Thursday, October 31, 2013

Advice to Myself

Put your hand over your heart. Beneath your hand there is a heartbeat. There is breath going in and out. Feel it! That means something. You know it is true when I say it. The staunchest naturalist will deny it, but deep down you know it is true that there is meaning to what is happening beneath your hand this moment. That meaning may be inexpressible to you, it may seem tragically indecipherable, but a strong and yearning feeling tells you that it is there.

And what if I’m wrong? Are we afraid to ask that? What if the naturalists are right and all that is currently happening inside our heads and chests are the mechanical and chemical interactions of matter randomly existing under the inexplicable yet unflagging influence of natural laws that, beyond the probability of each moment, continue to apply without cause or influence from any source? Many have resolved in themselves that this must be true. Though it leaves the questions of life unanswered they admit defeat and claim that there is no meaning or purpose to life. No one except the criminal and the lunatic lives out the full implications of this admission, and even criminals and lunatics cannot claim to live a life fully without meaning. So even those who claim to believe in the meaninglessness of life cannot help but seek to discover truth and purpose long after they have admitted that they do not exist. Some suppose this is a quirk of human nature, a vestigial remnant of an evolutionary advantage, produced naturally and randomly in humankind, that helped humanity develop into an advanced society. They see it as a weakness in themselves that can be tolerated and even accepted in order to have a pleasurable existence. Yet, they see themselves as “playing along” with inferior minds so as not to upset the order of things. They believe that all is vanity and existence itself is basically a joke against humanity--an illusion. When they feel a twinge of the desire for meaning they laugh it off like the boogey man and congratulate themselves on having the courage to admit something (even if only to themselves) that their fellow men cannot. They may even, at times, venture down a path toward exploring the meaning of life, but sooner or later they recoil and abandon the search because, they tell themselves, it only leads to make believe and nothingness. If they do happen to stay on such a path for long (most likely out of boredom) they only do so with half a heart. They see it as a scientific undertaking to learn more about how humans act rather than a chance to learn what it means to be human. They see themselves as undercover. They are only pretending to believe there is purpose and meaning to life so they can see what it is like. After they have gathered the experience they know, in the end, it too will be meaningless.
He's not seeking meaning. He is experiencing it.

But most people do not go so far as to accept the meaninglessness of life. Most people are willing to believe that there is some greater purpose even if it does seem to be against all odds. Scientists tell us (though Science does not) that we are an accident of the Universe. Our hearts tell us that we have a reason to live even though, at times, it sounds like the most foolish thing imaginable. If for no other reason than this shared foolish feeling we have, we must press on. The fact that all of us share the awkwardness of humanity, that feeling that we are both powerful and ridiculous, should encourage us to keep trying. Yes, the awkwardness of humanity. It is the paradoxical nature of life that shows creation to be a great joke, and yet, makes us feel most alive. When we are lonely, afraid, rejected, dissatisfied, bored--it is in those moments when we often share most fully with the rest of humanity. When we are severely rational, sufficiently satisfied, merely entertained, distracted; it is then we forget our awkwardness. We experience neither joy nor mourning. In those moments, human beings as merely natural creatures make sense. Then un-looked-for, reality comes. We have irrational feelings. The loneliness creeps in. Perhaps we are stirred to love or to seek adventure or to desire revenge. Suddenly, life feels incomplete. In our joy we feel a hope for better things. In our sorrow feel a loss of how things should be. Behind all these feelings is a sense that life does have meaning if only we can find it.

You, dear reader, should chase that feeling. Here’s why. If it is all just a joke, the only way to know will be to enter into the joke fully. No one can make a joke funny by explaining it. All they can really do is tell the joke again. If you don’t get it from the telling you won’t “get it” from the explaining. The meaning of life can be put into words perhaps, but hearing those words will not help you “get it.” The only way to find the purpose in life is to experience it. If you think you are watching a magic trick then by all means seek to discover the trick, but not by ripping away the curtain. To really enjoy an illusion you must observe it on its own terms. If you can, you will then discover that the meaning of the illusion is not how it was achieved but the effect on the audience. In the same way the meaning of life will not be discovered by understanding with greater and greater detail the mechanisms that produce our existence; rather, it is by observing the effect that our existence has on us that we can begin to see our purpose and what this life means.

So when you are tempted to give up seeking purpose, do not retreat into distraction. Do not recluse yourself into a world of shallow relationships and frivolous entertainment. Do not close the door to meaning by scoffing at the paradox of our existence. I challenge you. Venture out onto the stage of life. Perhaps you are the butt of a cosmic joke. If so, play the fool to the fullest. You have nothing to lose. Perhaps your seeking will never lead to satisfaction in this life, but at least you won’t be ignoring your desire. If life is a comedy then earn the right to laugh all the harder. If a tragedy, set yourself up to wail the louder. If a romance, strive for the passion to love most deeply. In any case, I believe this is what we were made for. The desire for Truth and Beauty is built into our hearts so that one day--That Day--we may be satisfied. All the better if we spend our days hungry in anticipation.