I often have a daydream that suddenly the meaning of life is discovered. For some reason, the hero is always a teenaged boy in some village in India. Soon, word gets around.
Did you hear? someone asks me, they discovered the meaning of life. Perhaps it's my mother telling me long-distance on the phone.
"Who's they?" I say, hoping that it's not scientists.
"A boy in India," she says. "Isn't it wonderful?"
"Yes," I say, a little sorry I didn't discover it myself. Already, as I lean back in my chair and drop my pen on my desk, I imagine the boy, brown-skinned and wiry, with big black eyes and a whiter-than-white mischievous smile, like Apu in Pather Panchali, on his way to a well to get water. Perhaps he meets an old, orange-robed sadhu who breaks his decades-long vow of silence to impart his words of wisest wisdom before again silencing himself. With his discovery, the boy runs circles through the village until someone can calm him down and get the truth out of him. A shout of joy goes up in the village, then around India and beyond. For those of us farther away, the news comes as a relief, as if our greatest concern was not what the meaning of life was, but whether there was one at all.
"So what is it?" I ask, rearranging the stack of essays on my desk that are waiting to be graded.
"He won't say. He says he's sworn to secrecy." She wants to laugh, I can hear it in her voice. "Either that or he's forgotten it. Or gotten it confused. But it's still wonderful, isn't it – just knowing?"
Who hasn't thought about the meaning of life? I used to have a great little book about it; in a handful of short chapters, the author argued that there wasn't "a" meaning of life. Instead, he said, the challenge was to live a meaningful life. A friend borrowed it and I soon lost touch with him, though last I heard he was drinking again. I always meant to replace the book, but never did. When I was traveling in south-east Asia, I concluded that the meaning of life is to search for the meaning of life because it's that search that leads you into situations and places that allow you to question your life and find meaning in it. A girlfriend later said it was too circular, illogical, and so on. But I found it satisfactory at the time and still thought about it from time to time.
"Yes," I say, it is wonderful," though I'm not sure what to make of it.
"Not much else is new," she says. "I just wanted to share that."
Usually, when my mother calls, it's to catch me up on the family. Who came over for dinner, who got a new job, what movie Dad finally took her to. It's perfectly predictable but I'm always grateful for such an innocuous phone call as I get so few. Today she has definitely surprised me.
After I hang up, I still hear the buoyancy in her voice and for a while, this is what excites me about the news, more than the fact that there's an explanation for this Schubertian loneliness, these spells of boredom and frustration at the world. That's usually as far as I take the daydream. I like the suddenness of the news, how it breaks me out of the moment that until then wasn't special.
Sometimes, I imagine following the story in the newspapers. For a few days, it's all anyone can talk about. I never would have believed it, they say, it's like we all won the lottery. The cafés are unusually full. Everyone wants to know what the meaning is, whether the boy can be made to divulge the secret. But soon, everyone calms down again and, with a sigh, goes on with their lives, myself included. For some reason, following it is never as exciting as the initial news.
Often I have this daydream in the morning as I walk to work, or at lunch, in between bites of a sandwich. Sometimes it pops into my head in the instant before the phone rings, like now.
About the author:
Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, teaches natural science at Boston University. He has had recent prose appear in Bayou Magazine, The Avatar Review, Café Irreal, Cezanne's Carrot, Neon (UK), the Nashwaak Review (forthcoming) and Riffing on Strings, an anthology of writing inspired by string theory (Scriblerus Press). He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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