sheltered. Terry came running over to me. I remembered that I had left my jacket flung on a bush near the compost heap. It was sure to get drenched!
‘Wait here’, I said offering him my place of shelter. ‘I have to save my jacket’.
I ran off, grabbed my jacket and found cover in the tool shed. I was just in time. For a quarter of an hour rain descended on us in a real downpour, with peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. It was one of those short, fierce autumn squalls.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had come. I went back to tell Terry we’d better stop for the day. I found him Iying under the tree, face down.
‘Terry’, I said ‘what has happened?’
He was dead. He had been struck down by lightning! A black mark on the top of his right shoulder showed where it had hit him. Traces of singeing and burning could be seen on the tree too. Lightning had struck the crown of the tree, then slid down the bark to the spot where Terry had leaned against it.
The next hours and days were agony for me. People from the college, police, relatives. I lived through it as through a dream. One phrase sticks in my mind. It was a remark made by one of the ambulance men who carried him away. ‘Completely unnecessary’, he said. ‘We always tell people not to shelter under trees. It happens time and time again!’
The stains of the lightning can still be seen on the bark of that tree and I often go to look at them. ‘Why am I still alive?, I ask myself. ‘And why was it Terry who was struck down? Was it a pure accident? Nobody can tell, of course. But it has filled me with a deep awareness of how expendable we are and how dependent. It makes me grateful for being alive. It also bewilders and frightens me.’
Let us admit that life is a strange gift. And, without wanting to be morbid, the sudden death of someone we have known does show up the fragility and mystery of it all. Life is too enjoyable, too exciting, too much of all we are, for us not to be concerned about it. We cannot be fully human without thinking of its meaning and its purpose. Can life, with all its various values such as understanding and knowledge, love and joy, be at the mercy of blind, mechanical forces? What is the origin of spirit? Who dispenses the gifts of life and death?
People all over the world have asked these questions from the beginning of human existence. One of my favourite authors is the Old Testament philosopher Kohelet, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. More than anyone else he has pointed out the perplexity and absurdity of it all. Although he lived in Palestine in the third century B.C., his observations remain as true as ever. Moreover, he knows how to express things powerfully. He never minces his words. His speech is blunt, his pen sharp.
In his days it was commonly thought, for instance, that virtuous people are rewarded with success, and sinners punished by disaster. Kohelet denies this. People do not get what they deserve.
“It is my experience that in our world it is not those who can run fast that win the race, nor the strong that win the battle.”
“It is not honest people that earn a good income, neither intelligent persons who become rich . . .”
“Everybody is subject to misfortune and chance accidents.” (9,11)
“I have experienced almost anything in life. I knew a saintly man who died early in spite of his saintliness and a criminal who enjoyed a long life in spite of his bad character.” (7,15)
No easy answers to such observations! And the key to it all Kohelet saw, was the mystery of death.
“While studying our whole existence I became more and more convinced that good and saintly people and their doings depend totally on God. But whether he likes them or hates them, how will they know? In fact, all their efforts prove useless because the same fate strikes all human beings: the saint as well as the sinner, good as well as bad; the ritually clean as well as the ritually unclean, the person who offers sacrifice no less than the one who doesn’t.” (9,1-2)
And so Kohelet becomes the prophet of the eternal questions besetting our human existence:
“Who knows what is good for a human being while he lives the few days of his useless life that pass like a shadow? Who can tell us what will happen afterwards?” (6, 1 2)
“What gain has a person from all the hard work he does . . . ? God has given his mind the power to have an inkling of what is beyond time. Yet he cannot understand what God has done from beginning to end.” (3 9-11)
“I applied my mind to study wisdom and to observe all things that happen on earth . . . how neither day nor night a person can sleep peacefully. Then I considered everything God does and how we cannot understand the purpose of all that happens in this world of ours. How every person may do his best in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims he understands it, I don’t believe him. He cannot find it out.” (8,16-17)
“That which is, is far off and deep, very deep. Who can find it out?” (7,24)
All this may sound pessimistic and depressive. It is. Obviously we could not go through life with these major questions completely unsolved. Kohelet is not the person to offer us solutions. But his merit, like that of lots of other great thinkers, lies in having articulated the questions. And those questions remain real, also in our time.
“Consider the kind of thing God does! Who can make straight what God has made crooked?” (7,13)
Or, is it our vision that is crooked?
One thing is certain when we reflect on life: it implies sharing. We could not be alive without the support of innumerable beings around us, with whom we are more intimately linked than we are, perhaps, aware of. Life overlaps. It has deep roots. It is based on relationships, in all dimensions of time and space. A few examples may show what I mean.
Deep sea origins
Without air we could not possibly live. In fact, the amount of air, or more precisely oxygen, we need is enormous. An average person consumes two thousand gallons of oxygen a day. The total consumed in a lifetime may amount to five million gallons, about a thousand lorry loads!
Where did this oxygen come from? We know now that the earth originally did not have an atmosphere. The first’ very primitive, forms of life were prokaryotic cyanobacteria, one-celled organs in the ocean. They drew energy from carbon, not from air. But, fortunately for us, they produced oxygen.
For more than seven hundred million years (2.2-1.5 billion years B.C.), innumerable generations of these little organisms produced minute quantities of oxygen which rose up to the surface of the ocean as tiny bubbles. Thus the atmosphere was born. And the possibility of new forms of life to emerge, now based on energy-rich oxygen.
Did you know that we owe the air in our lungs to these tiny organisms who lived billions of years ago? Did you realise that their death prepared the way for our life?
We carry some minerals in our body – iron, magnesium and iodine. We have them only in minute quantities, but they are absolutely essential. Their absence causes fatal diseases and certain death.
These minerals, in fact all atoms heavier than iron, could not be composed by the atom-building processes available on or in our earth. Not even the immense heat and pressure of the nuclear furnace inside the sun could achieve their construction. They can only come about by an extraordinarily vehement event, such as the catastrophic explosion of a star at the end of its life cycle.
The heavier atoms we now find on the earth can only be explained by the atomic fusion inherent in such a ‘supernova’ explosion – an explosion of a star that took place before our own solar system was formed. That means: it must have happened more than six thousand million years ago!
The violent death of a star produced the minerals that are now part and parcel of us!
We do not need to travel so far out in space and time. Consider the ordinary light of day, the light we see things with. We are so used to it that we may never stop to consider its remarkable history.
The heat of the outer layers of the sun (5000 degrees Celsius) causes the atoms in these layers to swarm around in states of extreme excitement. The electrons that encircle the nucleus of these atoms can only run along well defined energy tracks. Their state of excitement makes them jump from one energy track to another. Each such jump of an electron produces a photon, a unit of light. The photon is shot out into space at the speed of light (300,000 Km per second – to be exact:299792458 metres per second). It takes a photon not more than eight minutes to reach the earth, and eventually our eyes!
How remarkable that the fire of the sun, ninety-three million miles away, can yet be so close to us and provide us with the means to see with!
We think and speak with notions and words. Did we ourselves invent our language? No. Tens of thousands of generations slowly built up the cultural and linguistic heritage we use.
Nothing is more personal and more intimate to us than the way we think. Yet this, too, we share with people before us and people around us. In a way we may even say that previous generations had to die to allow for more perfect consciousness to develop. That their thought patterns remain in our mind is the frame of our own thinking.
Many more examples could be worked out. Just think of how we depend on other living beings through the food we eat; on our parents for conception, gestation and birth on friends and relatives for emotional growth and happiness. Where does our life begin and where are its limits? Life is a very extended and very complex reality indeed. Through it we participate in the whole universe.
All this does not solve the existential questions, the ultimate why and wherefore. But it does put everything in a wider perspective and may make us wonder about the overall purpose.
“Just as you cannot understand how life comes to the foetus in the womb of a pregnant woman, so everything God does is beyond our grasp.” (Kohelet 11,5)
It is possible to go through life in an unreflective sort of way. We may fill our days with so many trivialities and distractions that the existential questions are not thought of. We may even, consciously or unconsciously, try to suppress them. After all, ultimate questions touch on nothingness and death which, if not reflected upon and interarated. will inspire fear.
The world we live in must contain clues as to the meaning of life. If we reflect on these carefully, we can see that the world cannot be the dark, four-walled prison some people make it out to be. There are windows. There are ways of reaching out to reality as it is, to the realms of purpose and meaning.
But for this our mind needs to be tranquil. Indian spiritual books have given the beautiful words on the opposite page.
Try it out. Take time off for mental relaxation. In our western do-culture mental relaxation is associated with ‘activities’ which are invented for the sake of diversion. They may be games, hobbies or watching a film. They are not the relaxation I mean. Often they are no relaxation at all. The mind is as involved and active while playing chess or seeing a movie as it is when driving or doing an office job. Relaxation means: calming down: letting the tensions go.
If we create spaces to be with ourselves in silence, the true wonder and mystery of life will gradually impress themselves on us. We should not expect an immediate answer. We first need to discover the questions for ourselves. Not the superficial and trivial questions, but the eternal, existential ones. Like Kohelet we must learn to observe and to ask. We must allow reality around us to address us directly in ever more intriguing and distinct dimensions.
Something to think about
I recommend the writings of Kohelet for further reading. They can be found in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Wisdom section of the Old Testament. To whet the appetite I will reprint here two freely translated excerpts. I would like to stress that these readings are offered solely for the purpose of making us think, not so as to express agreement with their contents.
When reading these passages, we could ask ourselves the following questions:
- Do Kohelet’s questions provoke a response in me?
- Would I formulate the questions in the same way?
- Are his observations correct?
- Or do they differ from my own experience?
- What would I say to Kohelet if I were to meet him today?
Does Life have a Meaning?
Absolutely useless, says Kohelet.
Everything is useless!
What does a human being profit from all the hard work he does in this world of ours?
One generation goes, another comes; only the earth remains.
The sun rises, the sun goes down; it rushes back to its place (during the night) and rises again.
The wind turns South, the wind turns North; it keeps changing direction, but eventually it circles back to where it began.
All rivers flow to the sea; but the sea is never filled; the waters return to their starting point and flow again.
All things are more boring than a person can express.
The eye never sees enough;
The ear is never satisfied with hearing.
Yet, what existed will exist again; What happened in the past will happen once more; there is nothing new in this world of ours!
If there is something of which it is said, ‘See, this is new!’, it turns out to have existed centuries ago.
The fact is that nobody remembers earlier times, just as little as our own will be remembered in the future…
I, Kohelet, considered myself like King Solomon who ruled over Israel in Jerusalem.
I made up my mind to make a careful scrutiny of all that happens in this world of ours.
(And this is my conclusion:)
God has given people a life full of trouble; they are sorely troubled by it.
I saw all the hard work that is being done in this world of ours; I found it all useless and chasing of wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight.
What is lacking cannot be supplied.
From Kohelet 1,2-15
Are Events Ruled by Purpose?
Everything that happens in this world has its season; every event has its fixed time.
There is a time for birth – and a time for death;
a time for planting – and a time for pulling up;
a time for killing – and a time for healing;
a time for breaking down – and a time for building up;
a time for weeping – and a time for laughing;
a time for mourning – and a time for dancing;
a time for making love – and a time for not making love;
a time for embracing – and a time to refrain from em
a time for searching – and a time for losing;
a time for saving – and a time for throwing away;
a time for tearing – and a time for mending;
a time for keeping silence – and a time for speaking;
a time for love – and a time for enmity;
a time for war – and a time for peace.
What use then are all our efforts, all the hard work we do? I have seen the hard burdens God has put on human beings!
God has made everything useful in its own time. Also, he has given to the human mind the power to have an inkling of what is beyond time. Yet we cannot fully understand God’s purpose.
I have come to the conclusion that the best things for human beings is to enjoy life as long as they can. People should eat and drink and find enjoyment in their work. After all this too is a qift from God. (Kohelet 3. 1 -13)