Why are we here?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

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Why Are We Here?
The facts are incontestable: We are born, we reproduce, we die. The question is why. Many decades ago, around the time when I was first becoming aware of other pressing issues, such as skincare and boys, I began to ask that very question.

When most people inquire as to how and why this planet and life of ours came to pass, as most people do, they are offered a one-syllable answer: God. Which is to say, the world is the invention of an invisible, all-powerful being, spinner of galaxies and sculptor of continents. As for what God wants and why he is doing all of this—well, that is a "mystery" far beyond the pay grade of our puny human intelligence. End of story.

As for myself, I never received the God answer. My parents were proud atheists. In the family legend, one of my great-grandmothers, disgusted by what she saw as the church's greed and indifference to blue-collar people like herself, refused last rites, ripped the crucifix off her chest and threw it across the room. We were rationalists who had no dealings with invisible beings, nonbelievers even in the face of death.

The day I gathered my courage and hit my mother with the big why, she seemed insulted, as if I were questioning the value of her existence—the scrubbing and sewing and cooking. So I resolved to be stealthier about my questions. You can't tell people, "I'm on a mission to discover the purpose of life." Not if you're hoping to prolong the conversation.

I had no notion of what form the answer to my question might take or where it might be found. Would it be in a book I read or in a place I visited? Coded or in plain sight? Would it take years of patient study to comprehend, or would it come in a rush of revelation? And if it was available, why didn't anyone ever find it and mention it? As an adult, I sampled a wide slice of accumulated human knowledge, from physics to theology, looking for clues. I continue to look.

Plenty of times over the years I have been ready to admit defeat, deciding that my mind, for all the expansion it's endured, is simply too small for the task. I try to get used to the idea of dying before I ever find out what I or any of us is doing here. But then there will be a glimmer. A pattern will emerge. The afternoon sun will seem to slant at a fresh angle, revealing familiar objects in a new light. A phrase from a medieval mystic will stir my soul. And each time this happens, I return to the old question: "What does it all mean?"

I still don't know, but I can tell you this: A few years ago, a 5-year-old swiveled around to me in her car seat and, totally out of the blue, said, "Grandma, why are we alive?" Ah, I told her, to love and help other people, of course, and—I continued, although I could see that her attention was already drifting—one of the reasons we're alive may in fact be to ponder that question. Because it had just occurred to me that the work of answering the question "Why are we here?" may itself be part of the answer. Asking after the purpose of life gives our lives purpose.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author, most recently, of the memoir Living with a Wild God (Twelve)