June 28, 2021

The emerald tunnel.


One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, speak a few reasonable words.

-Johann Wolfgang von Geothe


The rail-trail greets Waldo and I with a green smile this morning.  There are places where the tarmac winds its way down a tunnel running through of a vast ocean of leaves.  I feel like we’re walking through green pea soup — without the bacon bits.  The sky is clear, the sun is low, the air is still and the temperature is pleasant.  All life around us seems to be humming a happy tune – the birds are certainly singing celebratory songs.  Waldo’s up ahead, lost in the moment, and I’m trying to learn French from my phone.

My plan is to go to the French-speaking part of Switzerland in two weeks.  The app I’m using on my phone is the closest I can get to immersion in the language and I think it’s working pretty well for that. I’m also using a textbook and a computer course that supply me with the grammar and structure, but the app is what is cementing the strange way (for me) to communicate in my 73-year old brain.  I’ve been doing it every day while we’re out walking, without fail, for the past four months.  I have no delusions that I’ll be anywhere near fluent when I get there, but I should be able to interact in the local tongue on a basic level.

One might well ask, why would I bother?  I’m retired, I have no career obligations and no goals set to motivate me, other than the desire to talk to people that I meet in their native language.  Isn’t retirement the time to sit back, chill and enjoy what life one has left without the stress of striving for whatever life has to offer?  I don’t think so.

I remember, when I was in college, studying about the sunnum bonum.  That’s Latin for the greatest good.  Philosophers, for thousands of years, have argued about this.  Some ideas tossed around were, the greatest amount of pleasure for the least amount of pain, or to gain the most wealth and power possible, or to achieve the highest glory and praise, or to be the most respected adult in the room.  Some have suggested contentment and bliss, or to surround oneself with the love of others, or to learn how to love everyone around you.  Others propose that it is the pursuit of the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.  Maybe it’s something else, or maybe it doesn’t even exist – perhaps it’s simply the invention of a confused mind.  Another way to pose the question is, since we are all driven by something, does that something drive us in a good direction or bad?

Now that I’m old[er], I can’t help but wonder:  Did I lead a good life?  Is there something I have yet to do to complete my life’s journey?  Something that, if I don’t do it, I will die without achieving what I should have?  It all boils down to the question: What is the meaning of life?  Is there any meaning to it at all?  We’re born, we live a certain number of years and then we die.  What happened before and what happens after that is completely unknown.  It’s hidden behind an impenetrable veil.  And what happens in between is often obscured by a dense fog of confusion, misapprehension and self-scripted lies.  Maybe these questions are all vacuous and we are nothing more than the predetermined action of a purely mechanical universe that is merely evolving according to a set of inviolable physical laws.

But now, in my later years, I can’t help but wonder:  What should I do with the little time I have left?  That is certainly less ethereal and more to the point, isn’t it?  But then you have to ask yourself, what do you mean by “should” and we cycle back to all the other questions.  It’s no help, either, to try to reduce it to:  What do I want to do?  That just replaces the label “should” with the label “want.”  Still, I only have a relatively small number of years left to live and I would like to know the optimal way of spending the time I have left on this Earth.

When I think about this stuff, I keep coming back to the fact that I came into this universe at a specific time and place and I’ve been going someplace and somewhen else ever since.   I may not know where that place is, or even understand if it’s a good place to go.  But I’m moving.   There is a directedness to this journey, but I have no way of knowing if it is a good direction.  No matter what I choose, it will certainly end in the same predetermined event, my death.  Even so, I can’t help but wonder if I can’t accumulate something more on my exit than I had on my entry.  Maybe good or bad isn’t the way to order what happens in the in-between.  Maybe the best that can be done is to simply experience as much as possible of what the human condition has to offer and that alone answers the question:  What is life all about?  Give an extensional definition rather that an intentional one.  (An extensional definition gives meaning to a term by specifying its extension – that is, specifying every object that falls under the definition of the term in question. An intentional definition gives meaning to a term by specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions when the term applies.)  Maybe the good life is just that life that has tasted the widest variety of what the human condition has to offer.  Then when I ask:  What is a human life? I can respond with: The sum total of what I have experienced is the closest I will ever get to an answer.  Then the greatest good may be to get out there and experience as much of life as is possible.

At any rate, something like that seems to be what is motivating me to go to Switzerland armed with a thin veneer of French.  We’ll see what happens.

Meanwhile, Waldo is out sniffing, looking and listening, chasing after rabbits and carrying sticks, doing a similar thing.  He’s learning the language of nature and exploring the limits of his doggy existence.

And he suffers not at all by not going to Switzerland.

With or without French.


The world is so green.

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