A few days ago I read a post on Facebook put up by one of my friends. It read, “One of the greatest tragedies of life is that we are continually trying to make sense of it”. This post was liked by many people- one person even typed “Amen” as a comment. Perhaps many of you are inclined to agree with it as well, a notion that seems entirely reasonable in an anfractuous world that appears to be always shifting, a life in which plans do not come to fruition the way we’d hoped. Indeed, it is tempting to agree with this sentiment on a surface level, but what does it really mean?
“One of the greatest tragedies of life is that we are continually trying to make sense of it”. This is an interesting statement. First of all, it tells us that life would be less tragic if we only stopped trying to “make sense of it”, or at least it strongly implies such. In some ways I agree. There is much to be said for living in the moment and keeping a calm mind in the process. It seems to me that we often associate trying to figure a thing out with worry and anxiety. Certainly no one wants that, and as we all know and our own lives will certainly testify, being in a state of nervousness or heightened anxiety leads us to a) lose the ability to enjoy whatever we happen to be doing, and b) being terrible at said activity. One can and should learn the theory behind surfing before he tries it himself, having someone teach him the skill, but at some point the aspiring surfer will find himself in the water and he will have a need to relax and simply do what he has been trained to do. Don’t over think it. Fair enough, I think it’s apparent that there is some truth here, but it is a second implication that I find much more alarming.
The aforementioned post not only intimates that life would be better if we stopped trying to “make sense of it” all of the time, it seems to say that life has no purpose. It makes us as humans appear as tragic heroes who flash across the screen thinking that they are burdened with tremendous purpose, but the viewer sees that it is only vanity and pretense. The fools have only disillusioned themselves. Life is inherently devoid of meaning, so men would be happier (because our culture rarely questions the idea that happiness is the goal of life, or at least the measuring stick of its success) if they only gave up their vain search for purpose and indulged in whatever pleases them. It is with this idea that I find myself in disagreement.
Many thinkers of the (historically-speaking) recent past have espoused similar philosophies. One may refer to these ideas, depending on what form they evolve into, as absurdism, nihilism, hedonism, and others. Charles Darwin told us that man was an accident, simply another animal. Sigmund Freud told us that man’s free will is only an illusion, that at his most fundamental level he will act only on his subconscious urges. Friedrich Nietzsche told us that there is no inherent meaning in anything and that life itself is meaningless. Is it any wonder that many have arrived at a world without hope or meaning? The ideas seem almost ubiquitous throughout our culture, in whole or in part.
Men have been told that all that is most sacred to them is false, and not only false, but childish. If you adhere to a religion you will be tolerated, for after all, everyone has weaknesses, but keep your convictions out of “serious” conversations. If you laud the disciplined choices of an individual, all will laud him with you because everyone likes to see the “triumph” of the human spirit, but you will be reminded that free-will is a sham and there is probably no such thing as the spirit. Joy is precious, but for children- those who know better understand that it is simply the chemical composition of the brain that causes us to feel joy or pain, sorrow or conviction, elation and purpose. (Though science has never and will never be able to tell us if we feel joy because of the chemicals or if we make the chemicals because we feel joy) We are told that we live in a grand illusion, and the enlightened among us will realize it and either watch the rest of the world in a wizened, sad condescension or in a complete abandonment of all pretenses and an indulgence in the shifting fancies of human desire.
A simple, seemingly innocent phrase can contain a world of lies.
If you believe the ideas that I have outlined above here, and don’t you dare stop reading this post after this sentence, then you may as well kill yourself, as Nietzsche did. You likely recoil in horror at my audacity. I recoil at typing the phrase is well. “Don’t you know people are impressionable?” you may say. “What if someone who is severely depressed reads your post?” I agree with you. It would be appalling. But the question we often forget to ask is why. It would be horrific if any of you were to do damage to your own life because of me- may it never be so. If you are reading this now I assure you that your life is a beautiful thing and worth living, even if you don’t see it right now. No matter what you’ve done or where you are, it is worth continuing on. We all recoil in horror at the notion that men should off themselves because whether we admit it or not we all know that all life is valuable, and if it is valuable that means it has worth, which means someone ascribes worth to it. When something has worth, it is inherently meaningful, at least to those who value it.
You see, we believe contradictory things. We are bullied or coerced into holding true what societal and academic elites tell us, even though we know much of it to be wrong. Life is just a random assortment of organic compounds, so a human life is no more valuable than a potato vine. Yet we would cringe if I told you there was a madman who kills people and buries them so as to enrich the soil where he grows his potato vines. Why is that? According to what we’ve been told, it’s an even exchange- carbon for carbon. Yet such a psychotic idea is repulsive to us; we know it to be very, very wrong. But on a deeper level, our philosophy teaches us, we are just repulsed because of an evolutionary system of emotions that has evolved in order to make us better fit as a species to survive. And so what began as a rational questioning of the truth has once again been squelched by the “just” tyrant.
I hope my language is not confusing when I refer to the “just” tyrant. I mean that by adding the tyrannical phrase “just” to a sentence, we seem to all agree that the sentence loses all of its meaning. “Man is capable of many things in love, including generous acts of service, tenderness, and self-sacrifice”. Yet we take such a phrase and add to it another which says, “But we know that love is just a chemical phenomenon that will cause an animal to go to great lengths to reproduce, a carnal, evolutionary desire that has no deeper significance.” We add the word “just” and all of the sudden all of the sacrifice and pain, all of the tears and sweat and prayer in the world don’t mean a thing- because we said “just”.
It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet how many times in our own lives have we seen this argument not only be used, but adhered to. Look for it in your own conversations, I implore you. The cynical insertion of the “just” tyrant causes us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we can explain the mechanics behind a phenomenon, we have been told that it becomes meaningless- a most malevolent untruth.
There are many things in life that can be vanity if they are one’s only purpose, I agree- but there is purpose to be found. Life is precious, love is divine, and there is something about beauty… something we cannot describe, but long for. If you find yourself lacking purpose, is that not reason to continue searching? For we have seen it. We have all seen those men and women who have it. There is something about them that is different- even as we hide behind our “just” tyrant and explain away all of their actions, a quiet confidence seems to exude from those who know what they do has meaning. The self-deluded can be spotted from a mile away; there is something distinct about those who have true purpose in their lives. It baffles those who have given up and spend their lives trying to convince others to give up as well. For all of our explanations we cannot explain away the jolt of meaning we find in a Mother Teresa or a William Wilberforce. Even many hardened atheists will admit that Billy Graham is onto something. You can see it in how he lives.