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Why (are we here)?

By Will Baker

It seems to me that, given their directness and need for a simple approach to living, children make the best philosophers. For example, my wife tells me that the other day, while I was at work, our four year old daughter asked: "mommy, why are we here?" I must admit that the news that our little girl was already about the business of asking the big question made me smile. But then the realization dawned on me that I had best get busy formulating a suitable answer for her.

I thought about the subject some on the way into the office this morning, and for me, that is not something too far out of the ordinary. You see, I have been preoccupied with developing my understanding of the meaning of life for some time now. But talking about the subject with a four-year-old is a different matter entirely. And as I drove on, past breathtaking mountain vistas, made even more special by the morning light, a few things occurred to me. I thought about how wonderful it is to be alive, how privileged I felt to be in a position to discuss such things with my daughter and how very challenging life can sometimes be.

And as I drove on, propelled by these thoughts and by an eagerness to start my day, I flashed on a moment which, I spent with my daughter just last evening. My band was rehearsing for this weekend’s booking at Killington. But during the break I snatched her up and brought her outside. I had just been out there a moment before, and had heard an owl calling in the night. The air was calm, and the owl’s plaintive notes were haunting, and I knew that I had to share it with her. And as I stood there, with her snuggling in my arms, the owl called again…and she heard him.

But back to my daughter’s question: Why are we here? Well, gentle reader, it seems to me that answering that question can take a lifetime and the answer might change instant to instant. For I believe that life’s meaning is all about actualization and living in the present. And if we can achieve this state (and sustain it) we will be transformed into something other than what we were. I also firmly believe that this transformation involves an element of transcendence, and given the desperation that we sometimes feel, that is a good thing. Yet how might one boil this concept down into an idea that is fathomable to a four-year-old?

Over the years I have discovered that children often view things in very simple terms. And given their limited world-view, this should not be at all surprising. And I have also observed that children have a strong need to define things, to label them and then put them in their proper places. Aside from the obvious quest of discovery that growing up is really all about, It seems to me that this trait could also serve as a defense mechanism of sorts. So as to avoid experiencing cognitive overload. But Imagine being a little person in this wide and jumbled world. As adults, given our understanding of the fact that we really have no control over the world about us, at times it is difficult enough for us to get by. But for the children, asking the big questions must indeed be a daunting exercise. For them, it is hard enough to negotiate with mommy or daddy over their various wants. So imagine what takes place in their minds when they first open themselves up and experience themselves as a small piece of the big "we" that is our universe. It must blow them away.

So again… "Daddy, why are we here?" Well, I suppose that I could ask her to remember that owl calling in the night. And I could tell her that that owl was just following his nature: to live a life of quiet solitude, to be a creature of the night. And that we follow our "natures" also. But since we are humans, we have the capacity to think. Of course, for now I’ll spare her a lecture on what Aristotle had to say regarding human beings as "thinking animals." I’ll save that for another time. But it seems to me that, since she has asked the question, she is probably ready for part of the answer: that as "thinking animals" it is our part to ask the question why…No, it is our privilege to ask that question. And then, if we are fortunate enough to keep our hearts alive, to spend a lifetime living in the moment seeking the answer.




 (Essay Collection)