I have once again been asked how an atheist like me could possibly find meaning in life -- if it not to be found in serving God.
Imagine a distant land, occupied by humans, but whose customs differ from our own. In this land, a young girl faces her eighth birthday. On this special day, her parents give her a small paper box that fits in her hand, and they tell her, "This box contains an egg. It is very fragile, and you must take very good care of it. You must keep it with you at all times, but you must always make sure that it never gets too warm. You must keep it from being struck or dropped, because if this happens the egg will surely break."
These egg boxes are made at a temple. There is an elaborate ceremony in which a priest puts a box together according to time-honored rituals. It is sealed shut then, with a prayer, it is said that an egg enters this world from a land beyond space and time. However, if the box is ever opened or the egg is damaged, it will return to the land from which it came.
If the egg survives until death of its owner, the person's essence will enter the egg. When the egg returns to its own land, it will carry that essence with it.
These children are told that they are not to even shake the box a little, even to try to hear the egg inside. Even a mild shaking may destroy the egg.
So, this girl goes to school, where all of her friends are eager to see her box. She shows it to them proudly, but warns them that they cannot open the box to see the egg inside. As a child, she makes mistakes from time to time. Each reprimand brings the child to a renewed determination to treat the box with extra care.
Besides, she is told, this is the most important thing that she can do with her life. There are others, she is told, who have no egg, because they have thrown theirs away or their parents never gave them one. These people have nothing special to do with their lives. Their lives are purposeless, empty, and miserable (though some of them hide their misery very well).
Of course, caring for the egg requires sacrifice. There are many things that one cannot do, because it would threaten the egg. Some of those without eggs spend their lives doing things that those with eggs cannot do. However, it is said that they are not to be envied. The lives of the eggless are purposeless, empty.
Caring for her egg becomes the most important thing in this person's life. She has children of her own and, when they have their eighth birthday, she goes to the temple where she is handed a box. She gives it to her children, and teaches them how to care for it. She raises them to take good care of their egg box. She is a good parent.
Eventually, she grows old, and she dies. She is laid in her casket with the egg box that she has cared for through her entire life.
At the funeral, mourners enter with their own egg boxes. With death a vivid reminder of their own mortality, they are particularly careful with their egg boxes on this day.
Except, one person, Alan, enters the room carrying no egg box. His hands hang uselessly at his side as he makes his way among the crowd. He gets something to drink and he looks around, and finds himself being stared at. Their stares are a mixture of pity, concern, and contempt.
Some parents direct their children to go play outside. They are fearful. What if their children decide to become eggless? Then they will have no vessel to take their essence into the afterlife. The thought is too dreadful for the parent to contemplate. Some want the eggless shut away, for the sake of the children.
Alan understands. He does not like it, but he understands it.
Yet, here, at this occasion, they struggle to be civil. They exchange condolences.
Alan finds his tall, dark-haired cousin in the crowd. "Hello, Patty."
Patty turns around. When they were children, Patty moved in with Alan's family for a year while her parents struggled to find work and make a home. It takes her a moment to recognize him, then she puts her arms around him for a hug, taking care not to jolt her egg box. When she steps back out of the hug, she looks at him and says, "Still no egg box, I see."
Alan leans forward and whispers, "I'm sorry, Patty. I have more important things to do with my life than tend an empty box."
"There is nothing that has importance without the egg," Patty answers. "Without the egg to carry our essence to the next world, everything is temporary."
"Why do you think that temporary things are not important?" Alan asks. "Let me hold a hot iron to the sole of you foot, temporarily, and then you tell me whether or not it is important that I not do this."
"Alan!" Patty protests, but the smile at seeing him did not leave her lips.
"Just making a point," says Alan. "Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, the universe does not care whether you are tortured or not. But you care. I care. James and your mom and your daughter all care. If the universe does not care, screw the universe. Why are you dismissing the concern of your friends and family as unimportant?"
"I doubt if mom cares," Patty says sadly.
"She is still not talking to you?"
Patty nods. "She thinks that if I raise her granddaughter to care for her egg as the Reds do, Jennifer will not make it into the afterlife. Blues like mom think that an egg has to be kept cool until death or it will not work. Reds think that eggs must be kept warm. Mom fears that if I teach Jennifer to keep her egg warm, it will not work to carry her essence to the next life. She thinks that I am destroying her chance for eternal life."
"And you have no way to find out whether an egg is supposed to be kept warm or cool," says Alan. "There is no way to test this, because none of us has ever seen an egg carry an essence to the next world."
Patty shrugs. "It makes sense. Hens must keep an egg warm, or it will not hatch."
"Yet, we keep our eggs in the refrigerator until we are ready to use them," Alan answers. "Every year people introduce another hue or shade, convinced that theirs are the only instructions that will get them to the next world, and insisting that if you accept any other color or none at all, then you are doomed to eternal death. Yet, none can prove that they have the right formulae, because there is no way to test the ideas they come up with. We cannot experiment. Instead, we grasp, taking the same options as our parents, and we can only hope that they were right. Besides, how much have we lost in fighting and factional disputes among the different colors?"
"I haven't," Alan says, spreading his arms wide to show that he carries no egg box. "You think that my life lacks meaning or purpose. I think that you are wasting your life caring for that box. You could be caring for the people around you instead. That box is empty, Patty. If you spend your life caring for that box, you end your life with one well-cared-for empty box, and that's it."
"And what do you have?" Patty asks.
"I care about things that are real," Alan says. "There is real pain, suffering, and death in the world. These are things that you can see. We know they are real. When there is joy and happiness, that joy and happiness is real, too. I can help reduce the pain, suffering and death, and increase the joy and happiness. These are my eggs. Real people. You care about your imaginary egg in a box. I care about people."
"But your life will end," Patty protests.
"As will yours," says Alan. He sees a burst of pain in her eyes and he flinches. "I'm sorry. The fact is, you will die, just as I will. Only, you will die with a well-cared-for empty box, and I will die having done what I could to bring less pain and suffering, and more happiness and joy, than the world would have had. You care for people, too, Patty. You do it because you care about them."
At that moment, Patty's daughter, Jennifer, comes running up to her and starts pulling on her hand, shouting, "Come see! Come see!"
"Patty," says Alan, gently putting his hand on her arm, speaking too softly for the persistent child to hear. "Tell me, if you left that box behind on this table, would your daughter be any less precious to you? Would you quit caring about her if you were to lose your egg?"
Patty did not answer. Her daughter was pulling at her with growing impatience, and Patty was giving in to her protest.
As Patty moved away, Alan added, "Patty, those boxes are empty. Don't let them come between you and the people around you. Those people are real, and their love is real, and that makes them more important than any invisible egg."