Good Lord, but life is funny.
And how can I justify an essay that starts with such a trite sentiment? Ah, even clichés begin in truth. And life is a funny… um, funny what? What the heck is this life? Is it just a small bit of time on a lonely watery rock in the middle of nowhere? Too nihilist. How about a test by a lonely watery god to see who deserves his love? Too illogical. Maybe it is a series of event that happen between birth and death? Too literal, but obviously the way most of us lead our lives.
There in lies the inherent irony. The vastness of life on this earth and the lack of it in the greater, much greater universe gives us a sense of importance, isolation, insignificance, and intelligence. Why are we here? Because we’re here. Roll the bones, as Rush tells us. Chance is our friend; chaos is our enemy. What does any of it mean to a guy who needs to feed his family and slaves for meager wages? Go tell it to the Times, he might say. He doesn’t need penny philosophy.
The greatest minds of the human race were all penny philosophers. No matter what they’ve learned, and what they tell us, the vast majority of humans just are. They exist on vague promises of earthly or heavenly riches, rewards that they will never see, but they carry on, because, well, because it sure beats dying. Everything in the Universe exists just as it did billions of years ago, with minor adjustments to matter distribution. We discover how the universe really acts and we hand out Nobel prizes, but the first man to discover that nightshade is poisonous taught his tribe a valuable lesson by dying for science. Our knowledge of anything is simply the discovery of what the Universe is doing on our local level, and it would happen whether or not we wrote about it in a science journal.
And this is funny. Nowhere to go, nothing to learn about, and all of the rest of the world trying to muscle in on the little bits we manage to collect for our families, or ourselves, we carry on. We love. We smile. We laugh. We sing. We give. We praise. We write. We grow.
Richard Feynman was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic weapon. He also was an avid drummer. He approached drumming much in the same way as a tribal musician approaches percussion. He hit the leather of the drum with his hands in a way that pleased his internal idea of rhythm. He marveled at the vibrations that the drum created. He was probably more interested in the physics involved with percussion than he was in splitting atoms, but he is more noted for the later, of course. But, easily, Feynman is the scientist that I think of when I hear about the childlike qualities of geniuses. It is not a put-down. It is not even about innocence, which anyone spending any amount of time with a child realizes is just not a proper adjective for the whirlwind of mud-caked hands and surreptitious cookie jar raids. What a child has in abundance is joy of discovery. We often mistake this for innocence. But Feynman was partially responsible for the weapon that brings the entire human race to the brink of extinction. There is no innocence there.
But this is the child given the keys to the Universe. A child brings as much emotion to the first time he sticks his finger in his nose and discovers boogers as he does to the first time he sees fireflies in the summer evening. It is all so very amazing. To Richard Feynman, the discovery of how ants communicate with each other about spilled sugar was no less a joy than the quantum equations he worked on that bear his name, the joy of life in all of its abundance sharing just a bit of its hidden vocabulary to willing ears.
Everyone has this, but a lot of people sadly ignore it. A complete journey through the American Public Education System should always include the visit to the cemetery or local haunted house that will creep a kid out for weeks. The child learns that mysteries surround us, and there are always buried layers beneath the surfaces of the ordinary. But the complete journey through life should also include the realization that thumps in the dark are good spooky fun, but the real scary stuff is always right in front of us. Ghosts don’t kill; people do. The sadness of this, due to historical misconceptions that were poorly applied even when society may have justified such barbaric thoughts in whatever era, is compounded by the shear amount of information that should help us all understand each other a lot more than we do.
We are all in the same damned boat. Differences of opinion, method of dress, religion, sexuality, education, and so on mean absolutely nothing. We are all just trying to survive life as comfortably as possible. And there are so many simple joys, why bother trying to take someone else’s away?
I’ll never have an answer to that question. It is the flipside of the original question, what is life? They belong together because they both ask a question about human need, and they both can only be answered using words that won’t mean the same things to different people. And pondering either question is a lot like striking the head repeatedly with a piece of lumber. When you walk away with a headache, you wonder why you started the process in the first place.
Life holds the trump, however. In the reversal of the standard idea that the one bad thing one does will cancel out a dozen good things by that same person in the minds of those affected by the actions, life gives us joy, and the single memory of joy can outshine a lifetime of pure hell. The mind holds on to past joys, obsesses over current joys, and anticipates the joys of the future. With Pavlovian training, we should never play the lottery, enter a doomed relationship, grow attached to pets or people or things that will change or die. But programmed response is only a small part of life.
There is the symphony that cause tears to well up in the strongest man, the pain and euphoria of childbirth, the first awkward and restrained kiss of two future lovers, the satisfaction of sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner with loved ones. And, hell, you might be the lucky one and hit the $10 million jackpot. Those two kids, sure, maybe they might straighten out and forge a strong, loving, and respectful relationship. And just having that cute, warm, black and white little cat on my lap draws off so much stress and worry. We learn, and we don’t. It’s understandable. We takes our chances in the game of life, and while there is only one result, all the fun is getting there.