On Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World
Every once in a while I upload a piece of writing on something that has struck me or something which has been on my mind for a while and I need to write it out. These blogs, or “Personal Writings” as I term them, are the scariest places on my website because there’s no going around what has to be written. In these essays I cannot hide my thoughts in my characters’ in the Story, I cannot recreate or relive my experiences and insert them into the Story and hope you see (or don’t see) the symbolism in the Story. Robin’s inability to deal with grief? Please. No, I have to be clear and honest about what I am trying to say in my essays. This writing is on how honesty and meaning intertwine to create a Catch-22.
I think honesty is one of the nonpareil ways you can measure somebody’s character. As a child, I saw people use dishonesty to get out of a bad situation or escape consequences, and then feel quite alright or even superior about it. That didn’t make sense. I was a child, so 1 + 1 = 2, and lie = Not OK. But as I grew older, lying somehow seemed permissible in some situations. For example, in matters of life and death- Your colleague-turned-raging-madman has a gun to your head and demands to know if you stole his chocolate coated almonds from his desk… it really is best to lie and walk away as slowly and in a non-suspicious way as possible.
What about situations where you are lying to yourself? When you’ve got yourself into a Catch-22 and you just ignore, ignore, ignore it? In the meanwhile, your fear just hangs around, poking and prodding you, reasserting its position in the form of convoluted and labyrinthine dreams and those moments late at night when you are seized by the inescapable reality that your Catch-22 presents.
What’s my Catch-22, you ask. I cannot sum it up in one coherent sentence, but they are all tied together in the most brilliant way possible: Death. Existence. Change. Meaning. Meaning. That one day, it is all to end very soon. For my grandparents, for my parents, for my siblings, for me. My cat will die and university will end soon and friends will move away and they will get married and I won’t enter Georgetown ever feeling the same again. Yes, yes, I will change too, and maybe get married and maybe move away but do you see how discomforting even the proposition of this likelihood is? Change is scary, put in death and an existentialist crisis and you’ve got the ultimate Catch-22. To fight is to accept it. You have to accept it because this is all very much real and inescapable. Where does honesty come in all of this? I feel, knowing all this, knowing everything that has to happen- that I have to die, that you have to die, that time will move forward and only take us a certain length, that that places the entire purpose of life into disarray. It puts so much into disarray. And knowing all this, that I choose to ignore these questions every day, I am being dishonest to myself. I know I want more, I want to go beyond but I cannot because of these huge limits. I choose to not accept these things, but if I do accept them, I move forward from the conundrum I am in. But! Hold on- there’s the catch- see, there is no end in this quarry, It is bottomless and intricate and confusing, this dilemma is infinite. Before you dismiss this as anhedonia, do read on some more.
I see this essay as becoming too heavy for a good day’s reading so I’ll deal with one question: Meaning. (Not the easiest one, eh?) I found it comforting in how Leo Tolstoy approached it. According to him, people deal with this “existentialist despair” in either of four ways. First, you can ignore it. You can claim ignorance on what life is- that is finite and with numerous limits, and act as if all is well. But, one cannot “cease to know what one does know.”
The second way is called “epicureanism”, that is to make the most out of what you have and this is what Tolstoy says most of us do. You know life is short and terrible sometimes but you also know it can be great sometimes and you live in those moments. In the words of Josh Billings, life is about playing your bad cards well. However, if you fall in this category- you have forgotten you’re in a rat race, and even if you win the rat race– which means having the best cards out of everyone in life, you are still… a rat. You forgot that. He says the dullness of these people’s imagination- and by dullness he does not mean the quality of being boring, but that of insensibility, of falling into apathy and a narcoma regarding reality- he says:
“The dullness of these people’s imagination enables them to forget the things that gave Buddha no peace — the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.”
The third method to escape this Catch-22 is by killing oneself. Isn’t that a strange way to go though? In the very trial to escape one’s fear, of not finding meaning, one chooses the path that ends all possibility of it. Tolstoy says of people who choose this method:
“For the most part they act so at the best time of their life, when the strength of their mind is in full bloom and few habits degrading to the mind have as yet been acquired…”
The fourth course of action, and I think I lie somewhere near this and the second, is acknowledging the truth of the matter and to still go on living in a as normal manner as possible, all the while thinking “life is a stupid joke played upon us”, but one still “clings” onto it all even knowing the impracticality of things changing as we know it.Tolstoy says of this fourth manner, “This was to me repulsive and tormenting, but I remained in that position.”
There is a severe defect in my thought process that you may have noticed, and this is what Tolstoy did as well- you canont compare the finite with the infinite and that is what I did above. Tolstoy asked what reason one has to live in a temporary world, trying to find an answer which expanded into the beyond, or “beyond time, cause, and space” but how can this question be answered if one studies life to try to answer it? The problem is that you cant do otherwise either, according to Tolstoy. Because this, this life within time, cause, and space, is all that is known to us; and thus we automatically defaulted to answering within the limits of this question.
What still pushes us forward, though? Faith, Tolstoy says. Faith, this irrational knowledge makes life liveable, “it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible” and “it gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death.” Tolstoy doesn’t identify this “faith” with a particular religion (something perhaps we should keep in mind as live in this increasingly intolerant world)
How does one end this sort of essay? I have no answer, but did Tolstoy’s answer help you? To me, a bit, yes, but I am still quite wrapped up about the earlier points, in this existence…
Speaking from the Islamic faith, I think Tolstoy’s answer about faith, puts this life in the context of the greater, next life in perspective; the belief in a just God providing relief from this one… Some comfort may be to had from Tolstoy’s answer but the question of Tolstoy’s four categories still linger….