Friday, April 18, 2014
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Return for a moment to Tolstoy, who often asked: "Is there meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me?" "All my acts, whatever I do, will sooner or later be forgotten and I myself be nowhere. Why, then, busy one's self with anything?" These questions are not about meaning but about meta-meaning concerns, and revolve around the issue of transience: will we leave anything enduring behind us? Do we vanish without a trace and, if so, how can our life matter? Is everything pointless if, as Bertrand Russell lamented, "All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins?" When Tolstoy lamented that there was no meaning in his life that would not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting him, he was stating not that death destroyed meaning but that he failed to find a meaning that would destroy death. We too easily assume that death and meaning are entirely interdependent. If all is to perish, then what meaning can life have? If our solar system is to be ultimately incinerated, why strive for anything? Yet though death adds a dimension to meaning, meaning and death are not fused. If we were able to live forever, we would still be concerned about meaning. What if experiences do pass into memory and then ultimately fade? What relevance does that have for meaning? That happens to be the nature of experiences. How could it be otherwise? Experiences are temporal, and one cannot exist outside of time. When they are over, they are over, and nothing can be done about it. Does the past vanish? Is it true, as Schopenhauer said, that "what has been exists as little as what has never been"? Is memory not "real"? Frankl argues that the past is not only real but permanent. He is sorry for the pessimist who despairs when he watches his wall calendar grow thinner each day as a sheet is removed, and admires the man who saves each successive leaf and reflects with joy on the richness experienced in the days represented by the leaves. Such a person will think: "Instead of possibilities, I have realities." Not only does death anxiety often masquerade as meaninglessness, but the anxiety stemming from awareness of freedom and isolation is also frequently confused with the anxiety of meaninglessness. Envisioning existence as part of some grand design that exists "out there" and in which one is assigned some role is a way of denying one's freedom and one's responsibility for the design and structure of one's own life and a way of avoiding the anxiety of groundlessness. Fear of absolute loneliness also propels one into a search for identification with something or someone. To be part of a larger group or to dedicate oneself to some movement or cause are effective ways of denying isolation. The Western world has insidiously adopted a world view that there is a "point," an outcome of all one's endeavors. One strives for a goal. One's efforts must have some end point, just as a sermon has a moral and a story, a satisfying conclusion. Everything is preparation for something else. William Butler Yeats complained: "When I think of all the books I have read, wise words heard, anxieties given to parents...of hopes I have had, all life weighed in the balance of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens." A useful language for discussing this Western world view may be borrowed from aesthetics, where a distinction may be made, in a musical composition, between passages that have "introduction" (or "preparation") quality and those that have "exhibition" (or "fulfillment") quality. In the West we view our life's activities in the same way: past and present are preparation for what is to follow. But what is to follow? If we have no belief in an immortality system, then we come to feel that life is all preparation without "exhibition" quality. The sentiments "pointless" or "senseless" follow naturally from this belief. It must be remembered, however, that art is not life. The distinction of art is that it can provide a balance of "preparation" and "exhibition" in a way that life cannot. The belief that life is incomplete without goal fulfillment is not so much a tragic existential fact of life as it is a Western myth, a cultural artifact. The Eastern world never assumes that there is a "point" to life, that there is a problem to be solved; instead, life is a mystery to be lived. The Indian sage Bhaqway Shree Rajneesh says, "Existence has no goal. It is pure journey. The journey in life is so beautiful, who bothers for the destination?" Life just happens to be, and we just happen to be thrown into it. Life requires no reason.