It is one of those days where an overwhelming sense of the insignificance of my life is washing over me. I am struck by how much one little life in one little house on one little street in one little city in one little state in one little country on one little planet hurling through the vastness of the universe is so utterly small and meaningless. My instinct is to fight these thoughts – to wrestle with them and forcefully beat them back into submission. Sometimes that is a successful strategy and I layer over top of those thoughts with affirmations of the importance of the tasks I have laid out before me and focus my attention there. This enables me to go out into the world and function in society pretending that accomplishments matter. And at the end of those days, I do feel like a pretender. But then there are other days, like today, where even the mightiest of refocused thoughts cannot persuade me away from the idea that we are tiny insignificant creatures full of grand ideas and illusions that imbue importance to our dead-end lives. And when I go out into the world with that mindset, nothing really matters. There is a perverse sense of distance as life becomes more observational than participatory and I see others scurrying in their pursuit of fanciful dreams that will keep them running on the hamster wheel of activity until it one day stops. There have been other times when I do allow myself to let the reality of the truth of this realization – that we are tiny creatures in a vast universe and that we all have a limited time on this earth – consume my thoughts and I retreat until I can once again find my way out to engage meaningfully with the world while entertaining a renewed view of what this life is all about. The way I have found to come back from this existential cliff of meaninglessness is to refocus my thoughts on relationships and understand that this is why we are here.
I have spent my life trying to understand our purpose and what this existence is all about. Even as a child, I would climb a tree and sit cradled in its branches looking up at the stars and wonder what existed out beyond my own little world. Growing up in the age when Star Trek (the original) was beginning to change the way we viewed humanity, I would imagine being beamed up by Scottie to explore a greater landscape than my little tree. And this wonder drove me later in life to investigate the works of other kindred spirits who wrestled with the fact that we could even ponder our own existence let alone search for why we are here. What an extraordinary ability to not only be participants in our lives but also to be observers of that participation. Sometimes those observations bring uncomfortable realizations that contradict the self-importance we place on our unique individual lives. To dip our toes in that thought-pool takes a special kind of courage. To face with full consciousness that we will cease to be on this planet at some unknown point and understand fully that all of our beliefs are created by us, by our culture, by the evolution of our thought, can feel like being untethered in a vast sea of meaninglessness.
I had only glimpsed this place of emptiness after the rapid-succession deaths of my husband and first child. They passed within four months of each other after long cancer illnesses. After those first deaths, I tried to revisit the dogmatic Christianity that lingered from my youth. It failed to hold the weight of my experiences. The bond between my husband and daughter and their interdependent journeys through cancer treatments solidified in my mind the belief that there was purpose and connection in life and in death. I was able to embrace a spiritual system based on Christ Consciousness that helped me live with the pain and sorrow of those losses.
I found a new faith where I was able to embrace the mystery of life-and-death even as I wrestled with trying to understand why my husband’s life was so short, he died at 36 years old, and the even shorter life of my daughter who died at nine years old. Their lives were so intertwined, and I could see clearly that they provided each other with a kindred soul in this world that helped them fulfill an unidentifiable and unknown purpose. If this were true, if there was a reason and meaning behind this, then that meant that my life and the lives of my two sons also had a purpose. It deepened my search to find justification for my life and to help my sons find theirs. To do that, I knew we needed a new start. We moved from California to Washington arriving on New Year’s Eve 1994 to begin our new lives in a new place at the beginning of a new year.
I was viscerally aware that our lives on earth are not guaranteed for any length of time. And although, I did not know what my purpose for living was, I set out to explore something different for my life that could help me make sense of the previous nine years. I do believe that books find us rather than the other way around. I stumbled upon Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” in a used bookstore and my exploration into suffering outside of my own fueled me forward. Instead of going back to work in the auto industry, I decided to pursue a life-long desire to write for a living and also to dig into my enduring curiosity about the meaning of life which had become much more of a priority as I wrestled with loss and trying to understand suffering. I enrolled in journalism and philosophy classes at the local community college with no clear idea of where that would lead.
This was interrupted after about a year when my oldest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My great plans as well as my hard-fought and well-fashioned understanding of the spiritual tenet that everything happens for a reason even if we do not understand it could no longer hold my experiences. I observed my beautiful comprehension crumble under the weight of this new revelation just as my previous dogmatic faith had collapsed. John Lennon once sang, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Life took a whole new happening twist.
When my son died two years later, I dove headfirst and fully into the vast pool of meaninglessness. Not only did I no longer embrace the illusion that there was a purpose for all of this, I also rejected any idea that life could be a system that was designed for a higher purpose. Devastated and untethered I became pragmatic. I was still here on this planet with another son whom I fully loved with all of the pieces of my broken heart.
Having interrupted my education, I was determined to return to it. Instead of going back to the community college, which I viewed as going backward, I enrolled at Gonzaga, the Jesuit university in Spokane. I never went to college out of high school partially because it was never expected of me and partially because it never really entered my mind when I was young as the path I should take. I was seduced by the romanticism and rebellion of the 60’s and absorbed the zeitgeist of those turbulent times wanting to live my life unconstrained by previous generational conventions. Of course, at the time, the only thing I knew was that I just wanted to get away from where I grew up in eastern Ohio. In my pre-adolescent years, songs like “Let’s Live For Today” released in 1967 by The Grass Roots became a guiding light in the direction my life would take. Eleven years later, “Sha la la la la la live for today and don’t worry ’bout tomorrow,” was still a favorite song on the cassette player as my friend and I, at 21 years old, traveled like vagabonds across the country. That was the education I sought – experience.
And now, older, wiser, and lost, I sought the solace of education and was determined to not be defeated by this hand that I had been dealt. After a brief semester in the journalism program, I quickly realized that I was unable to even pretend to care about reporting about campus life. I began taking classes in world religions and philosophy. I was exposed to a wide array of all the usual suspects: Kant, James, Rosseau, Locke, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Augustine, Anselm, among others. All of these men, and unfortunately they were all men, grappled with questions of meaning trying to parse through language, human thought, history, psychology, religion, and even science, with one pursuit – to understand why we are here.
I picked up bits of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. The mystics from each of these traditions appealed to me in their unwavering ability to transcend the conventions of their traditions and reveal a spirituality that uncovered a similar truth – that Love is what binds us all together regardless of the name it is given.
More recently, I have sought out contemporary and metaphysical voices, mostly women: Williamson, Myss, Houston, Moorjani, Brown, Tolle. These voices speak to me with a modern expansion of the ancient mystic teachings where love and grace are active players in our lives, how every thought matters, how we are part of a collective that is strung together by love. I embrace these ideas. I also embrace the very real experience I have had where the kindness of strangers has brought me through incredibly difficult days. People, some of whom I will never know, stepped up to provide my family with support during our most stressful years of navigating cancer treatments for my husband and two children. I have experienced the final scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where George Bailey is lifted up by the townspeople in his most trying hour of need. I have been left with the incapacity to ever doubt the goodness that can be generated from the human heart. And yet, even with all of these words of love, we daily witness the hatred and destruction of our fellow human beings. We see those with power seeking nothing more than to dominate and control the majority of people for their own profit and gain with devastating consequences to human life and the planet. And the darkness threatens.
And on these days when darkness enters my thoughts, it leaves me feeling like these words of love are just another part of a made-up fantasy of illusion to placate the masses while destruction reigns. I watch as some unscrupulous spiritual teachers get rich and gather followers for market share and it all feels like just another commodity – the sale of an illusion of purpose and meaning for this life. And if we don’t see it, if we haven’t found the golden ring of enlightenment, well then, we just have to take another seminar, commit more resources, and try harder. It is much the same as my disillusionment with organized religion. The churches have pedaled salvation for centuries but always at a price. The churches themselves became rich and the poor still suffer.
Even as I write these words, I am reminded that there was a time in my life when I was broken and hurting and I found true solace in church. I have also benefited greatly from many of the spiritual and secular teachers that I have studied. There are those in both sectors who truly are on a mission to help humanity. They are able to conceptualize and articulate the angst of the times that brings forth a lineage of thought from past mystics. Their teachings are light that pierces the modern-day darkness.
I do feel like these contemporary philosophers, as well as those of old, are kindred spirits wrestling with the meaning and purpose of life, trying to understand and express the reason we are here at all as sentient beings. Studying these thinkers provides me with a collection of thoughts that blur the lines between my own ideas and those that I have picked up along the way. My experiences of loss, sorrow, and devastating heartbreak filter through all of these perceptions to bring me the ability to embrace with humility my insignificance. At the same time, the love that I feel for those who have gone before as well as those that are still here, defines and crystallizes the eternal energetic connection with all of life. This is what endures. This is what lives beyond us. Nisargadatta Maharaj wrote “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between the two my life flows.”
Even on days when darkness and insignificance wash over me, there is a seed deep in my being that this one little life in one little house on one little street in one little city in one little state in one little country on one little planet hurling through the vastness of the universe means something to those I love and who love me. At times I may still feel like a pretender, an observer or a recluse, but the truth of my insignificance is not a reason for despair. Despair comes when we forget that we are connected to others. Despair comes when we witness suffering and feel incapable of alleviating it. Despair comes when we feel powerless. So even as we run along on the hamster wheel of life in vain pursuit of accomplishments that bring temporary pleasure, we can embrace being here now, alive in this moment. We can rejoice in our relationships and those we love: our families, our friends, our communities, our children, our grandchildren, our fellow human beings whom we may never meet. And we can act in ways that build relationships rather than things. We can ease the suffering of others. There is no greater antidote to despair than connection with others and being of service. And there is no greater power in this world than Love.