I have been writing this blog for more than fifteen years. It stands as the only tangible contribution I have made to the world. Not exactly a dent in the universe...not even a tickle. A pile of pixels, obliterated sooner or later. Blogger won't last forever, after all.
I think a lot of us wonder what our "dent in the universe" is, especially as we get up into the age where funerals outnumber weddings and the wrinkles of our lives begin to manifest on our skins.
For those of us with children, grown or not, that's one shining answer. We do live on in the hearts and minds of our children, and grandchildren if we're lucky, and I know a number of parents who have raised caring, thinking and feeling human beings who will dent the universe themselves.
I have no children. I have a pair of nieces I don't see near enough of. and a woman named Jade I sometimes, fleetingly and wistfully, permit myself to think of as a kind of stepdaughter. Fleetingly, because she is a woman mostly grown, with a partner who takes up most of her time and almost all of her attention. Young love, we've all been there, right? Wistfully, because as it turns out, I did want at least one child. I just wanted to take my usual lazy way out and skip the screaming, shit-smeared stage. Watching people discover themselves is one of my greatest joys, and with kids you get to see that on the daily.
I recently reflected about how my inability to operate a motor vehicle made me feel less of a man. I think not having children has made me feel that way to a degree as well. Men in particular are often defined by that archaic sounding word "progeny". a word that ultimately, literally, means "begetting". Well, I never chose to beget. Do you need to beget to get to be?
That's a question that I, at 47, have no answer for. Still.
So how else do people, especially men, define themselves? Through their jobs, of course. Well, there I am even more of a failure, by the world's measure. I'm "supposed" to be making my age times $1000 per year; let's just say not even close. In every job I have had as an adult, I have touched lives. thousands, tens of thousands of them at this point...but in almost every case, the touch has been that of a puff of breeze. I doubt many former colleagues even remember me, let alone customers. And now? Now I exist behind a screen, serving fewer people, known to none.
What is the purpose of life? What is the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything?
Even those who have not read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy know Douglas Adams' whimsical response to that query: it is, of course, 42. Lesser known is the rest of the story.
Adams maintained it was a big joke:
"The answer to this is very simple," Adams said. "It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base 13, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat on my desk, stared in to the garden and thought 42 will do. I typed it out. End of story."
Except Adams was an inveterate computer coder. He would have known the ASCII character set, and its numerical representations for each character, very well. 42, in ASCII, is an asterisk. And what is an asterisk in computer coding? It's a character you put in to denote...whatever you want.
In other words, the meaning of life is...whatever you want it to be.
This, by turns, I find tremendously liberating, terrifying, and a load of hogwash. It's liberating when I can bring myself to believe it, because it frees me from the Western capitalist ideal of a life "well-lived" and brings me closer to a more Eastern, spiritual concept of right living that resonates in my very cells. Terrifying, because with this kind of power to shape a life comes a truly awesome responsibility to shape it properly--and that does mean discarding some, if not much, of what the world incessantly yammers is proper. And a load of hogwash because of a disconnect between thought and action that bedevils me at every turn.
I miss my Mom.
She died four years ago -- perished in a fire -- but she had been slipping for years prior to those fateful flames...and we had slipped, badly, long before her decline. I still wrestle with the guilt-clad knowledge that although I loved my mother, I often didn't like her--or to be more precise, the mental illness that often cloaked her like a malignant caul.
Before dementia joined her coterie of afflictions, she had a wickedly sharp mind. I often wonder if she came to a definition of life and purpose that made sense to her. I think maybe; she certainly did mellow out in her final years, which suggests to me she came to peace with a lot of things. But I never got the chance to ask her such deep, probing questions. Or the selfish ones, come to that.
Mom, was I a disappointment to you? Am I?
You never said so. You never even obliquely hinted at it. What I couldn't find in you, I found in abundance in myself, and ascribed to you. Same goes for my stepdad...and for my father, for that matter. Hell, I have no reason whatsoever to feel like Eva or Kathy is disappointed in me, and yet sometimes I do feel that way. With both of them.
I know this is awful thinking. I even know how to counter it, and the countering works, for a time. In case you struggle against feelings like this -- I think many adults do -- I will detail my countering methods later on for you, for what they may be worth to you.
But that shame recurs at intervals, and it's powerful. I'm feeling it now. Forty seven years old, more than half my life gone, and I have not accomplished much of anything, much less "dented the universe".
Shame without corresponding resolve is pointless, of course. What I'm supposed to do with this feeling of crushing inadequacy is make of it a crucible, and forge on, denting universes left and right, maybe puncturing a few of them out of sheer exuberance.
Let's get real here.
My shame is deeply rooted in the route I took to get where I am. The fabled Path of Least Resistance. The further you slither down that Path, the closer to the ground yet get as your legs--the legs you can use to kick universes and dent them--atrophy and wither.
I take full responsibility for the state of my legs. Those who don't, I have found, tend to be bitter, sour individuals convinced that Life has it in for them. That's not me at all. My legs have withered, but I am not handicapped. I can still dent, if not universes, my own little microverse. And I've said this before.
Another source of shame: the septic tank -- story here, and a rumination on its spiritual implications here. In short, I almost drowned in a septic tank when I was a teen...and I can't explain why I didn't. I was left with the unmistakable, soul-deep impression that something, perhaps Something, saved me that day.
Have I lived a life that justified being saved, if in fact I was? I don't feel like I have, and yet I lack the tools to really address this. Money. Drive. A knowledge of just what the hell I'm supposed to be doing, here.
There's a part of Conversations with God, I believe it's in Book 2, where "God" is suggesting that there's more than enough on this planet for its population to live in peace, harmony and prosperity, if we as a species would grow up just a bit. The author who is receiving this dictation retorts something like "what if someone doesn't deserve it? What if they're just a lazy bum?"
"God" replies that it isn't for us to judge what makes someone special. We're all supposed to be children of God, after all, and co-creators, and the tapestry of life is fantastically complex; none of us have any way of knowing whose lives other lives touch, or how.
While this is undoubtedly true, it also strikes me as self-serving, and that just goes to show you how deeply the ethos of this society has seeped into my blood. There's a voice, even now, that whispers "work hard, harder, hardest, and you'll be promoted, and promoted, and promoted until you're finally (a) a respectable man and (b) someone with the power and position to dent universes.
I know that's bullshit, of course. I've worked in more than my share of minimum or near minimum wage jobs in my life, and one thing I can tell you is that the peons work much harder than the people standing around peeing on them ever do. I once had a Walmart store manager shrug off my urgent request for help with a physical task by telling me "I've worked thirty seven years so I don't have to do shit like that anymore"...thus scuttling what little respect I still had for the man. It's been my lived experience, toiling at the bottom of the totem poles, that most people who get any distance above the level of grunt rapidly forget where they came from.
JOAN OF ARCADIA was a short-lived TV show (2003-2004) that achieved must-watch status in this house very quickly. Amber Tamblyn played the titular character, a mostly typical teen that just happened to talk to God. The theme song was Joan Osborne's "What If God Was One Of Us" --and indeed, "God" would pop up everywhere to Joan, as the janitor at school, or a little kid on the playground, or a bus driver, or that slice of beefcake she wanted...God would tell her to do something -- often something seemingly ridiculous, or against her natural desire -- and if she did it, the consequences would ripple out from her. Sometimes she was granted the opportunity to see those consequences, other times not, but that 'rippling' fit (and fits) very well with my conception of life's higher Purpose.
I think the biggest difference I have made -- I hope -- is convincing people that they are, in fact special. That's hard work...much harder than it should be, We live in a world where people can tick all the boxes that indicate "success", and still feel like a failure because they didn't succeed enough, or in the way their parents expected them to. To say nothing of those of us, like me, who are more than halfway through their lives, without professional accolades, and nary a dented universe in sight.
Special, like love, isn't something you do. It's something you are. And you know what? Special love doesn't dent universes.
It creates them.