John's Question

May 18, 2018

Many years later, after competing half a century of teaching, his mind would turn occasionally back to one student that he had failed; not with a low grade in a course, but failed to answer a crucial question the student posed. In 1965, just before the federal  government would begin  in Vietnam destroying the final remnants of American innocents, he was teaching social studies in a temporary classroom (a sort of  converted house trailer heated with a small gas stove and cooled by opening windows) to high school seniors. This was the final year of high school for both teacher and students; the students would go on to college or the world of work and the teacher would go to graduated school and a career in higher education. In addition to teaching social studies, he coached tennis, directed the senior play, and drove a school bus. It was a memorable year in many ways, but mostly it was the students - they were bright, attentive, respectful and he hated to say, but lovable.

John took his place about half way back and to the far right of the classroom. He had regular features, cold black hair, a slim build, and looks that pleased girls. He usually wore a white button-down shirt, Levis with a western belt and cowboy boots. His parents owned a successful cattle ranch and farm in the Red River valley, so John came to school in a shinny automobile, not a big yellow school bus. John was, at best, an average student. His penmanship was childish and his writing skills at the  junior hi level. He slumped in his desk and his eyes often wandered out the window. He was a likeable student, but there was something noticeable dark about John, besides his hair.

Just a few weeks before graduation when seniors realize they will leave the soft protecting cocoon of school and be expected fly gracefully into the air, they are filled with elation and fear. It was at that point that John asked the question.

                                                                                              "Mr. Stuart. What are people far?"

A silence descended over the class, they all sensed something important. All heads turned towards John.

                                                                                             He repeated, "What are people far?"

All heads turned slowly towards the teacher, who felt not unlike Oedipus facing the Sphinx out side the walls of Thebes. "Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?"  Everyone waited for the reply and finally the teacher, in a weak voice, said, "I do not know." The black cloud did not break, no light descend, no white dove descended, the Sphinx did not fling herself over a cliff.  Everyone shifted in their seats and normal breathing resumed. Time past, as it always does.


Of course, the writer is the teacher and I did eventually return to the place where I once taught and learned a bit about those memorable students. Some were  business men and women, a medical doctor, farmers, homemakers, two stock brokers, and several Viet Nam survivors.... and John?

Now long after graduation, I was told, he married a local girl and after a few months of marriage he drove his car at a high rate of speed into a bridge abutment and was instantly killed. When his mother was told of his death, she reportedly said, "I am not a bit surprised."  His widow soon remarried and, as they say, life moved on. However, John's question said with me.

Humans have continually asked questions about the meaning of life and philosophers and theologians have always categorized and critiqued the responses. Here are a few types and responses.

1. Religious Meaning

The most widely held and influential is the God-based account of meaning in life. That is one's existence is more significant, the better one fulfills a purpose God has assigned.  God has a plan for the universe and  one's life is meaningful to the degree that one helps God realize this plan, perhaps in the particular way God wants one to do so. Fulfilling God's purpose by choice is the  source of meaning, with the existence of an afterlife not necessary for it. If a person fails to do what God intends him to do with his life, then, on the current view, his life would be meaningless.

Once I attended a church service that is memorable for an interruption. The minister was delivering his sermon via a public address system, when the system picked up and broadcast to the congregation a radio message from a passing truck driver. The loud and garbled message startled everyone, then we realized what was happening and some began to chuckle. When the interruption stopped, the quick witted minister said,

                                                                               "The voice of God, clear as ever."

There was a bit of nervous laughter in the church, then the minister continued his sermon, and some nodded off again. The minister had spontaneously put his finger on the problem with the God-based explanation of the meaning of life. Does God want us to dedicate our life  helping the downtrodden or to throw hand grenades at infidels and scream "Allah Akbar."  Gods plan is certainly unclear. Incidentally, the minister resigned from the ministry a few years later.

2. Secular search for Meaning.

In the 18th century Christianity as a guiding force declined leaving something of an intellectual and emotional vacuum. The search for meaning left the church. Some began to look for divinity in nature and began the Romantic movement. Others took a more tough minded approach. One of the leaders for the new tough minded search was Nietzsche. For Nietzsche the idea of a need for meaning was a product of Christianity. There is no meaning to be had in life, in his view. All we have are illusions of meaning which we clutch for support. Before Christianity this was the best we could do. Christianity changed all that by insisting that its revelation was not just another consoling myth or tragic story, but the ultimate reality about existence. Thus, in Nietzsche's nihilist view, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it. Penetrating the façade we can see all values are baseless and that reason is impotent. Moreover, after Nietzsche Evolutionary theory suggested that existence is nothing more than survival and genetic endurance.

 That said, Pew Research Center survey (May 2018) of more than 4,700 U.S. adults finds that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. A slim majority of Americans (56%) say they believe in God “as described in the Bible.” And one-in-ten do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force. Religion has declined in the west, but remains a strong force.

 3. Subjectivism

According to this view, meaning  varies from person to person, depending on your mental state. One's life is more meaningful the more you get what you want, the more one achieves important goals, or the more you achieve what you believe to be really important, or that life is meaningful to the extent that a person cares about or loves something. The last one comes close to the advice of Jesus, "Love one another."

4.  42

Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he added: "The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42." Geeks have since wasted much effort trying to ascribe some deep, symbolic significance to the number and its occurrences. Adams said it was, like the book, a joke.

All of this navel gazing about the meaning of life seems to have failed to provide a comprehensive response. All we can say is that opinions differ and let it go at that. However, that is not exactly what John asked. He asked what people are for, which implies a collective  purpose for the entire human race. Do we have a purpose other than procreation, loving something, art, and smelling the roses as we pass our lives? We can ask metaphysical question such as why is there anything rather than nothing. We can pose question about the nature of Being. Is the purpose of life simply life itself. But no such question can be answered with any certainty.  

My good friend Adele, a Parisian, use to say, "Life is a piece of shit, then you die." Another friend, when asked any type of philosophical question, would respond, "I'm just here for the the beer." We are bound in private solipsistic cells.


Once in a country store operated by my brother, I happened to be there when a slightly retarded young woman came in to purchase items on credit. My brother refused on the grounds that she had not paid anything on her outstanding bill in months. When the disappointed customer left the store, my brother commented. "She can't add, she can't subtract, but boy can she multiply."  Although, the suicide rate is growing in some affluent countries the world's growth rate is increasing exponentially. Most people seem to think that life is well worth living. If life is worth living, then it follows that the environment supporting life is worth preserving. If we are unable to agree on anything it should be that we must care and preserve Mother Earth.

 World population milestones. Source: United Nations Secretariat, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, The World At Six Billion (1999), p. 8.
World population reached: Year Time to add 1 billion
1 billion 1804
2 billion 1927 123 years
3 billion 1960 33 years
4 billion 1974 14 years
5 billion 1987 13 years
6 billion 1999 12 years


The estimate is for 9 billion of us by 2050. Also, the standard of living is rising in most of the world. More families have, or will have, automobiles, air conditioners, and the other modern energy eating devices. Seeing a crisis ahead does not take, as they use to day, a rocket scientist and there is no country store merchant refusing to extend credit for additional unneeded consumer goods.

         More goodies arrive from China.

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