One morning towards the end of the Great Pandemic of 2020, Lily suddenly looked out of the window, across the red tile roofs of the town, through the greenness of the trees and up into the cloud dotted sky and, for the first time in many, many years asked herself, or the Universe, or whatever, a question that came, not from her mind, but from somewhere deep inside her chest:
-Why are we here? Why is all this here?
And she meant, of course, herself and all the animals and plants and trees and clouds and bodies of water or streams and the insects, the mites, the bacteria and viruses. What for?
Immediately her mind leapt into action and began coming up with all the answers that had been registered there over time for Lily was not a dumb or unlearned person… but not one answer stuck.
-No –said Lily to her mind- I mean all this: the birds and the trees and the flowers and the viruses and the angels and the mites in our mattresses… and us humans and our dogs… Why are we here? Why is all this here? –it came from her gut, the question, and it produced not a little unease.
She knew it was an important question and also one that humanity has been trying to answer for most of its existence. She also knew that no answer had yet made her think oh… yeah: that’s it, and feel satisfied enough to go on with her life.
She had never believed all of religion’s fairy tales and horror stories of a Loving but Just God-Daddy who would reward the good and punish the evil, and the New-Age reasoning of being here to Create Consciousness –which at one time had sounded pretty good- had long since seemed full of holes: What for? was the obvious next question… and that was the problem: To every answer possible, there was always the obvious next question and it was always… What for?
Then she wondered: Will I find out when I die? And what damn good will it do me then? The Cosmic Joke… Then she could reincarnate… but What for? What for if you can’t remember the previous life and all the lessons learned then or what crimes you are being punished for and what karma you are cleaning… What for???
Could it be that there was no reason for all this beauty or all this ugliness? What if there was no FOR…
Einstein had said –or so she had read- that the most important question we must ask is: Is this a friendly Universe…? ‘He probably meant God when he said Universe- but couldn’t say so because God has gotten such a lousy reputation these days’ she thought. She too preferred ‘Universe’, it had fewer connotations, it was asexual and certainly had no overtones of daddiness. Universe was something impersonal. When she wanted something she always left it to the Universe and everything had usually gone her way in the long run.
Man’s Search for Meaning (and Women’s, Lily added in her usual feminist fashion), came to mind. She went over to her desk, opened the computer and googled Viktor Frankl. The book popped up. She had read it a long time ago, during her ‘searching’ period which had taken up all of middle life from 25 to 60, but the book had gotten lost in one of so many house moves.
She browsed down the offerings, all Kindle and each one a bit more expensive than the previous. There were four different publications, followed –strangely- by a book of recipes for dishes using cherries… She wondered what the connection was: the Universe is just a bowl of cherries? Sixteen million copies sold! Of Frankl’s book, not the cherry recipes.
‘Maybe I wouldn’t be searching for meaning if my books had sold 16 million copies,’ Lily pondered. ‘And supposing the answer to What for? is Just because…?’ she went on to consider.
Lily closed the computer, returned to the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee; from the cupboard she extracted a dietetic cookie, and returned to her contemplation from the window.
It was the 53rd day of the Pandemic Lockdown and existence had become a very private and a very simple matter. Living alone, as she did, in a very small apartment, in a small town, far from family and with only a few select friends, her life had never been very complicated in these later years, but the Lockdown had definitely over-simplified it to almost nunhood.
Silence had never bothered her –she was not a listener of music and hated having a background anything- but with Lockdown it had become, what she thought of as, a Very Loud Silence. Twenty-four hours after the Confinement had begun, she had discovered that there was a ringing in her ears she had never noticed before. She looked it up on internet: tintinitis… no idea where it comes from and no cure. So much for that. As soon as traffic picked up again, and kids began riding their motor-scooters with the exhausts open and neighbors started conversing window to window the outdoor noise would probably din the ringing and she could forget about it.
But again… Why is all this here? What for? After all, she knew that cars and trucks and guns and department stores and hospitals and schools were here because ‘Man’ (that one-sexed, patriarchal species) had made them. But why was LIFE in all its manifestations here?
Lily thought back on her little life (so small, so meaningless) –since Lockdown there had been plenty of time to go over the years-. It had been a lifetime of searching… she thought, and what for? Oh, yes… Of course… Life had seemed unlivable… from the tender age of 19, she had suddenly understood that she understood nothing, that she felt she was losing it (whatever it was), and that she needed someone or something to give her an answer and to plot a path.
From that age on, she had searched. The first Someone was God, through the Catholic Religion. Not having been brought up in any belief, she went through the whole enchilada: catechism, baptism, confirmation and first communion… all in one and Life had Meaning, which was to Love God and Do Good. Lily found she wasn’t very good at either, especially the doing good, since she met the man who was to be her husband shortly after becoming Catholic and ‘Sex raised its Ugly Head’ as her grandmother so liked saying.
At 20 she had dropped God, married The Man and wound up with two small children by the time she was 25. From there, the development of a freaking frustration that drove her up the walls was just a hop, skip and crying fit away.
The next remedy to existential anguish was Freud and the psychoanalytical couch. She was told that the problem was a Father Complex and a great amount of Penis Envy (something she found hard to ‘swallow’ both from the analyst and from The Man), but at least the couch was a first step towards a fascination with the Psyche, the Mind, the Noodle-de-Doodle and a certain degree of understanding as to how we function, if not -yet- the WHY.
Somehow, Freud managed to cement Lily to The Man long enough for the kids to marry before the final downward plunge leading to divorce. Although the Psyche had been fascinating, it had not been enough to keep her mind on the straight and narrow, so in her late 50’s she had joined God and Freud in a frenzied Spiritual New Age search that had ended at age 60 when she had finally settled into some kind of contentment and moved in with a small female dog for a companion. Since then Life had been good -although never understandable- and she had basically stopped asking THE QUESTION.
But the year 2020 –the year of CLEAR VISION as Lily had jokingly foretold- had been turned upside down with the Pandemic. And the Pandemic, with the following necessary Lockdown, had suddenly brought up the froth that lay quietly waiting beneath life’s contentment and there, on this morning of the 53rd day of Deafening Silence, the unanswerable question had bubbled up and burst out upsetting everything but the stolid noiselessness.
‘What in the hell for?’ Lily repeated, this time out loud. ‘I mean… Look at us! As a species we are a disaster: greedy, relentless, murdering, selfish, unfeeling, insensitive, egotistical… arghhhh, Beings… Why? What in the hell for?’
Lily was not happy at having been obliged to look again so closely at her own species, at her own self as she had been over the last 53 days. There were six days of Lockdown to go and then… What?
Was it to be Everyone back to as before? What for? What does it all mean? If we’re good, if we’re bad, if we’re generous, if we steal… Us and all this incredibly awe-inspiring, unbelievably beautiful world that surrounds us… WHY IS ALL THIS HERE… WHAT FOR?
Suddenly she looked at the trees as if she had never seen a tree before, and heard a bird chirping as if it were the only sound on Earth and felt the loving caress of the breeze that was lilting off the mountains … and tears began streaming down her face as she softly, oh so very softly… smiled.