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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

Two Books, and “The Meaning of Life”

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I picked up two books at a garage sale this past week. One was, I thought, a standard “who dun it”, “The Bancroft Strategy” by Robert Ludlum. The other was one I recognized as an old classic that I had never read but I had heard curious things about it, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Little did I realize they both addressed the same question, the meaning of life.

In the Bancroft Strategy the principle presented is “The greatest good for the greatest number” no matter what it takes (murder, manipulating elections, selling arms to terrorists, etc) to produce that outcome.

The premise of Brave New World is “maximum happiness for everyone”, even if that happiness is produced through drugs, conditioning, and genetic engineering.

In both books the hero realized that the premise was faulty but wasn’t quite able to produce a better argument for another alternative. I call the characters the hero although neither did what we usually consider great heroic deeds. In Brave New World the Savage ended up committing suicide, deciding he couldn’t return to the primitive society he had been born into and didn’t fit into the “civilized society” he had been brought to. In the Bancroft Strategy the hero helped bring down his father’s empire and got him killed.

I was left wondering about the other options. I had a Christian friend who went through a difficult stretch a while back. He commented that his ONLY purpose in life was to praise God. I thought had sad, he was smart, fun to be with, and a skilled farmer. He had much more to live for than to praise God. God really doesn’t need any praises from us mere humans. The world, if He created it speaks volumes, anything we mere humans might add is insignificant. And quite frankly, in my opinion, any God that would demand that humans bow down before him and utter praises is a narcissist and unworthy of being called God or of being worshipped. Many world religions teach us that modesty and humility are virtues; narcissism isn’t.

I thought about a book written by one of my Leisure Studies professors, “Freedom to Be”. This book is about the freedom to be whatever you want to be and implies to me that you reach a static state. You decide what you want to be, a Doctor, a Lawyer, a Teacher, an Artist or Musician, you get there and that is that.

I prefer the concept of “Freedom to Become”. This acknowledges that life is about growing and changing, becoming more tomorrow than what you are today. The Meaning of Life for me is about having the “Freedom to Become”.

I wondered whether I could make a better argument for “Freedom to Become”, the freedom to succeed or fail, to make your own decisions, as a better alternative to those other choices?

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I know the issue of Free Will (whether we have it or don’t have it, as well as whether we should even want it) has presented problems for Theologians and Philosophers for centuries.

I know that our founding fathers weren’t sure the “common man” would have the intelligence or wisdom to govern themselves wisely or be able to responsibly cast a ballot in an election. I think this is why we ended up with the electoral college system that we have. And why it took so long for women to be granted the right to vote. Men of color were granted the right to vote before women of any color were granted that right.

I know that some of our social policies and laws have been based on the premise that “average folks” simply can’t help themselves and they need someone wiser and smarter to handle their affairs. Again this is why it took so long for women to be granted the right to own property and enter into contracts on their own, without a male guardian (husband, father, older brother) to act on their behalf.

There seems to be a common perception that “common” folks if given the freedom to make their own choices, will make lousy ones. There is little recognition that even the “uncommon folk”, the super rich, corporate tycoons, banking and international financiers also make lousy choices when given total free reign. One current economist -- I can’t remember who it was -- commented after the latest financial collapse and banking scandal that he never imagined that banks and investment houses would do things that would bring about their own self destruction.

In this day and age there are still folk that think that evolution is a hoax and that Global Warming is a conspiracy to limit mans freedoms. To accept evolution as a reality they have to admit that The Bible is not literally TRUE, which means that it may not have been written by God. For how could God make an error or tell a lie? No thought that God might simply be a good story teller, knowing that humans at the time were too dumb to understand the intricacies of creation and physical laws governing the universe, he devised a good story to explain in generalities what was too complicated for most men to understand.

If the same folk ever admit that Global Warming is a reality they will have to admit that God may not be in control of everything. Better to pretend that global warming is a hoax then to admit it is a problem and that we have to change our behavior, because God can’t solve this problem on his own. If God can’t solve this problem they are left wondering if He will be able to save them from their sins, will their own prayers be answered in their time of need, all their other self-assurances of everlasting life in a heavenly paradise are brought into question. If God isn’t in control of the world, (of EVERYTHING), than all is not right with the world.

I’ll admit that the arguments against Free Will, freedom to think and to decide what to do or not to do for one’s self are pretty strong. BUT…..

I can honestly say that Free Will, the freedom to fail or succeed, on my own initiative and merits is far greater, far more satisfying than the alternatives. I can say I “have been there and done that”, tried the alternatives and I know from personal experience what I am talking about.

I have tried to find happiness in a bottle. I have never done drugs but I used to drink alcohol, quite heavily. I gave it up when I realized it was a temporary fix, not a permanent solution, and that I actually preferred the clear headedness of not being under the influence, being able to seriously THINK and act as I saw fit, to be free to feel pain and joy.

I have had jobs where I was not my own master, I had to do what others told me to do even if it seemed nonsensical or a waste of time. Granted I could always quit, and I have. This wasn’t slavery of any type. I had the financial freedom to quit and move on to something else. Many people don’t have that freedom.

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I have a Masters Degree in Leisure Studies. There is a leisure theory called “Flow”, a theory of optimal experience. Most people have never heard of this although many have had a “flow” experience. The theory was produced by Mikhalyia Czikintmihalyi, at the University of Chicago.

The theory is quite simple. There is a point with activities where skill and challenge are balanced in such a way that they produce an “optimal” experience. That experience is different for different people. There is no such thing as one, ultimate, or optimal experience. It is determined by each person’s level of skill and challenge faced. That experience is one where time seems to stand still, where there is no separation between you and them, or you and the universe. You are the music, you aren’t just playing the piano or listening to music. You are the dance, you aren’t just dancing. You are the potter and the clay and the potters wheel all rolled into one.

I have had the experience when I was potting, working at a potters wheel. It didn’t come until I had gained enough basic skill that I could actually “throw” a pot and have it look like what I had intended. I took a pottery class at a Junior college. The class met two nights a week for three hours each night. Once I sat down at the wheel and started working the clay I would lose all track of time and the people around me. I could have had a problem at work or a fight with my husband or financial woes, all disappeared as I concentrated on that wheel and the clay.

I have had similar experiences while hiking. There is nothing like toping out on a mountain, you are exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. The whole world spreads out before you and you know you got up there on your own merit, your own will power.

Great dancers and musicians report similar experiences. Craftsmen and artists of all stripes get lost in their craft when their “muses” are “firing on all cylinders” and everything seems to flow effortlessly together.

I know that in order to have a “flow” experience I have to be totally free to fail and free to do something else. I know that everyday life isn’t a “flow” experience, there is a lot of strife, unpleasantness, difficulty, sadness, worries, but also great satisfaction when even a mundane task, works out right (balancing my checkbook)! I know that sometimes I will burn my dinner and that sometimes I make something quite extraordinary and delightful to eat. I have dogs and cats and I know that “shit” happens. But then I wouldn’t get sloppy wet kisses or a warm purring companion to cuddle up with on a cold night if I didn’t have them.

I know that there are other folks in this world that will make decisions that I don’t approve of. They will say and do things that hurt others and hurt themselves. If I want to be free to make my own decisions, good and bad, then I have to be willing to allow others to make their decisions, good and bad. The alternatives “greatest good for the greatest number” at the tragic expense of a few innocents, or the “greatest happiness for everyone artificially produced with drugs, conditioning and genetic engineering”, or a life of feeling worthless, because

  1. You are taught God is everything, and your only purpose in life is to praise Him, or

  2. Your life circumstances (poverty, physical disability, access to education, etc.) prevent you from becoming all that you can be, isn’t for me.

But how can I convince others? Perhaps I can’t, you have to try it in order to like it. Words simply can’t make the argument that having one “flow” experience can make!

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover Robert Ludlum, “The Bancroft Strategy,” Orion Paperbacks (Undated). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  2. book cover Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World,” Perennial Library (1998). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Site navigation: Home > Visitors' Essays> here

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Originally published: 2015-FEB-20
Last updated 2015-MAR-13
Author: Susan Humphreys
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