Things are such, that someone lifting a cup,– Rumi in The Purity of Desire: 100 Poems of Rumi, reinterpreted by Daniel Ladinsky
Or watching the rain, petting a dog,
Or singing, just singing — could be doing as
Much for this universe as anyone.
This question sometimes comes up for me as a kind of life-koan. For health reasons, I am doing far less in the world than I used to and imagined I would, so this comes up for me. Does my life have meaning and value even if I am not doing the things I imagined I would do in the world?
What do I find when I look into this?
The essence – taking it literally
We can take the poem literally and look at what our activities do for the universe.
If we are engagest in the simplest of activities, and perhaps appear to be doing very little, how can that be doing as much for the universe as anything? Does our existence, in itself, do as much for the universe as anything?
What first comes to mind is that I cannot know. I cannot know if not laughing, or petting a dog, or singing isn’t doing as much for the universe as anything. Perhaps just existing and experiencing what I am currently experiencing does as much for existence as anything.
We can also look at this from a systems view. We can see the universe as a seamless evolving system, and we and all beings are parts of this system. We are the local eyes, ears, thoughts, and feelings of the universe. In this sense, any activity or experience may do as much for the universe as anything.
And if we see the universe as the divine itself, then our experiences and activities are the experiences and activities of the divine. Here too, the simplest of activities and simply existing may do as much for existence as anything.
We can also bring it home. Here, I find that my current experience does as much for me as anything. In other words, it does as much for my universe as anything, and it does as much for this local part of the universe I call “me” as anything. Right here, I find how it’s true.
The essence – bringing it home
Often, these apparently metaphysical questions are about something more immediate and simple.
Does my life have meaning and value? Even if I don’t do what I had imagined? Or as much as I imagined?
This is where it makes sense to talk about meaning and value. My life as it is, even in the simplest of moments, is of immense value to me and to those who love me.
For our personal lives, this is perhaps the most important and the essence of the question.
Our sense of meaning and value is often colored by less-than-helpful assumptions we have adopted from our culture, perhaps telling us that our value is tied up with what we do, so it’s helpful to notice these, examine one at a time, and find what’s genuinely more true for us.
Some painful beliefs worth examining may be: My life doesn’t have value. If I don’t do X, my life doesn’t have value. I need to do X to be loved. And so on. What this really is about is often something universal, vulnerable, simple, innocent, childlike, and essential for us as human beings.
IN A BROADER CONTEXT
I’ll go into a few related topics and angles since it has direct consequences for how we live our lives, and the choices and priorities we make individually and collectively.
There are a few related but distinct questions here: What does an activity or our existence do for the universe? What does the activity or existence of anything do for the universe? What’s the value we assign to these things and how does that influence our perception, choices, and life?
Protestant work ethic and value through productivity
Coming from northern Europe, I am familiar with the protestant and capitalist work ethic suggesting that we have our value from what we do in the world. Productivity equals value.
Is that really true? What about a baby? A baby isn’t productive and still considered valuable. Is it just because we expect it to become productive later? Is someone with a handicap not valuable? Someone in a coma? Does nature only have value for what it produces for itself and us?
It all depends on how we look at it. People with a disability are loved by someone, and that makes them valuable to that person – and others who value love. And the same for a baby, and even someone in a coma.
Cannot find value outside of what the mind assigns to it
Of course, the idea of value is an idea created by the mind. It’s not inherent in reality.
We – collectively and individually – decide what’s valuable, and it’s good to remember that this is, quite literally, imagination and fantasy. At a collective level, it does help with coordination and cohesion, and it’s also something we can question. We can recognize it as imagination.
This also means that we can, as individuals and even collectively, assign value to what we find useful to us. For me, it seems useful to assume that all living beings, all ecosystems, and all life has value just from existing. Beyond that, I would assign value to all parts of Earth since the non-living parts of Earth – water, air, rocks – are as integral and essential to this living planet as anything else. All life, including ourselves, depends on it for our life.
Assigning value to all life and Earth as a whole allows us to live in a way that honors the living systems we are part of, and even ourselves independent of productivity or anything else. It’s practically useful since it opens up for some reverence for all life and makes us consider if we can meet our needs in a different way. Perhaps one that minimizes harm to life, and may benefit life overall.
A systems view
If we see the universe as a seamless system, then we see all things as part of this evolving system. All parts of the system have value as parts of this larger dynamic system.
We can also see all beings as the universe locally bringing itself into consciousness. In the words of Carl Sagan said, we are the local eyes, ears, thoughts, and feelings of the universe. All life is, in its own way.
If we see it this way, it’s natural to also see all life as having value and all things having value in themselves.
Divine creation or the divine itself
We can see all of existence as divine creation, and as such, it has meaning and value in itself.
We can also see all of existence as the divine. We may see the physical body as the divine taking physical form. And this opens up for even a deeper sense of reverence for all of life and all of existence.
Capacity for the world
When I find myself as capacity for the world, and that which anything I think, feel, see, hear, and so on happens within and as, this all looks a bit different. Here, everything has value. Everything is what I am. Everything happens within and as the one. We can also say that everything is the divine.
Here, the reverence for life and all of existence comes from direct perception.
Values and a pragmatic approach
We can choose to assign value to all life, and that doesn’t mean we won’t prioritize and make difficult choices. For instance, we can choose ecosystems over individual life, and we may choose our own life over that of plants we eat to survive. We always make these kinds of choices, and it’s good to be conscious of it.
Life is a mix of destruction and giving life. We eat life to stay alive. We ourselves are eventually consumed by other life. That’s how things work here.
As mentioned earlier, by assigning value to all life, we may live with more reverence for life and find different strategies that minimizes harm to life and perhaps even benefits life overall.
And as Albert Schweitzer said, by living we put ourselves in debt to life, and we can do our best to repay that debt through how we live our life. Read More