The next time you're paralyzed by perfectionism, self-doubt, or shame, remember: the meaning of life (and good writing) isn't certainty; it's evolution.
Behold: another one of my "this is kind of about author career practicalities but mostly an unsolicited life lecture" posts.
I don’t think anyone needs to be a genius to figure out what the meaning of life is.
It’s right there in our faces. Evolution! It’s evolution.
(Stick with me — I swear I will bring all this back to writing and publishing in a moment.)
The meaning of life strikes me as one of those Purloined Letter scenarios in which the answer is so obvious that most of our overthinking asses aren’t able to recognize it. Certain Native American tribes did. Some Eastern religions, too. And I’m sure that even pre-Darwin, there were a few Western people who were able to conceptualize life as a continuous process of growth and transmutation vs. some static thing. But not most of us. (Certainly not me for most of my life—all of this occurred to me, like, yesterday.)
I’m not an intellectual historian, GLADYS. What I can tell you from my own experience and observation, though, is that when it comes to the meaning of life, most of us are so busy looking for secret meanings, divine plots, and impressive answers that we’re pooh-poohing the simple facts in front of us.
Anyone with eyes, ears, and/or brains can recognize the truth: We’re here contributing to a multibillion-year experiment in the expansion and transmutation of matter—a constant, collective testing-out of what’s possible. And we’re doing it alongside every other plant, animal, person, and fungus on the planet. Every atom in every single one of our bodies is in its own special way pad-pad-padding blindly into the unknown. Every single one is moving, connecting, and multiplying wherever such things are possible, and they’re letting go and moving on without drama when they aren’t. They’re doing this an unfathomable number of times per second.
I like to think that all my own atoms are jostling away in there, asking a single question over and over every nanosecond: POSSIBLE? POSSIBLE? POSSIBLE? They’re on a constant, bumptious quest to see what they can do, with the end goal of—at least in my fanciful humanities-major mind—reporting back to each other through death, disbursement, and DNA.
I don’t know if God, aliens, or nobody designed the experiment we’re in.
Maybe it’s God? Or maybe the truth is closer to what Philip Pullman imagined: there’s no architect; life is just matter seeking self-knowledge through endless binary questioning, an endless asking of POSSIBLE? POSSIBLE? POSSIBLE?, running down whatever corridors of Yes it finds into increasingly absurd and complicated permutations on itself until it hits a dead-end No.
Honestly, though, the answer to that question isn’t really important for day-to-day life. No matter for whom or to what end (if any), evolution is clearly the point here. What we’re all here doing is participating in a process. A verb. Not anything static.
The obviousness of all this, I think, only disappears when one conceptualizes oneself—and/or all of humanity—as fundamentally not of a piece with the other natural life on Earth.
This idea is very flattering, but it is, bless us, a little silly. Positing that we’re somehow Different is once again ignoring the obvious. Of course we’re not! We share something like sixty percent of our DNA with plants, for heaven’s sake!
That said, humans do have a trait that is AFAIK unique among the species: creativity. We can analyze our surroundings, sense particularly difficult limits or particularly fertile possibilities, and to a certain extent direct our chorus of atoms accordingly.
Talmudic tradition holds that this is the gift of co-creation, of being able to shape God’s world alongside Them. (Thank you for teaching me this, beloved client Rabbi Adina Allen!)
Again, however, I don’t think knowing whether this is God’s doing or not has any practical bearing on the day-to-day. The actual truth could just as easily be the “matter seeking knowledge” thing again. Maybe the matter chasing possibility down the Homo Sapiens Corridor just got lucky. Maybe our atoms just happen to have found a way to maintain their streak of Yes, This is Possible longer than any other team of atoms out there.
It’s all fun to think about, but it just doesn’t matter—at least not for our purposes in this newsletter.
Which brings me to why all this is relevant to you and to the enterprise of book publishing.