Not too long ago a nice chat was started up by a friend of mine about the meaninglessness of life. A few days ago and then again today this topic was touched on by more people, so it seems worthy of being typed about.
The Woman’s Meaningless Flowers:
One day an elderly woman came home from errands and noticed some flowers growing in a small garden next to her house which she thought had been abandoned. She had lived in the house for a couple years and had never seen flowers grow in the garden. Having no neighbors she wondered who did it and because none of her children lived in state, she knew they couldn’t have been planted by one of them. She finally concluded it must have been her husband. She sat and thought about how sweet it was of him to do and how it had shown true care that he took the time to plant such beautiful flowers. She also thought of how clever a surprise it was for him to plant the flowers, knowing she would have to think about it before she realized it was he who planted them. When her husband finally walked in she jumped up and gave him a hug. “Thanks for the flowers,” she exclaimed. Her husband assured her that it was not him. Suddenly all her excitement and thoughts of being appreciated and loved melted away. She realized that either the flowers must have just grown in from nature’s natural course, or if someone had planted them for her, it was beyond her knowledge. The initial meaning was imagined, in reality there was no real intent in the flowers, and therefore, no true meaning in them either.
A Sisyphean World
We have all heard of Sisyphus who was damned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down right before getting to the top. Albert Camus used this myth in one of his well known writings where he tried to answer the question “If one comes to the realization that life has no meaning, is it then appropriate to commit suicide”1. At first this question may seem absurd to even ponder, but if you can break out of your comfort zone, anyone can recognize the necessity of this question in a meaningless world.
If one thinks of the world as purely naturalistic and humans as merely the result of natural selection, or as Richard Dawkins would say, a “blind-watchmaker,” then one must recognize that neither humans nor the universe were designed for a purpose, and without purpose there is no real meaning.
Is Meaninglessness a Bad Thing?
Surely Aldous Huxley has thought of meaninglessness as “liberating,” and says of the man who sees the world as meaningless that “there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do”2. In case one has not yet realized this, meaningless takes away morality, creating a truly relativistic world where each does as he/she pleases. Discussing the implications of this alone is too vast, and will have to be reserved for a later post.
Another implication of meaninglessness is the loss of value in humanity. In one of my recent conversations, this question was posed to my friend who claims to think the world is meaningless. “Imagine I came in with a gun and said either you die or your nephew dies, who would you choose?” My friend answered, “I would die and let my nephew live.” Then my friend was asked why this would be his choice, in which he responded, ” Seeing that I am older I would want him to have the chance to experience more life.” The problem with this answer is that it assumes a value to life basis for the moral system he uses to make this anti-instinctual judgment. This is contradictory to the meaninglessness he claims. It sounds vulgar, but if someone does not have feet then they probably do not have a lot of shoes around. The reason being that there is no purpose for the shoes to fulfill and therefore it is not necessary to have them. The same goes for life, if it has no purpose to fulfill then it is not necessary. Apparently it seems my friend may like to say he thinks of the world as meaningless, but as we have seen, he surely does not practice what he preaches. Surely David Hume was talking of this idea when he said “Is it because human life is of so great importance, that it is a presumption for human prudence to dispose of it? But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster”3.
Can’t We Make-Up Our Own Meaning?
Now I see that I misunderstood the nature of my meaninglessness
and that I was using inappropriate methods for dealing with it
—looking for a definite purpose, a specific meaning for my life.
This effort to create my own meaning did not work,
even after several years of serious endeavor.
I eventually saw through all the goals and purposes of my contemporaries:
Possessions, accomplishments, adventures, love, marriage, family
all seemed hollow and empty, ephemeral and fleeting.
I knew these would not satisfy my quest for meaning.
And I took an arrogant attitude toward people who thought otherwise
—the near-sighted people who literally gave themselves to such trivia4.
In the above writing by James Park, it only seems logical that he would come to such conclusions. If all is meaningless, what foundation do you have in the first place to ever build meaning off of? If all people are equally meaningless, why choose one person over another as a spouse…surely love is an absurdity. If life is meaningless, why reproduce to bring more children into a meaningless realm…why even live at all? As Hume says, “What is the meaning then of that principle(preservation), that a man who, tired of life, and hunted by pain and misery, bravely overcomes all the natural terrors of death and makes his escape from this cruel scene”3. Perhaps it is true that life is nothing but a prison of evil, pain, sorrow, and emptiness, and only through death can we truly be free. So while one may contend that we can each muster up something for our own meaning, they must admit this, you have become no different than Sisyphus. Working to push the boulder up a hill knowing that in the end that all your work will come tumbling back down, but this is not creating meaning for yourself, it is living in denial. As Park has written, “Usually we keep our underlying condition locked away, under wraps. We keep ourselves busy and preoccupied
so that we never notice our fundamental meaninglessness. But sometimes—against our wills—something pierces our thick skin, cracks our protective shell, opens the cage of our imprisonment, and our guts spill tangled on the ground. Our central life-purpose has collapsed, leaving us empty and alone” 4. This must be why Huxley said “Most of one’s life . . . is one prolonged effort to prevent thinking.”
Do You Really Think Life is Meaningless?
This is an excerpt from a book by philosopher Dr. Ravi Zacharias.
” At one of my lectures on Man’s Search for Meaning, a student rose to his feet and shouted, “Ah, but everything in life is meaningless.” I insisted that he could not possibly believe that. With an equally intense retort he countered that he did…I asked him if he thought his statement was a meaningful one. There was an acute silence, and then he hesitantly answered, “Yes.” I only had to add that if his assertion was meaningful, then everything in life was not meaningless. If, on the other hand, everything was indeed meaningless, his assertion was meaningless too, and, therefore, in effect, he had said nothing”5.
1Albert Camus- The Myth of Sisyphus
2Aldous Huxley- Ends and Means
3David Hume- Of Suicide
4James Park-Our Existential Predicament: Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety, & Death
5Ravi Zacharias- The Real Face of Atheism