Monday, October 10, 2011

The Meaning of Life

StingRay meets Lumphy for the first time
Plastic's question "Why are we here?" that so plagues Lumphy the plush buffalo in Jenkins' Toys Come Home is actually two questions in one.

I assume, based on Plastic's bouncy toddler/preschooler persona (she's a plastic ball who asks lots of questions), that what Plastic was really asking was "What confluence of events brought us to exactly this place in this moment of time?"  This can be a dizzying question - but I bet if StingRay had mustered the patience and creativity to answer it in sufficient detail ("well, I'm here because I was given to the Girl for her birthday last year and you are here because you were a party favor for her birthday this year and..."), Plastic would have been satisfied.  Sure, there would have been more follow-up "but WHY"s than anyone could tolerate for long, but eventually Plastic would have found some other question to ask.

This isn't the question that so filled Lumphy with Dread.  Rather, Lumphy couldn't bear the corollary question, which is "And now what?"  In other words, now that we're here due to some dizzying and incomprehensible sequence of events, how do we proceed?  Is there any meaning to the fact that we're here?  If so, what is it?  How do we find it?

Plenty of young kids will understand Plastic's need to have the first question answered.  But few kids under the age of, say, 10 or 12 would even recognize the existence of Lumphy's dreaded questions, much less understand his terror of it.

Or so I assume, using my own childhood and that of my daughters as my main reference points.  My kids had plenty of questions when they were little, some of which produced anguish, but they tended to be along the lines of "Should I wear the blue t-shirt or the yellow t-shirt?" or "Why does cookie batter taste so good but make you throw up if you eat the whole bowl?"  There were no abstract or existential questions until they were into their double-digits.

The first time I remember being shaken by abstract ideas beyond my small and concrete world was while watching a sunset at the beach (I know - kinda trite) when I was about 11 or 12.  It suddenly struck me that the beauty I was witnessing was a Big Thing that couldn't be fully contained or expressed, and this realization expanded my soul in one enormous bang.

So I'd love to know what 8-year-old readers think of Lumphy's nights of dread and wondering.  Can they understand?  Do they get it?  Even if they don't, they will certainly feel that the answer Lumphy finally gets from his friends is an apt one - "We are here for each other."

All this thinking was caused by this hillside, which we passed while on a long hike up to the Nordhoff Lookout in the mountains just north of Ojai.  First I had my usual moment of regret about my huge ignorance of geology - all those cool striations, tilted like a dropped layer cake, and I have no idea what the layers are composed of or how they were formed.

But I do know that it took a LONG TIME for the layers to form, and another LONG TIME for this section of hillside to bulge and thrust up the way it has.  And this is when I start to feel my own form of Dread - because there I am, crawling like the tiniest bug along this ancient hill that is attached to the even more ancient Earth, that is a part of a universe so vast and old that my heart starts racing  just to think about it.

And as I contemplated the terror of this literally unthinkable, incomprehensible hugeness of space and time, I was also very aware of the path I was walking on and the smell of the sage and other bushes and the new view that unfolded with every curve of the path and the stupid bee that buzzed in my ear ALL the way up to the summit.  And all these things were adding up to a very lovely hike (well, except the bee). 

Suddenly, the idea that my mind could be simultaneously wheeling around in the unfathomable wonders of the universe AND taking pleasure in the crunch of my shoes on the rocky path filled me with a kind of blissed-out giddiness. 

(Meanwhile, my husband was getting farther and farther ahead of me.  Sure, he was carrying the backpack stuffed with all our food and water - but I was burdened by these Very Weighty Thoughts.)

Remember R.L. Stevenson's Happy Thought?  "The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings."  As a child, I begged to differ (understanding it, as a child does, very literally).  But though it seems to be a naive sentiment that ignores the great suffering in the world, there is a great truth at its core.  Surely it is a good idea to cultivate an enjoyment for the simple things in life, as well as wonder in the big things.

There's no one answer to "Why are we here?" but maybe the point is to keep on asking the question and looking for answers.  And to live one's life according to the answers we come up with.

"We are here for each other" will do very nicely as one of those answers.  Lumphy has good friends.

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