Mark J. Keenan
The Meaning of Life
Last year my daughter gifted me a subscription to an online life storytelling website. Each week, for the last thirty weeks or so, I have received an email with a question about my past or about my thoughts on something. These have ranged from asking if I was ever a sleepwalker and how I got my first job to how I rebelled as a child and what advice I'd give to my twenty-year-old self. They have all been fun to answer and, after all fifty-two are complete, I will be able to get a print copy book of them all to keep.
About a month ago I received a question which stumped me.
'What do you think is the meaning of life?'
I tried lots of different angles, wrote numerous draft replies, and spent a lot of time researching (and gazing into space).
I listened to excerpts from Douglas Adams ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ where it suggests that 42 is the number from which the meaning of life, the universe and everything can be derived. I scrolled through forums and websites dedicated to unpacking how to do this. Some were interesting, others were funny, a lot were clearly written at two in the morning after a big night out. The one which most appealed to me was that 42 degrees is the angle which light reflects off water to make a rainbow.
Then, I rewatched scenes from Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life.’ Many, of course, were insightful, in a nonsensical way, and all were incredibly funny; including my favourite with Mr Creosote’s rejection of the wafer thin after dinner mint. “Fuck off. I’m full.” The final part of the movie showed that the team of Chapman, Cleese, et al were more than comedians. In that section of the film, a woman (actually Michael Palin), seated in a red armchair, opens a golden envelope and reads out the meaning of life: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”.
Naturally, I looked for the answer in music too. Daniel Johnston (“Walking the Cow”), Louis Armstrong (“What a Wonderful World”), Jeff Buckley (“A Satisfied Mind”) all had something meaningful to say. And the Top 100 Metal Songs of All Time was also a useful resource; how could it not be with inclusions like Venom’s “Welcome to Hell” and Gojira’s “Flying Whales”?
Finally, after multiple internet searches and reading hundreds of quotes from everyone from the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa to Brian Mannix, I came to the place where I should have known I should start. Carl Sagan was an astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science communicator, and humanist. And my childhood inspiration. I read Carl Sagan’s contribution to a compilation book entitled ‘The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here’. As always, Carl had a way of describing the vastness of the universe, against the minuteness of each of us, while still reflecting the human experience as unique and incredible. He wrote:
“We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning.”
And this is where I found my answer.
“The” meaning of life is not the same for everyone. There is no universal answer. And I think it can only be discovered one way. And that is by living life:
Learning to breakdance when I was an awkward fourteen-year-old, living in a country town, and showing off my ‘moves’ at the Blue Light Disco.
By providing palliative care, in tandem with my sister, for our mum so she can stay at home and does not have to spend her last weeks in hospital.
Kissing my best friend, hoping she would kiss me back.
Starting a business with no plan for what I wanted to achieve, no knowledge on how to reach it, and a simple idea that I wanted to make a company that “feels like family” and is “fun to work at”.
Trial and error.
Being a father, as best as I am able, without a role model. Screwing it up sometimes, getting it right at others, always trying to improve.
Letting go of what I had been good at - management and engineering - and learning something I wanted to be good at - writing.
Finding ways to accept and live with my emotions and stresses, cope with the ups-and-downs, be compassionate to myself, to let go of alcohol and realise the wonderful life that comes with being sober.
Reflection and growth.
Looking to the past for lessons and to the future for dreams but striving to live in the present; to be here now.
Approaching each day with the intent it I will become a little better than yesterday, through reflection and action; being mindful, running trails, meditating and free writing, listening to music and podcasts, reading and learning.
Connecting to others and striving together for kindness and authenticity.
The sunrise photograph was taken by me at Crawley Bay, on the first day I had ever tried to run over 5km. I ran 9km, including Forrest Drive, a long inclined street leading up to the war memorial at Kings Park. The reason for the run was because I had been convinced to sign up for a 14k event, along the river front and into the park, and had doubts if I could make it. I did and this second photo was taken at the finish line of the Swan River Run a few weeks later.