James Taylor sang that the “secret o’ life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it – there ain’t nothing to it. Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride…”
“The meaning of life” as an ‘existential question’ certainly gives pause to anybody who tries to answer it thoughtfully – meaningfully, one might say. Purpose, meaning – what are we doing here? Why was I born? What is the point of this life? Why is there such unbearable suffering and pain? Why must we die? What happens when we die? What IS the meaning of life?
So many important questions, with so many different responses sent out into the void. Who is there to hear? Who will answer? Countless philosophical discussions burgeon on down through the centuries, one philosophy countering another. The hours pass on into history, one philosopher ponders this, another posits that, and the greatest questioners still seek the greatest answers, often earning prestigious philosophy degrees along the way, while still conceding that we don’t know – it might be this, it might be that – we can’t really agree, but we must admit, it’s been “a lovely ride”….
A degreed and thoughtful master teacher spoke these words into my life a few years ago and my pedagogical world rocked a bit when she said: “I never ask a question that I know the answer to.” A ‘eureka!’ moment, certainly, and one I was thankful to experience – powerful learning does have a bit more than a snowball’s chance when good questions start tumbling forth. In so many instructional venues – science rooms, history rooms, literature rooms, reading rooms, bar rooms, living rooms – good questions to which we don’t have immediate ‘right answers’ spark lively discussion, and prompt considerations often well worth our time. Ask an American about his country’s revolution and his response may vary slightly from the Englishman’s version of the same event, but the discussion will be lively, and the answers to the questions will stir the heart as well as the mind. Ask which road should or should not be taken, and how will that make a difference. Ask which is better, 19th century novels or contemporary poetry. Ask who will win this year’s world series. Get brave, and ask about politics. Such conversations will yield up strongly held opinions based on reason or preference, experience or imagination, and people the world over participate in them. Rooms in which we can write or discuss or think about life make a difference, adding richness and depth and a dollop of controversy to our sometimes rather staid existences.
But when we’re in the waiting room, the flood of questions trickles down to just one, and ‘opinions’ and possibilities don’t count. When life and death hang in some sort of miserable balance, and we can see Death tipping the scales, we want to know, with a certainty, what this life means.
JT cautions, “try not to try too hard – it’s just a lovely ride.” But what about the destination?
Maybe ‘the ride’ most resembles a roller coaster – starting slow, it’s full of ups and downs with a terrifying turn or two to keep the heart pumping, then slows again before simply bringing us back to the same place we started. Or maybe ‘the ride’ mirrors the family vacation – car loaded with necessities, children who interrupt their bickering only to whine, ‘are we there yet?’ and the atlas left lying on the kitchen counter (okay, googlemaps is ‘temporarily unavailable’), leaving the outcome of the trip unknown and in a bit of jeopardy. Maybe ‘the ride’ simply proves: “Live is a journey, not a destination,” or the one-hit wonder gem, “life is a highway, I wanna ride it all night long…”
Scads of ‘philosophy lite’ sayings exist. Most of them trite, cliché, overused, hackneyed. (If I used simple letters to communicate words or ideas, I would soooo type LOL right now) I expect life, in its complexities, curiosities and significance cannot be reduced to what fits on a bumper sticker. Nor can it be fully revealed in a song lyric, though some come closer than others. James Taylor and Tom Cochran – secrets and highways – give us catchy phrases and memorable tunes, and I expect they give ‘life’ more than a cursory glimpse. What do they see?
First, if their eyes are open, they see that life ends. In death. They see sorrow. They see joy. They see struggle, hardship, disappointment, anger, jealousy, hate. But they also see rest, contentment, elation, forgiveness, grace. Importantly, they see love. Such paradoxical pairings demand examination. To borrow a great question from a far better thinker than I will ever be, ‘how then shall we live?’
Amazingly, graciously, we’ve been given a choice. How we live matters, of course. In this life we wonder what to do, and we ponder how we might do it. And so, we choose. But we keep wondering, don’t we, what awaits us after our choosing is done. Though we journey, for a few days or a few decades, a destination does await us. The ‘secret of life’ is, I think, more than the journey – the enjoyment of ‘the passage of time.’ Any fool can do that. The wise man loves. It’s how others know Whose we are. After all, He guarantees the destination, the true ‘secret o’ life.’