The Meaning of Life

[Just a taster of my #NaNoWriMo effort this year.]

How fortunate we are to live in times when, faced with difficult questions, we can turn to our digital friends and helpers.

Siri, what is the meaning of life?

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

OK Google, what is the meaning of life?

“The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The search for life’s meaning has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question…”

(Oh, come off it, Google, you’re just reading from Wikipedia!)

Alexa, what is the meaning of life?

“42”

(Make what you will of these differences between different operating systems, MacOS, Google and Amazon.)

But is it true that contemplating a thing – a blade of grass, a cockroach, a lover’s face – for long enough, will convince you that life has meaning? Without having read his book, I’m attracted by the story of Victor Frankl. He was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, whose experience of some of the worst cruelty and brutality that has ever been inflicted by supposedly civilized human beings upon their fellows, led him to the conclusion that a person’s sanity and even survival in adversity, will depend on their ability to find meaning in their suffering. Man’s Quest for Meaning, he called his book, and with it he developed his concept of logotherapy. In contrast to Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure, Frankl bases his theory upon Kierkegaard’s will to meaning: that the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in human life, is the need to find meaning. I’m guessing that whether it helps us survive or not, may depend on the value of the meaning we find. “Trying to live in harmony with other people” may work better than “42”. Just sayin’…

Odysseus’s member

One of the favourite books we used to read to our children when they were younger was called Why are there more questions than answers, Granddad? You can more or less guess the content from the title. It was wonderful.

And it was good to face the fact, long before I became a Grandpa, that I didn’t know all the answers, and there would always be more questions than I knew the answers to. Even now that we have the World Wide Web and can find some answers pretty much instantly, it doesn’t obviate the need to keep asking the questions and looking for the answers. They do say it’s good for our mental health to remain insatiably curious, don’t they?

Only now that I am a Grandpa, it’s not the children asking me questions and expecting me in my wisdom to provide the answers. I find myself constantly wondering about things and asking questions. Some of them are things I’ve never even thought about before – though many of our forebears did – like how an arrow flew through the air: did it part the air like a ship’s keel parting the water? Did the air close again when the arrow had passed?

Today’s questions have been a bit ruder. In case you haven’t noticed before, I’m a huge fan of Odysseus and his travels. So when I visit the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, I often like to stop by the Ancient Greece section and have a look at the skyphos which depicts two scenes from the Odyssey. On the one side, Odysseus afloat, alone, at the mercy of Boreas the god of the cold north wind. On the other, Odysseus in the cave of the enchantress Circe, who holds out to him a cup of her bewitching potion. In both scenes, the hero is naked except for some kind of cloth tossed over his arm, and with his genitals proudly on display. What’s this all about?

Well, the Greeks obviously went in for that sort of thing, more than we are accustomed to in polite society or our much colder clime. But this Odysseus, far from being the great hero, seems rather to be portrayed as a figure of fun. Fat, ageing, maybe drunk? I’m wondering whether this was a B.C. version of Carry On, or Up Pompeii? Odysseus as the philandering, leering, innuendo-spouting Sid James or Frankie Howerd of his day? Or maybe the sexual champion every man aspired to be? How to find out, even with the WWW?

I won’t divulge the exact question I typed into my search engine. But I will share one of the results I found: an article by Paul Chrystal entitled A brief history of sex and sexuality in Ancient Greece. It’s an interesting read, even if it doesn’t quite answer my question.

And so I’m left wondering, too, if the caption to the Odysseus – Circe encounter might just have been an early version of a joke we still hear from time to time: Circe asking “Is that a club, or are you just glad to see me?”

Doing #inktober

Some time in the middle of September, a friend drew my attention to Inktober. Said she was going to do it herself, “though I’m completely hopeless at drawing.” (Which turned out to be untrue.) Like her, I thought I wasn’t good at drawing, and haven’t done much, other than in the way of doodles, for a long long time. In the days when I still tried to make visual aids for use in preaching, I was invariably unhappy with the results. And yet. I always wished I could draw. Wanted to draw. Felt it would be a good thing to do. So I signed up for Inktober.

It’s not an arduous or difficult thing to do. Rather less than NaNoWriMo, where you are supposed to register with the site, and have to submit your 50,000 words of text at the end to have the total verified, in order to be a ‘winner’. With Inktober, it’s only you who check up on yourself. The challenge is to post a drawing on social media (doesn’t matter which) on every day of October. 31 days, 31 drawings. The official website says

Every October, artists all over the world take on the Inktober drawing challenge by doing one ink drawing a day the entire month.
I created Inktober in 2009 as a challenge to improve my inking skills and develop positive drawing habits. It has since grown into a worldwide endeavor with thousands of artists taking on the challenge every year.

For those who want it, either because they lack inspiration (“But what can I draw?”) or because they want to make it more of a challenge, there is an official prompt list of single words to trigger creative thoughts. When I started, the prompt list was like unto a Zen koan to me, so that on the first two days I ignored the prompts and just posted two things I had felt like drawing. But then I got into the spirit of the thing – or perhaps the prompts got easier to understand – and I did my best to play the game. The prompts are broad and vague enough to have more than one meaning or interpretation, and that’s reflected in the different results the participating artists produce.

By now we’re just over halfway through. Most of my drawings have been done very quickly, very simply. I look at some of the pictures posted by others, and marvel at the intricacy, the detail, the time they must have spent on producing them. But it’s been immensely satisfying, and strangely addictive. I look back over three weeks, and I’m surprised by the variety of styles and methods I have used. And pleased with what feels like the progress I’ve made: my skills in some areas really seem to have improved. Is it annoying that my lightning sketches and throwaway attempts often look ‘better’ than the things I spend an hour on? Maybe. But it’s jolly interesting, too. It suggests that the more relaxed and loose I am about my drawing, the more fluent, the better the result.

I think I’m going to try and keep going, even when October ends.

Language and Mystery

Most people have a favourite psalm or psalms, perhaps one that they have become familiar with at some special moment in their life, or that means a lot to them for some other reason. For many people it might be Psalm 23, just because it’s one of the shortest and best-known. When I was at primary school, many years ago, it was one of the pieces of verse we were encouraged to learn in our English class. (I never learned it: even at the age of 10, I was the bolshy child who wants to learn ‘A Poem of Your Own Choice’, rather than one that the teacher had chosen for us.) Or it might be Psalm 139, at some moment in our lives when it’s especially important for us to learn that God knows us intimately, and values us:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (verses 14-16, ESV)

My ambition is to get to know all the psalms so well, that they are all my favourites for their own unique reason. In the meantime, there are lots that stand out for me. One of the recent additions to my ‘list of favourite psalms’ is Psalm 85. For a number of years, I would say Evening Prayer on Christmas Day, using the Book of Common Prayer order for Evening Prayer. The traditional lectionary lists Psalm 85 as one of the psalms appointed for the day, and I came to love the verses which explain that, in the coming of Christ into the world, God’s mercy was satisfied, and God’s righteousness and justice also.

For his salvation is nigh them that fear him:
that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together:
righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (verses 9-10)

Whenever I say Psalm 85 in the daily course of psalms, it reminds me of that message about the Incarnation. So I have a great affection and concern for these words. Imagine my dismay, then, when I find that the Psalter used in Common Worship Daily Prayer, and the translation that appears in the New Revised Standard Version, reads

9 Truly, his salvation is near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth are met together, *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other;

Where has that his come from? How has it crept in before the word ‘glory’, when my guess is, it’s not present in the Hebrew? And why does it make such a difference to me, and grate so, and feel that it has taken something away from the meaning of the line?

It’s because there is something about modern translation – in the Bible and in liturgy, too – that wants to over-specify, over-define. By making it crystal clear, what it wants you to understand by the words, it takes away ambiguity, and the possibility of reading different things in the text, from what the translators want you to read. This impoverishes Scripture and liturgy, where it is often the ambiguity of a phrase, its ability to bear many possible shades of meaning, that leads the reader or the worshipper deeper into the meaning and reality of God.

Thomas Cranmer, and the translators of the King James Bible, often had a better sense of this. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the different meanings: what they knew was, that if there were several possible meanings, it wasn’t their job to define any single one as the meaning

Clearly, language is supposed to communicate meaning; but if the meaning of a thing is mystery, then it is mystery that the language ought to convey. That’s one of the reasons why I find some of the more traditional formularies of liturgy and hymnology so much more satisfying than modern attempts to update them.

Impossible Gestures in Worship

Somewhere I remember reading an account of an earnest young curate who caused amusement to his congregation by exhorting them: “Let us take our hearts and look them in the face.”

Apparently this kind of spiritual contortion has now become part of the vocabulary of modern worship songs, too. Today I found myself being invited to sing

All who are thirsty,
all who are weak,
come to the fountain,
dip your heart in the stream of life…

Google Images unfortunately couldn’t find an illustration of this startling feat, so this will have to do instead:

Health Update

If you’ve been following the saga of my health problems throughout 2019 – and if you haven’t, you can soon catch up by reading my earlier posts from the end of last December onwards… here is the latest instalment.

The last (I hope) remaining complication of all the complications that followed my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy – keep up, there) was a hernia that developed at one of the entry points for the laparoscopic surgery. My prostate consultant asked his colleague in endocrinology who does hernia repairs to have a look at it, and he decided it was a hernia (duh). I would get an appointment for a repair sooner if I opted to have it done at the Horton General Hospital in Banbury, rather than in Oxford; so that’s what we chose.

He told me the waiting list was about two months, and in this case, that was pretty accurate: they sent me a letter with an appointment with an appointment for Friday September 20. It meant an early start, leaving at 7 a.m. to drive to Banbury in time to check in at 8. I wasn’t too encouraged when the surgeon who was to perform the operation took a look and said “That’s a bit bigger than we usually like to do as a day case…” but he decided to go ahead anyway. There was then a boring wait for most of the morning – even with the fewer surgeries booked for that morning in the smaller hospital, I wasn’t the top of the list – until I went down to theatre just before midday. And the next I knew, I was being rudely awakened in the recovery room by a nurse asking if I was all right.

So, home the same day, and convalescent again. Not allowed to drive, or carry anything heavy (like shopping, a laundry basket, or a vacuum cleaner), and generally with every excuse to take things easy and be molly-coddled.

Now that I’m officially old, I reckon I’m entitled to show my operation scars to all and sundry. Look away now, or click if you want to see this 4 inch beauty.

Continue reading “Health Update”