I sometimes wonder if we humans are the only species on earth that is capable of taking pleasure in returning, after a long absence, to places we once frequented, or where we once lived.
For it seems to me that, when we do indeed take pleasure in such a thing, it is largely pleasure taken in discovery — specifically, discovery of what has changed, and what has not changed, about the place. And so, does any other animal besides ourselves take pleasure in that sort of discovery? The question can be interesting to ask, but how could you ever answer it.
I was reminded of that question this morning because I returned — briefly — to an internet forum that I once spent considerable time on. As it turned out, not much seemed different from when I last frequented the forum, and so I didn’t often experience the minor excitement of, “Oh, that’s new!” But nevertheless someone had put up a thread on the site that got me thinking — and I count it astonishing whenever someone, somehow, manages to get me thinking at any time of day, let alone the morning.
The author of the thread asked a question that I’d seen asked in one way or another many times on the site. One of those “big” questions about the meaning of life that it has always seemed to me are at at once so simple and so ambitious they can be readily answered in three or four short sentences — but the sentences then take a book or two to properly explain. Here, now, are his precise words:
“What do you believe is required to have in your life to bring true success, fulfillment and happiness. Is there a perfect formula? Is religion necessary? A belief in god? And how does what you believe bring you that happiness?”
As I said, I’ve seen the question asked many times in many ways, and I’m a bit jaded to it. So, it somewhat surprises me that the way he has asked it has actually got me to thinking for once. But I suspect the main reason for my interest is this one, simple part of the larger question: “Is there a perfect formula?”
I’m sure it’s happened before that someone on that forum has asked about the meaning of life while at the same time raising the possibility that there is no one answer to his or her question, but I myself don’t recall it. In fact, most of the time I’ve seen that questioned ask (and I find this telling) the author has at least suggested that there is only one true answer to it. And sometimes they have even out and out stated that anyone who fails to recognize the “one true answer” is a damn fool. An attitude that, of course, is perfectly commonplace on the net, but that, offline, usually murders the chance of someone getting invited back to the next group orgy.
As for myself, I very strongly suspect that most of our species of profoundly sophisticated, stick-poking super apes are in practice quite pragmatic about meaning(s). That is, it seems to me that most of us do not fixate on a single, over-arching meaning for our lives. Instead, we might dance between several meanings, often on a daily basis. At times, the meaning that concerns us most is the work we are at the moment doing. At other times, it’s our family. And at still other moments, we might seek meaning in helping others, in science, in philosophy, in religion, in politics, in sex, in literature, in a hobby, and so forth.
Humans seem to have an innate need or constitutional bias — which appears to me to be rooted in the human ego — to rank things in terms of “superior” and “inferior”. At the same time, it appears to me that we can often enough lack a genuinely profound reason for doing so — apart, of course, from when we are dealing with relatively trivial matters, such as when ranking various brands of broccoli according to their nutrition, various sports teams according to their performance, or various sticks according to their efficacy in poking other members of our noble species. But so very often, we rank things that neither need ranking, nor that it actually benefits us to rank. However, the inclination to do so appears to be reflexive.
Which seems to raise the question: Is it usually (let alone always) necessary to rank the various meanings we give life? Perhaps the impulse to rank things is so deep rooted in us that we are uncomfortable when we don’t. But I’ve found that feelings of discomfort are a poor guide to sound reasoning: The truth often enough makes us uncomfortable. So that is today’s question: When (and when not) do we actually need to rank meanings? And when we do, must we maintain forever the rank we give them at the moment? Or are we wiser to change about their rank with changing circumstances? For instance, if to the dire alarm of my boss, I think that having sex with my wife is more important to me at the moment than spending time on my boss’s work assignment, am I wise to always rank those things in that order? Or, to ask a slightly more subtle question, when, and when not, do I need to think having sex with my wife is “more important” than my boss’s work assignment in order to decide to have sex with my wife?
I ask those questions because it seems to my simple mind that they in some way strike to the heart of the question posed by the author of the forum thread I read this morning. “Is there a perfect formula?” But enough of my own ramblings. What do you yourself think?