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Letter to My Grandchildren

by Tim Garvin | Essay 

The other day, my granddaughter made a heartfelt observation about the meaning of life. She did not know what it was! I was moved, so I wrote her the following letter (which she said I could share):


I want to write something for you to honor and recognize the questions you asked about the meaning of life. How fine and ringing that phrase is—the meaning of life! It suggests one of two alternatives, either there is rich, important meaning all around us, or else there is not. If there is not, which is to say, consciousness is an accident of natural forces in an empty universe that grinds on forever—and ends in an empty death—then what is the nature of that universe, how to live in it, how not to utterly despair of such a predicament? If there is meaning, then what is it, where is it, and how best to live?

Each thinking person arrives at this quandary, and often when they are young and have as yet little experience to guide them. They may have the voices of parents and teachers (and grandfathers) in their ears, but in the evening perhaps, or at night, when they are alone and thoughtful, questions can persist. They may doubt, and are right to doubt, all they have heard and read. They will cry out for a truth they can feel and experience, a truth more evident that the pale imitations of truth contained in mere thought.

From that statement, we could journey far, discussing the nature and possibility of truth, the nature of consciousness, the nature of perception itself. That’s a fascinating journey and some (me, for instance) find it lots of fun. But it is, alas, a journey of the mind only. And what is the mind? It’s that part of our nature that sees and comes away from that seeing with ideas. I see a tree, I close my eyes, now I see a tree within me in the form of an idea.

The mind is a type of mirror, wonderfully useful in constructing computers and automobiles, but completely dependent for its ideas on what it sees. And alas, almost all of the world, all of existence, is invisible and cannot be easily got at by the mind. Of course, more and more of the material world is becoming visible to science, which uses microscopes and telescopes and endless conjecture to puzzle out its construction. First there was stone, then the molecules of stone, then atoms, then electrons and quarks and Higgs bosons, and on and on. And what if science found the last material particle? Would that reveal the meaning of life? Or would it imply, as it implies to many scientists, that the universe is a meaningless machine toiling away for eternity? Because, finally, the study of the material world, the world of hard surfaces and bump-into-stuff, cannot offer much in the way of why-am-I-here meaning. It ends with the final particle, and the final particle stares back at us with the same what-the-hell-is-going-on question we asked of it.

Then where to look? And more—what is it we are looking for? To say it’s truth just names the mystery. And yet, there is something in that word—truth—that strikes a chord within. Because, mystery or not, it’s truth we want. We want to see and know and understand and, in the end, we don’t give a damn what the truth is. We just know that when the loneliness we feel, even in a crowd, even with family and friends, when that loneliness hears the word truth, its ears prick up.

Truth? Truth did you say! Say something more! And yet—oh my!—it is our mind, that lonely pestering empty mirror of a mind, that is asking, and has, unfortunately only very, very tiny ears to listen for the answer.

The solution? Grow ears, of course. Because the whispers of truth are ever-present and continual. When we meet a humble person, we hear the whisper of truth. When we hear a scientist filled with wonder instead of certainty, we hear the whisper of truth. When we experience unexpected thoughtfulness from a friend, we hear the whisper of truth. Eventually these whispers come together, and we hear a voice, not speaking words perhaps, but speaking clearly nonetheless, speaking silently but profoundly, and speaking truthfully. The voice fills us with good will, and patience, and tolerance, and cheer, and honesty, and yes, with love. It whispers that we are all the same, young and old, black and brown, and to recognize is to love. To speak much of this voice to others is to betray it. Oh, how the mind loves to make speeches! Let me tell you, I shall tell you! And then the whispers darken and become hard to hear, and the loneliness comes again.

In the end, all the whispers of truth we hear form a kind of arrow of direction that points the way. The way is always a daily way, day by day, this experience by that experience, this friend by that one. We build ourselves, we grow our ears, we stand taller and taller, and finally, we are so tall and our ears so enormous—well, I’m only reporting now what I have been told, since I’m still a fairly short, frog-earred fellow—that we come face to face with the source of truth, the cause of all this trouble and love, which is God himself. So they say, eh? Big talkers, eh? So do not listen to them. Listen only to the small talkers, and the smallest of talkers is within you and is always whispering its delicate lovely assurance that yes, life is indeed meaningful, and rich, and full of depth and beauty, and the best and most honest and most inevitable response to life is gratitude and love.

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