Posts Tagged ‘meaning of life’

A Determination.




I have taken a decision.


I am going to live until I die.


The alternative

is far too horrible to contemplate.

Surrounded by blackness on all sides, in utter impenetrable silence, and for a very, very, very long time, it did nothing.

There was nothing to see, so it did not see. Nothing to hear, so it did not hear. Nothing to feel, so it did not feel.

There were simply vast, unconscionable amounts of entirely nothing.

So – most importantly for our story – it thought nothing, either. With no external stimuli to provoke it, it simply did not concern itself with anything; it merely peacefully existed.

And incredible as it might seem in light of what happened later, for some handfuls of millions of years it did not even notice itself.

Then, during one instant which it would remember – well, forever, actually – a small, shiny proton appeared momentarily.

Over there. In what it would later come to know as “left”. And also “down a bit”.

Later – much, much later – it would come to understand that the lonely proton had flared into being for a few hundredths of a second as the result of a random and unpredictable thermo-dynamic fluctuation in the void in which it itself floated.

Like the last dying ripple of a stone cast into a pond uncountably many leagues away, space and time had broken upon the shores of its awareness in the form of one of the smallest building blocks of the Universe. And then it had immediately ceased, for with nothing around it to cling to the proton instantly had broken down into its components and they had dissipated into the nothingness almost too quickly to be observed.

Except the brief, evanescent burst of the proton was seen by the being – which, without even realizing it was doing it, had been peacefully observing nothing, and everything, with absolute and immediate accuracy.  And that was why, despite its apparent slumber, it could not miss the arrival, and near-simultaneous departure, of the pretty little particle.

The glittering sub-atomic appearance, brief and unthreatening though it was, nevertheless troubled it greatly.

Contradictions and nervousness rippled through it. It shook with excitement. Seething with speculation, for untold millennia it considered one critical and shocking question.

Not, as one might have imagined, wondering “What Was That?” No, no. What first occupied its attention was a much more pressing problem than the transitory proton.

What nagged away at it insistently was the question: “What am I?”

“What am I?” it wondered. “What am I?”

With no previous consciousness, and with no terms of reference whatsoever, it marveled at itself, and at this new sensation of existence, without, in truth, the slightest understanding of what was going on.

Casting frantically this way and that to work out what it was, it looked about itself, systematically, but in utter confusion.

Up and Down. Side to Side. In and Out. Backwards and Forwards. Along every plane and from every angle. Indeed, from many different perspectives simultaneously.

(If it did but know it, it actually looked for all the world like a large mahogany gentleman’s desk inlaid with a rather dinky line of shell marquetry around its edges and its drawers. Lots of drawers, in fact, with little pressed-metal knobs, that held promise of all sorts of treasures hidden away inside, and a couple of attractive glass paperweights adorned its leather-inlaid heart. But it wouldn’t understand all this until much later.)

Time passed. Lots of it. Loads and loads and loads of time.

Soon enough, and in a neat twist of reasoning that we can ascribe to what it actually was – which for want of a better term we could describe as “a really, really, really clever thing” – it soon realized that its own sudden and shocking existence was perhaps most easily understood by reference to what it was not. And in a miraculously short time after that, (for its powers of perception were, indeed, remarkably unconstrained), it had consequently separated the Universe into two orderly halves.

One half of everything it perceived to be it fittingly called “Me”.

The other half, it called “Not Me”.

The Me was pleased and much relieved by this development. Its jarringly unexpected coming-into-being seemed much less troublesome now that everything was neatly broken down into itself and … something else.

Thus reassured, it settled down to make a full and patient examination of itself.

Driven by insatiable curiosity, it first tried to work out why it had suddenly become conscious of its inherent Me-ness in the first place.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes. – Dylan Thomas

By dint of absence of any other observable data at all, it almost immediately decided that the sheer,ineffable thrill of the proton’s appearance had awoken its knowledge of itself. It could remember nothing before that, and so it seemed perfectly practical to place this sudden awareness of itself and its surroundings to that startlingly incandescent moment.

Next it spent a few million years pondering the proton. Was the Me somehow related to it? Connected to it in some way? Should it search for it? Was it coming back? Was it important? Indeed, as the only thing it had ever experienced, were the Me and the proton all there was to consider?

For what seemed like a very long time indeed, but in the scheme of things was merely a blink of the Me’s eye, the Me looked around and wondered why no other protons had appeared to disturb it, before or since.

But after an æon or two of this, it happened on a thought that occupied it even more deeply.

Surely, it reasoned to itself, what the proton was could not be nearly as important as another question that bothered it constantly – like the buzzer on a motel clock radio after too many drinks the night before – and that question, of course, was why, for goodness sake, had the Me not been aware of anything before the proton?

Beyond the awful, inky nothing that surrounded the Me, (which was, in fact, only three billionths of an inch thick, but being so thoroughly enmeshed in its musings it hadn’t actually noticed that yet), the Not Me pressed inwards. It edged silently towards the Me, as if holding its breath for the answer to this one. Not Me quaked and tightened around the Me, just by a fraction, and whispered silently to itself, listening, wondering, waiting.

And then – perhaps somehow alerted by the new-found excitement in the Not Me – the Me saw to its wonderment that far from being empty as it had assumed, the Not Me that was near it was actually jam-packed with innumerable billions and billions of particles crowding nearby, just beyond the layer of darkness, vibrating slowly – so slowly, in fact, and in such tiny increments of space – that the Me hadn’t even realised that the Not Me was moving at all!

Gazing in amused wonderment, the now insatiably inquisitive Me was straight way tempted to investigate further the gentle quadrille of the miniscule particles that swirled around it.

But without an answer to the nub of its problem, to wit: why it had not perceived its ownself at some point before what it had recently decided to call “Now” – or indeed, why it had not noticed the crowded, quivering Not Me earlier, which after all was only just over there outside the Me, so close at hand – the Me was frankly too troubled to do so.

So after trying and failing to find any concrete answers by simply looking about a bit, and drawing on hitherto unsuspected intellectual resources that spontaneously delighted it, the Me resolved – for it was nothing if not a very practical being, as we shall see – that it would simply have to run with what would eventually become known in another place as an assumption.

In short: the Me decided that in the absence of observable empiric data, it made good sense to “make up something that fits, until you can prove it’s wrong”.

(And thus it brought into being that delightful hobby for people with staring eyes and strange haircuts who listen to Laurie Anderson CDs on repeat known as Theoretical Physics, but of course it didn’t know that then.)

In this wise, the Me plumped for the conclusion that – before what it now called “the Me moment” – it had simply not been necessary for it to be self-aware.

For want of a better explanation, it assumed that although it had existed, it had not needed to know of its existence – and so, post hoc ergo propter hoc, as it were, it did not know.

The Me patiently examined this conclusion from all possible angles, and could not fault it.

(You might imagine that it would also have paused to wonder how it could so instinctively express its cogitation in obscure Latin phrases, a language that had not been used anywhere in existence yet, but that was just one of innumerable trifling considerations that would have to wait until more important questions had been answered.)

Ploughing remorselessly on now, the Me then painstakingly worried away at another thought that had occurred to it, from amongst the untold trillions of thoughts that it had every second. And this one was a real biggie.

That not just “it” but “Everything” must have some purpose, if only to take its natural place in the scheme of things.

This first and most painful bout of existential angst was very intense, but quickly resolved. Yes, yes! It must surely be true! Even if the purpose of a thing was merely to lie passively next to some other Me-ness, like a compliant jigsaw piece fitting neatly into another, purpose there had to be. Pointlessness was surely pointless.

And just as it now observed that the endless particles around it in the Not Me were somehow interlaced seamlessly with one another, and that to remove even one from its place would cause a cataclysmic rent and collapse, so therefore it, too, the Me, must be where (and when) it was for a reason. For if the Me held no inherent purpose, no relationship with something, even if it did not yet know what that something was, then why would it exist? But it did exist, so therefore it must have some role to play. “I exist, therefore I should exist” it trilled.

The next thought arrived a nano-second later. “So what am I for?” it demanded of itself. “What am I for?”

Breathlessly rushing on for a few million years, the Me rifled through the arguments available to it like an over-excited burglar happening on a fortuitously open bank vault.

It reasoned that it must have begun at a particular point, and at some stage it had become needed by … well, something, or because of something … and so – of course! – before that moment self-knowledge would have served no purpose, because – and the Me raced effortlessly forward to its conclusion! – to be aware, but purposeless, would indisputably have no point at all, as mere awareness, it was sure, affected nothing else, either positively or negatively. And, indeed, might be intolerably boring.

(Thrilled with this reasoning, it made itself a mental note: ““Quod erat demonstrandum: we all do what we can.” It was not sure why this thought was important, but felt convinced it was, and promised itself that it would return to nut it out, one day.)

So. Conclusion: the Me fitted in somehow as well. Because it must!

It rippled and rang with the sheer orgiastic delight of its logic. Very well, it mused, it didn’t yet know what the reason for its own existence was, but it felt distinctly less alarmed now it had deduced that a reason must exist, and soon enough, if it continued to concentrate, it was confident it would work out what it was.

Having now been on the job for what seemed to it, suddenly, as an awfully long time, the Me paused for a well-earned rest. Happy with where it had got to so far, it rather liked the sensation of not doing much thinking for a while.

It added another note to its rapidly growing list of things to remember. “Take a break from thinking now and then. Maybe about 14.2857 recurring percent of the time,” it advised itself portentously, along the way inventing Sunday, the decimal system and a few other useful concepts without even noticing. Meanwhile, the Not Me crept ever closer, and waited anxiously for the whole complex tangle to be sorted out on the Me’s mental blackboard.

Lolling around in the dark, approvingly noticing the inlay around the edges of its drawers for the first time, the Me now began to dimly recognise the awesome deductive capacity it could marshal with such little effort.

It was as if it already knew anything it needed to know; all it had to do was turn its attention to a problem and the resolution would eventually become clear, like mist clearing on a beautiful, still lake of knowledge. And with this awareness, the tensions within it settled somewhat. There was a reason why. Because there had to be. So now, the Big One. What could that reason possibly be?

Here, the being’s deductive process – which was rigorous and invariably accurate, if for no other reason than it had an innate ability to consider all probabilities simultaneously and ascribe correct values to them – nevertheless slowed down just a little, because the number of possible reasons why it existed were so vast as to tax even its own seemingly inexhaustible computational capacity.

It spent some time, for example, wondering whether it was supposed to be a forty-seven inch flat-screen hi-definition television, an item with whose innate angular beauty it was instantly infatuated, and which was tremendously thrilling and desirable and perfect for viewing something it decided to call “sports”, and it would have been really quite content to be a television forever were it not, obviously, for the complete absence of anything to be watched on itself, at least until about a trillion years from then.

It thus followed, the Me reasoned carefully, that whilst it might become just such an item at some stage in the future, it was highly unlikely that it was supposed to be a flat-screen TV just yet. It similarly rejected being a “V8 Supercar”, “Designer Fragrance”, or “Hollywood Red Carpet Interviewer” for the same reason.


For a long time it was quite taken with the idea of being a conveniently-sized ball of dung, stationed outside the home of every industrious little dung beetle, so that their existence would not be so miserably dominated by scouring the desert for poo of all shapes and sizes and then spending hours in the hot sun uncomplainingly prodding it into an easily-maneuverable shape and size.

The Me felt very compassionate towards the tireless little beetle. He reasoned that even as he extended compassion to the Least so he extended it, by proxy to the All. The idea amused the Me, and it made a point to remember it.

Not entirely au fait, as yet, with the niceties of mass marketing, the Me even nevertheless drafted a quick advertising jingle to promote the idea that went something like this.

“Poo, poo, just made for you,

 yes, do do do, choose ezy-poo

 delivered to you, you’ll be glad too

 with A-may-zing easy-roll Poo-poopy-doo!”

Being a ball of poo would, it felt sure, would be a selfless and meaningful reason to exist.

But sadly, once again, the fact that no dung beetles would be around for quite some time stymied that line of enquiry, too. Then in quick succession, it considered and rejected, for various reasons, the proposition that it was a field of daffodils enlivening the surface of a small rocky planet in the Lamda Quadrant, a very obvious cure for Malaria merely waiting to be discovered, or whether it was a rather nasty virus that caused the four-winged, Greater Blue Flerterbee to fall out of the sky unexpectedly and in alarming numbers on a rather nice globe circling two twin suns in a galaxy with a rather curious Coke-bottle shape, thus leading to the extinction of all life-forms on that planet within a couple of generations.

None fitted.

Last, but by no means least, and with an aesthetic sense that it found delightfully unexpected and artistic, it wondered whether or not it was merely supposed to fill the space around it with floating three-dimensional pyramids made of delicately scented orange seaweed and sparkling Tarl Tree blossoms.

(And that one nearly won, actually. Which would have been interesting.)

Yes, able, now, to roam its growing understanding in all directions at one and the same time, the Me patiently examined of all these intriguing options, and more.

It considered alternative reasons for its own existence to the value of 10 x 10²°. Which really was an awful lot of reasons. And sooner or later, as a direct result of its nascent omniscience, and with a rather annoyed snort of surprise – in light of its previous lack of wakefulness – it was very soon after additionally confronted by a growing certainty that it had always existed. Putting it at its most simple, the Me realised it had always been there.

Always, and forever.

This was an unexpectedly Big Thought. In fact, to be frank, it was a Big Thought And A Half.

Wandering up and down the timeline now, watching itself, it very quickly also correctly surmised that it always would exist, too. Right up until, well … forever, really. And once it had occurred, this new Thought seemed entirely appropriate and natural and comfortable.

Until, that was: until it observed – with some further distress – that all around it other things were coming into being and then moving into non-being with astonishing regularity.

Indeed, it rapidly deduced that moving into non-existence was much more common than moving peacefully through existence with no apparent end, and, indeed, after a few more millennia, it observed that it could find no other beings that shared its own notable, distinguishing, essential never-endingness.

This latest discovery intrigued it mightily. In fact, so mightily was the Me intrigued that it stopped worrying about what it was for a moment, and started looking around with more interest.

It was simply fascinated by the sheer … dyingness … of all it saw around it.

The Me wasn’t sure where it had got that word from, and there was something about it that it didn’t like all that much, but it didn’t have time to worry about trivia. Not when it observed that unlike itself, everything around it seemed to be in the process of discharging tiny amounts of energy, and in doing so, declining to entirely predictable, unavoidable nothingness.

There was an alarmingly vast amount of this decline going on. All around it, apparently spontaneous changes were going on all the time to smooth out differences in temperature, pressure, density, and chemical potential. In fact, the more it went on, the more it went on. Yes! There was no denying it. The process was accelerating.

Still somewhat uncomfortable with “dyingness”, the Me hastily coined the term “entropy” to describe this apparently calamitous force that it observed in the Not Me all around him.

The Me took a step back, and thought for a while.

It took a step back, and carefully considering all the observable phenomena, it came up with something rather like this to define what it was seeing:

Quantitatively, entropy is defined by the differential quantity dS = δQ / T, where δQ is the amount of heat absorbed in an isothermal and reversible process in which the system goes from one state to another, and T is the absolute temperature at which the process is occurring.

Encouraged by this understanding, the Me now also understood that more precisely:

In any process where the system gives up energy ΔE, and its entropy falls by ΔS, a quantity at least TR ΔS of that energy must be given up to the system’s surroundings as unusable heat (TR being the temperature of the system’s external surroundings). Otherwise the process it was observing would not go forward.

And in a rollicking fever of enthusiasm, it also realized that:

The entropy is defined as the number of microscopic configurations that result in the observed macroscopic description of the thermodynamic system, or:

where kB is something that would become known as Boltzmann’s constant 1.38066×10−23 J K−1 and   is the number of microstates corresponding to the observed thermodynamic macrostate calculated using the multiplicity function.

And that was how, after all this feverish figuring, that the Me finally came to know what its reason was.

There was no doubt. The terrible, incontrovertible fact was that – all around it, wherever it looked – the Not Me was dying.

Inexorably, undeniably, because of its own nature which it could not escape, the Not Me was destined, finally, to become perfectly smooth and calm, in a state of utter non-ness, untroubled by thermo-dynamic fluctuations, and unutterably silent and quiet. It was a fate from which there was no return, for once reached, there was nothing to rekindle the energies expended.

The Not Me would simply cease to exist.

And then, the Me mused, what would become of Me?

Would I exist alone? With nothing left to observe, perhaps, but nonetheless awake?

And in a fraction of a millisecond, it knew that this outcome was too awful to contemplate. Utter knowledge, surrounded by utter nothingness, would be unbearable to it now.

Driven back to the fundamentals by its own ruthless logic, the Me considered again the beginning of its own awareness. It saw clearly now – “How could it not have known?” it berated itself angrily – that the tiny, scintillating proton had been a desperate cry for help from the Not Me. It was so obvious! Aware of its own inherent, inexorable non-ness, it had turned to the all-knowing Me to find a solution. And perhaps, even, the Not Me had known – somehow – that the Me needed the Non-Me too. That once awoken, it would have to act, for not to act would leave it, ultimately, alone and perfectly brilliant, transfixed in horrified eternally silent and motionless despair.

And as it divined its purpose, the Me also saw that it was capable of decisive action. In an instant of perception, it was transformed. It became action personified.

Surging forward through the darkness that surrounded it, the Me spoke with a voice that resonated through the umpteen layers of reality.  For the first time in history, it spoke effortlessly and in chorus to the largest perfect number of particles of all kinds that it could see … crying out to the 232,582,656 × (232,582,657 − 1) tiny building blocks that it somehow instantly knew made up the Not Me.

“I Am!” it thundered, for the whole Not Me to hear.

The words echoed through all of existence like nothing had every done before. (Which was literally true, as it had just invented sound.) And the ever more confident Me really liked the phrase. It felt appropriate and proper, somehow. So it repeated it.

“I Am … The I Am!”

It rolled the phrase round and round, enjoying its profundity and orderliness. How it was so perfectly Beginning and End-ish. The Me made a jotting in the margin of History to use the phrase again when it felt the need to explain itself to someone.

It stretched, and stretched, pushing its boundaries outwards, tearing away at the darkness that clung stubbornly to it like wet serge shorts on a schoolboy’s leg. Yes, it knew its reason for existence now, and faced with such a cause, its course of action was as clear to it now as a shining new dawn.

It must act at once to end the dreaded entropy: for it was the Me’s job to banish this awful dyingness and save the Not Me, before it became quiet and flat and silent and the Me was left to stare at where it had been, alone and mad.

And now it also knew with perfect understanding that this task would become something of a recurring leitmotif for its own existence. A struggle – just beginning – which it could now see with terrible clarity would last until the end of Time.

“Listen! Everything!” it cried, in a voice that brooked no opposition. “Listen to me!”

The Not Me took a firm grip on itself and held on tight. It waited, hushed and expectant, for what it knew had to come, and what had come before, and what would come again, impossibly far into the future.

With a giant, convulsive gasp, the Me cried out in a great and terrible voice.

“Let … there … be … Light!”

And lo, there was Light. And man, it was good.


One of the more difficult things for anyone with a brain to work out is “Why?”

Why do the most terrible things happen?

Why do a bunch of suicidal terrorists slaughter dozens of wonderful, bright, inquisitive, compassionate children and their teachers in pursuit of their goals, for example?

Why does a crazed gunman shoot people in a Sydney cafe?

Why do suicidal fanatics and car bombs regular reap their bloody toll of death in countries the world over, and in the Middle East especially?

Why does a father kill his two tiny daughters to “punish” his ex wife?

Why? Why? Why? What possible purpose do all these events hold?

Is it all part of some cosmic plan? Or is it an entirely random, meaningless moment in time? Disgusting in its mundanity.

Does it represent some titanic battle between supernatural forces of good and evil? Or is it merely a dull and deadening further example of the oft-demonstrated human capacity to divorce ourselves from the consequences of our actions?

Or does all this have no inherent meaning at all? Is life merely a lonely and ultimately meaningless road, ending inevitably in death, in which the only passingly relevant question is “How did you do?” “Were you lucky?” “Were you noble?” “Were you unlucky?” “Were you base?”

Or perhaps, as some have argued, “Did you have fun?”

What do you tell the parents of a child recently dead from cancer? The wife whose husband and father of her children is killed in a work accident? The three children of the woman killed in the Sydney siege, all under ten? What do we tell them?

We are confused. We do not know if the earth is spinning off its spiritual axis, or whether there even is any axis at all.

We are torn between the siren calls of both God and Man – we can simultaneously believe the immediate and compelling emotional evidence of the supernatural in our lives – especially by contemplating coincidences so unlikely as to be highly unlikely to be random – at the same time as we recognise the rationality of the agnostic or the atheist. On balance, we believe in God, but the balance is fragile and tilts both ways. Doubt is our constant companion.


If there is a God, how could he allow us to make such a total, violently messed up miasma of a world?

How could he allow us to run riot, seemingly incapable of managing our existence, seemingly unable to place compassion for our fellow beings – and the planet as a whole – at the head of our “To Do” list?

Why did he curse us with so-called free will – if free will is merely an excuse for wanton brutality and ineffectual governance of our planet? Yes, freedom to pollute with run off from our factories is balanced by the freedom to clean up our waterways, but why give us the choice? Did we ever ask for such a terrible series of choices, that we seem so incapable of handling?

Where is God, whatever we call him, while IS behead 22 Syrian soldiers on video – video taken over some hours, from multiple camera angles? Or when they slaughter thousands of civilians and shovel them into pits? Where is God when a US drone blasts into sanguinary non-existence an innocent Afghan wedding?

Where is God when a random act of weather or an accident on a road destroys people notable for their innocence and good naturedness?

In short, where is God – where is meaning – when the innocently good die young?

No, we do not pretend to know. There is no perfectly satisfying answer to this question which has occupied – bedevilled – humankind since we learned to think.

We are drawn, though, to one piece of irrefutable logic, from psychiatrist Viktor Frankel, who so movingly, intensely and validly sought meaning in his experience of the death camps of the Nazis.

Frankel – a man who could so easily have despaired – summed up the wisdom of thousands of years of sages in all cultures when he said:

“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”


Suffering is the one constant in life. We all have experiences that threaten to crush us – our dreams get shattered, our bodies fail us, we are submerged in our own incapacities and weaknesses – and most terribly, we all lose people we love to illness, accident, to seemingly blind fate.

And most terrifying of all, death is our constant companion. As we wake up every morning we never know if we will see another.

So what really matters, it seems to us, whether one has a comprehensively worked out religious perspective or none, is how we deal with suffering.

Do we allow it to destroy us, or do we resolutely continue to strive to live lives that answer our personal and communal driving moral imperatives, whether we source those imperatives from a religious book or from within our own rational view of how the world should be constructed?

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle:

 “In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness.

And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.”

And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man.

Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat, looked around, and spoke.

“What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.”

God or no God, it is up to us to work out the purpose. And how to survive it.


The world can sometimes seem overwhelmingly awful and dark. So this Christmas – this Hanukkah – this Milad un nabi … this … December? January? … the one thing of which we are convinced is that we should all spend some time reconnecting with those we love, taking joy in little things, making those course corrections that we need in our lives, and above all showing compassion for those touched by suffering.

Because this we do know. As we are all bound by it, so we all can learn to endure it, endure it even when it tears like a maddened beast at the very vitals inside each and every one of us, and we can endure it together, yoked together by the burdens of our common suffering.


Suffering is the one thing none of us escape. That is the one lesson of history that is observable, undeniable, and in its own way, comforting. The lesson – the example – of our shared humanity, and our frailty.

The realisation that we all suffer. And – whether through the grace of God or the courage of the human mind operating alone – the almost simultaneously certain realisation that we can, and do, survive.

Indeed, that surviving itself is the meaning we all search for. Until, one by one, we lay down the imperishable, insistent, ever-present burden of thought, and go to sleep ourselves.

old-and-new-year-cover-table-calendar-for-1905.jpg!BlogIt is customary for bloggers of all shapes and sizes to reflect about – in this curious interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s Eve – something vaguely along the lines of “That was the Year that was”.

There is an almost universal urge, driven no doubt by a general sense that the timing is somehow significant, to review what went right, what went wrong, and what just didn’t really go anywhere at all.

In reality, of course, the end of one year and the beginning of another is of no real significance at all. It is merely a human construct, signifying very little, except, perhaps, the pressing need to get one’s tax affairs in better order.

aztec_calendarCalendars are a fascinating human invention, and as you can see from this ancient Aztec version, once they were imbued with fine detail like days, weeks and months (as opposed to Man merely splitting the year into “cold/hot, wet/dry, winter/summer” and so on) they basically allowed us to organise two things: religious celebrations, and commerce.

The first need was born of a widespread conviction that if we didn’t appease the Gods on a given day, all hell would break loose. And that belief continues to this day, where, for example, in the Roman Catholic Church, there are still “Days of Obligation” – days that are so important to be observed that it is a venial sin to miss going to mass on them. The dates themselves have no historical significance whatsoever, of course – Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th – they are merely of symbolic significance. Of this, more in a moment.



The second need for detail was born of a very practical understanding that if you don’t know whether it’s Monday or Tuesday, it becomes increasingly difficult to guess whether one is supposed to be buying, selling, receiving, building, delivering or resting on any given day.

Thus, in a very real sense, calendars marked our change from subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers to beings who lived or died by the efficacy of their trade arrangements, and as such, they are a much more significant historical marker than they are generally given credit for.

So when you bump blindly into one of those displays of dubious photographic ephemera clogging up the aisles in your local shopping centre, think “Ascent of Man”, and marvel at our forebear’s innovative spirit.

Now: back to all hell breaking loose.

The process by which human beings ascribe relevance to random or irrelevant events or images is called apophenia.

It is one of the more fascinating human urges. Essentially, we are disturbed by the concept of randomness, and thus seek to give meaning to events that may be significant but are actually entirely accidental, or which may be entirely unimportant, such as an unusual date on a calendar, but which we nevertheless need to bring within some sort of human control, through acknowledgement, ritual, or some other action.

As recently as a couple of weeks ago we experienced a curious moment when the time and date could be written 9:10 11.12.13. (Well, it could everywhere in the English speaking world except America.) That’s “9.10 am on the 11th of December, 2013” by the way.

Acres of forests were destroyed so the popular media could speculate on the likelihood of fireballs from Heaven, whether or not it was a good moment to buy a lottery ticket, and should you pop the question to your intended, or, indeed, arrange a marriage (as many did). Result? No fireballs, still didn’t win the lottery, and as for the effect of the date on the marital outcomes for numerous superstitious Asian couples getting hitched at a furious rate in the parks and gardens of downtown Melbourne, well, only time will tell, but we strongly suspect: nothing.

Apophenia - the same impulse that leads us to see significance in certain dates is why we see Christ or the Virgin Mary in toast.

Apophenia – the same impulse that leads us to see significance in certain dates is why we see Christ or Greta Garbo in pieces of toast.

Apophenia. Just as it meant nothing hundreds or thousands of years ago when a tree toppled onto the chief’s hut or wig-wam on the Umpteenth of Zog, so that henceforth and forever on the Umpteenth of Zog the tribe had to hold a tree-pacifying ceremony lest the tragedy happen again, so the need to review the year to find meaning, solace or importance in our individual lives, or, indeed, in the collective life of our community, is entirely fallacious. The year is an artificial construct. New Year’s Day, which is two days away as I write, is no more significant than any other day, except for those killed or injured in drunken car wrecks, or for those falling over and banging their bonce, for whom it will be very significant indeed. Resolutions could just as easily be made today, or in three day’s time. The old is not new again, it is merely old. The new is not new, it is merely now.

That such way-stations on the calendar give us pause to reflect, however fallacious the link between a given date or ceremony and the process of internal reflection, is nevertheless surely a helpful phenomenon. Apophenia has its uses. Non-religious people are nevertheless nicer to each other at Christmas-time than at other times of the year. A welling up of social awareness, which translates into practical charitable effort, is very obvious. The same is true during the key ceremonies of other religions. The cultural imperative “Just because it’s Christmas” has a benign outcome that needs no deep analysis: we can just welcome it gratefully, perhaps sadly pondering what it would be like if it was “Christmas all year round.” And no, we do not mean the shopping and over-eating.

Equally assuredly, in direct proportion to the richness of the fare consumed around the family dinner-table, millions of diets will be started on January 1st and just as certainly abandoned in a few days, but that momentary focus on living a healthier life cannot be a bad thing. The urge to create a better world starting on date ‘n‘ cannot be gainsaid, either. One might only wish that people felt so moved more often, or on any other given date.

All of which is the longest and most rambling introduction to a blog ever. Because what I really want to write about this morning, Dear Reader, is that your Loyal Correspondent lately found himself sitting out the back of Chez Wellthisiswhatithink, contemplating, if not one’s navel, then at least the blank page calling out “write on me”, lazing in the shade admiring the sunshine and looking quietly around the yard, when suddenly one was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude.

For a brief instant, despite having a bag of worries and woes to carry around just like everyone else – better than some, and worse than some – I did not have a care in the world, and I found that I was profoundly, deeply, content.

It was actually quite shocking. Delightful, but shocking.

It is necessary to understand, at this juncture, that your Dutiful Scribe could not normally be described as the most patient nor the most contented of beings. For all of my life thus far, I have striven, clawed, fought, opined, scrabbled and argued in favour of the things that matter, and sometimes things that don’t, and through not inheriting any great wealth of note I have struggled and sought to make a decent living for oneself and one’s dependents.

It is also necessary for you to know, as regular readers will, that in the past the demons of both depression and OCD have visited me with irritating regularity, and one always senses that they are just the other side of the barricades that have been erected to keep them at bay, and that therefore to experience such a moment of transcendent contentment is a matter of some note. For me, at least.

It was a butterfly that set it off.


As I sat enjoying the mild breeze – it is truly, exquisitely beautiful here today – and admiring Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink’s vegetable patch, which is currently bounding into maturity at a great rate under the blissful southern Sun, a small white butterfly hove into view, daintily picking its way between the plants. It is in this photograph, though I doubt you can see it. Ten points to anyone who can spot it.

As I watched its progress, fluttering backwards and forwards vacuuming up the nectar from the flowers, I became slowly aware of other things.

Of the delicate daisies on the camomile. The intensely bright yellow flowers on the zucchini. Buds by the dozen on the passionfruit vine. Of the soothing balm of a wood dove coo-ing insistently from its nest nearby. The contented caw of a crow, somewhere, calling to its mate.

We have put a fair bit of work into the back of our home in the last couple of years – or rather, I should state for faithful accuracy, Mrs W has. It is only a tiny space, to be sure, but as I looked about I saw how her vision was coming incessantly and inexorably and magnificently into shape.

lemongrassA vast tub of lemongrass, growing like the crazy tropical invader that it is, enough to flavour a dozen curries and stir-fries. Lettuces of all kinds thrusting upwards in abundance. A promise of a tomato crop so egregiously large as to require the ritual making of chutney again this year, ensuring that the unctuous  wonder of the fruit lives on, magically enhanced by black peppercorns, vinegar, sugar and curry leaves, till it is transformed into that sour, sweet delight without which no crusty cob bread roll and hunk of cheddar cheese should ever be brought to the table.

Instead of rushing on to the next thing on the list (this article) I allowed myself the time to think. To look around.

I paused.

fig treeI noticed, as if I had never seen it before, the fabulous contrast of the fig tree in the corner against the azure, cloudless sky.

Not just any green, or any blue.

These breathtakingly new colours seemed twinned by a mutual passion, as if their whole existence seemed bound up in the other, as if without the blue the green would wane and wither into some ordinary thing, and that without the green the blue would simply be … blue. Unremarkable. But together, they were like a glorious song, a soaring soprano duet of crystal clarity. The branches reached up to the sky, and the sky leaned down to embrace them. Today I was seeing their marriage as if for the first time, with new eyes.

shoesI wandered around slowly, quite thrilled, willing the epiphanistic moment to last.

I came upon a small pair of muddied but washable runners, so tiny, so … delicate, almost … left conveniently by the back door so that she who works so quietly and determinedly to create little miracles can plod around in the mud tending her plants without ruining too many pairs of shoes.

Suddenly, I realised that instead of a just a pair of shoes I actually saw steadiness. Stickability. I saw that most admirable will – the will to both begin and finish a project.

I saw how joy in simple things – successfully coaxing an aubergine from our barren clay soil for the first time – can form a meaningful part of our daily round, and lift our spirits. And I was suddenly seized with gratitude that I share my life not with any person, but with this person, whose desires are so different from mine, and yet so complimentary. Not that there is only one person for any other given person – I do not, in all conscience, believe that – but that through lucky accident I have been given the privilege of sharing my life with one who is a natural counter-balance to me – a completion, a rock, an anchoring place. And how empty and less joyful my life would be without that muddied but treasured pair of shoes and what they represent.

washingI looked at the washing she had hung up. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a pile of washing on the line. It was yet another chore quietly completed, unseen, unremarked upon, to support the household. Patiently hung there to take advantage of the gorgeous natural sunlight rather than waste a few cents using the electric dryer, because “that’s what the sunlight’s for, and those few cents can be better used elsewhere, and anyway we don’t need to use the energy, haven’t you heard of global warming?”


And behind the washing, the plum trees – a birthday gift from me to her – which had just yielded a crop so generous that they needed to be given away to all and sundry, yet despite the enthusiastic gathering in they still offered us the occasional purple globe swaying invitingly in the wind.

pathI walked a few paces. I realised, with a start, that when we had first moved in this would have been a dangerous decision.

The bluestone path beside the home had previously had no mortar between the stones, inviting a twisted ankle with every excursion, or worse. We used to hop from one to the other like stepping stones across a river.

I looked now at the cement we had brushed into the cracks, unable to afford a builder to do it properly, without any friends to advise us on technique, and without the faintest idea, in reality, what we were doing, and how, ten years later, the path was a rather ugly but enduring testament to that vital mantra of “trying something” rather than doing nothing.

Of how, stumbling and falling and getting up and carrying on and winning and losing, sometimes small things, and sometimes big things, this wonky path somehow symbolised our years together, and how I actually rather preferred that it wasn’t perfect, but that it was real, like us.

For a moment – a moment that has endured, astoundingly, throughout the two hours it has taken to me write this – almost as if, once created, the moment continues to expand until we forget it – I experienced the bliss of little things.

Today, then, is the 30th December, 2013. I could mark it, forever more, as the day I really learned, even momentarily, to truly be thankful for small matters, to give thanks for the inconseqentia of existence that gives, of course, true meaning to life. And how, in my surprise at this discovery, I felt very grown up, and wise, and above all, like I finally knew something important.

I have had a revelation, to be sure. I could declare it in ringing tones as International “Just Be” Day and insist it be carried on every calendar.

But in reality, it could of been yesterday, or tomorrow, or next week. The only difference with today was that today, by happy circumstance, I decided to genuinely listen.

So I will not be giving this date any special significance. Instead, I will pay it deep respect, by remembering today, and making space for more days like it.

"Everything I have learned about life I can sum up in three words. It. Goes. On." Robert Frost

“Everything I have learned about life I can sum up in three words. It goes on.” Robert Frost

And all the other stuff? What of that? What of all the writing and the politics and social justice and business and social interaction and love – Love! – and families and loss and international relations and society and this and that – oh, Lord, all the years of this and that – well, yes, they were important. Are important. They were and are the woven canes of my life, holding it up, precariously, like a tent. But compared to just sitting still and being, it is all, one profoundly suspects, very often a great deal of stuff and nonsense. As Macbeth dolefully noted, “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

butterflyToday is the day. Listen: listen hard. Listen before it’s too late. Is that the beat of a butterfly’s wings? Be still, I pray you, and look around you.

Life. Life going on. Life is its own meaning. It has its own cadence.

You know the irony? Occasionally we exhort ourselves to stop and smell the roses, but succeed only in stressing ourselves that we are not stopping to smell the roses.

So just sit. Just look. Just wait.

Just be.

Something wonderful might happen. In fact, maybe it’s happening right now.

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

                                           Robert Frost, The Lesson for Today


As one gets old, something rather horrid and unsettling happens.

Everyone else gets older around you.

And the icons of our youth gradually turn into withered and less competent versions of their former inspirational selves. Clint Eastwood stops being a sexy uber-male with a humorous glint in his eye and turns into a rambling fool on a political stage. You go and see Simon and Garfunkel on stage one last time, and dear old Art can’t hit the high notes in Bridge over Troubled Water any more. People start petitions for Paul McCartney to stop singing at major events. And sometimes the luminaries of our youth startlingly drop off the twig altogether – like beloved soccer players Emlyn Hughes, Bobby Moore, Peter Osgood and Alan Ball.

Existentialist horror.

Existentialist horror. If you don’t know what I am on about, half yer luck.

It all serves terribly effectively to remind us of the transitory nature of life, and, inevitably, our own inexorable march across the years.

When there is less life ahead of us than behind us it can sometimes be more than a little difficult to deal with.

I have always considered the mid-life crisis so beloved of comedy writers to be symptomatic of a genuine existentialist crisis explored by Satre and others.

Age is an unforgiving, unrelenting mistress, no matter how one seeks to address its vicissitudes. Inevitably the thoughts that have pre-occupied mankind for millenia press in on you in a personal and intense manner. Why am I here? What is (or was) it all for? What happens when I’m not here any more? Will it matter? With every sombre retrospective of “those friends we have lost in the last year” at the BAFTAs or Oscars the effect simply multiplies.

In some senses, contemplating the brevity of life can be a spur to rise and “get on with it”. To make sure we perform more productively for whatever time we have left, and also to “smell the roses” more intently as we pass by them, hugging our children more often, and more pro-actively and intently letting good friends and spouses know that we appreciate their support and love down the years.

But sometimes, just the sheer shock of age catching up with some luminary can cast us headlong into a blue funk. Which is why I was firstly appalled to read that Yoko has just tripped over the big eight oh, but then, on reflection, allowed myself to be encouraged by her remarkable resilience, iconoclasm, talent, stoicism, energy, and obvious determination to live her life meaningfully right up to whenever the end is. As is so well revealed in this excellent article in The Nation.

yoko-ono-john-lennonI was one of millions who were genuinely distraught when we were robbed of the positive influence of John Lennon on the world. I can still feel the pang of the news, deep in my soul, and every time one of his immortal songs comes on the wireless. I am going to use the occasion of his wife’s 80th birthday to re-focus myself to whatever is left of the rest of my own life. That sounds terribly pompous and even asinine, and I don’t mean it in a “my life changed today” lightbulb moment type thing. I simply mean that, sitting around thinking this morning, contemplating Yoko at 80, I realised that whether my life has great meaning, or none – or whether it’s going on for another 5 minutes or another thirty years – these are ultimately, and truthfully, trivial matters.

When I join the lists of “Friends we have lost this year” I will be, I think, perfectly content if people confer over a cup of tea and a curled up egg and lettuce sandwich and cheerfully agree “Well, he was himself, that’s for sure.”

Because perhaps, in the final wash up, that’s what we really need to aim for.

To be content that “we were ourselves”. Because surely, that is what all other meaning will flow from. That is all it can flow from, right? If we are someone else’s vision of ourself, then really, what was it all for? What point can there be in submissively playing out a role imposed by other’s expectations, or hiding ourselves away, until it’s too late to risk being who we really are?

Well, in 55 years of reading, working, writing, loving, losing, not to mention a degree in Literature and a Theology degree to boot, and much pondering, that’s where I’ve got to, anyhow. I’m sure someone will point out that some crusty philosopher said it better three hundred years ago and I could have saved myself the introspection, but then I never really claimed to be edumacated.

Anyhow: what do you think?

So cheers, Yoko. Thanks for being yourself. Thanks for reminding us. Can’t wait to see what you do next.

Happy Birthday.