Do You Know the Meaning of Life?

by Myra Saturen
March 27, 2013

Every era has its myths, and ours is no exception, said author Charles Eisenstein, the keynote speaker at Northampton Community College's Third Annual Peace and Justice Conference, a 2-day event occurring  on March 26 and 27.  His talk, "Money and the Turning of the Age," examined the ways attitudes towards a fulfilled life are changing.  

Students, community members, faculty, and staff turned the Lipkin Theatre lobby into a livelyMike MacDonald and Kyle Lascelle of the Good Growers Club agora for ideas and engagement prior to Eisenstain's talk as they shared their passions for human welfare, the environment and social justice.  Student poster presentations depicted poverty in Zambia, the Rwandan genocide, sex trafficking, child soldiers, income inequality in Pakistan and Ireland,  America's welfare system," American Dream or Myth," student debt, healthcare, and civil disobedience." 

Eisenstein began his presentation  by posing a thought-provoking question: "Why should it be that what is practical economically often conflicts with joy, service, authenticity, and a meaningful life?"  Why, he asked, is fracking profitable while preserving wetlands is not?  Why does monetary possession confer high status? 

Eisenstein compared our current way of life to a game of musical chairs, in which players vie for too few seats, leaving a number of people without.  This competitive system, Eisenstein said, is contrary to human nature, which delights in helpfulness and sharing.  If someone asks for the time, for instance, people's usual response is to happily share their knowledge. 

Our money-based economy, based on a system of agreements about the value of abstract symbolsCharles Eisenstein (dollar bills, coins), Eisenstein said, pushes people to do things they may not truly value.  Generations ago, Eisenstein recalled, societies operated not through money but rather through a gift economy.  "We pay for a lot of things we didn't pay for even a couple of generations ago," he said.  Rather than purchasing our meals, we prepared them as gifts for our families.  Parents didn't spend money for children's play.  People didn't join a gym in order to exercise. Friends told stories rather than purchase cable TV.  

The basic story we tell ourselves, Eistenstein said, is that we exist as separate individuals among other separate individuals, in a separate universe.  Competition and our money system compels this thinking.  "If you are not competing with me, that's good for me," Eisenstein gave as an illustration.  And yet, Eisenstein contended, emerging knowledge is changing the perception of isolation and rivalry; biologists are discovering the sustaining role of cooperation among living beings.  "If you eliminate a species, the whole system becomes more fragile." 

These ideas apply to peace according to Eisenstein.   In war, groups ignore each other's common humanity.  It becomes easy to dehumanize and hurt other people deemed separate from oneself.  In reality, Eisenstein said, "the answer to 'who am I' is I am a connected self.  I exist because you exist.  Something of my very being is within you.  We are the same being looking out of different eyes."  This conception prompts us to share what we have, as early farmers shared their grain with their neighbors with less. 

And has the modern way of life brought satisfaction?  While it has created improvements, Eisenstein noted,  our life expectancy has leveled off, autoimmune diseases persist and war continues.  We are not happier in our large, suburban houses than we were in smaller urban dwellings with the familiar, cranky old man on the corner.   

These thoughts led Eisenstein to profounder ones:  "What is the purpose of life?  Is it to maximize security and wealth, or to give?"  We're born with the desire to give, he said, offering the following examples of steps that  can fulfill this need?   

•             Establishing a universal basic income;

•             living in smaller homes as epitomized by the "tiny home movement" featuring houses occupying 500 feet;

•             learning our neighbor's stories ("we don't know who we are because we are not known.";

•             recovering the gift economy through sharing, i.e. neighborhood tool libraries, car sharing, human service;

•             operating businesses as social entrepreneurship, as in "how can I create the most good?"

All of us have received unearned gifts, Eisenstein said:  the sun's warmth, our parents' care.  "What do you care about?" he asked the audience.  "Use your gifts to give to others, to do something meaningful to you." 

In addition to Eisenstein's talk, the Peace and Justice Conference included  workshops, a Q & A and a meditation led by Dr. Harold Weiss, professor of philosophy at NCC, and the screening of the documentary   Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

The conference was sponsored by the NCC Forum on Peace, Justice, and Conflict Resolution, Cohen Lecture Committee, the Political Science Club and the Social Work Club.  Participating community agencies included 2nd Harvest Food Bank, the Alliance for Sustainable Communities, Benefits Access, the Bethlehem Food Co-op, Community Exchange, East 40 Community Garden; Lehigh Valley Progressive Network, Lepoco, Shanti Project, Transitions Town Historic Bethlehem Initiative, and Trinity Episcopal Soup Kitchen. 




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