WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Meaning of Life and I haven’t gotten along well the past few years. But I think we’re pulling out of it.
My existential outlook became cloudy when my nest emptied, kids away at college and graduate school. After our first was born, the meaning of life was obvious: love and rear our kids. Yes, there were moments when parenting wasn’t enough, metaphysically; they were fleeting, caused more by a morose temperament and everyday anxieties, nothing very deep.
My adolescence (my wife says it lasted 'til my 30's), though, was an easily mocked festival of pretentious angst; I say pretentious, but it felt genuine at the time. I wanted to be a true believer -- in some big thing. But I was a skeptic, without religious faith, intolerant of authority and conformists. I soaked up Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Freud, Marx, Jung – the grandiose guys who had grand, coherent worldviews with all the answers.
This is the classic sophomoric stage. Two people guided me out of it, and I formed a lifelong mistrust for answers and beautiful theories.
First, as for many my age, came Robert Pirsig and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” My epiphany was that, for me, meaning and purpose came from looking, not finding -- from the climb, not the summit. “It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top,” Pirsig wrote.
In graduate school, I caught the break of my life, except for my family. I studied with the British historian of ideas, Sir Isaiah Berlin, a Russian émigré to England. Berlin despised my early existential heroes. He had no tolerance for answers, for certainty, for sanctimony, for zealotry or for the idea that all the world’s values were in harmony when properly understood. He believed those were the human weaknesses that bred the great evils he survived, Soviet Communism and Nazism.
To Berlin, the meaning of life came from the climb. It was about resisting the temptations of being a true believer, of not being confused. Berlin’s climb was about seeing the world through other people’s eyes, which is anti-narcissistic and reveals lives have many, many meanings.
Abstract became real with my kids. Perhaps it gave me clarity of purpose I never had, if not the Meaning of Life.
Without kids at home, purpose became elusive.
Last week, I had the chance to interview Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the most idea-packed work of non-fiction I’ve read in years, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” Harari is a historian with a scientific bent who asks weird, audacious questions about our species. He’s interested in why humans have produced fabulous civilizations, gained enormous practical knowledge and invented enduring religions and philosophies but have not been able to create more content, wiser individual homo sapiens.
We know this has been true over past century thanks to polling and empirical social science. In prosperous societies, individuals have slowly and almost imperceptibly become less happy and content. More prosperity doesn’t help. This is often called the Progress Paradox. Harari thinks that what we call progress has increased individual contentment in some eras, not most.
Harari sees history through the lens of biology and hard science. Homo sapiens are just fancy animals. The idea that our lives should have meaning is just a fiction we concocted because it was useful to the species at some point.
This depressed me. I asked Harari if it depressed him. It did, he said, but he had an epiphany.
Harari doesn’t look to religion and the great philosophers for the Meaning of Life. “They give you the impression that there is an answer and you stop asking the questions.”
“I make a distinction between religion and spirituality,” Harari told me. “I think I'm not a religious person, but I am a very spiritual person. For me religion is about answers and spirituality is about questions.”
“The spiritual quest is when you ask a big question like ‘who am I?’ Or, ‘what is reality?’ And you are willing to follow this question wherever it takes you,” he said.
I’ve always seen my post-sophomoric climb as philosophic, not spiritual. Time to rethink that.
I’ve been disheartened by how much we reward the politicians, polemicists, self-help gurus and preachers who say they have the answers, stridently and with sophomoric certainty. Black and white trumps gray in a busy, loud world.
I’m grateful Harari reminded me that the climb matters more than the summit. It can be an ephemeral insight. I’ll need to hold on to it, at least until I have grandchildren.