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Burt Siemens: Meaning of life is right before our eyes

I am at that stage of life when I have the time – and the inclination – to think about such things as the meaning of life. This, in a world where some say God is dead, others say something sacred still lingers in the nooks and crannies of the cosmos, but most say science is master of all.

I have a fair-sized shelf of books that discuss it. Some authors say the question itself is meaningless; some conclude all the meaning is in asking the question.

A number of years ago, I willy-nilly put a small Rembrandt print on that shelf. I see it every day, but I don’t always look at it. It has become a fixture, a part of the furniture of my life. But I would know at once if someone moved it.

It is a drawing of three generations: a mother and a grandmother stooping down to steady the little daughter they are teaching to walk. Only the child’s face is discernible; scared but determined.

On May 31, a glorious spring day, my wife and I were invited to attend a barbecue hosted by our son, Josh, and his wife, Claire. We have two grandchildren from them: Henry, who is 2, and Amelia, who would turn 1 on the Fourth of July.

Henry is just beginning to talk. Amelia is thinking about walking, but at this point she can only pull herself up to an uncertain stand. She soon wobbles and has to reach for support. Sometimes she manages a half a step before once again falling down on the cushion of her well-diapered bottom.

Dinner was over but we lingered at the table. Claire had placed Amelia on the floor where she stood holding onto her mother’s leg. Josh, by this time, was sitting on the floor some 5 or 6 feet away. On a whim, he held out his arms and said, “C’mon Amelia. Come to Daddy.”

I was sitting with my back to the scene. The room suddenly got silent. My wife nudged me to look back. Just as I turned I saw Amelia take a step forward, catch her balance, shift her weight and put her other foot forward. She took two complete steps, each a little tentative. We did not breathe.

She started to squat and go down on all fours but quickly caught herself. She straightened up, struggled to regain her balance and, now a little more steady, she tottered another four or five confident steps before at last falling into her Daddy’s arms.

The room burst into cheers, scaring poor Amelia. So she burst into tears – just at her moment of triumph. But soon she recovered and was again put to the test. Again she passed with honors, this time to hugs and kisses.

On the way home that evening, as I mulled over the events of the afternoon, the Rembrandt print came to mind. Maybe, I thought, the philosophers sitting on my shelf were trying too hard to dig out the significance of life, as if it were some hidden diamond. Seeking the cosmic ideal, they forgot about living just the common fact. Maybe the meaning was right before their eyes and they looked past it. It is as ordinary as a child learning to walk; and, in the grand scheme of things, as easy to take for granted.

Rembrandt saw it over 400 years ago, and it is the same now as it was then. And I know why I have kept his picture in easy view over all these years. It has been telling me the meaning of life is a familiar fixture, always right there in plain view.