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The Meaning of Life

The Frame of Meaning

Dominic Kirkham exhorts us to find meaning in the present moment.

Apicture on the wall. Torrential waters cascading over the rocks from a mountain stream. An immense power and energy drawing the viewer into its vortex, across the lichen on the rocks to note each speck of foam, each sparkle of spray which has been transferred from one watery medium to another and now transfixed momentarily in time. Such a picture, now within its own framed constraint, nailed to the living room wall, where hours of curious observation etch each detail on the mind as clearly as each carefully placed note in the crashing arpeggios of some fantastic crescendo. Such is an earliest and most vivid childhood memory.

Such was an original watercolour by a family friend, Hans Lochmann, who died prematurely in a Swiss sanatorium after a traumatised life in Nazi Germany. The words of his last reflection on the meaning of his life merely echo the effort each work brought to life: life, “to whose realisation we must contribute something of ourselves, a comfort, a pleasure or some other thing, the love of a speck of colour, an unessential part of a picture, or that we allow a flower to remain standing instead of pulling it to pieces: all this is not new nor original, but how difficult we find it all the same to go on living.”

Yes, I am part of a world, an unfinished world, which invites me to go on living.

To go on living becomes possible when we begin to comprehend life’s detail, so often blurred or ignored in the search for something grander, ‘the big picture’. This also was the experience of a better known contemporary of Lochmann, Dr Viktor Frankl. In his semi-autobiographical account of his survival of Auschwitz, Man’s Search for Meaning, he records a moving detail. A young woman lies dying, disappointed that after so little of its experience life should be ebbing away. Now all she can see through a small window is the blossom of a cherry tree in flower in the spring sunshine. Its sheer beauty fills her with peace at the beauty of a world beyond man’s world which she had so often ignored. Like scales falling from her eyes, she sees and understands a greater presence of which she is part. She is able to die at peace with herself.

It was such experiences that helped Frankl to focus on the underlying neurosis of our time – lack of meaning – and its cure through what he termed logotherapy. Even in conditions of extreme physical deprivation, such as existed in the death camps, he was reminded time and again that the key to survival was through retaining a deep sense of personal meaning, even though the context may be a meaningless nightmare beyond the personal frame of reference. And this was something which could be cultivated simply by the doing of a deed or experiencing a value such as a work of nature or culture, or simply someone’s love. Such acts remove us from isolation, affirm our identity and remind us of a world greater than ourselves but of which we are part.

Such awareness was also the seminal reality for Proust as when ‘Marcel’ sets out on his lifetime of discovering the ‘hidden self’. Again, the simple act of contemplating the hawthorn in blossom becomes the trigger for the release of the involuntary memory, so that even the most delicate petal of a bloom becomes the bearer of the remembrance of things past which constitute our self. This revelatory interaction is at the heart of our humanity, for “The human mind can never be satisfied unless it can manage to achieve a clear analysis of what, at the moment of composition, it produces unconsciously.”

A speck of foam or spray of water, a cherry or hawthorn blossom, these are evasive, almost unknown things in themselves – but they constitute the present. For us – driven by the imperative of abstraction, in thinking in genera and species, as Aristotle taught us – they remain overlooked, on the periphery of awareness. Yet each has its own identity and integrity, each is given only once, each an expression in its own way of the most simple yet arcane and profound ‘laws’, the mathematics of which seem to shape reality. In this lies mystery, a mystery so often unbeheld simply because we have no time to pause and ponder that which stands before us in the present moment.

All this is not new but difficult, even paradoxical, in need of a frame of reference. I almost began the description of Lochmann’s picture as a waterfall or rapids. But to do so would have been immediately to fall into the cognitive trap of defining something by that which is not present, that lies beyond the frame, that ‘big picture’ which lies in our imagining. Herein lies the difficulty – to focus our minds on what is, when of its nature the mind races to what lies beyond. And herein lies the paradox for that which is, that raging torrent is also symbolic of life which surges on, beyond the frame, filled by the implications of a larger implicate order of which it is part and full of prehensions of an end to come: a dynamic and directional flow which could even be described as purpose-full.

Yet when we turn to the larger world of the imagining all seems to dissipate under the remorseless laws of thermodynamics – atrophy is all that can be expected. For the scientist in general there are only the evolutionary processes of natural selection, the random and remorseless determinism of matter: as Peter Atkins summarised it, “All natural events are driven by purposeless decay into corruption”. This is the great mechanism of Newton’s physics and Hardy’s novels, remorselessly crushing impotent individuals and eventually grinding to a halt.

Or is it? Or is it not rather simply a dated Victorian metaphor from a machine-driven age which is already worn out? For when contemporary cosmologists view the universe through the lens of Hubble a different picture unfolds: a great living organism of boundless energy whose sparkling spray is galaxies and specks of foam the stars, surging on with a precisely measured directionality, whose stars billions of years ago ‘cooked’ the elements which now form the rocks and petal, the dust of which formed the building blocks of life, our life. This is a story of which we are a part, as if with some anthropic intent; “A put up job” in the dialect of Fred Hoyle – and which is all momentarily present: the stars we observe ‘now’ are in fact as they were billions of years ago, the echo of the ‘Big Bang’ still present as the interfering hiss of our radios. All is present, as in the twinkling of an eye, each fragment given once.

And we are present, not merely as observers but participants, co-creators through each “speck of colour, unessential part of a picture, or that we allow a flower to remain standing instead of pulling it to pieces.” Whatever the intent – remembering always that teleology is a forbidden word – it is in the self-reflecting process of the mind that the matter of the universe, becoming ever more complex in its forms, finally becomes conscious of those mathematical forms which underlie each act and experience of the present.

This is the world of which Erwin Schrödinger observed, “The more attentively we watch it, the more aimless and foolish it appears to be; the show that is going on obviously acquires a meaning only with regard to the mind that contemplates it.” And herein lies a clue, which raises a cryptic question: which mind? Surely not just the individual mind! Our minds seem to grasp in self-reflection the energies of the cosmos which are inherently mind-full; part of that singular entity, shared by all, in which the world is given once – not before or after, object or subject, but simply once; that overwhelming harmony of presence expressed by the ancients as the ontos on.

This sounds elliptical: the world as that totality of things present at hand – the stars, oceans, flowers – but also as us, our presence reflecting on these things; a world in which our momentary involvement is significant. It is in this world that we are all constantly engaged either in contributing to all that is or diminishing what could be. Just as the stream flows on to the ocean so what we make of our life becomes part of the ‘pleroma’, the fullness of being. Nothing is lost, nor ever complete. For both stream and ocean are but part of the great hydrological cycle which mimics the myth of the eternal return – stars rise and collapse back into ‘black holes’, universes themselves regenerate in cycles, but now carrying our contributions, those miniscule acts, which like a speck of foam or petal of blossom were intended to portend what can be.

The meaning which we would discover in the greater picture beyond the frame does indeed derive from those detail specks before us. This gives us confidence that at our end what we lose in reality is loosed to return. For, to complete the reflection of Hans Lochmann with which we began, “a good death is indeed to be found in this: that we submit what to us appears of endless importance, our Self – which is restless, full of confidence – to a great unknown Mercy.”

© Dominic Kirkham 1999

Dominic Kirkham left teaching for a monastery. He then spent 13 years regenerating inner-city Manchester. He since discovered post-modernism, wrote this article, left the church and now helps the disadvantaged find employment and the meaning in life.

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