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George Szirtes

Date of Birth: November 29, 1948

Date Submitted: July 31, 2023

Religious Affiliation: Judeo-Christian Agnostic

What is the meaning of life?

"When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me," said Pascal. 

I am not sure that it is terror that lies at the core of our experience. Those infinite spaces seem so far beyond any human scale of comprehension that terror, a human experience among many, seems irrelevant to them. Besides, we seem to have got used to the idea of them as our environment. We know we are a tiny speck even in our own universe let alone among all those uncounted galaxies. Very well, we may shrug, we have to make the best of what we can comprehend, not just intellectually but psychologically. So 'meaning' is likely to be understood and defined within very narrow terms of reference.

The very idea of 'meaning' is elusive anyway. Is it a way of asking why we are here and how come that our life on earth has evolved to the extent that we can even begin to think about it? Do dogs and cats, do insects and worms as well as eagles and whales dwell upon their reasons for existing? Are they capable of asking abstract thought at all? We haven't tended to think so. So does that make us the sole beings capable of asking abstract questions about the meaning of life? It seems so.

We understand that the question God asks of Job, "Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?" is not simply about whale fishing. We sense that Leviathan stands for all the vast things beyond our agency and comprehension. In that scale Job's suffering seems no more than a thimble.

I come from a secular and atheist Jewish background, from two families almost wiped outby the Holocaust. My answer to all too many things is 'I don't know'. I know that religious experience of one or other sort is common to human beings and that it is valuable, perhaps indispensable to many. Might we refer to our own earthly existence as 'a miracle'? Considering the odds, I think we might. Sometimes we feel it in our very bones.

My own mind is the product of scepticism and doubt, but doubt is not the same as denial. Once I felt enough faith to undergo baptism by full immersion. I don't feel that now but I don't discount the young man who did feel that. I hold him in honour. 

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