Monday, November 26, 2007

Economics and the Meaning of Life

I’ve always thought about why I wanted to live and what, if anything, I wanted to leave behind when I died. My thinking has changed over the years and although getting cancer didn’t change my latest thoughts on this, the diagnosis has definitely made my desires more clear.

When I was in my twenties, I thought the world was a wonderful gift that existed for me. That might have been a by-product of my brush with Cartesian logic, extended to the belief that the world only exists because I perceive it, so it’s all there for me.

Later on, that became a bit more refined to: “Here’s the planet Earth. You have seventy-something years to enjoy it. The rules are 1) appreciate everything around you, 2) don’t hurt yourself, 3) don’t hurt others. If you can actually make other people’s lives better along the way, that’s an extra bonus.”

I thought, and still think, that we could all live by these basic rules and teach them to our children, since they cover pretty much everything. Three Commandments (plus an addendum) – a lot easier to remember than the Ten Commandments.

In all this time, I never really cared about leaving something of me behind – a great work of art, life-changing scientific research, whatever means of achieving immortality people fantasize about. My thinking was that after I’m dead, the world will no longer exist for me, so what do I care whether my art is hanging in some museum or people are reading my novels or singing my songs?

Since having children, I’ve begun to understand another reason why people might want to do something big and important with their lives. Maybe it’s not for egotistical reasons like wanting to be admired by future generations. Maybe it’s not even a desire for reassurance that their life meant something, that their time on Earth was not meaningless.

For me, I think it’s a matter of filling a gap. Think economics. If we take from a market more than we put in, then eventually, the market will become inefficient, with way-too-rich folks on one end, and starving children on the other. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is at the moment. I think I need to do my part to fill the gap. I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure from this world; I figure I need to put at least as much back in as I’ve taken.

So far, I’m in deficit. I’ve learned a lot from teachers, friends, even strangers. I’ve gotten a lot of happiness and laughs from people over the years. I’ve benefited from someone else’s hard work making the drugs that are saving my life. I hope I’ve taught some people some worthwhile things as a teacher and journalist. I hope I’ve made people laugh and brought them happiness. But I haven’t discovered any life-saving drugs. Deficit.

Since I’m not likely to find the cure for cancer before I die, I can tackle this deficit two ways: 1) Find some other means of repayment, or 2) Take a loan for future repayment. The first option would be me walking enough old ladies across the street to warrant my taking the fruits of some scientist’s blood, sweat and tears. The second option would be to groom my kids into cancer researchers or something else that would be equal in value in the world market. I’m trying to do both.

Of course, I don’t see any old ladies that need help crossing streets, but I see other breast cancer patients who need a reassuring word. I see a harried teacher who needs a parent’s understanding and support. I see a husband who needs encouragement and kind words. Little things. A LOT of little things.

As for future repayment… I’ve already brainwashed Josie into saying she wants to be a surgeon when she grows up. Actually, she says she wants to be a “princess surgeon”. I can only hope it’s the princess part she drops when she gets older and not the surgeon bit.

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