Does anyone remember back in the 20th century when people used to worry about the meaning of life? It seems a long way off now from our rather more poignant 21st-century standpoint, a point in human space-time all too brimming with significance. Will we or won’t we wipe ourselves out? Will we lose ourselves to AI, or a pandemic? Will we cut all our forests down and lose all our fellow animals? Or will we instead evolve into beautiful planet guardians? Will we or won’t we make it?
We used to feel like we were motes of random dust with little impact on anything. Now we are gods and we know it. The unbearable lightness of being has mutated into an unbearable responsibility.
The meaning of life
Ever since we became ‘civilised’ the quest for meaning has been an obsession for humans. It has provoked centuries of philosophical debate, and lifetimes of avoidance strategies, not to mention the reams and reams of literary masturbation on the matter. Attempting to give our earthly existences meaning has driven the most preposterous and destructive projects. It’s brought us inadvertently to where we are now.
It dawned on me as the gates of lockdown opened here in Spain, and human civilisation with all its clamour for distraction began to flood through them once again, that without touching on the matter of meaning, few are those who will step off the consumer conveyor belt and into Eden. Because freedom weighs heavily on many. What’s the point, after all? We are born, we engage in some stuff, and then we die.
The beautiful pointlessness of a mud hut
Five months later than I expected, as the steam evaporated from the hilltops and a surprisingly gutsy April sun strode over the Atlantic skies, I added (the last?) rock to my mud and stone bathroom wall. Yes, I have a bathroom. A sink. A composting toilet. A place for my toothbrush, too. Only hot water evades me now, but its days are numbered. I’m closing in.
I’ve been up here a full year now, roosting with each season. I watched the ash trees turn brown, and the rocks push their heads out of the undergrowth as winter yanked the grass asunder. I heard the wolves howl and felt the snow on my face while the stars moved across the night sky. The world disappeared into a pandemic, but my planet kept on turning. Wrens, thrushes, blue tits, and robins filled the hazel copses. Nests were built. Three darling chickens joined the team.
First the air warmed, then the ground. New buds sprouted on my fruit trees, while vultures swirled in thermals overhead. Lo and behold, I came full circle. A whole year is now under my belt. As I scan my creation I see I’ve built a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom. I’ve created a juicy vegetable garden, too. A universe has been born up here. It’s still a toddler, but it’s definitely up and walking. Before long I will start on my larger cabaña, and turn that into a new mud and stone realm too.
“But why? Why put all that effort into making this bedroom and bathroom when you’re going to do it again in the big one? It’s so much work|!” A couple of people have asked me this question about what I’ve done so far. What’s the point, right? I mean I’m just going to move on.
And we’re always moving on, of course. I moved on from Mud Mountain in Turkey and lots of people thought that was a tragedy, which was rather confusing for me because I didn’t.
So many human issues could be solved with one small shift in perspective: that meaning isn’t an endpoint to be reached. That process doesn’t have to be irksome travail. That creating Eden is not about hacking through the sedge of minutes to reach a conclusion. It’s been said a thousand times already of course; it’s the journey, not the destination. But somehow it doesn’t seem to have sunk in to the human collective consciousness.
Whether I’m beginning, continuing, or completing a project, it is all too meaningful. And I know when I move from one phase of this creation to the next, that with each gain, something else is lost (and vice-versa). When I first built my composting toilet, I was at once relieved not to have to effort to look for a pee place, but equally saddened not to watch the stars anymore. The more my veggies grow, the less I forage. Even a hot shower will mean I give up the invigorating cold one. None of this is bad or good, it’s simply a progression, a process, a moving through seasons. And I love each one differently. I’ve always said with mud building, the whole thing is a game for me. Yet it’s a pointed game, both as whimsical as pixies and as deep as a hickory taproot. It’s a game with decent footings.
The footings of the game
My frivolous game stands firmly on two feet: being and loving. It’s not about what I create, it’s about loving who I am. It’s not about where I’m going, it’s about being and loving where I am.
Someone said, if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life. I don’t just love it, I’m in love with it, just as I’m in love with the skies here, and the wolves and the rolling green slopes and the rocky outcrops. I’m in love with the minutes as they pass (usually - though I'll freely admit, I was severely challenged by the roof tiles). When has a lover ever needed a reason? Lovers don’t ask about the meaning of life, not because they’re distracted, but because they already have it.
Missing the point
From Heidegger to Sartre to Kundera, the point has been missed. Completely. And stunningly. The meaning of life has been yanked out of the very soil it germinated within and stuck in some pot on a dusty shelf in a dead man’s office. Meaning isn’t ontological Meccano. It’s not something you stick in a computer to find the answer. It’s not ‘out there’ beyond us, or something to be ‘worked out’ or reached.
If you are in the right place (here), at the right time (now), you have meaning. Meaning is felt, not thought. The depth of the here and now is awesome. It goes on forever and ever. To even posit that being could be inconsequential, meaningless, or ‘light’ is a good example of not actually being at all, but thinking instead.
As the sky pulls its magic out of the Atlantic, and cloud worlds bubble atop the distant summits of the sierra, I watch my three little hens go about their business, scratching at the ground with their four-toed feet, pecking this, rolling in that. Striding out or hunkering down. Being. Chickens. And I can sense it in each fibre of my own being that life is most meaningful for them when they are allowed to be exactly who they are, when they are deeply and completely chicken.
I follow their lead and wander to my ash tree. As I rest my back on its trunk and watch the grass stalks sway in the wind, I start remembering who and what I am too. With each pause, more and more pieces of me come rushing in, the earth and the sky meet, and I feel my roots plunging into the essence of it all. Things open and deepen in the most amazing ways and I realise I can embody it all. I’m in the perfect place at the perfect time. Here and now. And I know, that this is the point.
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Is your life valuable enough for you to create something amazing and original out of it?
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Atulya K Bingham
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.