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The Meaning of Life

Robert Fulghum, author of Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, published a second best-selling collection of essays. In It Was on Fire when I Lay Down on It, he tells about a man named Alexander Papaderos, who grew up in a tiny Greek village on the island of Crete. When he was a young boy, his island was invaded by the Nazis, and hundreds of his fellow villagers were executed for daring to resist. Consequently, the people of Crete held a special hatred in their hearts against the Germans. After the war, Papaderos became an Eastern Orthodox priest. He had a vision for building an institute on the site of the massacre to promote peace between the people of Crete and the people of Germany. If they could find forgiveness and peace, he reasoned, anyone could. Papaderos succeeded in establishing the institute, and became a living legend. One summer, Robert Fulghum traveled there to attend a two ­week seminar on Greek culture. Fulghum writes:

At the last session on the last morning…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. We followed his gaze across the bay to the iron cross marking the German cemetery. 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 whole 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.

Much of what I experienced in the way of information about Greek culture and history that summer is gone from memory. But in the wallet of my mind I carry a small round mirror still.


Are there any questions? (Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire when I Lay Down on It, Random House, 1999)


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