Archives for posts with tag: Meaning of life

“When you come to think of it,  almost all human behaviour and activity is not essentially any different from animal behaviour. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeros? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question and that’s this: which is the most universal human characteristic? Fear or laziness?”

This is a quotation from the film Waking Life, and to me, it really explores what it means to be human. All these aspects of human life that we do in our day to day lives, even in our most exceptional days, can often be found in the animal kingdom. The film goes further in its observations of the relationship between our daily existence and the so-called lesser evolved beings:

“Excuse me.

‘Cuse me.

Hey, could we do that again? I know we haven’t met, but I don’t want to be an ant. I mean, it’s like we go through life with our antenna’s bouncing off one another, continuously on ant autopilot with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner. “Here’s your change.” “Paper or plastic?” “Credit or debit?” “Want ketchup with that?” I don’t want a straw; I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be an ant, you know?”

What it means to be human: our creativity, our intellect, our imagination, these are what separate us. For the most part, we do live our lives as an ant, with the good days being the ones where we get move slightly up the evolutionary ladder to sun ourselves on a rock like a lizard. The first quotation is actually somewhat optimistic because it assumes that all of us possess the same capacity to achieve human-level greatness, with only mental barriers keeping us from pursuing them. A more pessimistic outlook would be to assume that human beings simply aren’t as developed as we believe ourselves to be, save for the few aberrations that launch new cultural, social, and scientific paradigms who drive us forward.

Which is it? Are we lazy and afraid? Do we all have the drive to think, to create, to explore, but we don’t because we worry others might think it’s stupid? Or that no one will care? Or that we just can’t be bothered? Or do we just simply not have the capacity, and so we live our lives as bestial creatures content with mediocrity because that’s all we’re capable of? I don’t have the answer because I haven’t quite resolved the conflict between my cynicism and idealism just yet.

I don’t mean to suggest that our animal nature is inherently abhorrent. Some of our finer instincts are our more primal ones. But I think we need to prove our superiority; we need to justify our dominance over the planet. What I’m hoping for is that people will genuinely make the effort to explore their distinctive humanity and express that humanity, because fear and laziness are not an excuse to avoid the duty of our species.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. It was a fairly short relationship, but it was still long enough for her to develop feelings for this person, and the reason he gave for their breakup was somewhat vague. She felt that the relationship had been a good one, but since it ended for what she perceived to be little reason and she didn’t feel as though she could learn anything from the experience, she described it as completely meaningless. If it has no value after the fact, how could it have had value at all?

I want to cycle through a bunch of thought experiments, and I want you, dear reader, to think about these examples and decide their worth.

What has greater value? A person who gets married at 25, has a great, healthy relationship for 30 years, and then the marriage ends. It doesn’t matter how, maybe their partner dies or whatever, but then that person is alone and miserable for another 30 years and dies at the age of 85. Or: A person who has a relationship for two years, then is alone and miserable for one year, then a relationship for two years, then alone for one, etc. again from the age of 25 to 85. So that’s essentially 40 years of relationships to 20 years of isolated misery. Assume that these multiple, brief relationships are mostly healthy ones.

Next, let’s look at addiction. Say someone has been an addict for 20 years, and then after 40 years of sobriety they finally slip, and overdose and die. Compare this to someone who has been an addict for 40 years, then they sober up for 20 years, and then die a non-drug-related death.

Lastly, consider success. Say a person garners great success for themself fairly early on in their life, and then accomplishes little during the rest of it. Compare this person to someone who achieves great success near the end of their long, mediocre life. Assume equal amounts of success.

What value has temporality? I think most people would agree that the 30 year relationship has more value than the sum of 40 years worth of many relationships because more meaning can be built with a single partner. Children could be born and properly raised, many great trips could be shared, etc. It’s not necessarily the length of something that gives it its worth, but the value that one finds within it.

Secondly, the end of something doesn’t necessarily determine its worth either. I think the more obvious choice regarding the addict is that the length of the sobriety trumps a sober death. It is a tragic end to be sure, but I don’t believe that the end invalidates the 40 years of a healthy life that was lived prior to it. If the addict had been hit by a bus on their way to buy the drugs, and never got the chance to overdose, would that have invalidated his life? Of course not. The end of something cannot negate the meaning of something because all things must end. Even if, for example, one were to find out that their partner had been lying to them about an affair for years, that would still not negate any happiness one had felt because in that moment that happiness was real. Being miserable and betrayed now does not make you less happy when you initially felt it.

Meaning is in the moment. And whether that meaning continues or ends is irrelevant to the worth of that meaning when it takes place. We as humans, however, can only live in the present. And looking at it in the abstract, we might think that the greatness achieved at the beginning of one’s life is equal to greatness achieved at the end of one’s life, but you also have to remember that when Robin Williams killed himself, all the fond memories his fans had of him were from over a decade ago.

Living in the present means that we don’t normally appreciate the value of meaning that we once had. If someone tells me that I’m living in the past because I’m sulking over an ex-girlfriend or something, that is untrue. The joy of the past that I am currently focusing on is not living in the past because I’m miserable about it; not joyful. I am using my present moment as a judge of past meaning, even if, when taken in the abstract, we can see that that is not its true value.

Speaking of ex-girlfriends, I have one that grew up in poverty. One of the things she told me about poverty was that when things were good, even though frugality might make things a little easier financially later on, their family would still splurge a little bit because when things were bad later, they had those good times to look back on and appreciate. They chose to bank their meaning rather than their finances, and while it may not be conventional wisdom, they still survived and probably had more enriched lives because of it.

Can we extract ourselves from the present? Can we appreciate the past as it is meant to be appreciated, and recognize the infinite uncertainty of the future which could very well hold our greatest success? Well, we can certainly try.

I don’t mean the end of the world as in a form of an environmental or man-made Armageddon, either through global warming eliminating the human race, or an asteroid obliterating the planet, or a series of massive volcanic eruptions making Earth unlivable. I mean the final stage of our planet, as in our sun dying, rendering any kind of life on Earth impossible. Or incinerating the planet, I can’t remember which is the case, but the idea is the same.

There are two scenarios that can come to pass if humanity has miraculously managed to last that long: either we have developed scientifically to the point that we are spread out among the stars and mankind survives, or we have not, and we die with our planet. There isn’t really a third option.

The majority of people look at this as the obvious need for scientific progress, as they believe that the continuation of our species is the preferred option. Humans as individuals cannot live forever, but we can, as a species, expand for an eternity if we make science and reason the focal point of our development. Human beings have achieved great things in the past, and it is not unlikely that we could continue to achieve them into the future if we maintain our path of rational enlightenment.

Let’s look at some of the progress we’ve already achieved. Has any of it come about without some atrocity or another? The achievements of the past, like the pyramids, the cathedrals of Europe, the Taj Mahal: these wonders of engineering that tourists of today clamor around in order to take kitschy photographs of themselves next to were all built by slaves. If you throw enough human suffering and death at something, you can create anything. These things we look at as great achievements are often created for the most superficial of reasons. The pyramids are the self-aggrandizing tombs of the rulers of the land who considered themselves gods, and felt they deserved to be treated as such in death. The Taj Mahal is a tomb for the Shah’s favourite wife. The cathedrals are testaments, not to the glory of God, but to the glory of His representatives on Earth. All these achievements, from all that suffering, for vanity.

But what about the scientific progress that leads to the improvement of society? The industrial revolution and the advent of the machine promised to reduce our workload to almost nothing, increasing both the leisure and overall health and happiness of humans across the globe. In reality, however, the industrial revolution lead to inhumane working conditions, class stratification, and the destruction of the environment.

Even today, our computing systems would be impossible without the continuation of the horrific working conditions now hidden from view in third world countries, and the polluting effects of mining the necessary toxic heavy metals, and the waste that comes with the inevitable obseletion of the electronic device, and its subsequent trip to the landfill.

If this trend continues, and we are lucky enough to survive and surpass the destruction of the earth, we would be barbaric conquerors of the universe. Pillaging each planet we came across, either oblivious or apathetic to the carnage that would follow in our wake. And for what? To what purpose do we continue to progress towards infinite expansion across the stars? Do we simply desire immortality? Are we really only Pharaohs, wishing to be gods, uncaring about the suffering it requires to get us there? Do we want to live forever simply out of vanity? What meaning is there to immortality?

Look at the life of an individual. Do we want to be the person who, in their ambition, crushes those on his way to the top, who cares not for the world around him as he blindly revels in his wealth, his achievements? What are the regrets most people have on their death bed? An article from the Huffington Post lists the top five, and the running theme is wishing that there had been more time for a truer connection with oneself and with others. The meaning of life is revealed by those who are about to lose it, and the life lived with meaning, with connection, is the one worth living, not the one dedicated to progress or ambition.

As a species, who do we want to be? Which is the preferred end of the world scenario? Do we want to be the heartless conquerors, who subjugate the universe with the hubris of our imagined divinity, or do we want to be the species that dies with our planet, content that we lived with meaning, and have accepted our fate as mortals? I would rather die with a smile on my face, knowing I had lived and loved to the best of my ability, and I would prefer the same life and death for our species as well.

I am not suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive. It is not impossible for us to achieve peace on Earth without abandoning our dreams of a scientific utopia. However, our culture is still incapable of extricating the avarice, aggression, and dominance that has so far accompanied scientific progress, and trying to fix that problem with only more scientific progress is a self-defeating process. To achieve the best of both worlds, we need to prioritize the world with connection and meaning, because that is the ideal. That is the world, the universe, worth living in.