John Hodgman writes in this week’s New Yorker that watching Downton Abbey with his cats (a.k.a. kids) made him “realize that ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ are the same thing.” Watching it with his kids, he had a sudden deja vu moment remembering that he had once been the kid watching Upstairs, Downstairs with his parents.
That was my first thought. What took him so long to figure that out?
My second thought was, “I figured that out two years before Hodgman. I should be writing for the fucking New Yorker.”
It only took me the first five minutes of the first episode I watched to have that realization. “Oh, I don’t need to watch this. I’ve seen it all before.”
I haven’t had any interest in watching it since.
Brooke enjoys it. She stayed up late watching the season 3 premier. I don’t think she watched Upstairs, Downstairs with her parents, though, so it’s the first time around for her.
Hodgman’s realization leads him to the conclusion that, “No matter what you make in life, it will be forgotten. And then people will just make it again and pretend what you did never happened.”
Of course, Hodgman himself, writing this in the New Yorker, is repeating what’s already been said and mostly forgotten.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done;
There is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:2-4 & 9
Hodgman and Solomon have in common the disappointed expectation that their lives should have permanence.
Lao Tzu is wiser:
The sage acts without action and teaches without talking
All things flourish around him and he does not refuse any one of them
He gives but not to receive
He works but not for reward
He completes but not for results
He does nothing for himself in this passing world so nothing he does ever passes
— Tao Te Ching, Verse 2c
The Western (American) mindset is that meaning is somehow inextricably attached to self, as in the questions, “What is the meaning of my life?” and “What will be my legacy?” and “How shall I fulfill my potential?”
These questions are, in the end, bullshit.
The universe is not about you. It’s not about me. We just live here, passing through.
This doesn’t mean that “God doesn’t care.” You can still believe that God cares about you, if you want to. If you’re living well, other people will care about you, too. And you will care about them.
But care and concern, even God’s care and concern, don’t constitute ultimate meaning.
So, where can you find meaning, if not in the personal, and if not in building monuments, or “God’s purpose for my life”?
Not easy, but doable.
You find it in your interactions with the universe in every moment as it presents itself.
Who are the people present to you right now? What can you do right now to be present with them, for them to flourish.
What is available for you to do right now that engages you in a healthy way with your surroundings?
It doesn’t have to be original, or unique. Chances are, it won’t be. It could be something as simple as enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, or taking a nap, or flashing someone a smile, or saying “no.” It could be something big, like coding an app or writing the next great American novel, or designing a high-speed, coast-to-coast monorail.
It’s being mindful, present in each moment, that connects you and me to any sense of meaning. You are. I am. The universe is. That is it’s own meaning.
As Solomon concludes:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep God’s commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.
— Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
Or, again, Lao Tzu:
Though formless and intangible It gives rise to form
Though vague and elusive It gives rise to shapes
Though dark and obscure It is the spirit, the essence, the life-breath of all things
“But is it real?” you ask —
I say its evidence is all creation!
— Tao Te Ching, Verse 21b