The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
January 2016 – Vol. 18 Issue 11
If anything is universal in the inner life of human beings, it is the need for a sense of meaning in life, an insistence that there be meaning of some kind. The search for the meaning in one's life is an imperative for any who would walk upright in the presence of whatever may befall. Suppose some or all of the things we regard as necessary and established in our existence were to disappear? It is only when we meet such personal crises that we really have to examine our unconscious assumptions. One of the most fruitful studies ever made in this connection is Man’s Search for Meaning by Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. During the several years he spent in a Nazi concentration camp, he had the experience of having his whole life suddenly reduced by force to its basic essentials, of seeing hundreds of people all around him going through the same "reducing valve" and observing how they conducted themselves. He discovered that in every person's life there is something essential to build on, to use and to preserve, no matter what happens in the circumstances.
The key is that simple word "meaning." Much of the distress and pain of living comes from losing the sense of a point in our existence. But the human system has its own reliable, built-in ways of adjusting to even the worst of what happens, making it bearable and finding a way to go on. Frankl found that even in the dire situation of a death camp, the experiences he endured and watched others enduring showed a choice of action. Everything can be taken away but one thing, the last and deepest of our freedoms – to choose our attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose our way. The sort of person a prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, not of outward influences alone. Some of his fellow prisoners were able to retreat from their terrible situation to a world within themselves, where they lived on inner riches of mind which the habits of their whole lives had stored up for them. For a few, there came an acute sharpening of their sensitivities, an awareness of the true beauty of life.
Through all of it, Frankl’s most signal discovery was that it was only when people lost their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves that they fell victim to what was happening to them. How does one maintain this hold; how does one achieve it in the first place? For this particular man it came down to three major elements: a sense of a future, a knowledge that one carried responsibilities, and a discovery of love as the essence of life.
A belief in some kind of a future seems essential for making the meaning of one's life. Whether it is his own personal future, or a broader hope for better things to come in the world, or a life after death, the one who gives up on the future is the one who lets himself decline. But what can one say to a person who feels that he has nothing to expect from life anymore, nothing to hope for in the future? Frankl’s answer is worth pondering: “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. . . . Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Because of past decisions we have made, because of the way our lives have developed, there is for each person a place in life to fill, a mission to be performed, an assignment to carry out as best one can, even if it involves only oneself. We must meet it or betray the gift of life that is ours. If the responsibility becomes impossible or intolerable, we must at least give it our best before turning away from it and undertaking another kind of responsibility. So often, when we worry about the meaning of life, it is because we try to find some overall, universal meaning, the same for all of us everywhere at all times. But what matters is the specific meaning of my life and your life at a given time. None of us can be replaced, nor can the life of anyone be repeated. Everyone’s task is as unique as is his personality. And what matters is not what we expect from life but what life expects of us.
But there is one more element without which the other two can be grim and cold indeed. That element is love. “The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. . . . when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. . . .”
No matter what the condition of our life, there are abiding things in it to tie to, to live for: the future, our responsibility and our love. The future may be for yourself or for others; the responsibility may be to the welfare of others or only to yourself, that you live your life with honor; the love that warms life reaches out beyond the self to whomever or whatever we consider supremely worthful in the world and wish to give our best to. The objective of your and my life is not to be happy, but to matter. This is what our lives need to become whole, and if that need is met, we need not look for happiness or meaning, for they come unsought and un-bidden. – Peter H. Samsom
Two inventions from around 1600, the telescope and microscope, have revolutionized our view of the world by undermining humanity’s egocentricity. The telescope moved us from the center of a universe around which all else revolved to a small planet orbiting a star on the edge of one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies. Only in recent decades, however, has the microscopic revolution deeply challenged our comfortable assumption that humans, along with other multicellular creatures, dominate the earth. It was clear soon after the microscope’s discovery that air, water, and earth teemed with invisible lives, but only when DNA could be easily sequenced did we realize the true ubiquity and variety of microscopic life. It is now obvious that in every ecosystem microbes are the major life form, whether considered by numbers, total mass, diversity, impact, or range of habitats. In our bodies, for instance, bacteria outnumber our own cells three to one, facilitating many critical functions such as digestion and repelling pathogens. In the soil they perform many of the same functions for plants. We are each a colony, truly an ecosystem, formed from microbial lives without which we couldn’t live long – or indeed, at all.
For most of its four billion years the earth was inhabited only by one-celled life, which are still densely packed everywhere: throughout the soil and oceans; in thermal vents and super-heated pools; in the air we breathe and high in the atmosphere. These organisms are so hearty that bacteria inadvertently transported to the moon on a probe were still alive when the probe was retrieved three years later on an Apollo mission. Cells can be complex. In the course of evolution, some bacteria engulfed (ingested but did not digest) other bacteria which then became mitochondria, cells’ energy-producing engines. Later certain bacteria engulfed photosynthetic cyanobacteria which became the chloroplasts in plant cells that make the nourishment multicellular life depends on. Mitochondria and chloroplasts still retain their own separate DNA.
The ancients classified nature as minerals, plants, animals, and humans. This plan was incorporated in the medieval Great Chain of Being, along with angels and God. In the 1700s Linnaeus dropped the human and superhuman, grouping nature into the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms. At first, single cells that performed photosynthesis were classified as plants, and those that ingested their food or moved around were classed as animals. Finally in the 1800s single-celled organisms were given their own kingdom, the Protista, and placed at the bottom of the Tree of Life. In the late 20th century they were divided into three kingdoms: two without cell nuclei, the Archaea and Bacteria, and one with nuclei, the Eukarya – all multicellular lives are made up of eukaryotic cells.
Revising in light of DNA analysis, researchers today are starting to classify living beings into six or eight kingdoms or supergroups, the majority of which contain only one-celled organisms. Although it is too early to finalize these categories, the supergroups are pictured as branched spokes coming off of a center that represents the oldest common ancestor(s), instead of forming a hierarchical chain or tree as before. Fungi, animals, and humans all share just one of these eight spokes, with plants in another, and certain kelps in a third.
While scientists eventually change classifications and theories as new data indicate, what of belief systems based on ancient ideas and scriptures, systems for which empirical data is not the highest authority? Taking theosophy as an example, G. de Purucker tightly integrates a particular traditional description of the kingdoms of nature with his system of evolutionary cycles, the terrestrial and human constitution, etc. His scheme implies that the highest beings of one kingdom are below the lowest of the next kingdom, forming a continuous, non-overlapping evolutionary progression. One-celled entities, the vast majority of terrestrial beings, don’t fit well in this vision and, as in most religions, humanity is presented as the central player in earth’s current drama.
We aren’t used to thinking of ourselves on an equal footing with the other visible non-human earthlings, let alone with invisible microbes. And while humans have often ascribed ultimate power to invisible beings, these have mainly been superhuman projections of themselves and their elites, at least since the agricultural revolution. As we become more aware of the wonders and influence of the invisibly small, we will need to integrate this knowledge into our hierarchical, human-centered pictures of the world, or seek more symbiotic and flexible ways of understanding nature and ourselves. The message of the microscope is that we aren’t the center or acme of life on earth any more than we are the center or raison d’être of the universe.