Wednesday 24 April 2024

Why Are You Here? Thoughts Inspired by "The Cafe on the Edge of the World"

This post is inspired by John Strelecky’s 2020 bestseller The Cafe on the Edge of the World: A Story About the Meaning of Life. Fran gifted me a copy for my birthday this year and we read it together. It led to some great conversations and I knew from the start I wanted to write about it. I’ll begin by quoting from the back cover blurb.

In a small cafe at a location so remote it stands in the middle of nowhere, John — a man in a hurry — is at a crossroads. Intent only on refueling before moving along on his road trip, he finds sustenance of an entirely different kind. In addition to the specials of the day, the cafe lists three questions all diners are encouraged to consider:

Why are you here?

Do you fear death?

Are you fulfilled?

The principal characters — naive traveller John, cafe owner Mike, and waitress Casey — reminded me of myself, Ellen, Kai, and their festival food stall in one of my short stories, Home Eleven. Strelecky’s didactic approach and emphasis on finding one’s life purpose recall a former favourite writer of mine; Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions, and The Bridge Across Forever.

I was less impressed by the writing itself, which in places struck me as awkward and repetitive. (Casey in particular does an awful lot of smiling.) This was perhaps more noticeable because I was reading the story aloud to Fran, rather than silently to myself. Deficiencies aside, we both found it an engaging read. We read the twenty-six short chapters at a rate of one a day. This gave us time to take on board the story as it unfolded and discuss the ideas it engendered. Early on, we asked each other how we’d answer the three questions. Fran went first.

Why are you here?
Because I love you.

Do you fear death?
No because there is no separation. I will live on in people’s hearts.

Are you fulfilled?
At this point in my life, yes. It feels like I stumbled into it, but I’ve done a lot of work to get here.

I’ll explore my answers in more detail below.

Why are you here?

I struggled massively with the first question. I had no idea how to approach it, not least because “Why are you here?” can be interpreted in various ways.

Why am I here (alive) at all?

Why am I still here (still alive)?

Why am I here, in this place at this time, as opposed to being somewhere else at some other point in time?

That last one is interesting given that Fran and I live on opposite sides of the Atlantic, three thousand miles and five timezones apart. We were nonetheless present on our video calls in the same moment, reading the book and pondering the questions it raised. My answers would be: because I am, because I’ve not died yet, because I’m not somewhere or somewhen else. These might seem disappointingly obvious and banal. They would not, I suspect, impress Mike or Casey. “Yes, Marty,” I can imagine them responding (Casey would be smiling). “But why?“ And that’s the sticking point for me. Because to ask why is to seek a purpose or reason. Indeed, the focus of the book is to help us — as Mike and Casey were attempting to help John — to discover and follow our PFE, our Purpose for Existing.

My problem isn’t that I’ve yet to find my PFE, although it’s true I’ve never had one. No purpose. No life plan. No grand path laid out for me to follow. It’s not even that I’ve been too distracted to seek one out. Strelecky makes a big deal of the dangers of losing oneself in the distractions of everyday life. These include marketing and advertising, and the inconvenience of working at any job or task that doesn’t directly serve your PFE. By extension, I suspect he’d include mainstream media, consumerism, western civilisation itself, and the Internet. I dare say I do allow myself to get distracted by these and other things. My main issue, though, is that I don’t believe such existential meaning or purpose exists, for me or anyone else. I’ll come back to this later.

Do you fear death?

Interestingly, the book scarcely touches on the second question, which I find far more straightforward. Of my own inevitable demise, I can answer simply and honestly; no. I might feel differently about it when the time comes but death isn’t something I’m afraid of. I don’t believe in an after-life, heaven or hell, reincarnation, or rebirth. Dying is the end of existing, of being. A dissolving, one might say, of the patterns of energy we embody. That said, the messiness of death unsettles me a great deal. By that I mean both the physical process of dying, especially where it’s protracted or lived in mental or physical pain, but also the societal aftermath of funerals, wills, the distribution and disposal of possessions, our personal legacy and such. It’s an important topic and one I want to explore more fully another time.

Are you fulfilled?

I struggle with this one for different reasons. I don’t recall exactly what I said to Fran but it would have been something along the lines of “if I knew what fulfilled means I’d have a go at answering it!” I wasn’t trying to be evasive. I’ve struggled all my life over the meanings of words, in particular those people use to label their feelings. It’s only recently that I learned there’s a name for this inability to express one’s emotions: alexithymia. If you’re interested to learn more, check out my two blog posts on the topic: How Do I Feel? and How Do I Feel Now?.

I struggle to say whether I’m fulfilled because I’m unsure at what level the question’s being asked. Am I somewhat fulfulled? Mostly? Totally? In this moment? At this phase in my life? Permanently? I’ve certainly felt less than totally fulfilled in the past. I think that’s because I’ve linked fulfillment to identifying and following the kind of life purpose I discussed earlier. If I had no PFE, no ultimate sense of meaning, calling, or vocation, how could I possibly be fulfilled? I see now that this is no less a form of social conditioning than those Strelecky denounces in his book. He decries the idea that we can attain meaning, success, and happiness by blindly following the dictates of consumerism and marketing, but replaces it with his own path to enlightemnent. Find your PFE, he asserts, and you too can be fulfilled. This is what I meant earlier when I said I had issues with the book generally.

In the past, I would have lapped it up as I did others at the time. Nowadays, whilst I concede the wisdom in some of the ideas — it’s valid to question where we are in life, what we want, and how we might move towards those goals — signaling you can do anything you set your mind to if you believe in yourself enough is naive at best. At worst, it’s ableist and stigmatising. I’m reminded of a meme I’ve seen on social media several times. I’ve been unable to trace the original author.

Shout-out to disabled people who aren’t “inspirational”, who are unemployed or stuck with a job they don’t like, who didn’t do well academically and/or had to drop out of school, who aren’t in a position to live and take care of themselves independently even if they would like to, who don’t “just get on with things without complaining”, whose lives didn’t work out in the way they were hoping for, who haven’t “overcome” their disability in the way that society tells us we’re supposed to. You exist, you’re worthwhile and you matter.

I’m not alone in feeling this way, as one Amazon reader makes clear in their review (“A thoughtful read but quite blind to privilege”).

More fundamentally, though, I no longer believe — if I ever truly did — in an ultimate Purpose for Existing for any of us. The very idea is absurd to me, in the sense of the absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus. I’ve explored Camus’ ideas previously in One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy. The universe exists, and we exist within it, devoid of meaning or purpose. And yet, undoubtedly, we are driven to seek both.Books such as The Cafe on the Edge of the World pander to this existential ache without addressing its futility. It’s possible that Strelecky addresses this elsewhere, Cafe being the first of several he’s written to worldwide acclaim. Despite my reservations, this book gave me plenty to think about and I’m grateful to its author and to Fran for bringing it to my attention. In different ways the three questions have helped to clarify my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about life as I‘m living it.

Why are you here?
To experience the process of living.

Do you fear death?

Are you fulfilled?
My fulfillment is not dependent on identifying my ultimate purpose for existing. There is no such thing. I fill my days, my moments, in ways that are meaningful to me.

I’ll close with a moment of humour that occurred after Fran and I read chapter 15, which describes how advertising tells us we need this and that in order to be happy. “I just need my Marty,” Fran said. I smiled, remembering a recent purchase she’d made. “— and a skort!”


The Cafe on the Edge of the World: A Story About the Meaning of Life by John Strelecky is available at Amazon and all good booksellers. For more information, visit the author’s website.

If you’re interested in some of the other books Fran and I have read together, check out It’s Not Just for Kids: Reading Together for Fun and Friendship.

Photo by Shelby Cohron at Unsplash.


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