Brain Pickings

Life Is Like Blue Jelly: Margaret Mead Discovers the Meaning of Existence in a Dream

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Revelations from the laboratory of the unconscious.

The meaning of life has been contemplated by just about every thinking, feeling, breathing human being, and memorably so by a number of cultural icons, including Carl Sagan, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, David Foster Wallace, Richard Feynman, and other luminaries. But one of the most unusual and poignant meditations on the eternal question comes, obliquely yet with crystalline precision, from legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us Mead’s love letters to her lifelong soulmate, Ruth Benedict, and her prescient thoughts on human sexuality — Mead recounts a particularly pause-giving dream. More than a mere record on the unconscious, it unfolds into a powerful metaphor for the meaning of life — for the beauty of not-knowing, for the soul-nourishment of wonder, and for the question of “enough” that Vonnegut once contemplated.

Mead writes:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

Complement with famous scientists on the art of wonder.

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