Ross Urquhart: No hard ground

Here’s an original question: what is the meaning of life? The obvious answer being, of course, that no one truly knows, but lots of people will try and convince you differently, and if you read their book, or join their group, or subscribe to their newsletter, you’ll get the “inside” information.

Another stalwart question: is there a God? Maybe, but whose God, yours or mine? Is He a “he” or “she” or “it”? Is He Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or none of the above, or all of the above, and much more? Strangely, if you choose one, let’s say Christian, it breaks down even further into, Catholic or Protestant, and then Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Evangelical, and so on until, finally, you work your way down to any two adherents of a particular sect and, when questioned on details, even they will most likely disagree over the basic fundamentals of their religion.

Not much certainty in either of those concepts. We’ve hit on religion and the meaning of life—how about liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Liberty, or what is now more commonly referred to as freedom, is defined as the ability to do what we want, when we want and how we want—without constraints. Where do you find that? Your freedom to drive your car at 200 miles per hour infringes on my freedom to survive highway traffic, and is constrained by speed limits enforced by a professional police force that will happily seize your car and take your licence away. In reality, pure “freedom” can’t exist in a social environment as individual desires overlap and constrain the desires of others. All we can hope to enjoy are select “freedoms” like freedom of speech, freedom of travel, or freedom of assembly—or the right to worship the God of our choice—and these must be entrenched in a constitution supported by a majority of the population and constantly reviewed and refined by a judicial authority. Freedom is neither free nor easy. It is, in fact, a complex process of social evolution based on generations of gradually learning which constraints each individual can live with while, at the same time, not feeling trapped or enslaved by governments. (And this is why every time a democratic nation charges off to “free” a non-democratic nation it seldom achieves its goals.) In the meantime freedom is supposed to allow us to pursue happiness.

Happiness is an odd idea because having seven billion people on this planet—no two of which are exactly the same or capable of living the exact same lives—it becomes a concept based on perspective. What makes you happy doesn’t necessarily make me happy. There are basic shared necessities like air, water, food, and protection from the elements and predators, which confront us and must be overcome in a survival context. And genetic imperatives such as procreation and the need for a degree of contact and acceptance within our society, which channel our lives, but they exist at an almost unconscious level. We live in societies that are multiverses beyond that in complexity and, as a result, finding happiness and maintaining it takes incredibly more energy. Indeed, we aren’t even sure we know what we are looking for. Some believe it is a chemical formulation found in the brain, others believe it is purely spiritual, while many see it primarily as the satisfying of fantasies. One line of reasoning suggests that happiness must come as a surprise because it you plan for it you create tension and, if it works out, you feel more relief than joy. Taoists believe that how you experience happiness is related to the pain you have endured—the deeper your lows the higher your highs. I have to admit I’m a bit of a Taoist. People whose expertise is in technical analysis, like Ben Bernanke, the U.S. Federal Reserve chair, tell us that money can’t buy happiness but the lack of money makes it difficult to achieve. He suggests that a certain level of financial security gives us the ability to seek happiness. All told, happiness is a difficult quest at even the best of times because it’s an emotion and like all emotions it’s personal and individual. Each of us must construct our own understanding of it.

Speaking of emotions, what about love? Love makes the world go ’round. Everyone understands love, it may be the most powerful driving force in human society, and it’s everywhere, but we still aren’t sure what it is. In it’s early stages there are definite markers, and researchers have recorded detailed measurements of the changes taking place when we first experience this emotion—but after a few years the readings fade until they eventually disappear altogether. Yet, we all know that love doesn’t disappear. Don’t we? I hope so because I’ve been with the same woman for 45 years. For all of its universality love remains a mystery.

Getting back to such things as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom, constitutional equality—all of these terms are related to democracy, which those of us who enjoy it see as the only secure form of government, and the ultimate answer in a troubled world. But even at the highest levels of government and academia, we are not sure what it is. There is no generally accepted definition of democracy other than the vague, if brilliant, rhetorical description provided by Abraham Lincoln: government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. There are many proposed and more comprehensive definitions but none has gained the upper hand. And because we can’t agree on the details, we haven’t come up with a model that everyone can support as even the most praised democratic systems are considered full of inequities and corrupting influences. Unsurprisingly, nobody seems willing to admit that their model isn’t the best and to open it to significant change.

The point I’m trying to make among all this rambling concerns hard ground, like the kind we think we are standing on. Physically it may exist but rationally it doesn’t. Our lives and the lives of everyone on this planet float on a spongy carpet of quasi-understanding. The concepts that define our lives and channel our energies are based on unsolved arguments and unanswered questions. History, which we define as everything that has happened anywhere in the world up until this moment, is largely the firsthand accounts of biased individuals. Yet, each and every one of us is influenced by history—your family history, your cultural history, your national history. Yet all are suspect and, without a doubt, full of self-aggrandizing mythologies—untruths.

The great religions of the world, when looked at with any degree of detachment, are almost laughable in their pronouncements—but if we dare to suggest such a thing we risk eternal damnation as well as life-long harassment within our communities. Much of what we consider knowledge is simply an aggregation of our most popular misconceptions repeated over and over until we regard them as facts. Science can’t even break through the muddle and establish truth because, for every unpopular fact they uncover, an army of pseudo scientists await to counter their findings with pseudo facts—and we don’t have the ability to articulate the difference. Just check out the arguments between creationists and evolutionists or, more recently, among the climate change factions. Every important controversy has “experts” who can make a case for either side.

Strong leaders are defined by their ability to cut through the fog of confusion and define us to ourselves. They inspire confidence and give us purpose and substance, providing a clear path to a better future—but because we live in a world with so few truths we never quite know if that clear path leads to enlightenment or a holocaust. Unfortunately, leadership skills don’t spring from a moral base, and as we have been taught to feel shame at being open to manipulation, we support destructive leaders far too long. How many truly justifiable wars have there been—even in this century—and how much has been accomplished in sacrificing our young people and precious resources to fight in them? Strong leadership may be a powerful drug but it’s a poor substitute for certainty.

Every one of us makes a thousand decisions every day—perhaps more. The vast majority are simply routine, mechanical, and temporal; some are more important and a very few are critical and possibly life changing. What we need to understand is that all of our decisions are based on what we know and most knowledge is flawed. We want certainty; we want to believe that we stand on hard ground. If there is no solid foundation, there is no predictability, no sense in planning for the future, and we need predictability, we need to plan for the future—the future is the reason we exist.

Whether you agree or not with my examples, it’s difficult to rationalize away the greatest threats our world faces. In the battle between fabricated certainties people have grown so sure of their truth they are willing to sacrifice human life to protect it, whether it be their religion or culture or political system—or, often, something far less grand and glorious. This competition to promote any one perspective as better than everyone else’s continually leads to war and destruction, and takes our focus off the very real dangers we face as a fragile and vulnerable population. For the last 50 years, at least, our entire knowledge base has been increasing by about 100 percent every six months—doubling—yet, we have, throughout that time, and for a thousand years before, believed we know enough right now to say that our answers are the right ones, and everyone else is wrong. Perhaps it’s finally time to embrace uncertainty, and the humility that goes along with it, and to work toward discovering and accepting real answers instead of everyone trying to impose their truth on the rest of the world.

Ross Urquhart served as chair of both a large and successful environmental coalition and of a business development centre located in a resource-based region. He spent nine years as a municipal politician and subsequently managed a failed campaign for higher office. In between, Urquhart completed graduate work in both public administration and environmental studies. More recently, he has authored an e-book entitled Being Reasonable: Plain Talk for Living in the Future. Urquhart may be contacted through his website at