On What Matters

Entry by: JC

12th January 2017
On What Matters

‘What’s the point?’

‘The point of what?’


From her chair she smiled up at him. ‘Ah, the big question.’

He scowled and her smile softened. ‘You ask, but I’m guessing you’ve already figured it out.’

He spoke to his feet. ‘There _is_ no point.’

His grandmother waited until he looked at her again before answering. ‘Does it matter so much?’

‘Of course it matters! Without a point, life is meaningless!’

‘And yet there are joys.’

‘And sorrows,’ he shouted. ‘And pain. And for what? For nothing.’

She reached out her hands. ‘Who should they be for?’

Andy took her arms and eased her out of the chair. ‘My parents say God has a plan, which is all that matters, even if we can’t see it. I say that’s a fairy tale. A cop-out!’

She arched her back and tilted her head from side to side to stretch out the kinks. ‘You sound just like me when I was not much older than you, back in the 1960s. We were the flower generation, rejecting the tired old myth of some deity overseeing our lives. We cried out to the world that love was all that mattered.’

He helped her to the dining table. ‘Those days have passed.’

‘They have.’ She eyed the rainbow of medications waiting to be consumed with lunch and tisked. ‘Every colour except green. Maybe some little green bennies from the old days would kick a bit of life back into this old dog.’

He replied sourly as he sliced a tomato onto her plate. ‘So love wasn’t the only thing that mattered to you guys. Drugs were right up there too.’

She laughed. ‘Touché. Probably why the world didn’t take us seriously – why your parents’ generation swung back to more conservative ways to find their meaning.’

‘Well if they’re wrong and your lot were wrong then what _does_ matter, Gran?’

She looked up from buttering her bread. ‘Just two things, Andy. And it’s taken me most of my life to realise this.'

‘Go on.’

She reached for her first pill, a tiny blue one, which she popped into her mouth and swallowed without water. Then she turned her gaze onto him. ‘The two things that matter most in life are… courage and effort.’

He blinked. These were her words of wisdom? He could see she was waiting for an answer and he couldn’t stop from blurting out his disappointment.

‘Courage? Really? It’s not like people today have to go off fighting dragons, Gran.

She smiled. ‘Forget the dragons. Courage, plain and simple, is willingness to endure discomfort or pain.’

‘Like masochism?’

‘No. Not _eagerness_ to experience pain but _willingness_ to endure it when needs must. Those who have little courage will do anything to avoid discomfort, and as a result usually end up suffering far more than those who face it.’

‘Okay, I’ll admit courage matters, but why put “effort” before love and joy and friendship? Surely they matter more?’

‘The best forms of love joy and friendship flow from courage and effort.’

Andy shook his head. ‘Not so sure about that.’

‘Because you haven’t considered what’s relevant.’ She poured tea into the cup he’d set out for her, raised the delicate china to her lips and sipped.

He pushed the next pill across. ‘So what _is_ relevant?’

The teacup clinked onto the saucer. ‘Only one thing – that we are here.’

She fixed him with a hard stare. ‘Out of the endless inanimate cosmos, against who knows what incredible odds, life has sprung up on Earth. Whether it’s because of divine intervention, random accident, or some alien kid’s science project is irrelevant. We’re here, and in a universe of rock and gasses our tiny speck of life on Earth is an aberration thumbing its nose at the great inorganic cosmos. We’re David, and Goliath wants to crush us.’

‘Since the cosmos is inorganic it can’t “want” to do anything, Gran.’

She nodded. ‘You’re right, Andy. Yet it must have felt that way to early humans. Much of their time was spent battling the elements. Even today we’re constantly reminded that compared with the inorganic, the organic is so fragile. One fire can burn out a forest in hours, an earthquake annihilate a village in minutes. Every icy wind that cuts through us reminds us of our frailty.

‘Since the first single-celled organism rose from the inorganic, living things have fought against being reclaimed by it. That struggle is built into our genes. At a conscious level we know that the cosmos isn’t actively trying to annihilate us but on an unconscious, genetic, race-memory level, we fear it is.’

Andy laughed. ‘I don’t.’

‘Don’t you? Are you so aware of your unconscious fears and motivations?’

He poured himself a cup of tea to play for time and wrinkled his nose. The liquid had become stewed. His grandmother went on.

‘Any whose observations aren’t clouded by wishful thinking are aware there’s no hidden hand, either controlling or caring for us. Individuals are here for an eye-blink and then gone – snatched back by the inorganic. There is an unspoken war going on Andy – a war between life and the non-life all around us. Every plant and animal is a soldier in that war. With each life snuffed out we lose an encounter. Every new life that arises is a skirmish won.’

‘You’ve watched too many Star Wars movies, Gran.’ He passed her the cheese platter with the next pill, waiting for her laughter but she continued solemnly.

‘We may not consciously see ourselves as soldiers but at some level we know the score. This is a battle we all fight. Sometimes, fear at its futility becomes conscious and makes us angry, as you’ve been lately.’ She washed down the pill with the remainder of her tea.

He narrowed his eyes. ‘If that’s what you think why aren’t you angry too? You’re closer than I am to being reclaimed by the inorganic cosmos.’

Now she laughed. ‘I’m too busy thumbing my nose at it because life is glorious and amazing and impossible, and for the moment I’m still part of it. Life has no point but somehow we are here, and every time we successfully battle the cosmos and hold onto our turf we feel the joy of a victory won.’

‘Battle the cosmos? When are we doing that?’

‘All the time in small and big ways. We feel cold so we put on a coat – a tiny victory. We find a mate and start a family – a big victory as we’ve created new life. We aid our fellow humans in a multitude of ways, through emotional support, education, medical innovation…’ she waved the last pill in the air and swallowed it down, ‘and all manner of inventions. In doing so we extend everyone’s lives and quality of living – a big nose-thumb at the inorganic cosmos surrounding us. Every victory brings a degree of satisfaction – of joy – the bigger the victory the greater the joy. What more do we need?’

‘Now you’re saying enjoyment is what matters?’

She winked. ‘Enjoyment’s our reward, but therein lies the trap that caught the flower children. Enjoyment can come from two sources – through actively battling the cosmos and helping life retain its grip, or through retreating from the battle – seeking to escape the very thought of it. “Retreating enjoyment” does little harm if used for an occasional reprieve but it’s easy, and therefore seductive. Overused it will always let us down.’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘For example?’

‘Hmm. Think of the inorganic cosmos as a playground bully – ever popping up and being annoying, sometimes downright scary. How do we deal with this bully?’

‘You tell me, Gran.’

She grinned. ‘There are “active” ways and “retreating” ways. Retreating ways can work in the short term but they’ll eventually backfire.’

‘For example?’

‘Well, you might decide to hide or run away every time you spot the bully. That will buy you a temporary reprieve, bringing some joy through relief, but you pay a price. First you miss out on playing with your friends. Then, each time you avoid the bully it becomes ever harder psychologically to face up to him. Eventually the mere thought of an encounter can have you retreating into more escapist enjoyments such as gulping comfort foods or losing yourself in video games, and these will negatively impact on your health and self worth.’

‘But facing up to the bully could get you beaten to a pulp.’

She nodded. ‘It could, but not necessarily, and by showing courage you improve your standing with your peers and make the bully think twice about targeting you again. In life it’s almost always better to tackle problems than avoid them. Doing so builds your courage – the ability to endure discomfort, which you need for when things get really tough, like right now. Your mother told me you’ve broken up with your girlfriend.’

Andy felt his face grow hot. Trust Mum to blab.

‘I’m not making fun. I know how it hurts to lose your first love. You so want the pain to go away. And there are any number of retreating strategies you could indulge in to make that happen. You could take recreational drugs, get drunk or do wild and dangerous things with your friends. These can bring enjoyment and mask the pain but they’ll only be temporary and they’ll also inflict a degree of damage on you. The more you use them the more harm they’ll do.’

He stared at her grimly. ‘Then what do you suggest?’

Collect all your courage and endure the pain of your loss. It will fade faster than if you try to run from it. At the same time add your efforts to life’s battle against the cosmos.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Anything that assists the life clinging to this rock. It can be something tiny like tidying your room to make your mother happy. Improving things for each other, even in the smallest way, strengthens life’s hold. You’re rewarded with a sense of satisfaction and you become a little stronger as an individual.’ She eyed him consideringly. ‘You’re good at football. Maybe you could lend the juniors a hand.’

He screwed up his face. ‘I don’t know. I have a lot of homework to do.’

‘No problem, Andy. You’re already engaged in the battle by spending time with me, which I greatly appreciate. Just be honest with yourself and be aware when you’re indulging in too much retreating. The greatest rewards in life come from effort. Each time you avoid effort you lose an opportunity for satisfaction, and facing the world becomes a little harder.’

Andy sighed. ‘I just wish making an effort wasn’t such a pain.’

She smiled. ‘The rewards are more than worth it. And courage helps. When you endure the discomfort of making an effort the next effort becomes easier. Why not begin with something that interests you?’

‘I don’t have that many interests… now Claire’s left.’

‘Then start searching. Explore areas you haven’t considered before. That’s how you discover passions. Here’s another amazing thing I’ve learnt – anything you put real effort into will keep positively affecting your life for years in ways you can’t even imagine right now.

‘Don’t be afraid to keep improving yourself. The satisfaction from setting a challenging goal and achieving it is immense. Every effort pushes back at the cosmos, quietening that bully who tweaks our unconscious fears, so put effort into everything – your friendships, your school work, your passions.’

Andy nodded slowly. ‘Courage and effort. Everything else follows. I’ll give it a shot, Gran.’