By Paul Jackson
In the summer of 2017, I found myself spending time thinking about what I was supposed to be doing. I’ve always felt that we are here for a reason and that the measure of a life is how well we live our lives toward that purpose.
In the past several years and over most of my lifetime, I’ve spent a fair amount of effort trying to figure things out, but, in the summer of 2017, I was feeling a bit discouraged, run down, and oftentimes caught up in the hopelessness and pessimism of many of my friends about the events of the day and what those events meant about the human condition.
I can’t really remember how I came up with the idea of a collaborative writing project to see if a group of people working through the same questions might provide each other with insights, but there are four books that influenced me to initiate this project.
The first and greatest is Victor Frankl’s MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. Frankl believed that we as humans have an innate need for purpose – as important to us as food, protection from the elements, and procreation. Frankl believed that people’s meaning was individual to them. They need to figure it out themselves and then live their lives according to that meaning. Since I felt a bit stuck, I thought, why not come up with a way to find out what others have figured out?
The second was Jim Holt’s book WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST?: An Existential Detective Story. In this book, Jim Holt interviews some of the smartest people in the world about the big questions about how we got here, why we are here, and what else is out there. This is a great book and I recommend it but, as a spoiler alert, no one knew the answers. In fact, all these scientists, philosophers, and learned people emphasized that the more they learned, the less they knew – about the answers and even the questions. So, if the scientists and philosophers haven’t figured it out but had fun trying, how about trying a different approach?
The third was Jennifer Rubin’s THE HAPPINESS PROJECT in which the author spent a year trying different happiness techniques – one each month. As part of this project, she created a blog and created a discussion on each of the twelve techniques and incorporated some of the contributors’ comments in her book. Keith Richards similarly made effective use of the other people’s recollections in his book LIFE. This gave me the idea that maybe there’s more (or a different) wisdom in a collaborative thinking and writing exercise.
So, on August 6, 2017, I put my thoughts together and started a project titled: ‘What have you learned so far?’ (subsequently retitled ‘What have we learned so far?). Over the next 12 months, I posed a series of questions to my collaborators who provided their thoughts over eight rounds of questions. For the first round I waited with trepidation to see if anyone would participate – but they did! And did they ever! My inarticulate first communication trying to explain an idea I hadn’t even thought through resulted in responses and ideas that gave me joy and reassurance from knowing that the questions I had were very similar to the questions other people had.
In most ways, I think our lives are mostly solitary experiences. We yearn for connection, but our brains are evolutionarily guided toward ego-centered self-preservation. At the same time, we also have the capacity to form families, clans, and societies based on mutual interest. One of our greatest capacities is to be able to write things down so other people in different places and times can read them. Mostly this is a solitary experience on the writer’s part. Maybe there’s an opportunity through collaborative writing, to come to a better level of understanding of ourselves as we relate to others.
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From Celia: It is wonderful to let you know about a collaborative inquiry into vital questions by a group of fifteen people. And, it was impossible to pick a single excerpt for WINN. To share wisdom and to work in community are really, really needed now and Paul’s book is a treasure for seekers to read.
For information about WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED SO FAR?: Collaborative thoughts on why we are here, what we’re supposed to do while we’re here, and other questions, please go to, https://smile.amazon.com/dp/0578421542/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp-U_D4YsCb1GFKP1E
All profits from the sales of this book go to the Washington, DC based not-for-profit For Love Of Children (www.FLOC.org)