The Meaning of Life

by JAKE NORTON

April 2022
What is the meaning of life? It's a question we all ponder at some point, and perhaps never really understand until we're faced with it's inevitable end and the comprehension that brings.

In December 2020, as we walked down a snowy path through towering ponderosas swaying in the winter wind, she asked me to write about the meaning of life, the purpose of it, what it’s all about. I smiled, knowing in my heart I am drastically underskilled, under-brained to tackle a subject as deep, massive, profound as this. This was for the great thinkers, the pundits and philosophers and sages. We continued our hike, discussing deep ideas and enjoying the meander of trail and thought. 

Alice Norton embodying gratitude after hiking deep into a slot canyon near Zion, Utah, November 2021.

Perhaps down deep she had an inkling, a hint coming from the primordial cellular level, and instinctual nudge which sparked the question that would soon demand an answer. It was not two months later that we got the news, and it wasn’t good. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a ruthless, aggressive disease quite treatable in youth through heavy doses of crippling chemo…doses that do more harm than good for older folks. 

At 75, my mother fell into the latter category, and her pathway to the disease - a rare mutation of an equally rare mutation - made her situation even more unique, with virtually no viable, realistic treatment options. But, treat she did, going through two rounds of intensive therapies over several months, chomping horsepills like mutant jellybeans and having her system ravaged by the process.

Alas, it was all in vain: After two rounds, her leukemic blast count went up to 48%: no remission, no more options, seemingly game over. We all prepared for the worst, the inevitable, the outcome none of us wanted to believe possible yet always knew probable.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.

- Oliver Sacks, Gratitude

Being a relatively youthful 48, it’s hard for me to imagine the bleakness, the despair, my mother must have felt then, looking as she was at a closing door, she on one side and all she cherished in life - beauty, art, family, children and grandchildren, friends, aspen leaves on autumn days, the smell of baguettes in Parisian alleyways, side-splitting laughter and conscience-probing discussions, and so much more - on the other, slowly disappearing. I’m not sure how I would react, but I’m guessing not well; the tendency to be angry, to feel cheated, victimized, brutalized by the vagaries of chance and the unfairness of fate would be a powerful siren song.

In September, I sat in an office in the oncology department at Anschutz Medical Center, Dr. Pollyea looking at my mom and I, bewildered. AML is his specialty, and his knowledge of the disease, its progression, and the possible outcomes are bar none.

“When we last met in April, your blasts were high. Really high,” he said with an affable, caring bedside manner often glaringly absent in an oncology ward. “If you’d asked me then, I would not have guessed I’d be seeing you in July, let alone September. And certainly not seeing you with a hugely reduced blast count, walking, driving, and looking well.”

He sat back, smiling in his disbelief. “Honestly, as a doctor I want to be able to explain things, to give reasons and answers and explanations. But, I don’t have any for you. You’ve been under no treatment for about six months. You shouldn’t be here, but you are.” He shook his head again, not dismissively, but in wonder. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but all I can say is keep it up. Whatever it is, it’s working. You look great, you’re doing great.”

Fast forward to now, and she’s still going strong, against all predictions, against all odds, just four days from her 77th birthday. Her smile radiates life, taking it all in with grace, grit, and gratitude. Amazing.

A climber at sunset on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

After her diagnosis, I started reading, thinking, pondering this question of the meaning of life, what it is about, what it is for, what is the meaning, in a perhaps-vain attempt to answer her question of months before.

In Gratitude, Oliver Sacks reflects on his impending death from liver cancer. He writes:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

- Oliver Sacks, Gratitude (library)

He goes on to contemplate a bit more deeply on the rare, remarkable gift that is life, replete with it’s joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, and the understanding that, in the end, we can only but be grateful for having lived it:

There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

- Oliver Sacks, Gratitude (library)

Sacks’ thoughts echo some of the physicist Alan Lightman in Probable Impossibilities. A brain-bruising, complex, and wonderful book, Lightman swings from discussions of quantum theory, deep time, and dark matter to notions of being, consciousness, and mortality, and it’s ever-sought twin, immortality.

A Hindu sadhu, or holy man, prays at the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple in the holy city of Panauti, Kathmandu, Nepal.
A Hindu sadhu, or holy man, prays at the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple in the holy city of Panauti, Kathmandu, Nepal.

While discussing the impossibility of life, he comes back to the fundamental need to be grateful for it even if we cannot fully understand it:

We humans living on our one planet wring our hands about the brevity of our lives and our mortal restraints, but we do not often think about how improbable it is to be alive at all. Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together in the special arrangement to make living matter. We exist in that one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand in the desert.

- Alan Lightman, Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (library)

Back in physicist-mode, Lightman talks about how he knows, scientifically, that his consciousness, his sense of being a being - a sentient being, a soul - is a but trick of intricately collected atoms joining together to form complex neurons which fire in intricate patterns to produce the semblance of sentience, the the illusion of existence beyond structure. Lightman notes this sense of self is no more than a fluke of atomic architecture…But, there might be something more to it:

I have a confession to make. Despite my belief that I am only a collection of atoms, that my awareness is passing away neuron by neuron, I am content with the illusion of consciousness. I’ll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, some of my atoms will remain in this place where I now lie in my hammock. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment. Some will once have been part of my hand. If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocean and then floated again to the air. Some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people. Some will become parts of other lives, other memories. That might be a kind of immortality.

- Alan Lightman, Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (library)

Gratitude amongst unavoidable loss. Love amongst loss. Understanding and immortality amongst overwhelming mystery and undeniable mortality.

Looking out at the Milky Way and the lights of rural Kenya from Mawenzi Tarn Camp on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.
Looking out at the Milky Way and the lights of rural Kenya from Mawenzi Tarn Camp on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

Years ago, Tom Hornbein shared with me a letter he received from Barry Corbet just before Christmas in 2004. Barry had died days earlier, and sent a letter preemptively to his closest friends to arrive after his memorial service. Barry wrote:

Dear Friends-

…As many of you already know, my life is now over…. I’m a little saddened to be leaving a little earlier than expected, but feel no sense of tragedy. I’ve lived a lot longer than I ever could have or would have predicted thirty-six years ago after the helicopter crash…. I’ve had love overflowing, impassioned careers, a life of adventure and everything I’ve ever wanted. Nothing missed and no regrets. Live on in peace, health and happiness. Look for the meaning where you can, and cherish mystery when you can’t.

- Barry

- Barry Corbetn (read Hornbein’s full memorial in the American Alpine Journal, 2005)

As I looked at my mom the other night at dinner, laughing and loving, sharing and learning, devouring the inimitable, irreplaceable beauty that is life, living fully, beautifully, remorselessly, it dawned on me: Wonder. Mystery. Fear. Acceptance. Love. Gratitude. No regrets. 

What is the meaning of life? She doesn’t need to ask. She already knows.

Grateful for life and all it's beauty, in Jackson, Wyoming, June 2021.

22 comments on “The Meaning of Life”

  1. Knowing your mother, and you, as well as I do, I'd say you came close to explaining her essence, Jake. But hers is impossible to capture totally.
    If our worlds were filled with more Alices, our Earth would be much, much different.
    For her positive spirit is not only inflammable to those sitting around her campfire, but also impossible to douse. The forest awakens with her laughter, her curiosity is as large as the brightest galaxies above the camp, and her energy outlasts all of us as grope for our sleeping bags. She's such a delight, as I learned while hiking with her and your uncle 100 miles out into the Sahara Desert.
    Where does all this come from? I'll tell you. It comes from her family's love--of themselves, of each other, of everyone who comes in contact with them. Alice shared more love with me than I've ever known. She passed it down to you and your sister Dolly and your mates and children. And now you're sharing it with us, again, generously, unselfishly and without asking.
    How remarkable is your family's assemblage of atoms and molecules and love and kindness. Like no others. Thank you, Jake. Thank you, Alice. Much, much love bakatcha!

    1. Thanks, Mike, and all right bakatcha! I hope you're well, and thanks as always for all your love, support, and positive outlook on the world!

  2. Thank you Jake. Enjoyed reading this and I’m confident I’ll revisit it many more times.

  3. Wonderful writing…seeing my cousin Alice, remembering her laughter, glad to read of both your intertwined journeys…feeling gratitude, while pondering the mystery of my own life and death, looking with in the moment, the now here, the no where, the observation, measurements, recordings…my best love to Alice and family…have enjoyed your writings Jake, thank you 🙏

    1. Thank you, Harvey - very much appreciated. Contemplation of life, and the inevitable end of it, is a challenging business for sure, but I think a necessary one and cathartic in ways, too. Sending love to you, and hope all is well!

  4. Bless you, Jake, and thank you for your heartfelt words. How fortunate are we to have Alice in our lives....another blessing. Molly sending love

  5. Your dear mama Alice is a force t be reckoned with, Jake. She really is a light.

  6. Si tous les patients avaient la même trempe qu'Alice, la chimiothérapie ne serait plus nécessaire.

    1. Merci cher Pierre! Vous avez raison, je pense, et sa force vient à la fois de l'intérieur, mais elle est aussi immensément aidée par l'amour et le soutien de personnes comme vous. Merci et je vous envoie beaucoup d'amour du Colorado! (J'espère que Google a bien traduit ça !)

  7. Not too long ago at a lunch with Alice and Susan,your mom spoke about a regret she has anticipated and seems to have resolved it; that is she will miss her grand children's school graduations, college plans and successes and lastly their love lives hopefully leading to happy marriages.
    I admire those regrets as they are real heartfelt and forward looking................Beyond that she has left some fine tracks that we all will remember until it's our time..............

    1. Thanks, Dad. Indeed, regrets are inevitably there I guess for all of us, but perhaps we need only focus on what we can control, and allow the rest simply to be. Love, and see you soon, Jake

  8. What a beautiful tribute to your lovely Mother. Thank you! I watched Jeff Lowe Embrace Reality over and over again, thus outliving all predictions for many years. Embracing reality may be the most healing state of mind and body... resistance can create angst, stress, anger and the list goes on. When embracing reality we are truely free to surrender, accept, create, discover, and find love everywhere and so much more. Cherish every day!

    1. Thank you, Connie. You know this journey as well as anyone, and I so appreciate your thoughts and reflections. Thank you, and sending all my best!

      And, for those of you unfamiliar who are reading this, please take a moment to check out Jeff Lowe's Metanoia... a story about one of the greatest climber's of all time, but much more about love, life, loss, and the meaning of it all. Check out the trailer below:

      Jeff Lowe's Metanoia - Official Trailer (HD) from Jeff Lowe on Vimeo.

  9. Jake, I am a Middlebury friend and classmate of Alice’s. We have stayed connected over the years through our reunions and occasional phone calls when I’m visiting my siblings in Castle Rock and Woodland Park. The last couple of phone chats we shared our pilgrimages in life - both actual (I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2018 as my Midd love, classmate and husband was dying from PPA, a FTL dementia) and analogous in our lives. Alice is the most beautiful woman in our class, in every way. I was aware of that from our freshman year together in the Batts and all along our 55 years since graduating. I’m greatly saddened by her progressing on her final Camino and celebrating her joys of life and strong life spirit. I’m grateful for her inspiration and friendship to me. Your writing and photos are as beautiful and loving as your mother. Thank you and Nameste. Susie Davis Patterson

    1. Hi Susie, thank you for your comment, and I'm so sorry for the long delayed reply. I did see it when it came in, and shared it with my Mom - it brought her a big smile and lots of memories and stories from the Midd days! Your friendship and similar pilgrimages meant a lot to her, and thank you for being a part of her life. All my best, Jake

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