I don’t believe we have a soul, but I’m beginning to believe that we might be able to make one.
I don’t believe in an immutable essence, an eternal me that predates my birth and survives my death; much as I might wish to, I just can’t hold that particular tune.
I do believe in the hundred thousand miles of blood vessels in each of our brains; I praise the porridge in each of our skulls buzzing with one hundred billion neurons sparking our one hundred trillion synapses; and wonder how anyone needs a God at all, with seventy sextillion stars to wonder at, all in our observable universe.
But need the unobservable we do; the God-hunger and the soul-thirst seem so coded into our DNA that even atheists find ourselves worshiping something.
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
- David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon College commencement.
This is, of course, because the thing we want most from any system of knowing is the answer to that trapdoor question: What Is The Meaning Of Life? and its sister question, How Are We To Live?
Even the most inscrutable of Gods and astrologies are more direct than science on these questions, opening as it always does into greater mysteries; but I do not wish to stand on quicksand, even if everyone else calls it the ground. I would rather dive from the lily pad of the little we know into dark waters for as long as my breath holds.
I want to know; even if it means abandoning everything I think I know, I want to know.
This desire is the beginning of what I choose to worship, and it is out this longing that I think I can fashion a soul.
Let us agree, just for now, that God or no, afterlife or nothing, what might become a soul starts as a self, the irreducible uniqueness of a conscious life. I propose that each snowflake self is a singular engine of meaning, an algorithm of knowing, whose exact rhythm knocks once on this earth and then never again.
For this reason, every death, an irreplaceable loss.
For this reason, every birth, an immeasurable gift.
Let us (for now) set aside the question of whether our rhythms echo after in eternal pleasure or pain; let us set aside the hopes of life on other planets and the faiths of love on other planes. From this little floating certainty all I can see for sure is that we are the only makers of meaning in the universe, and whether you agree or not, trust me long enough to leap.
For if we are the only meaning-makers in the universe, then all the meaning life has lives in us. The meaning is the sum-of-us — the whole of all our dissonant, dazzling algorithms; our colliding, combining meanings — the book of life is open and we are the letters spelling out the sense of things.
This means that while not a single one of us can claim to know the whole, each of us contributes to it. And though this may seem a complex abstraction beyond all sounding, listen – the notes are all our own.
The saying goes that even when you don’t vote, you vote. This holds true for meaning: you can make it blindly or purposefully, but either way, the sum of your choices will add up to a story, whether you own it or let others tell it for you.
Tell it for yourself, for if we are the only meaning-makers, then that search is what makes us most human, and what makes each human most themselves. Others will come, carrying stories polished with time, but do not mistake that smoothness for truth. The book of life is still open, the meaning changes at every moment, and those who claim to know the whole truth have mistaken the sea glass in their hand for the ocean.
The book of life is yet open – what greater news could there be? If it were closed, if the answers lay finished like perfect furniture in the living room of God, why bother? Why grieve a death or cheer a birth, when the work is already done?
The work is not done, it is always beginning, because the book of life is open. You are necessary, you represent a unique way of saying what the world is and could be, and I need you to share it with me. You will know something I could never find out alone.
The work is hard, for the way is overgrown with comfortable living rooms, and doubt is a terrifying thing. But doubt is the father of curiosity, and curiosity, the mother of creativity, and creativity is the means to make true meaning, which is (as I hope you feel by now) just a fancy way of saying, to become human.
Become human: look at the random flux of events, and say here, not here, there, not there, yes, no, now, now, now. What are the patterns that matter? How do you choose one thing over the other? What is the beat of your life?
Listen to others, because they will say there instead of here, then instead of now, and they will be right in a way you could never imagine, and they will be wrong in a way you can help repair.
Share your meanings with others, write stories, songs, and equations; make paintings, instruments, and inventions; discover new stars, new insects, new ways to move; plumb the depths of the ocean, the heights of the sky, the riddles of our skins; and then return and say, this is what the world is, this is what the universe could become.
You do not need to be a professional to do this; for the amateur is free to discover meanings the professional is bound by contract to miss. Money is a tool to support this work, not the work itself. Nor do not trust a professional to do it for you, as they may be bound by contract to lead you down an overworn way. Listen to the stories on screens and stages, read what wisdom you can find in books, but never outsource the meaning of your life. For just as ecology thrives through diversity, and where there is the most difference you will find the most vitality, so we must work towards a multiplicity, not a monoculture, of meaning.
“But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven. Certainly and emphatically, there is no God. We are the words. We are the music. We are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.” – Virginia Woolf
You may think I have forgotten the business of making a soul, not so, breathe this darkness with me only a moment longer. We’re almost there.
If we depend on others to discover meanings we could never find alone, then anything that sustains their creativity is worthy of praise.
So praise to clean water and enough food,
praise to a warm bed and a roof to hear the rain,
praise to peace and places to gather together in safety,
praise to freedom of speech matched to empathy,
praise to justice married to compassion,
praise to happiness hitched to doubt,
for without these things, the meaning of a life is marred, and the book of life is blotted.
Therefore, any act that increases these things for others is a good, a blessing; and any act that takes these things away from others is a wrong, but…
…we all know that things are rarely that simple (though they may be that simple more often than we’d like to admit). Sometimes, we must take to give, and right our wrongs through other wrongs, so how can we choose rightly? How Are We To Live?
We must begin in doubt, not trusting the stories that we have been given, which are so often used to justify injustice.
We proceed with humility, knowing we can never grasp the whole, knowing it is always changing and so we must keep our faith nimble.
We find the unique rhythm of choosing that is our own; we share it with others; we remix their meaning with our own, and we try to bend the moral arc of the universe closer to a shared, shifting, consensus of justice; remembering that a moral absolute is an anchor, not a sail.
And then we wake up the next day, and do it all over again.
Little by little, day by day, the beat of the meaning we make may catch; may prove more useful than expected, and others may share it for you. You may find yourself asked to focus all of your energies on making this kind of meaning – in other words, you may get paid. But that is not the point of it, and if this never happens, you are not allowed to give up as if the world owed you something, when it is the other way around, entirely.
Our lives are on loan, and we pay the balance to the great book by making the best meaning we can. The book of life stands open, and it is expecting you.
Make art, and live your life with the ceaseless curiosity and rigor that making art requires, for the end is the same for all means of meanings. Not to make money, not to find fame, not to offer temporary distraction or lasting satisfaction, but to wrestle daily with the shifting sentences scrawling in that book, that wide and hungry mouth; to scratch some temporary sense from things that others may finds useful, which is a fancy way of saying, beautiful.
And if we are persistent, we might just carve out something of our selves that persists. A way of looking at lilies on water; a way to hold cancer at bay a little longer; a way to love a little deeper; a new way to laugh at old pain. A pattern of kindnesses, an algorithim of compassion, a beat of praise. Others will find it more than useful, they will find it necessary, they will carry it with them, they will share it with others, they will teach it to their students, to their children, their grandchildren will stretch it over the warp of their own time until it seems unrecognizable, but something essential will remain, something that is more and less than your self, something that persists for as long as humans live to make meaning.
That something is, of course and at last, a soul.
We are not born with a soul, but if we are persistent, we can make ourselves one.
This may be How We Are To Live, this could be the Meaning Of Life, to make of our flickering life an electric soul.
And as we have no soul without each other, we must turn away from those perfectly appointed living rooms of paradise, towards these teeming faces here and now, these lily pad faces borne upon the dark waters of seventy thousand thoughts, that deep churn of one hundred billion neurons. Let us leap together into all these stars and say here, there, yes, no, now, now, now.
Because the book of life is open, and I cannot read it without you.
“If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”