With the holiday season upon us, LIFE asked some wise men and women to ponder why we are here. Scientists and theologians, authors and artists, celebrities and everyday sages on the street responded. The following "answers," along with the work of seven photographers who captured the meaning of life on a single frame of film, provide a medley of philosophies--personal and at times profound.
writer TOM ROBBINS
Our purpose is to consciously, deliberately evolve toward a wiser, more liberated and luminous state of being; to return to Eden, make friends with the snake and set up our computers among the wild apple trees..
Deep down, all of us are probably aware that some kind of mystical evolution is our true task. Yet we suppress the notion with considerable force because to admit it is to admit that most of our political gyrations, religious dogmas, social ambitions and financial ploys are not merely counterproductive but trivial. Our mission is to jettison those pointless preoccupations and take on once again the primordial cargo of inexhaustible ecstasy. Or, barring that, to turn out a good, juicy cheeseburger and a strong glass of beer.
philosopher MORTIMER ADLER
The question is not "Why are we here?" but "How should we live our lives?" All of our technological advances have not changed that essentially difficult question. The Greeks of the fifth century B.C. are our contemporaries; we are no wiser than they were. Remember Harry Truman's response when asked why he was reading Plutarch's "Lives?" Said the President: To find out what's going on in Washington.
writer MAYA ANGELOU
Since age two I've been waltzing up and down with the question of life's meaning. And I am obliged to report that the answer changes from week to week. When I know the answer, I know it absolutely; as soon as I know that I know it, I know that I know nothing. About 70 percent of the time my conclusion is that there is a grand design. I believe that the force that created life is betting that human beings will do something quite wonderful--like live up to their potential. I am influenced largely by Blaise Pascal and his wager. Pascal advises us to bet on the toss of a coin that God is. If we win, we win eternity. If we lose, we lose nothing.
I'm looking out a large window now and I see about 40 dogwood and maple and oak and locust trees and the light is on some of the leaves and it's so beautiful. Sometimes I'm overcome with gratitude at such sights and feel that each of us has a responsibility for being alive: one responsibility to creation, of which we are a part, another to the creator--a debt we repay by trying to extend our areas of comprehension.
11-year-old cancer victim JASON GAES
Why are we born was a really hard paper to write. I think God made us each born for a different reason. If God gives you a great voice maybe he wants you to sing. Or else if God makes you 7 feet tall maybe he wants you to play for the Lakers or the Celtics. When my friend Kim died from her cancer I asked my Mom, if God was going to make Kim die when she was only 6 why did he make her born at all. But my Mom said even though she was only 6 she changed people's lives. What that means is like her brother or sister could be the scientist that discovers the cure for cancer and they decided to do that because of Kim. And like me too. I used to wonder why did God pick on me and give me cancer. Maybe it was because he wanted me to be a doctor who takes care of kids with cancer so when they say "Dr Jason, I get so scared" or "you don't know how weird it is to be the only bald kid in your whole school" I can say "Oh yes I: do. I had cancer and look at all my hair now."
writer ELIE WIESEL
I've built my entire work on questions, not answers. It's important not to accept easy answers. Easy answers are always the wrong answers. Questions remain, answers change. Sometimes the answer changes more than once in a generation. And "Why are we here?" is the most important question a human being has to face.
Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life. A person who is indifferent is dead without knowing it. I believe that life has meaning in spite of the meaningless death I have seen. Death has no meaning, life has. We must make every minute rich and enriching, not for oneself, but for someone else, and thereby create a bridge between beings that limits the domain of nothingness. Life is a gift and meaning is its reward. The meaning of life is to be found in every encounter. Every moment is a moment of grace.
taxi driver JOSE MARTINEZ
We're here to die, just live and die. I drive a cab. I do some fishing, take my girl out, pay taxes, do a little reading, then get ready to drop dead. You've got to be strong about it. Life is a big fake. Nobody gives a damn. You're rich or you're poor. You're here, you're gone. You're like the wind. After you're gone, other people will come. We're gonna destroy ourselves, nothing we can do about it. The only cure for the world's illness is nuclear war-wipe everything out and start over.
Supreme Court Justice HARRY BLACKMUN
It is perhaps more difficult to answer the question "Why are we here?" than it is to answer "What ought we to do, now that we are here?" The latter, I suppose, has led to the events that constitute the history of man, so far as we know it; to the development of our social structures; to our sense of beauty, however expressed; to the emergence of the world's legal systems; and to our conceptions of morality and all the other factors that enter, or fail to enter, into it-faith, trust, justice, compassion, understanding, peace.
But here we are. Not one of us asked to be here or had very much to do with his arrival. With our finite minds we cannot presume to know if there is a Purpose. We sense, however, the presence of something greater than we can comprehend, a force as yet unknown to us--perhaps ever to be unknown. So we accept our situation, learn from it, and do the best we can, resting on faith, despair or cynicism, depending on the individual. Overriding all this must be an obligation--self-imposed or externally impressed--to do the best one can for others, to relieve suffering and to exercise compassion. We are all in this together, for life is a common, not an individual, endeavor.
artist ROBERT LONGO
You're walking through the forest. There's trees falling down, animal carcasses. Then there's this rusty Coke can. You can barely notice it. Now, is the Coke can nature--or culture? Part of the underlying "why" for our being here comes down to figuring out: What's the deal with this can in the woods? Mankind has some kind of perverse cultural addiction to negating natural processes with our own creations--buildings and computers and bombs. But we've forgotten why we began building them in the first place. We're like the character Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the movie The Terminator : a really efficient machine whose motives got lost somewhere. Our purpose is to get back to the reasons behind our creating--the middle ground where the medium and the message are one--back to the human values, the responsibilities to our fellow beings, that first prompted us, passionately, to build these replacement mechanisms. Once we do that we'll have a chance to save the planet so other cats can grow up and dig the forest.
boxing champion MUHAMMAD ALI
All the wealth on this earth, all the wealth under the earth and all the wealth in the universe is like a mosquito's wing compared to the wealth we will receive in the hereafter. Life on earth is only a preparation for the eternal home, which is far more important than the short pleasures that seduce us here. We have stopped under this tree of life for a short while. We have stopped under a tree of temporary comfort. We have enjoyed its shade. One day life on earth will end and a new world will be resurrected. On that day the entire record of our good and evil deeds will be presented before God for final judgment.
Hindu scholar RAMON PAN
To look for a purpose in Life outside Life itself amounts to killing Life. Reason is given by Life, not vice versa. Life is prior to meaning. Life does not die, sing the Vedas. Christ came so that we may have Life, say the Gospels. Ah, these terrific Westerners who anguish over questions other cultures ask with more detachment and serenity, who are believers to the marrow even in their desacralized existence! Human life is joyful interrogation. Any answer is blasphemy.
Iran-contra figure OLIVER NORTH
We are not here to predict the future but to change it for the good. We are not here as helpless creatures but as sons and daughters of Adam capable of affecting our own fate. We are not here to avoid decisions but to make hard choices between good and evil by using an ethical system not invented by man but by our Creator--a framework of truth and moral guidance through which we can find deliverance from despair. We are not here to glorify ourselves, but to glorify He who made us all--and who eventually will judge each of us on how well we did at the end of the journey we all take but once.
humorist GARRISON KEILLOR
To know and to serve God, of course, is why were here, a clear truth that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard.
But a little faith will see you through. What else will except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word. Time to shut up and be beautiful, and wait for morning. Yahooism, when in power, is deaf, and neither satire nor the Gospel will stay its brutal hand, but hang on, another chapter follows. Our brave hopes for changing the world all sank within view of their home port, and we have become the very people we used to make fun of, the old and hesitant, but never mind, that's not the whole story either. So hang on. What keeps our faith cheerful is the extreme persistence of gentleness and humor. Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids-all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people. Lacking any other purpose in life, it would be good enough to live for their sake.
astronomer FRANK DRAKE
Observations of distant galaxies have produced provocative evidence for a startling idea: Our universe was just one bubble in a great fountain of bubble universes springing from the Big Bang that created all reality. Given billions of years of evolution, sophisticated living structures have developed, including creatures conscious of their universe, able to manipulate it in massive ways. There is no doubt that life will have developed in many places in our universe. Our own significance, our ultimate potential and our ensemble of possible destinies will be understood by finding and studying the other intelligent creatures of space. Thus a prime task is to seek out other intelligent civilizations and to share knowledge with them.
composer JOHN CAGE
No why. Just here.
Chicago Bears coach MIKE DITKA
I believe we're here for a reason--created by somebody to live for somebody to return to somebody. I believe that I'm created by God to do the job that He's given me while I'm here, to serve Him and then to return to Him. But it took me a long time to understand this. People pump up professional athletes, saying, "You're the greatest," telling you from day one that you are it. Then, all of a sudden, you're not it anymore. You're just part of it. Once I stopped playing ball and became an assistant coach in Dallas, I started understanding that I was just a small cog in this big machine. And it sunk in.
writer JAMAICA KINCAID
If I had been asked why we are here four years ago, just when my daughter was born and I would stand over her as she lay in her little bassinet asleep and just weep uncontrollably because I was beyond happiness or sorrow or any other feeling I had ever known, I would have said that this small child--my child--and all others just like her, was the reason we are here. Just the other day, though, over her objections, I turned off the Sleeping Beauty video she was watching so that her father and I could watch the evening news. Half to herself, half to the empty space in front of her, not directly at us at all, and in a plaintive voice, she said, "Now I'm all alone with my boring parents."
If anyone should absolutely, definitely, truthfully find out why we are here, please do not tell me. If I were to really, really know, I feel certain that I should then ask, "Please, may I now leave?"
Presbyterian minister ROBERT McAFEE BROWN
Ralph Sumner died the other day, full of years (80 plus) and wisdom (dairy farmer, cabinetmaker, churchgoer, member of the local road crew, dowser). When we laid him in the ground there were some tears, but there was also a lot of gratitude for the joy he had spread around the folk of Heath MA 01346. Ralph's death made me think about my life.
I believe we are placed here to be companions--a wonderful word that comes from cum panis ("with bread"). We are here to share bread with one another so that everyone has enough, no one has too much and our social order achieves this goal with maximal freedom and minimal coercion. There are many names for such sharing: utopia, the beloved community, the Kingdom of God, the communion of saints. And while the goal is too vast to be realized solely on this planet, it is still our task to create foretastes of it on this planet--living glimpses of what life is meant to be, which include art and music and poetry and shared laughter and picnics and politics and moral outrage and special privileges for children only and wonder and humor and endless love, to counterbalance the otherwise immobilizing realities of tyrants, starving children, death camps and just plain greed.
But I expect Ralph Sumner now sees it more clearly than I do.
comedian JACKIE MASON
Life has no meaning beyond this reality. But people keep searching for excuses. First there was reincarnation. Then refabrication. Now there's theories of life after amoebas, after death, between death, around death. Now you come back as a shirt, as a pair of pants. If Shirley MacLaine tells some brilliant guy, "There's an ethereal planet that sits right next to a delicatessen in Ethiopia and if you go shop twice a day, you'll live forever," this putz believes it because he needs an answer from somebody. People call it truth, religion; I call it insanity, the denial of death as the basic truth of life. "What is the meaning of life?" is a stupid question. Life just exists. You say to yourself, "I can't accept that I mean nothing so I have to find the meaning of life so that I shouldn't mean as little as I know I do." Subconsciously you know you're full of shit. I see life as a dance. Does a dance have to have a meaning? You're dancing because you enjoy it.
Tibetan Buddhism's spiritual leader THE DALAI LAMA
While we exist as human beings, we are like tourists on holiday. If we play havoc and cause disturbance, our visit is meaningless. If during our short stay--100 years at most--we live peacefully, help others and, at the very least, refrain from harming or upsetting them, our visit is worthwhile. What is important is to see how we can best lead a meaningful everyday life, how we can bring about peace and harmony in our minds, how we can help contribute to society.
Scientists speak about evolutionary changes and about how the human body can further evolve. Buddhism also describes the natural evolution of the human body. According to Buddhism there are a limitless number of universes. It is we who are dependent on this Great Triple Thousand World System, rather than our affecting its course. In this vastness, can we ever know why we are here? From the Buddhist point of view, our consciousness has the potential to know every object. Because of obstructions we are, at present, unable to know everything. However, by removing these obstructions gradually, it is ultimately possible to know everything.
Those who believe in the theory of rebirth would say that we are here because of our own past actions. It can also be said that the essence of life is the search for happiness and the fulfillment of one's desires. All living beings strive to sustain their lives so that they might achieve happiness. As to why the self, wishing for happiness, came into being, Buddhism answers: This self has existed from beginningless time. It has no end but for it to ultimately achieve full enlightenment.
Afro-American studies scholar WILLIAM COOK
We are here, charged with the task of completing (one might say creating) ourselves. The process is jazz. It requires improvisation, the daring to strike out on your own coupled with a sure grounding in and respect for the tune on which you are working changes. As Robert Frost says, we must keep the colors of ourselves "unmixed on the palette."
writer CHARLES BUKOWSKI
For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can't readily accept the God formula, the big answers don't remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
paleontologist STEPHEN JAY GOULD
The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time--and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan. Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life's tape to the dawn of time and let it play again--and you will never get humans a second time.
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a "higher" answer--but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves-from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.
artist JENNY HOLZER
Children are the most cruel of all
Children area the hope of the future
Slipping into madness is good for the sake of comparison
You are the victim of the rules you live by
You are the guileless in your dreams
The most profound things are inexpressible