Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Man at the Edge of the World

Dear Ellie,

My last letter to you got me thinking about one of the great philosophical conundrums of all ages: the search for meaning and purpose in our lives.  Typically, this journey involves going elsewhere for answers.  When people search, they so often assume that the answers are held by someone else, or some other thing, rather than in themselves.  This story I've written you, The Man at the Edge of the World, addresses this age long search for the truth.

Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

Akantha never stopped searching for purpose.  When she was young, she searched in the bustling agoras of Sarissa.  She argued with philosophers and measured with the empiricists.  She reveled in the challenge of debate.  She celebrated each new discovery, but in the end, a voice inside her told her that she should want more.  The things that she did in the agora were too earthly.  Too human and too material to give her the meaning that she sought. 

So Akantha set off to the mountains of Olympar to borrow purpose from the divine.  When she arrived upon the peak, she stood amidst the ancient statues and arches, said to be built by the gods long ago.  She waited beneath their watchful gaze, and prayed, and prayed, and prayed.

“What does my life mean?” she asked.  “What is the purpose of it all?”

As Akantha slept, Prothera, Goddess of Wisdom, answered in her dreams.

“You are wise, because the wise do not simply know the answers, but search for answers as well.  Let my will be your purpose, Akantha.  Go back to Sarissa and study my holy scrolls.  Let my mission be yours and take my wisdom and knowledge to those that have it not.  In this, you will find the purpose you seek.”

Akantha accepted Prothera’s patronage and returned to Sarissa, swelling with a newfound sense of purpose.  She went to the darkest slums, the deepest poverty, and brought with her the knowledge of the gods.  The poor and wretched loved and thanked her for her charity, and as she enriched their minds, the nihilism she once felt became a memory.  However, as she grew content curing the blight of ignorance, that voice inside of her spoke once again: “If the gods have given you purpose, then from where did the gods get theirs’?”

At this thought, the mission of the gods became inadequate as well, and her search continued.

Before Akantha left the slums, however, she heard a story of a man at the edge of the world, where the laws of nature themselves grew weary.  A man that stared off endlessly into the cold, dark void so that no divine or earthly thing could infect the purity of his mind.  If anyone could give her the meaning of her existence it would be him.                    

And so she set off toward the edge of the world.  She sailed across oceans and hacked through dense forests.  Hiked across hilly badlands and skirted along high mountain passes.  The journey was long and hard, but Akantha didn’t count the days or weeks or months.  Her mind was absorbed.  Enthralled.  She felt purpose again… in the pursuit of purpose. 

No matter how far she traveled in one direction, it never felt as though she ever got nearer to the edge of the world.  At the top of every peak, after every river crossing, she squinted her eyes for the place where the earth was no more.  But she couldn’t find it, and for awhile, she wondered even whether it mattered.  When at last she had nearly forgotten the reason for her journey, the land began to change.  For every step she took, the trees began to thin.  The sky faded from blue to black.  The sun disappeared.  The clouds swirled about, whispy and misty, like the fog at the bottom of a waterfall.  Over time, she noticed that each simple step propelled her higher and higher.  Her hair floated around her head.  There was no sound.

Finally, she came to a place where the earth itself had dropped away.  A vast cliff ahead of her, from East to West, beyond which was only darkness.  The Edge of the World.  A thin triangle of rock stabbed out from the cliff and a scraggly old tree spiraled out toward the void.  There was a figure sitting on the furthest limb, back turned to her, feet dangling toward the abyss.    

Akantha fell to the ground and began to crawl.  One careless step might send her plunging away into the sky and the void beyond.  She slithered, inch by inch, until she came to the tree.  She glanced on either side of her: endless cliffs dipping off into endless blackness, speckled by stars.    

She called to the figure from a distance--- “man at the edge of the world!”--- but her voice was like a whisper.  The figure didn’t move.

She shimmied along the trunk of the tree.  The bark came loose in her hands.

“Man at the edge of the world!” she said again, but again, the figure didn’t move. 

Finally, Akantha swung about ever so slowly, like the large hand on a clock, until she came to sit, too, on the furthest branch of the tree on the triangle of earth that stabbed out over the edge of the world. 

The man was next to her, unflinching.  He was gaunt, like a thin, tanned hide stretched over a skeleton.  She couldn’t see his eyes.  Was he aware that she was there?  She searched her mind for words.  Opened her mouth to speak, but then, her eyes followed his gaze out to the void, and she found that she had nothing to say.

The vast emptiness seeped into her consciousness.  Enveloped every corner of her senses until it, too, was like the darkness before her.  She struggled to remember what she came for, but each thought stretched on for eternity.  Each thought drifted away toward the stars, with no gravity to draw them back to her.  With nothing to spurn new thoughts, no novel thing to witness, she was left to observe only her memories.  The achievements of her life.  There were her discoveries at the agora.  Her virtuous quest to educate the masses.  Her journey across the earth to the edge of the world.  How grand they seemed, now, in the face of oblivion.           

But then, she remembered that strange, small obsession she had with “meaning.”  That obnoxious voice that would never let her know satisfaction.  The voice tried to protest, but it too was like a whisper in this place. 

With the voice quelled, Akantha wondered why the meaning of her own deeds must be meager.  Why should she expect that there must be something greater? 

She didn’t have an answer.  Maybe, that was her answer. 

And then there was the man at the edge of the world.  Why was he here?  Why did he dwell at the one place that was closest to nothingness?  Maybe, he was there to prove that the very act of existing, devoid of all other things, was meaning enough on its own.  Maybe, there is no meaning but what we make for ourselves.  

Akantha turned away from the man at the edge of the world, slid down the tree, and made her way back to Sarissa.  She had never asked the man her question, but that was okay.  She'd answered the question for herself,  instead. 

On the trip home, Akantha’s thoughts were filled with the possibilities of her own future.  She'd spent her entire life searching for answers from someone else, but for the first time, she had found those answers herself.  Never before had her life been filled with more meaning.

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