Sunday, January 5, 2014

Meaning of Life and Other Ultimate Concerns

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.

Yalom, 1980, pp. 465-470

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Black Friday, Part II

Black Friday is one of the most disgusting days on the American calendar. People trample and fight each other the very day after supposedly being thankful for what they already have. Such widespread hypocrisy is absurd, though hardly surprising. Recall the 2008 death of a temp holiday worker at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY: "Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him." And last year in a Target in South Charleston, WV a man collapsed and died while some shoppers stepped right over his dying body. "Vance was found laying in the electronics department at the Target store. A witness told WSAZ.com some shoppers didn't have any concern for Vance and continued shopping, but there were others who did try to step in and help." And here are some headlines from 2012's Black Friday: "Gang Fight at Black Friday Sale" "Man Punched In Face Pulls Gun On Line-Cutting Shopper" "Shots Fired Outside Wal-Mart" "Shoppers Smash Through Door At Urban Outfitters" "Customers Run Over In Parking Lot" "Woman Busted After Throwing Merchandise" "Thousands Storm Victoria's Secret" "Mayhem At Nebraska Mall Where 9 Murdered in 2007" "Shoplifter Tries to Mace Security Guards" "Men Steal Boy's Shopping Bag Outside Bed, Bath, and Beyond." Americans consume far more than anyone else on the planet. Of all industrialized nations, America is also the most obese. Just take a look and observe how many fat asses are out there next time you're out. It hasn't always been this way. In 1962, only 13% of Americans were obese. But now overeating is a national sport. Now approximately 36% of Americans are obese, and it is projected that the number will rise to 42% by 2030. Even our poor are the fattest in the world. While we are gorging ourselves with food, what else do we like to do? That's right - we love to watch television. The average American watches 28 hours of television every single week. Living rooms have become the new opium dens, with satellites beaming into our veins and NetFlix and DirecTV the new cartels. We have become completely and totally addicted to entertainment, and we have become conditioned to constantly be "plugged in" to something. Our lives have become all about constantly feeding our greed and selfishness. Why? This is our societies' response to the enormous apparatus of nothingness. It's escapism at its finest. Religion, drugs, television, stuff...it's all the same. Convenient panaceas used to obfuscate the fact that we're all bleeding pieces of meat careening towards our inevitable demise. What kind of people feel better about themselves because their shirt has a horse, or an alligator, or an eagle logo on it? Black Friday is a national fucking disgrace. Shopping isn't a tradition, or at least it shouldn't be. Americans are crucified by their consumerism, entangled in a neverending gluttonous orgy fueled by neoliberal American capitalism. A massive and painful restructuring is needed, but until then they'll bow their heads in complacent acquiescence and whisper "fill me with your poison."

Friday, August 10, 2012