For years I said that mosquitos had no purpose. The entire goal of their lives, I proclaimed with indignation, was simply to fly around, steal other beings’ blood, cause massive annoyance and sometimes terrible disease, only to lay their eggs so the whole thing could begin again. What did they contribute, besides the occasional meal for frogs and bats? Surely they took far more than they gave. What could be the purpose of such a creature?
When I had time to extrapolate this premise out along its logical paths, I then saw that I could apply what I had said about mosquitos to quite a few other life forms. True, every life form exists within an ecosystem, and in theory the removal of any of those life forms would impact the ecosystem in some way. Remove those very mosquitos, for example, and you remove a food source for those frogs and bats I mentioned. Would that eventually lead to inordinate pressure on other insect stocks to make up for the lack of mosquitos? Quite probably. Or take bacteria. Some bacteria live in our guts and contribute in a vital way to our digestion; without them, we could not process certain foods. Some viruses are retroviruses, and I have heard that the development of our vocal chords for speech might have been the result of a retrovirus rewriting our DNA. And yet, some bacteria do nothing but sit in the middle of deep ocean volcanic vents, spending their days enjoying the heat and sulfuric gases. Some viruses do nothing but cause misery to their hosts and replicate themselves. Do these have a “purpose”?
Thinking along these lines, I eventually worked my way up to human beings. Most of us usually take it for granted that humans have some greater purpose, even if we do not know what it is. Yet don’t we really mean that we have some greater purpose for ourselves as sentient beings? For example, to learn as much as we can about the universe, or to practice compassion, or to further causes of justice, or to cure diseases, or to grow as much as we can spiritually. Those purposes are marvelous in themselves. But are they not quite human-oriented? Beyond the human species itself, such purposes do not make much of a positive impact. Moreover, if we examine ourselves with perfect honesty, it becomes indisputable that humans, of all the species, are by far the most destructive to themselves, to other species, and even to the planet we call home. So what is our “purpose”? What, in other words, is the meaning of life? Not just human life, but all life?
So I had this question in the back of my mind while riding in our car the other day with my husband. En route, we passed a flock of Canada geese grazing on a lawn; they were stopping for a bite to eat along their migration path. I remarked to my husband that what an uncomplicated life those geese led (though I grant that they do need to look out for predators trying to make lunches out of them). They eat. They sleep. They have goslings. They keep each other company. And when the weather changes twice a year, they know they need to begin their migration. So they fly to another place and repeat the cycle. Theirs seemed a deliciously simple life.
And that was when it occurred to me: The meaning of life is, simply, to be. What other purpose do all the species, including our own, have? Each species has developed its own kind of life, its own way of living. Within those schemas, the purpose is to live those lives. For the geese, it is to eat, reproduce, enjoy the sun and the water, and migrate. For the bacteria basking in the sulfuric gases of volcanic vents, it is simply to thrive there. For trees, it is to grow toward the sun and generate seeds to perpetuate more trees. For humans, it is to love, to learn, to create, to work, to eat, to think about whether a God or gods are at hand and what that God or gods want, and a myriad of other things too numerous to list.
The idea that the meaning of all life is simply to be was reinforced for me later in the day, when in the course of genealogical research I happened to come across my grandfather Louis’ birth record and death record juxtaposed online. There it was, his birth record, proclaiming with all the hope and all the possibilities in the world that this baby boy was born on May 11, 1911. All those years were ahead of him, and he was about to live them. And there right underneath it was his death record from 1992, signaling that he had lived those years and gone on to whatever then awaited him. And there are billions more birth records and death records, with more added every day, and they go on, and on, and on. This fact does not in any way marginalize all the events and loves and everyday wonders that occur in every life. On the contrary, it affirms them, as every life of every creature is lived within that meaning of simply to be.
Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck
Relating this back to theology, this makes me think of the creation story. God created the heavens, earth, plants, and all living things… and it was good. No other explanation, nothing about what it was good for, simply: it was good.
Exactly! I thought the same thing myself. There’s a delightful simplicity in Genesis 1. It makes no attempt to answer the “why” of it. It just is. In that way, it’s reminiscent of a Buddhist answer to the question of “why,” I think.
If I communicated I could thank you enoguh for this, I’d be lying.