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The Meaning of Life: from the pages of the Little, Brown book.

I am not arrogant enough to assume that I know what the meaning of life is. When I contemplate the fact that the universe goes on forever, it is impossible for me to understand. If I think about the endlessness of time, if I think that when I die everything dies with me since everything is only here because I perceive it through my senses; if I spend too long contemplating what the infinity of the universe means--I could literally go mad. So I block those thoughts out.

We kid ourselves. We kid ourselves to make sense out of things. We have to boil the cosmos down to our own very minute frame of reference or sphere of vision. Then we set ourselves up as God because in our scientific quests we start to understand a few of the mechanisms of the life process.

It's still egocentric, but to condense it down to a tiny microcosm: We're here to biologically reproduce, like cats and dogs and bacteria reproduce. Looked at in this way, the meaning of life, for me, has been to give birth to and to love my children. Now, of course, my babies have grown. So for me, today, the meaning of life is nature. For me, the meaning of life is the wallabies and kangaroos hopping around my house, the spectacular parrots. For me, the meaning of life is the wonder of evolution that produces the most extraordinary mix of species of which there are millions on earth and which we are now rapidly destroying. This rather strange species called man is an evolutionary aberrant intent on destroying nature and, therefore, the meaning of life.

Ah, the smell of flowers. I've just put flowers in a vase. The meaning of life is the flowers in the vase.

Helen Caldicott, Australian pediatrician and antinuclear proponent, is founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Almost every day of my life I see people in the process of going from the diagnosis of a dread disease to a terminal stage in that disease. Having encountered so many people facing the end of life, having witnessed them and their loved ones as they've asked, in an urgent and profound way, "What has my life meant?" I feel I have some partial answer to the reason we all exist. I am led to believe that if there is a real purpose for any of us, it is to somehow enhance each other's humanity--to love, to touch others' lives, to put others in touch with basic human emotions, to know that you have made even one life breathe easier because you have lived. By and large, the meaning of a person's life gets distilled to: How well have I loved? A person can then find hope in believing: Somebody loved me and I loved him or her and those memories that my loved one carries forward will shimmer on inside my children and grandchildren and beyond. When I talk to elderly people who are dying, if they have any regrets, they don't worry about their lack of material gainor about having had too little sucess in life. They worry about the kind of things they didn't do and should have done with the people that they loved.

I remember an unmarried teacher who was dying. She realized her life had been rich because, as she told me, "I know I've touched other people's lives and their lives are better for having known me." And there was a merchant seaman dying of gastric cancer that had been diagnosed at a late stage. He regretted that he had never married. But as we talked, he revealed that he had had many friends. He had traveled a lot. In sorting through the riffraff, he was able to find meaning in his life by virtue of the fact that he felt he had instilled a sense of passion for the experience of life within the souls of the people that he had known.

People sometimes ask me how I get through it all. I cry a lot. I love the people, I grieve their loss and I go on to the next one.

Leah de Roulet, social worker, counsels terminal cancer patients and their families.

We are here as a result of random occurrences. But what we accomplish since we are here may give some sense of meaning to our existence. Although the notion of "here" can be simply defined as the brief physical time that we exist as individuals, we have the ability to make that "here" extend beyond this physical existence. Man is part of a "collective consciousness." We are connected to one another through time by our creations, works, images, thoughts and writings. We communicate to future generations what we are, what we have been, hopefully influencing for the better what we will become. Our lives are given meaning by our actions-- accomplishments made while we are "here that extend beyond our own time.

Maya Lin, architect and artist, designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

My mother told me a story when I was a child. When Leo Tolstoy was an old man he was planting little apple trees. His neighbor laughed at him and called him a silly old man, because when the applies finally grew he wouldn't be around to eat them. Tolstoy told him, "Yes, but other people will eat them and they will think of me." I think that's what we're supposed to do: Leave more than we've found, give more than we've received, love more than we've been loved. And while we're here, we should always rewind the videotapes before returning them to the rental store.

Yakov Smirnoff, comedian, is a Soviet emigre to the U.S.

We are here to be excited from youth to old age, to have an insatiable curiosity about the world. Aldous Huxley once said that to carry the spirit of the child into old age is the secret of genius. And I buy that. We are also here to genuinely, humbly and sincerely help others by practicing a friendly attitude. And every peron is born for a purpose. Everyone has a God-given potential, in essence, built into them. And if we are to live life to its fullest, we must realize that potential.

Norman Vincent Peale, Protestant pastor, wrote The Power of Positive Thinking.

The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so--roughly .0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time--and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, and more important, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life's tape to the dawn of time and let it play again--and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available (so thank your lucky stars in a literal sense); because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a "higher" answer--but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers to ourselves--from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

Stephen Jay Gould is a paleontologist, essayist and humanist.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Supplement to Sunset; excerpts
Author:Friend, David; Vitulli, C.J.; Caldicott, Helen; de Roulet, Leah; Smirnoff, Yakov; Peale, Norman Vinc
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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