The 3 Big Questions in Life

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There are only three questions that really matter in life… So said Britain’s oldest man on his 109th birthday.

They are:

1) Where did I come from?
2) Who am I?
3) Where am I going?

He died yesterday at 110. One short of the classic superstitious cricket score 111 aka ‘Nelson‘ when unlucky things are believed to happen. A pretty good innings though.

He said he knew the answer to 1) and 2) but not yet to 3). I’d be ok on 1). And pretty good on 2) too. But 3) is always the undiscovered continent until you get there.

The Undiscovered Continent

I discovered a poem I liked by Emily Dickinson in a poetry anthology. Her words seemed fresh, direct and unaffected. So I looked to see whether she was still writing. A surprise then to see she wrote the words in 1862.

I asked my partner who knows more about literature than me. ‘She’s American, I think’ she said. Transpires she is, from Massachusetts. Reclusive and introverted, Emily lived through letters. But, as with many writers throughout history, it only became evident how much she’d written after her death. Thousands of poems.

She lived much of her later life in what she called the ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind and soul. She seemed to think of it as an almost a physical place you can inhabit and explore.

This set me thinking – puttering through slow traffic today – of Socrates. He thought everything could be discovered by earnest dialogue and reason – the answers are all there to be found in our heads if we are rigourous and vigourous enough.

Or Berkeley the ‘idealist’ philosopher, who argued that everything we see, touch and feel is ‘mind’ not matter. Then there are contemporary philosophers, who tease undergraduates with solipsism, asking ‘Are we sure it’s not all in our heads’.

The ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind is a tempting destination. But it’s attractions need to be treated with care. Life is enriched by real world observation and experience and is best explored with friends.

A reclusive life might find order. But the beauty and brutality of nature, the intense experiences of life and the fickle gods of chance are in the material world. The ‘undiscovered continent’ is a place I like to visit, but isn’t a place to live I feel.

Here’s the line from Emily Dickinson which drew me to her and her poetry.

I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows – superior for doors.