According to this article my search for meaning was important to me in my 20’s and is now at it’s lowest point while my sense that life has meaning was low then and is now at it’s highest. Statistically across a number of individuals. Of course I have to be the unhappy exception. I suspect a study of terror management theory is what is skewing my numbers. The following schematic is not from the article, it is from: https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol22/iss3/art32/figure1.html
From the article: “It’s not clear whether health and well-being make people feel life is meaningful, or whether people who find meaning in life become healthier. “I suspect that the relationship goes both ways,” Aftab said. “How healthy and functional we are impacts how meaningful we find our lives to be, and that meaning in our lives in turn promotes further health and well-being.”
In my view the key to understanding meaning and my own mortality at this late point in life is my three year old Granddaughter. Across a spectrum of “proximal (conscious, near, and threat-focused) and distal (unconscious, distant, symbolic) defenses” my Granddaughter is the opposite of a threat and in no way unconscious. My death anxiety has more to do with reality than all the stuff we fill up our three pound universe with. I am a simple machine.
When my Father was dying, during a particularly stressful episode when I was very tired, I hallucinated columns of glowing rectangles on the wall. Somewhat like the graphic above. I suspect it had to do with the many years I spent troubleshooting autopilot systems using flow charts. Those rescue helicopters were the most meaningful work of my life. Perhaps I was trying to figure out what was happening and looking for a solution. The solution I was involved in was the endura my Father was going through. I was searching for some kind of consolamentum for him.
Everyone has events burned into their memory- experiences they attach meaning to. In terms of affecting my worldview two stand out. It was only decades later that the first would become important to me but the second had an immediate effect. The first was the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the second was when they took the B-52’s off alert in 1991. I was 26 years old and 31 years old when those events took place. Sadly, I don’t remember much about those 5 years between. Both events connect across generations to my Father and my Granddaughter.
In 1986 I had just began my years in Coast Guard Aviation at an Air Station in the deep south. With my wife and baby daughter in our little apartment I was, at the time of the Challenger disaster, learning how to fuel aircraft as all new mechanics did. I remember that cold morning. Five years later my little girl was in elementary school and the cold war, which had shaped my life in so many ways, was coming to an end. I was checking on the status of a Search And Rescue case in the ops center and I stopped to watch Bush senior on the news talking about taking the bombers off alert. A decade later I watched another historic newscast a few days after my forty first birthday. The end of the cold war had a far stronger effect on me than 911. We had all expected Armageddon. A terrorist attack, even one that killed thousands, was just not that big of a deal.
My Father worked on jet fighters most of his career in the Navy and was at sea for most of my childhood. We never formed any kind of bond. The war with no real battles that everyone feared would be the end of the world was the reason I had no Father. The bright future the space shuttle program promised ended as I was trying to do the exact opposite of what my Father had done. I was in the one military service trying not to fight a war and instead trying to save lives. And going home to my wife and daughter every night instead of leaving them alone for months at a time. I tried to be better than him but never could. I had serious problems with the military culture and was lucky to retire.
My Granddaughter makes all that drama fairly meaningless. All the bitter regrets and unhappiness with society are fading as she grows. When I hear her voice and see her bright eyes nothing else matters except her. The past does not matter; I don’t matter. I was not a big space fan at the time of the Shuttle disaster but these many years later I now finally understand that space is how to save this world for our children. Gerard K. O’Neill was the prophet of space colonization, with the plan humankind needed to survive it’s own sins. Seven months after the B-52’s were taken off alert in 1991 O’Neill died. I did not know about his death and it would not have had much meaning for me then. Now, 28 years later, his vision is even more important as the only likely cure for climate change.
My own death, predicted by averaging the lifespans of my Mother and Father, is less than two decades away. It seems a distant end but looking in the mirror and seeing the rapid advance of aging shows how quickly my story is being read. I remember Dr. Spudis wrote an article on geologic time around a year before his death and he probably had been diagnosed as terminal and was contemplating his life. It is interesting that while my own mortality is deeply distressing, when I think of my Wife and Daughter and Granddaughter that is what is most profoundly frustrating, depressing, and sad. As I explained to my little girl once, men are by nature expendable. It is women that matter.