We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
The quest to understand the meaning of life has haunted humanity since the dawn of existence. Modern history alone has given us a plethora of attempted answers, including ones from Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Anais Nin, Ray Bradbury, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine posed this grand question head-on to 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they collected the results, along with a selection of striking black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the question visually and abstractly, in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here . Here is a selection of the answers.
Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard:
We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.
Legendary science writer Stephen Jay Gould:
The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.
Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.
Bill Owens Graduation dance
Frank Donofrio, a barber:
I have been asking myself why I’m here most of my life. If there’s a purpose I don’t care anymore. I’m seventy-four. I’m on my way out. Let the young people learn the hard way, like I did. No one ever told me anything.
Leonard Freed Harlem summer day
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:
A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?
If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.
Franco Zecchin Sicily
Literary icon John Updike:
Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.
Poet Charles Bukowski:
For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God.
We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system.
We are here to drink beer.
We are here to kill war.
We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.
Avant-garde composer and philosopher John Cage:
No why. Just here.
In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
hills and a cloud.
From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
“The spring is like a belle undressing.”
The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.
by Wallace Stevens
Cut one, the lace of acid
rushes out, spills over your hands.
You lick them, manners don’t come into it.
Orange. The first word you have heard that day
enters your mind. Everybody then
does what he or she wants; breakfast is casual.
Slices, quarters, halves, or the whole hand
holding an orange ball like the morning sun
on a day of soft wind and no clouds
which it so often is. “Oh, I always
want to live like this,
flying up out of the furrows of sleep,
fresh from water and its sheer excitement,
felled as though by a miracle
at this first sharp taste of the day!”
You’re shouting, but no one is surprised.
Here, there, everywhere on the earth
thousands are rising and shouting with you,
even those who are utterly silent, absorbed,
their mouths filled with such sweetness.
by Mary Oliver
WALTER MATTHAU TO JACK LEMMON
June 3, 1979
Your inability to win the Tony Award has put a deep strain on our relationship. Please don’t try to get too familiar with us anymore. Your incompetence is shameful. Go suck on a popsicle.
JACK LEMMON TO BURT REYNOLDS
November 7, 1978
I have been meaning to get a hold of you for days, but I’m very big on Broadway and I have very little time to give cogent advice to younger hopefuls.
However, the entire city of New York has informed me that by an incredible stroke of luck you will be attending this Thursday’s performance of “Tribute” (which will be brilliant), and I merely wanted to know if you would like to enjoy the added thrill of having dinner with the star afterwards?
I don’t want to rattle you, but if you say no it may fuck-up the entire performance.
I would also like you to know that this invitation is extended only because of the lady you are bringing, who is a hell of a lot more attractive than you are!
John Uhler Lemmon III
JACK LEMMON TO BURT REYNOLDS
June 7, 1982
It has come to my attention that you sent a contribution of $10,000 to the Jack Lemmon Burn Center in the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.
I just wanted to say that I’m sorry that you couldn’t come up with a sizable contribution, but God knows after all these years I, as much as anyone, understand the ups and downs of this crazy business. Some years are good, some years are bad, and even though you’re obviously on the shit list, I certainly appreciate the fact that you made some kind of effort no matter how meager.
I do think it is important for me to clarify an area of possible confusion on your part. Burn Centre has nothing to do with critical reaction to your work. However, it’s too fucking late so we’re going to keep the money and help a hell of a lot of kids.
One of these days I’m going to work with you even if it kills me (and it probably will).
Many thanks, and love,
JACK LEMMON TO MICHAEL DOUGLAS
December 14, 1987
Let’s face it—I have been in the acting dodge for centuries and I think I know a little bit about talent and human behavior and I know that you’re one dandy fella’ personally and a joy to work with professionally, but I also now know that that’s a crock of shit because I don’t care how good an actor is, nobody could play that part [Gordon Gekko in Wall Street] the way you did without basically being a rotten stinking insensitive vicious prick and I am personally going to spread the word and I don’t ever want to speak to you again.
Congratulations, you were absolutely brilliant.
JACK LEMMON TO WALTER MATTHAU
December 23rd, 1988
I know you’re always interested in looking for opportunities for investment.
I don’t know if you would be interested in this, but I thought I would mention it to you because it could be a real “sleeper” in making a lot of money with very little investment.
A group of us are considering investing in a large cat ranch near Hermosillo, Mexico. It is our purpose to start rather small, with about one million cats. Each cat averages about twelve kittens a year: skins can be sold for about 20¢ for the white ones and up to 40¢ for the black. This will give us 12 million cat skins per year to sell at an average price of around 32¢, making our revenues about $3 million a year. This really averages out to £10 thousand a day – excluding Sundays and holidays.
A good Mexican cat man can skin about 50 cats per day at a wage of $3.15 a day. It will only take 663 men to operate the ranch so the net profit would be over $8,200 per day.
Now, the cats would be fed on rats exclusively. Rats multiply four times as fast as cats. We would start a ranch adjacent to our cat farm. If we start with a million rats, we will have four rats per cat each day. The rats will be fed on the carcasses of the cats that we skin. This will give each rat a quarter of a cat. You can see by this that this business is a clean operation – self-supporting and really automatic throughout. The cats will eat the rats and the rats will eat the cats and we will get the skins.
Let me know if you are interested. As you can imagine, I am rather particular who I want to get into this, and want the fewest investors possible.
Eventually, it is my hope to cross the cats with snakes, for they will skin themselves twice a year. This would save labor costs of skinning as well as give me two skins for one cat.
I really felt that giving you an opportunity like this would be the greatest Christmas present possible.
In 1981, when Paul Devlin was in high school applying for a university place, he received a rejection letter from Harvard which, to his great satisfaction, contained a grammatical error. Never one to miss an opportunity, Paul quickly decided that he must reject Harvard’s rejection letter for that very reason, by letter—a process so therapeutic that Paul then decided to respond to all subsequent rejections, of which there were a few, with the following form letter. It became so popular that in May of 1981 it was reprinted in the New York Times.
Office of Admissions
Having now reviewed the many rejection letters received in the last few weeks, it is with great regret that I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejection at this time.
This year, I applied to a great number of fine colleges and universities and, of course, received many rejection letters. Unfortunately, the number of rejections that I can accept is very limited. It is for that reason that I was forced to reject the rejection letters of many qualified institutions.
This was not an easy task. Each rejection was reviewed carefully and on an individual basis. Many factors were taken into account, such as the size of the institution, student-faculty ratio, location, reputation, cost and social atmosphere.
I am certain that most of the colleges I applied to are more than qualified to reject me. I am also sure that some mistakes were made, but I hope they were few in number.
I am aware of the disappointment this decision may bring, for these were not easy judgements. Throughout my deliberations, I have kept in mind the importance to you of this decision. I wish it were possible to cite specific reasons for each of the determinations I have made but, frankly, it is not.
It was even necessary for me to reject some letters that were clearly qualified as rejections. This is surely my loss.
I appreciate your having enough interest in me to reject me, and, although it may seem inappropriate to you at this time, let me take the opportunity to wish you well in what I am sure will be a highly successful academic year.
See you all in the fall!
Applicant at Large
After Frank O’Hara / After Roger Reeves
Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind through a wind
chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
– Ocean Vuong
I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes,
open your hands. I have just come
from the berry fields, the sun
kissing me with its golden mouth all the way
(open your hands) and the wind-winged clouds
following along thinking perhaps I might
feed them, but no I carry these heart-shapes
only to you. Look how many small
but so sweet and maybe the last gift
I will bring to anyone in this
world of hope and risk, so do
Look at me. Open your life, open your hands.
– Mary Oliver
July 17, 1936
Caitlin darling darling, I caught lots of buses and went to sleep in them and ate wine gums in the train and got here awfully late in a sort of thunder storm. This morning I can’t do anything but sit with my headache and my liver in a higgledy piggledy room looking out on the rain, and now I’m trying to keep my hand steady to write a neat letter to you that isn’t all miserable because I’m not with you in Laugharne or in London or in Ringwood or whatever daft place you’re in without me. I dreamed all sorts of funny dreams in my big respectable feather bed – which is much much better than a battlement bed full of spiders – dreams with you in them all the time, and terrible ticking clocks, and vampires, and ladies with long arms putting out the light, and intimate black dogs just sitting on us.
I love you Caitlin. I love you more than anybody in the world. And yesterday – though it may be lots of yesterdays ago to you when this wobbly letter reaches you – was the best day in the world, in spite of dogs, and Augustus woofing, and being miserable because it had to stop. I love you for millions and millions of things, clocks and vampires and dirty nails and squiggly paintings and lovely hair and being dizzy and falling dreams. I want you to be with me; you can have all the spaces between the houses, and I can have a room with no windows; we’ll make a halfway house; you can teach me to walk in the air and I’ll teach you to make nice noises on the piano without any music; we’ll have a bed in a bar, as we said we would, and we shan’t have any money at all and we’ll live on other people’s, which they won’t like a bit.
The room’s full of they now, but I don’t care, I don’t care for anybody. I want to be with you because I love you. I don’t know what I love you means, except that I do. [words deleted] (I crossed that out. It was, ‘In 21 messy years’, but I don’t know what I was going to say). Write to me soon, very very soon, and tell me you really mean the things you said about you loving me too; if you don’t I shall cut my throat or go to the pictures.
I’m here in a nest of schoolmasters and vicars, majors, lawyers, doctors, maiden aunts; and you’re lord knows where, in the country, miles and miles from me, painting barmy ivy. Now I’m sad, I’m sad as hell, and I’ll have to go to a pub by myself & sit in the corner and mope. I’m going to mope about you and then I’m going to have a bath and I’m going to mope about you in the bath. Damn all this anyway; I only want to tell you all the time and over & over again that I love you and that I’m sad because you’ve gone away and that I’m not going to lose you and that I’m going to see you soon and that I want us to get married once we can and that you said yes you wanted to too. And write to me when you get this, or before you do, only write and tell me all there is to tell me. And I’ll write to tell you when I’ll be in London, and then we’ll meet, however much they try to stop us, and then I’ll be happy again and I’ll try to make you happy by not being a half wit. All my love for as long as forever & ever is Dylan
– Letter from Dylan Thomas to his future wife Caitlin Macnamara in 1936, a few months after meeting her in a pub in the heart of London.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.
I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.
I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.
Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.
Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.
If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).
You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.
– Wisława Szymborska