“Are there any questions?” An offer that comes at the end of college lectures and long meetings. Said when an audience is not only overdosed with information, but when there is no time left anyhow. At times like that you sure do have questions. Like, “Can we leave now?” and “What the hell was this meeting for?” and “Where can I get a drink?”
The gesture is supposed to indicate openness on the part of the speaker, I suppose, but if in fact you do ask a question, both the speaker and the audience will give you drop-dead looks. And some fool- some earnest idiot- always asks. And the speaker always answers. By repeating most of what he has already said. But if there is a little time left and there is a little silence left in response to the invitation, I usually ask the most important question of all: “What is the Meaning of Life?” You never know, somebody may have the answer, and I’d really hate to miss it because I was too socially inhibited to ask. But when I ask, it is usually taken as a kind of absurdist move- people laugh and nod and gather up their stuff and the meeting is dismissed on that ridiculous note. Once, and only once, I asked that question and got a serious answer…
Papaderos rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out… he turned. And made the ritual gesture: “Are there any questions?” Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence.
“No questions?” Papaderos swept the room with his eyes.
So. I asked.
“Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”
The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go. Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was.
“I will answer your question.”
Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went like this: “When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine- in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.
I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light- truth, understanding, knowledge- is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world- into the black places in the hearts of men- and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”
And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.”
- Robert Fulghum,