What Is Life?

Any parent knows that it is the moments before you hit the light at bedtime where those young, carefree minds are transformed into a hotbed of deep thought and philosophy.

I used this word on my 9-year-old the other night: philosophy.

“What’s that?” she asked me.

It’s one of those words that I use without thinking, that I understand involuntarily. I hear it, I know it. How to define it in childlike terms, however, took me a moment.

“It’s a study that is mostly about questions,” I said. “It’s a study of all that wanders through our minds, about why we live and how we live and what it means for the future, and there are only ideas, not answers.”

“You mean like, What is life?” she responded, and I felt silly for trying to reduce the concept to something more elementary. I ask myself what is life? all the time. It never occurred to me that these were the wonders passing through my child’s mind before she drifts off to sleep.

“Exactly that,” I said.

“You mean not everyone wonders that?” She was bewildered, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I saw an endearing amount of innocence in this statement, and also depth. At the same time, I sensed in my daughter a welling frustration that has been festering inside of me, maybe since I was 9, too.

Why doesn’t everyone ask what is life? Why isn’t that question keeping all of us awake? Why isn’t it the legs holding up our actions, our decision-making, our motivations?

I’m sorry. This is supposed to be a humorous column. Here, I’ll tell you a joke. How do you get a one-armed man out of tree? Do you know? You wave to him. Get it?

And now that you’ve had your chuckle, I want to know, why are you waving to a disabled man stuck in a tree? Why aren’t you rushing over there with a ladder or calling the fire department to help him down? Was it worth it, the laugh you got, thinking it through and watching him fall?

These questions have been the pulse of my existence these last several weeks when I am overwhelmed at current events. I am confronting myself for my own shortcomings, and I am trying to swallow down the disappointment I feel toward humans. Typically, all sarcasm aside, I am optimistic toward the human race. I know that might surprise a lot of you, but I generally, genuinely hope to find what’s good in the people that I meet.

This month, my family experienced an unfathomable tragedy. It was unimaginable in the sense that it felt like something that should happen to a stranger, not a member of my family. It was a prime time news feature about someone else far away. How do you begin to wrap your mind around something like that at all, let alone when it happens to someone you care about?

If processing these emotions is like walking a path in your mind, it didn’t take long for my road to diverge. I had to allow part of my brain to continue on its journey of grief, to sort out the bewilderment and the worry, to feel the heartbreak and the fear, and then try to overcome those emotions before they took hold of my heart.

The other trail, the new road where the path split, was a march of defense that I was forced into. This trail was wrought with opinions and accusations, rubbernecking and self-important righteousness, mostly from onlookers who didn’t even know who I was. And how could they understand what had happened when even I didn’t understand?

Every step I took down this path, I raged. I wanted to scream, “Why are you waving at me? Why aren’t you helping me? Why is watching me go through this more important to you than helping me go through this?” Just as I had no choice but to assume the worst in people, I realized they were assuming the worst in me as well. No questions asked, with nothing but a fog of false information separating us, we had decided, one and all, to hate each other.

What is life? I asked myself, sitting at my desk yesterday, staring at a blank page. The only answers I came up with felt bleak. Still, I know that is not the point of philosophy. If our questions lead us to a place of hopeless darkness, then I fear we are asking the wrong questions. I want to ask questions that advocate justice. I want to ask questions that posit hopefulness. I want to ask questions that challenge with love. I want to ask questions that, even if they are difficult, with a little softness, a little humility, can draw a smile.

How do you get a one-armed man down from a tree? By throwing up a rope. Turning it into a swing. Having a laugh at how, sometimes, we all find ourselves in difficult and unexpected places, on a path we might not even have wanted to take, and it sure is nice when the first person you see passing by is wearing a smile.