Reading Time: 8 minutes

Writer RUBY ELLIOTT ZUCKERMAN

A couple of months ago, I asked my dad if he thought COVID-19 came from a lab. We were sitting across from each other in a coffee shop several blocks away from my childhood home. It had closed down within the first weeks of lockdown. Seven months later, it was open again, under new management. He rolled his eyes. 

“Does it really matter?” he said. “We’re stuck with it, either way.” 

For some strange reason, it matters to me. Not even in some “lock them up” sort of way. I’m not seeking justice or blame. I don’t even care enough to research the situation. I haven’t read a single article. Not even a cursory Google search. Filtered through Facebook posts and the voices of Podcast hosts, I heard the phrase: “came from a lab.” Those four words alone are strangely comforting. On a gut level, it feels right to me, and feelings are all I have to go on, as someone who studied English in college and can barely even understand what a virus is in the first place. 

I find the lab-leak theory comforting because COVID-19 then falls into the realm of a mistake. Human error. Something we could learn from. We could do our best to make sure it never happens again. I prefer this reality over the idea of some evolutionary master-virus, with doppelgangers lurking around unturned stones the world over. Categorizing COVID-19 as an “Act of God,” to borrow terminology from the contracts I regularly read over at my day-job, is horrifically depressing. A dark cloud more powerful than you or I will ever be. 

When I was fourteen, I became very frustrated with the concept of free will. It was a never-ending, twisting back and forth of seemingly paradoxical truths. I make choices because of the person I am. The person I am is made up of genetic code and environmental influence. I have no control over either of these two things. Therefore…  

I puzzled over this sitting in the grass of my high school at lunch, laying on my bed, frustrating my parents with endless follow-up questions over warmly lit dinners. 

The crisis ended with a simple directive to my brain: forget about it. It doesn’t matter whether you have any control over your life or not. You must simply pretend that you do. I pretend that working extra hard is the same as having control. I distract myself with details and textures – the appreciation of unglazed Japanese pottery. The hedonistic indulgence of watching TV in my bathtub, smoking a joint, and coating my face in lavender-scented clay. Agonizing over the perfect gift for my boyfriend. Leaving a bad Yelp review on a restaurant that treated my mother unkindly. 

Unknowable questions are like this. You either find an answer that comforts you, settles in your gut as a gentle reminder to keep hope alive. Or, you forget about it. Losing oneself in the myriad of diversions this strange world has to offer.

Educator and moral philosopher JONATHAN MS PEARCE

Why are we here? is a question that might have as many answers as minds that have pondered it.

“Why” can imply “what is the reason” and so can mean two things: how did we get here, and what is our purpose or meaning? To answer the first one is easy. We are here because there is life and evolution is not just a theory but a reality.

But the second is more tricky. Most religionists will smuggle in their god by demanding that meaning must be transcendent – it must last for eternity (well beyond our earthly lives) for it to be real meaning. This is ultimate meaning. And, for them, ultimate meaning can only take place in the context of eternal life, itself a notion contingent upon the existence of a god.

For them, God satisfies both forms of the question – God explains their existence, and God gives meaning and purpose to their existence.

So what happens when we accept the awkward truth that God doesn’t exist?

We necessarily jettison ultimate meaning. Moreover, I never really fancied having my purpose dictated to me by some untouchable entity. It doesn’t have my permission to define my purpose.

It is a far more noble affair to construct meaning and purpose for myself—for ourselves—rather than have it thrust on us from above.

Without God, it’s just us. You, me, all of us. Thus, meaning is, of course, whatever you want it to be. If you want to change the meaning of the word “table” to mean “chair”, go for it. You are free to do that for yourself. But be warned that it might be advisable to consider others in the process for the practicalities of navigating life.

Likewise, the meaning of life itself is whatever you want it to be, but I would still advise you to consider others in your cogitations and calculations.

It might be useful to pose yet another question at this juncture (it is perhaps the characteristic equally of philosophy as it is of politics to answer a question with another question). I like this one: What do you want out of life?

This question is met almost universally with some variation of “To be happy, for my friends and family to be happy, for as many people as possible to be happy.” And happiness can entail pleasure, a lack of pain, and wellbeing in general. We could even talk in terms of fulfillment and flourishing. 

But while we may not be able to achieve ultimate meaning, we may be able to achieve at least some degree of transcendence. Meaning and impact can live on past our lives, through our children or the people we know or the people and world we influence and affect, progressing into the future. Okay, we might have to admit the eventual heat death of the universe or some such scenario. Just don’t be afraid that meaning might be much more about living in the here, living in the now, and perhaps working hard for the future, even if it is not eternal.

Why are we here? I’ve not given you an answer, and I’ve certainly asked more questions. Perhaps it is not for me to dictate this to you. Your meaning and purpose are for you to generate yourself.

Physician and poet EVE MAKOFF

Why Are We Here

Your softly muscled arms. 

The taste of your lips. 

The trench in my chest holding my children’s tears. 

The mighty grip of my patient’s frail hand. 

Joni Mitchell’s dulcimer. 

Fields of olives in France. 

The promise of hope.

Coffee colored eyes and freckled necks. 

Giving away what you think you need because someone else needs it more. 

Bad karaoke. 

The worst hangover with your best friend.

 Failures of memory. 

My son’s soft face. 

The glittering ocean just around the bend. 

“Petals on wet, black bough.” 

Jasmine. 

A perfect phrase.

 Us.

The threads that bind us when we unearth and describe the best and hardest parts are why: I shake when you describe a little girl feeling alone in a body that was more like a cage. Someone cried when you kissed your pale father as his life drained away. Another erupted, gleeful, when a football soared. 

Sometimes it’s just the arrangement of the words. The sound of a horn. A color. 

23 pairs of chromosomes each as unique as the lines on our hands, each trait a freaky quirk of nature inseparable from our history and changed by living it. Past and present converge to mold us: DNA –  that mercurial foot path! We slip as we climb towards evolution. Happiness. Sadness. Passion. Pain. Anger. Loneliness. All living inside inky bases: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, Thymine- gorgeous bonds all. Who threw those dice and paired us up? Who gave us all those feelings?

My great-uncles died in the Holocaust. I imagine their skeletal hands. Mustaches like my grandfather. On trains. A crust of bread. Then nothing. Voiceless screams. I sang Jewish songs at camp, arms around waists: “Just you wait, things will be better next year.” Bashana Haba’ah. Next year. I had my first kiss under a menorah, under redwoods. The smell of next year.  

An earthquake, a Tsunami. Countries in mourning. Fires desecrating. An ecosystem in demise. War. Black Americans killed. Immigrants denied. Children hurt. Women hunted. Parents who try. The slip of a gene.

Trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon trauma upon 

Your eyes when you laugh.

Bad gifts.

Terra Cotta tiles.

The absence of sound.

My daughter’s voice.

Stomach flu.

Trellises with Bougainvillea. 

The weight of a newborn baby.

That apartment in New York with my legs up the wall as I watched the waves on the Hudson as the barges passed.

The click of heels.

Bread and peanut butter.

Tiny black and white tiles.

The distance between us.

Just grief.

Us.

Comedian IAN HARRIS

I’ve never liked it when people say, “everything happens for a reason.” One of my favorite bits, as a comedian, asked “wouldn’t it be funny if everything happened for the same reason?” As if all of our lives are hinged upon something trivial and mundane like the fact that “Bob” left his keys at home that one time, therefore everything happens for the reason.

Look, I get why people say that “everything happens for a reason.” I get the need to feel purpose, not just in one’s own life, but in the universe as a whole. I get wanting there to be a grand plan, and to feel that shitty people who do shitty things have repercussions and that there is some reward for our pain and suffering. Such sentiments and needs are the stuff that has literally invented countless religions.  

During my nearly 30 years as a stand-up comedian, I primarily did bits like this, as well as many other religion-related topics. Often, when I would come off stage after a set, people would confront me. For sure it was the subject matter which challenged some, incensed others, offended the pious, and charged the inquisitive. I regularly get “are you sure about that point you made?” Or “where did you read that one fact?” Or “you really made me think.” Or my favorite, “I’ll pray for you!” No matter what story they told, whether about a ghost or a god or a UFO sighting, I could always tell that even the angry ones were affected by my comedy. My belief has always been that comedy should be as much about making people think as it is about making them laugh. The best way I have found to challenge their deeply held, possibly dangerous, silly, or self-destructive ideas is to get them to laugh first, and I truly feel that I have done just that. 

Why are we here? To me, that is a nonsensical question as it presupposes agency or a purpose. I think any “why” that might exist is purely created in our brains to make ourselves feel better, so I often say to anyone haunted by that thought to make your own “why.”  Do everything in your power to leave a legacy and effect change, even if that means you make one person’s life better, or you supply your family with countless stories to tell at every gathering, or perhaps you make someone walk away from a comedy show or read your writings and deeply feel the words you have crafted on a visceral level. Make sure to leave the next generation and your direct descendants better off than you. And, next time I walk off stage and we have a conversation, you tell me… Why are you here? Then I’ll know I’m one step closer to answering my own question.

Ruby Elliott Zuckerman is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She was the winner of the 2020 Nick Adams Associated Colleges of the Midwest short story contest, judged by Scott Turow. “Who Are...

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

Eve Louise Makoff is an internal medicine and palliative care physician. She has published essays and poetry focused on both narrative medicine and personal topics. Dr. Makoff is studying narrative medicine...

Ian Harris is a comedian, writer, filmmaker, and life-long skeptic and science advocate. His clever, cutting-edge comedy, and spot-on impressions have landed him appearances on Jimmy Kimmel LIVE!, Comedy...