There’s ‘the meaning of life’ question right there. Nothing like diving in the deep end straight away.
…is what one participant in a recent (well, recent-ish given lockdown) seminar on Provocative Questions for Social Change, said to me when I asked that question in the title of this post.
We laughed, but he was only semi-joking, and I wasn’t joking at all.
I love this question.
Usually people laugh. They recognise it’s a question that’s crossed their mind, but it’s often a question they haven’t spent a huge amount of time with.
It’s fun for me to pose it-especially when we get beyond the first round of what are usually more practical answers. or beyond the slightly awkward or embarrassed ‘I haven’t thought about it…’ response.
It doesn’t take long, in my experience, to get a little deeper and to start to uncover what’s there for someone in that question.
Why Go There at All?
For me, it’s my job to to stretch someone in the direction of looking at the more philosophical questions that surround their work. To talk about things that add meaning and direction, to bring the philosophical into the practical and sharpen the focus on what’s important and how to do ‘the human stuff’ better.
The philosophical is the part that often gets ignored, or answered superficially, or isn’t present in a group or a team to create context for the work that’s being done.
Most of us shy away, in our structured, traditional organisations, and busy work practices, from deeper self-reflection.
And when we do consider it, it can become something in the future-a vision, a ‘why’, something that we imagine now and set out towards, rather than an exploration to understand what we already know about what it’s all for, to tune into our awareness of self and other, right now in this very moment.
Not that I’d argue for us to spend all our time in reflection mode, unless you want to of course ;-).
If we spend none of our time there, however, I think we lose something about understanding where we’re going, why we’re going there and how we will know when we get there? Or, even, if we’re going anywhere at all!
And, of course, people turn up to these individual and group discussions because they want to explore questions they maybe don’t explore in everyday life, or explore them from another dimension.
The context to what we do is highly relevant, in my opinion.
If we don’t put at least some attention on that question, then are we any better than hamsters trotting round and round a wheel that someone else has put there for us?
Proximate versus Ultimate?
I like to ask the question in a couple of ways. There’s the practical, of course.
What is it that we are doing together, with this work, in this room? What is this project, this organisation, this collaboration, intended for?
That’s often a pretty good question in itself. If we forget the ultimate aim, how do we decide or justify the immediate next action?
If you’re ever in communication with children (dare I say, especially teenagers!), this question comes up a lot. They want to know why you want them to bring their plates down from their room (so we don’t get rodents in the house), or why they need to take their coat on a weekend away (because it’s forecast rain).
Just because you know isn’t good enough-it needs to be a shared understanding, and something that is important to all parties before action follows. It isn’t enough for you to bully someone into the action that you think is the right one.
In my decades in international development and economic policy I’ve seen how easy it is to forget this notion of a shared understanding of the spirit of the intention, not the detail.
I’ve seen project after project gets stuck ‘in the weeds’ as we say. So caught up with reporting, or short-term indicators, or the idea of sticking to ‘the plan’ or sticking to ‘what we said we’d do’ that no-one can bring to mind what it’s all for in the first place.
Or meetings at work that create frustration in my clients because no-one is really clear ‘what it’s all for’, or every person has a different understanding. It seems obvious when we ask the question, but it isn’t so obvious as we move about our daily work.
Is it human nature to focus on what’s in front of us (the proximate as one of my analyst friends calls it), rather than where we’re heading (the ultimate, or at least the ultimate for this project, this stage of the journey, given that life itself is a series of seemingly ‘ultimate’ destinations…)?
Maybe. But it’s just as easy to lift our heads a little and ask the interesting, the potentially challenging but revealing, occasionally provocative, questions.
When we go beyond the aim of the project, and tune back in to the reasons why we were even engaged in this kind of work in the first place, then disagreements and difficulties often fall away.
It’s obvious (to me anyway) that when we can at least start to see, even if we don’t yet agree, on what we’re doing here, in a project, or an organisational context, then it’s much easier for a group of smart, open-hearted, clear-minded individuals to decide direction, resolve misunderstandings and create innovative and impactful ways of making a positive difference in the world.
The Meaning of Life?
And, of course, it’s also ‘the meaning of life’ question, as the participant in my seminar could see immediately.
What’s it all for? Full stop.
If we took ourselves out of any of life’s content, what do we have left?
What is life? Why do we do anything we do? What’s the ultimate reason?
Or perhaps, what’s the reason we arrive at when we remove any reason at all?
It’s one of the foundational metaphysical questions, right?
You can take it on a lifetime’s journey with you-if you want of course, no-one has to do anything unless they want to! I’m simply offering it as a way to step back and consider the more fundamental reason we do anything at all, what we’re even alive for, if we can ever know that, and perhaps, allowing ourselves to contemplate that will create a sense of peace and a perspective that creates something new and different in life and work.
Whenever I ask people this question the answers all tend to (once we get beyond things like (create macro-fiscal stability in the world; make sure everyone has access to water and sanitation) some version of…
Have a nice life. Make a difference for other people.
And when we take it into the concrete, I find the discussions often come down to, not a ‘why’ question, but a ‘why not’ question.
Given that we can do anything at all, why not do good? Why not share out our resources more equitably; why not take better care of the planet; why not simply be nicer to each other and take care of those less well off than ourselves.
It seems so obvious that there is nothing to achieve, to gain, to ‘get to’; there is only the being a nice person and taking thoughtful and caring decisions on the smallest and the largest scale we can see.
And that, I guess, is the question I’m asking you to reflect on.
What’s it all for in the greater sense.
Not the ‘sipping margaritas on the beach’ kinda aspiration, but a deep-down exploration of the nature of life and what that means for you.
For me it’s a magical journey that brings into sharp focus what’s important, and helps me let go of what suddenly looks a lot less important! A great ‘life cleanse’, I guess that happens without any need to do anything at all.
For me, it brings me back into the present, it helps me see that there is no future beyond, literally, what I am imagining in this moment now.
That there is nowhere to get to, and yet everything is possible.
And that there is no felt experience beyond the one I’m having now.
It doesn’t matter to me where the reflection takes you; I know, though, that allowing, even a moment, to consider what you already know about some of these ‘big’ questions, can help things fall into place that seem to have been niggling or rubbing, or chaffing you for a while now.
And, of course, they are questions that cannot possibly have actual answers.
Originally published at https://cathypresland.com on August 14, 2020.