After my year of teaching high school students, I found a kinship with them in their frustrations, longing, apathy, hopelessness, and hope. Fortunately, we studied together Jean Paul Sartre, whom I want to get to know more intimately, but we, the teens and myself, could take the spiritual answer to our questions about the meaning of life (is there one? What is it?): The meaning of life is to give it meaning.
I am not sure about their generation, but adolescence for me, in mine, was about discovering, not necessarily creating. Of course, now I think it is a little of both.
Sometimes I wonder if there is also a lesson. Being an academic, perhaps I love learning and teaching. I demonstrate my love as Jonathan Livingston Seagull does, by offering to others, perhaps a specific community of others, those who have chosen or must be in a state of learning (easily found in institutions of high school and college), the truths I have gathered (59). Of course ‘truth’ is a word that tastes a bit tannic, for it needs to be rolled around by the tongue a bit to be cleansed; perhaps to mitigate its toxic potential, we can never consume it undigested, but must gestate it and transform it within our warm bodies, just at the cliff, before we allow it to permeate our organs in a chemical structure that serves us.
But I don’t like the idea of life as a lesson or test completely. It is not very existential of me to think some external being (what can exist outside of what exists or be different?) has created a test, and therefore the meaning. Yet I can’t get away from the idea that life equates to learning, well, and being . . . and compassion and giving and enjoying and. . . .reflecting and rebelling. I guess I haven’t articulated it cleanly yet.
Richard Bach’s book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a gem of a 1970’s text that has become liturgy, a mantra I feel holds all the wisdom of all the books as many individual books do, and that I want to emblazon in my heart because of this, is about a dreamer of a seagull who doesn’t want to just fly to find and fight for food. He wants to fly for the sake of flying, even if it means he is alone for awhile and hungry. His father says to him, with the kindness of some parents, “Don’t you forget that the reason you fly is to eat” (5).
Many of us in the U.S., maybe elsewhere, create this practice: we work and then we buy things, and we work to maintain the materials, and sometimes we try to squeeze in relationship and love and a little vacation where we grasp for all we can so that we can say we are enjoying life. I have sort of a cynical theory about what the modern human can be on an immediate level in certain economies, and I think it might be too shocking or harsh or real or something; but the idea is this: we can be a work slave, whore, thief, or vagabond. I have to briefly explain that ‘whore’ doesn’t have to be something sexual – I mean it only to use our selves for profit in a way that does not feel holistically honorable to us. So it is certainly not a comment on sex workers or anyone in particular. To one person, a particular practice might fall into this category, but the same practice by another person wouldn’t. It’s more something one has to feel out for themselves.
That said, it is too easy to think about the goal of life as being safe and comfortable instead of being free. Also, it is difficult to learn unless we don’t fall out of safe, comfortable situations sometimes. And I wonder, going back to the idea of lessons, if the goal is to learn to be more mindful about what makes life worth living and not expect that anyone else has really figured it out. My most beloved mantra in Jonathan Livingston Seagull is this: “We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome” (44). Even if one doesn’t believe in a tangible kind of reincarnation, this makes sense in terms of moments or stages in our lives.
What is the basic lesson from this book about the seagull? “Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!” (17). I love that a seagull, who can already fly, is excited about learning to fly. There is a difference between flying and flying, just as there is a difference between living and living.
The difficulty is that sometimes the second kind of living might look shameful or irresponsible to others. But “who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning?” (25). Do we try to live as long as we can? Or is it what I tell my students once they are ready for it, even in a 20-page paper: quality over quantity? Yet we have to work hard to create quality; sometimes it takes a Frostian road less taken or to travel to the Egyptian pyramids without knowing why, and sometimes it is not what you do but how you do it. There are infinite possibilities. Perhaps existential crisis plunges us to the depths to allow us to gather the strength we need, but eventually, I think we all fly.
Lache S., Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.