Letter to a confused child

I have spent the last two years working in a middle school. This gives me plenty of stories, good, bad, hopeful and depressing. I particularly enjoy this one.

One of my student came to me in tears. She had bean working into an absolute tizzy over the purpose of life. She stammered on about the world just being a rock flying through space with no direction and no meaning and no captains chair. I calmed her down and asked her to write me a letter with her question. She sat down and scribbled out a paragraph basically asking Why?

This was my answer. I had to tread the lines of my role as an educator. I didn’t want to condone or condemn her family beliefs or religion, nor my own.

Young Lady-

The subject you are trying to understand is one of the so called “great questions” of life. Men and Women have been pondering and deducing the proper logic behind life. It’s often called the pursuit of the purpose, that is the search for a purpose in life. I am quite amazed that you, at your still so young age, able able to think about this with such coherent logic. Many people never reach that maturity and can never question their existence. It took me a few years and a lot of confusion so this wont be an easy search.

I won’t touch on the “origins,” that is where life and the world and the universe comes from. People look at these complex and un-answerable questions and come up with their own ideas. Reading Pope John Paul’s notes on this will far differ from Albert Einstein's, that is up to you to decide on. What I can tell you about is some of the philosophy mankind has made in the last hundred years that aims us at a purpose or reason for life. I will be making a point to not give you MY answers, as this is a personal search.

A common source of answers, goofy as it sounds, are in the quality books of youth. E.B. White was a great children’s author and wrote the classic “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” E.B. White possessed a great mind and an uncanny ability to distill the bitter and the sweet moments of life into words. The main character in “Charlotte’s Web” says the following quote, after being asked why she weaves the elegant webs that save Wilbur, the pig, from the slaughter house-

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.

If you can see past the scenario and feel the elements of the story, it’s quite perfect. Charlotte was using her very limited gifts to help another creature be the best they could, and in turn she became better. This theme, the redemption in service to others, is very common in western philosophy. Many of the early great americans like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin spoke on this to great length.

She also hits on the simple basic truth of life, that we are born, we live, we die, and there is little to nothing you can do to change that. This isn’t something to bemoan or be sad about, but something to celebrate. It’s the only guarantee we have.

Another theme we find is the experience idea as I call it. That is that the purpose to life is to experience everything in it. This isn’t some hedonistic ideal, but the idea that we should grab life by the proverbial horns and do what we want and what we love. This is reflected in the use of the phrase “To Live” to show an action or readiness. Oscar Wilde, a irish playwright and politician of sorts, was a true mover of philosophy in this direction. A favorite quote of his is as follows-

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

The differences here are tight, but I think you can understand. To exist, in this sense, is to just live a boring life of inaction. To live, in this context, is to go out and grab the world and use it. Sitting in class pretending to be bored would be to Exist. Trying to learn everything and more in class, being active and positive and engaged would be to Live.

Those are just two of a million different ways people justify their presence on earth. Others lean towards the pursuit of money, the spread of love, the desire to make art, or nothing.

The key here is that you get to decide. Nobody can tell you your purpose, just as nobody can tell you how to feel or who to love. The one disclaimer I will add is one based on experience. Once you think you have it all figured out, you will be wrong. And you will start thinking again, and you will think you have it, and you will be wrong. If you are lucky this cycle will repeat itself indefinitely. The pursuit of the purpose is the best feeling you can have, for it means you are still alive.

I will leave you with some words from Buckminster Fuller, an amazing american physicist and poet.

Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it.

-Mr. Wells

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