A PERSONAL FOOTNOTE: The History of This Essay
I perceive my own personal life – and everybody else’s – as a miracle of nature. I perceive any form of existence as a miracle – when considering all existence beginning as an abstract composition of concentrated field effects forming subatomic particles in the vacuum of space and time, controlled by abstract forces and the invariable universal laws of nature, with all the following configurations in dynamic evolution. How could I – or anybody else – result from that? Where will it all end up?
These impressions occurred when working in the highly innovative aerospace industry of California in the 1950ies and 1960ies. Then, the first images of Earth taken from outer space showed our uniquely blue planet in the emptiness of black space.
This intense awareness of our own existence in the universe resulted in the questions discussed in this essay; how can one understand the universe, nature, and one’s own life therein? What forces are behind these grandiose, large-scale, but also very detailed, phenomena? Can one find a meaning or purpose in existence? What direction shall we personally follow in our short lives here on Earth, how shall we seek fulfillment of our lives?
I perceive my own life as a unique, one-time opportunity to perceive, explore, contribute to, sympathize with, act, and also enjoy being here and now. I perceive the life of any conscious, thinking, and feeling being as a unique, one-time opportunity. This leads to the key questions: What can I do, what shall I do with my own life? What makes sense to do? What would constitute a “fulfilled” life?
The search for answers to these questions has been a theme of my life, as it may have been for many others. The search began during my years of adolescence. I suffered from the not uncommon problems of trying to understand this world and of finding a meaningful approach to my own life. This began at age 14, as I had to leave Berlin, Germany, in 1943, moving to Switzerland in the midst of the war, when Hitler was still in power. This period lasted through 1950, when I was 21 and had finished my high school and college years in Switzerland. During those years, I searched through many classic writings of wisdom, through scriptures of faith from various religions, through various biographies, and through my own thoughts and emotions. A few of my personal notes remain from that time.
During the following years, by then in California, I had to concentrate on my work and new business ventures. I found some success and found great happiness in family life.
During those very innovative 50ies and 60ies, work in the American aerospace industry prompted me to resume my adolescent thoughts about a deeper understanding of existence.
A bit later, to my surprise, the opportunity for a new and different approach to life appeared as I could sell my businesses. Beginning in the spring of 1969, at age 40, I could afford to devote more than a year of leisure, a “sabbatical” year, to personal clarification. I pursued this goal through ample reading, thinking, and talking to a wide variety of other people. Traveling slowly around the world during that time opened new perspectives from different cultures.
The conclusions of my research and thoughts were put into writing – mainly to force me to conduct a more disciplined clarification of my thoughts, but also for possible later reading by my sons. I called those notes “What Is Your Life?”.
The writings of those years were based on seven steps in the thought process, now reflected in the seven parts of this essay:
1. An introduction, an initial liberation of the mind from accustomed perspectives – by contemplating existence in a “new awareness” (as explained in the “Introduction” of this essay)
2. The formulation of a set of basic questions about existence
3. A search for sources of insight and an analysis of their validity
4. Analyzing some contradictions and the resulting decision-making process
5. Various additional comments and observations, which should not be overlooked,
specifically regarding a possible religious interpretation of existence
6. First comments about the Meaning, Purpose, and Direction in Existence --
with a personal summary of these thoughts.
7. My personal position and, finally, the summary of Conclusions
After the “sabbatical” year, I returned to work in industry. Ten years later, during a stay in Germany, in 1979, at age 50, my sabbatical writings appeared somewhat vague to me, lacking conciseness. I rewrote everything, trying to finalize the earlier essay that had been titled “What Is Your Life?”
Later, in my seventies, I lived in Princeton, U.S.A., by then in retirement, in the stimulating environment of the excellent Princeton University, the Princeton Theological Seminary, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center of Theological Inquiry, and many civic volunteer activities. At that phase of my life, specifically the contradictions between the interpretation of existence by science and by religion concerned me. Additionally, practical life had taught me some lessons. The need for human sensitivity had regained greater significance in my advancing life. Some coherence between these different views was needed. Therefore, a further advance of the clarification of my thoughts about existence and personal life was asked for. I wanted to clarify once more where I stand and what I stand for – in intellectual and in religious terms – but also in practical and human terms.
Human thought should not be so polarized between the views of existence through the eyes of science and through the eyes of a search for a spiritual essence of existence. After all, both address the understanding of one and the same world. Furthermore, both views should be tempered by practical life’s experience and by human sensitivity. Should one not attempt to define and justify a unified view of the world, of destiny, of meaning, and the purpose of life – a unified view between science and religion, in practical and human terms?
This effort led me to a third writing of “What Is Your Life?”. At first, I called it “Understanding Existence”, but another six years later, I added “Meaning of Life, Purpose, Direction – an Attempt at Unifying the Perspectives of Science and Religion, Tempered by Practical Experience and Human Sensitivity”. I did not write for an audience, but – as advised by my sons – put this essay on a newly created personal website and was surprised by the number of “visitors” searching for this theme. No longer did I dare to burden my sons and friends with the reading of my thoughts – I now let all those in the world read them who are possibly sharing my concerns.
In the end, everybody has his or her own set of life experiences, perceptions, and, consequently, perspectives on life. An infinite number of perspectives are possible, all different from each other. I did write this essay – and kept working on it – because I consider this quest for clarification of existence the most significant of all the many “journeys-of-the-mind” that are summarized in the various essays on my website. This essay was written to put my house in order. It was written in humility, awe, and even fear in sensing the ultimate mystery of existence – of a transcendental Formative Essence as the foundation of Existence – of God, Allah – or whatever name we give it or should not give it.
Was I able to retain some of the idealism and strength of emotions of the earliest notes? Was I able to keep some of the marveling at the fullness of life as experienced when writing in my middle years? Did I lately not write too analytically and too humanly detached, after having lived for so many years in an intellectual environment of science and in the world of business? Was I able to combine my ultimate intellectual curiosity with a deep faith in a transcendental foundation of existence – and combine a practical mind with human warmth?
Now, in my eighties, I feel the need to bring the course of my searching life to some conclusion – while I still can. Therefore, a new review of my writings occurred – under almost the same title as before (but adding the word “Values”). Will this be my “legacy”?
Where did this “journey of the mind” toward the limits of understanding existence lead? Did it lead to enlightened clarification? It did lead – like so many others of my journeys – from the humanly familiar to the ever more non-humanly grandiose but also to the great and unfathomable and even strange or dark depth of the universe and of existence. This inquiry may also appear as having ended in some vagueness, uncertainty, even contradictions, as so many others before. I may have been able, however, to return from this “journey of the mind” with the feeling of an increased clarity of thought and more sensitive of the soul – to appreciate human life as it is – and to do with reflection and resolve what I can with what was given to me – during the time left to be here – in gratitude – especially for the harmony in the family – and the hoped-for safety of this world.
Let us try to reduce suffering and to increase opportunity fairly for all – by bringing a little more clarity, light, and warmth to even the small areas of existence we may have an impact on.
8-14-06 to 09-26-09