Photograph: Mumbai Cutting Chai(Tea), (CHAI & GUPSHUP, Accessed, 30th Jan 2021)

You ask, “From whom?” I reply, “Life.” And I rephrase the question: What do you want from your life? You ask, “Why should I want anything?” I say, “Because you are a person. And people usually like to want.” You are convinced enough and agree to play along temporarily to think about what you would want from life if you wanted anything from it.

Now that you are here and alive you do stuff like eat, drink, breathe, sleep, shit, and hopefully, at times, think. You need to do these things to live, but these aren’t what you would like to claim what you wanted from your life? Well, you didn’t have a lot of choice over many things when you were born. To start with, as far as I can guess, you didn’t get to choose your parents, country, religion of birth, schools, siblings etc. Maybe you did, but we are not sure that the divine creator went over all your preferences before you landed on this ball of mass called earth from your biological mother’s womb. Some people, who for some reason, like to call themselves scientists just think that life is an accident. Some even claim that it is a particularly bad one for most of us.

Hopefully, you would agree that the above list isn’t the most important part of your existence over the small snippet of time for which you will exist in organic life form.

Good food, booze, music, love, power, sex, money, fame, respect, happiness, friends, revenge, knowledge, wisdom, and if you get really lucky, a good sense of humour. These are the usual suspects that most people say what they want from life. Basically, we want to have a good time. The above list just gives us options of how to do that. The list is indicative, not exhaustive.

In the book, The Sense of an Ending, the protagonist Tony reflects, “when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”[1]

Well, we can infer that these things can confirm a common observation: we are social animals (to some extent at least) and we sometimes need others to add meaning to our lives. Now you say, “Isn’t that obvious?” I say, yes, but it is also the obvious that is often overlooked.

Things are the instruments which we want or can help us get what we say we want. But would these things have any meaning if other people didn’t exist? Maybe, if you were made entirely of non-organic compounds your priorities would be different.

You don’t answer, but instead suddenly ask, “What is the meaning of meaning?” I am confused and you see that, so you help me out and patiently explain eight possible meanings of meaning, which thankfully, Robert Nozick once pointed out and you ask me to pick the ones I want to answer your question. They are, Meaning as, 1) As external causal relationship (those spots mean measles; smoke means fire), 2) as external referential or semantic relation (“brother” means male sibling; a white flag means they surrender), 3) as intention of purpose (he meant well; what is the meaning of this outburst?; Did you mean to do that?), 4) Meaning as Lesson (The Nazi period means that even a most civilized nation can commit great atrocities; Gandhi’s success means that nonviolent techniques sometimes can win over force), 5) Meaning as personal significance, importance, value, mattering (You mean a lot to me; repeal of that legislation means a lot to them), 6) Meaning as objective meaningfulness: importance, significance, meaning, 7) Meaning as intrinsic meaningfulness: objective meaning (6) in itself, apart from any connections to anything else. 8) Meaning as total resultant meaning: the sum total and web of something’s meanings 1–6.[2]

I am still lost about which meaning to pick. But before I can pick a meaning from the above meanings of meaning, you ask why is it important to have meaning in anything?

You change the topic before I can think of a reply and ask again, “Why should I want anything?” This time you emphasize the ‘I’ in the question. Again before I reply, you ask, “Do you want to know what I, the individual, want?” I reply, “Yes.” You calmly say, “But there is no individual.” I look at you, bewildered.

You tell me that the Buddhist term for an individual, a term which is intended to suggest the difference between the Buddhist view and other theories, is santana, i.e. a ‘stream’.[3]

You explain what the Buddhists and the Buddha said,

A sentient being does exist, you think, O Mara?
You are misled by a false conception.
This bundle of elements is void of Self,
In it there is no sentient being,
Just as a set of wooden parts,
Receives the name of carriage,
So do we give to elements,
The name of fancied being.

Buddha has spoken thus: ‘O Brethren, actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not. There is no one to cast away this set of elements and no one to assume a new set of them. There exists no Individual, it is only a conventional name given to a set of elements.’[4]

I begin to realize it’s time the prank is given up. You grin. We head to the tapri to have tea. On the way, you tell me, “We want to fill the void.”

References

[1] Barnes, Julian. 2012. The Sense of an Ending. Vintage International. Page 80.

[2] Nozick, Robert. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Belknap Press. Page 574–575.

[3] Parfit, Derek, 1983. Reasons and Persons. Cambridge Press. Page 503.

[4] Parfit, Derek, 1983. Reasons and Persons. Cambridge Press. Page 502.