Thursday, April 12, 2007

This is it?

Is this all there is?

To me, this is one of the most elemental questions of humanity. It raises a host of similar questions such as, Why are we here? Does God have a plan for us? Is there such a thing as destiny? All valid questions once one gets past, How do I survive? Nothing stifles philosophic investigation like an empty stomach. But those of us writing and reading a blog like this are probably not concerned about taking in enough calories to make it through just one more day.

So what does that leave us? Back to square one. Is this all there is? This question has plagued me since my first year after college. It may be that up until then I was too involved in the race to get out of the Florida public school system. I know many of you might mock the notion that a public school education leading to a bachelor’s from Florida State was really enough to occupy someone’s mind to the point of ignoring something like questioning your existence, but apparently it worked. Just like every other goal I set and started running toward in an effort to evade the most important issue I might face. It led me to graduate school and a devotion to long-term sports like running and karate. Each with goals built into them that could focus the mind. In my case it was more like distracting my mind from the really troubling question: Is this it?

I believe part of the answer is as simple as raising kids. The desire to have happy kids that go on to have happy productive lives is as much instinct as it is love. How would the species survive if one generation didn’t want the next to do better? Does a father in China have less hope for his son than a writer from Florida? Does the sense that you have succeeded finally quench the thirst to know if this is all there is? I have no answers. I’m looking for common ground. Is this a condition many suffer?

I have always been a happy person, not prone to depression or pessimism. I do wonder, however, if depressed people are focused on this question? Unlike Tom Cruise, I realize that much of depression is chemically based and can be treated with prescription drugs. But how much of it is existentially based? How many people simply can’t grapple with the question of why they are here? How many successful people are simply driven by goals to keep their intellect from probing these kinds of questions?

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of science fiction. I’ve read more SF books and seen more SF movies than I can recall. Now I realize that my attraction to the genre could be due to the theme in many of these stories. Is this all there is? From Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where Spock realizes the emerging life-form is merely asking “Is this all there is?” To one of the Dune books opening a chapter with the ancient proverb “God help the man who has achieved all his goals.” This basic question is a universal phenomenon, which stretches across geography, religion and culture.

I’m happy I love something like writing. I’m thrilled my novels are published. But this is not the legacy I hope I’m remembered for. I don’t know exactly what I want to be remembered for specifically, but I hope I can do better than some published books. My children raising happy families of their own would be one thing I would hope to leave behind. And in many years, I would like to think that one of these grandchildren would look to the heavens and ask, “Is this all there is?”

If they didn’t then nothing would ever change.

11 comments:

  1. Having spent the morning re-reading a little Vonnegut in response to our losing him, this is a particularly moving post. Thank you

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  2. "Is this all there is>"

    Yes

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  3. But, but. . ., aren't all the answers in the Baltimore Catechism. . .?! Or am I confusing that with J. Alfred Prufrock? Jean Paul Sartre?

    Tom, T.O.

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  4. Can't believe I'm even commenting because I don't spend any time worrying about this question. So for what it's worth - no, I don't believe this is all there is.

    As for "I don’t know exactly what I want to be remembered for specifically, but I hope I can do better than some published books," I believe that if, at hearing of your death, people sincerely think he was a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good friend, someone to count on, I wouldn't have been/done ... [something positive] except for him, he encouraged me when I needed it or he was a good example of ...[positive trait], then you have succeeded in life and you have lived a good life. And on this earth, that's the pinnacle of achievement and why we're here, IMHO.
    Beyond this life, I believe there are bigger and better things. If I live according to that belief and I'm wrong, no biggie. If I'm right, I've hit the jackpot!

    Deborah P

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  5. patty smiley4/12/2007 9:19 AM

    I keep "Success" by Ralph Waldo Emerson pinned up next to my computer.

    To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

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  6. Okay, I'm a middle child who pretty much felt invisible for most of my life. My parents loved me, but I kind of got lost between a demanding older brother, and a much younger sister, and two working parents. Latchkey kid, I think it's now called. :-) However, it's not something I resent. It made me a bit of a loner though, and wonder who I am, why am I here and what is my purpose/path? Nearly 30 years later, I'm still asking those questions. I'm good at many things, but mistress of none: everyone else always does it better or prettier, and while I want success and personal satisfaction with my creativity, I don't envy theirs. I just want my own. So I still ask myself those life questions. I've made some realisations along the way, and I think I'm on the right path, but it's about the journey, not the ending. So I guess I'll go along for the ride and see what else happens. :-)

    My ultimate reading covers crime/mystery fiction these days, 'cause I like a good puzzle and good writing. But I've always read Science Fiction and some fantasy. My fave style of fiction is 'near future or dystopian future survival of the human race'. My ultra favourite book is a young adult novel by Australian author, Lee Harding, called 'Waiting for the End of the World'. It's a brilliant read, and there is hope - which is all I ask for.

    Jim, for the style of SF fiction that you like: have you read Asimov's Robot series? They are classics and a good read. Yep, I've been an SF fan since childhood - I just haven't read a lot of it lately - and we do have a huge movie collection of the best and worst movies. My husband is the leading Science Fiction/Fantasy cover artist, and I get to mix with a lot of authors and artists. Got some NASA connections too. Anyone you want me to put you in contact with? :-D

    Anyway, great post, Jim.
    Take care
    Marianne

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  7. Peggy Lee's 1969 Grammy-winning answer to this question--all right, actually songwriters Jerry Leiber's and Mike Stoller's answer--is:

    If that's all there is, my friends,
    Then let's keep dancing.
    Let's break out the booze
    And have a ball
    If that's all there is.

    (When I first heard that tune, I though it must have been written by Kurt Weill, but I was wrong.)

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  8. I can tell you EXACTLY what you'll be remembered for:

    "I found out that wasn't true."

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  9. I once went along to a Buddhist meditation (actually, I've been to quite a few), during which the person leading the meditation played a tape of a child saying, "Allow the mystery to exist."

    Is this all there is? As the saying goes, "Chop wood, carry water." And allow the mystery to exist.

    And when we ask, "Is this all there is?" are we sure we're thinking of everything? There is a lot here, seen and unseen, before we even start to consider what else there might be.

    Great post, Jim.

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  10. Came across this earlier today:

    "There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit." (Havel upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by the Central European University in 1999, trans. by Paul Wilson)

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  11. If this is NOT all that is, then we have reason to chase the truth beyond what we can see.

    If we concede that all such chasing has, to date, failed to produce convincing evidence of "something more", then we have reason to resign from this endeavor; to "chop wood" and "carry water" as an earlier post has it.

    When Galileo chased proof of a heliocentric solar system, he must have initially had something like faith in his beliefs. That faith drove his passion to prove to others the truth of his inner vision. We don't like calling a belief in an unproven hypothesis faith, but isn't it? Won't the average "believer" claim just as vociferously as a scientist that she has a subjective and objective means by which to substantiate her beliefs? Plenty of things we all hold to be true can't be proven through the all powerful scientific method (e.g. authoritative statements on matters of taste) and even those things that can are not proven to us on a daily basis in order for us to believe. Ever seen an atom? Are you sure the kitchen chair you used this morning was the same chair you sat in yesterday?

    I may not have the werewithal to prove anything to anybody, including myself. But when my physical and emotional needs are met, I cannot stop believing that, like Truman of the Truman Show, there is an exit door somewhere out there waiting for me if I am just willing to go the distance to find it. That search is no more intellectually dishonest than Galileo's. I haven't found any clever means by which to find "the door"... but to paraphrase an old sales aphorism: I'm not dead yet.

    For me, the search for that something more we all seem to sense but are unable to actually connect with directly... THAT search is all there is... No matter what meets me on the "other side", at least I can say with an open and honest heart: I looked everywhere I knew how.

    And if nothing here or there, so be it. Shelley -> Ozymandias. At least I won't be sculpted with a sneer on my face, drunk on my need to leave a mark in this place we all share and know so little about.

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