“The meaning of life? With ninety odd One A Day posts still to go this year? You must be joking!”
No, I’m not joking. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be writing about come December either but hopefully by then I’ll have something more important to write about than the meaning of life.
More important? Well, yes. For all the philosophical debate its stirred up over the years the meaning of life isn’t all that important to us worker drones here on the factory floor. In fact the only people to whom it’s actually important are those with a career in philosophy or something similar, who make cash from questioning the what-might-bes the rest of us leave for granted.
And we do take the meaning of life for granted, simply assuming there must be one and being content to let others far more qualified than ourselves probe its mysteries. It’s a medal we’ve awarded ourselves for attaining self awareness: we realise we exist, meaning the next pertinent question is why we exist. We’ve discovered many explanations as to why this is and concocted a few of our own, but very few of them are spiritually satisfying and the ones that are tend to be the ones we’ve made up, which makes sense–why would you invent a reason for our existence that asks more questions than it answers? Why, you’d have to be stupid to do such a thing.
To us drone the meaning of life is background noise, and one of those things you never consider because trying to fill the spiritual void at the centre of your being is like trying to finish a bottomless Slush Puppy: sooner or later your brain will freeze, your teeth will start hurting, you’ll realise you’re getting nowhere and give up. Yes, it’s best to leave the really big questions in life to people with huge, unfreezable brains, and just muddle on with our work, our leisure time and our lives. You aren’t concerned about nature of gravity whenever you set foot out of bed so why consider the meaning of life while you’re still alive?
So it’s with some regret that I tell you that if gravity were the meaning of life, we’d wake up crushed between our bed and the our bedroom ceiling, with our dressers and chests of drawers bouncing around like blocks in the world’s maddest game of Tetris.
For you see–and I’m sorry to inform you of this–life has no meaning.
Now I’m something of a nihilist and an unreliable narrator to boot, so you might be tempted to ignore anything I have to say on this matter. I’m right, though, and that anybody who was reading this post probably gave up when I hit such a depressing note illustrates how futile life is, how everything we work towards is pointless, and how the only goals we have in life are those we set ourselves. If life’s a game it’s played on an infinite board with no demarcations and not an inkling of a rule set: ether we play by our own rules or by those designed by people just like us.
Our continual quest for meaning and worth is a struggle that has no ultimate consequence. We live, we die, the world moves on and with little variation. Maybe if we try hard enough we can impact it in some way, but the best we can hope for in life is that when we’re gone those who remain remember us fondly. But–and here’s the kicker–a few years down the line people won’t remember us at all. We will die, everyone who knows us will die, everyone who knows them will die and pretty soon it’ll be a hundred years from now and we won’t even be dust on history’s shelves. All dead, all gone, all memories fled; life is meaningless and being alive, so are we.
“Get a life”. I hate that phrase. I hate that if I were to see the Pyramids or parachute from an aeroplane or swim with dolphins or partake in any other activity from life’s clichéd bounty my own life would be richer for it. If I give up my wealth to the poor and dedicated the rest of my days to helping those less able than myself I’ll be a curio, just another person striving to stem the tide of human suffering–which isn’t such a bad thing as pastimes go, but think of it this way: in a million years who’ll give a shit?
If immediacy’s the more pressing concern–it’s what you do today and not tomorrow that matters–then, Jesus, we’re all screwed, aren’t we? We’re certainly not devoting our lives to charity, and if you are, particularly worthy person who’s currently reading this, you shouldn’t be reading this but instead running a cool cloth over some poor skeleton dying of AIDS.
Because there’s always something more we can be doing, that we’re not. You might claim your actions count for something but deep down you know you could be doing more.
Everything’s meaningless and time soldiers on, pushing you towards your grave, stealing options away, paths you can no longer take, possibie meanings you’ll never find–that never really existed, but wouldn’t you have liked the chance to find that out for yourself?
Permanency becomes frightening. Every change made is a change that can’t be undone. There’s no getting your parents to intervene, or a quick detention after class then back to normal the following day. Life’s burdens fall on your shoulders; let one slip and you’ll never grasp it back. Tears that flowed so easily in your infancy become infrequent but hey, it’s not like they accomplished anything anyway. Feelings, once stormy and erratic, become difficult to find. Sudden realisations strike when you’re least aware: you will never find love again for the first time, find a new favourite film, socialise as you once did, and if you haven’t done these things by now these realisations become might-have-beens, opportunities missed, now forever gone.
A part of you dies. It’s very small and breaks cleanly. You won’t miss it, but sometimes you’ll feel something like a phantom itch in a place you can no longer reach.
You fill the emptiness with new life. A family. Love. Revel in the happiness it brings you, but realise that happiness isn’t everything: if it was, we’d all be drugged up, blissing our way to early death. Knowing this, is it any wonder so many people take the path of the needle?
Very real, our best hope is to ignore reality in favour of this brittle structure we’ve created and are climbing. Turn that frown upside down! Plan birthday parties for your little ones. Celebrate Christmas and holidays. Find the beauty in life.
All constructs–some we’ve built, some built for us. Why is a volcanic cliff face more beautiful than a lawn shimmering with morning dew? Why is dew more beautiful than an LCD screen that can show us the world? Why is a screen more beautiful than the thin red tracery of the backs of our eyelids? There’s a whole black world back there, warm and full of dark colour, that’s barely noticed, barely considered.
And birthdays? Just another day, celebrated to give us something to do. Strap on your party hat, blow out some candles. Eat cake, open cards. Just another day, as meaningless as any other.
Newspapers fill with obituaries, and centenary birthdays stand over them, tombstones with mocking epitaphs. “I survived !” says Doris, one hundred years young, and she’ll be gone soon enough, as will we all.
Say, Doris, what’s the meaning of life?
“A cuppa tea every morning and a Horlicks every night.”
At death’s door and she doesn’t know any better than we do. Nobody knows, ‘cause there’s nothing to know.
The one consistent opinion all philosophers have is that ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is a question that, if not ridiculously open to interpretation, has little to no meaning in and of itself. Douglas Adams’s old joke that the answer to life, the universe and everything–the number forty-two–only makes sense if you know the exact question to ask assumes there is such a question in the first place. Asking ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is like performing algebra without any clue what the letters and squiggly bits represent. Reduce the question to an equation and you may well get
? = LIFE
Which could be extended out to a whole string of complicated mathematics, but not knowing how many facets there are affecting the problem, the whole equation might as well be condensed to a single question mark.
While you’re at it, you might want to have a decent definition for the concept of ‘life’. Let’s say we’re talking about consciousness, self awareness, that in this case LIFE constitutes people who ask questions about its meaning and how they came to be. Which encompasses you and me and a lot of the people we know, but there are even more people out there who wouldn’t give a flying fuck about the meaning of life because they’re barely sentient as it is.
By not giving these bottom-dwellers the benefit of the doubt and placing my intellect on a higher pedestal where I consider the philosophical matters at hand, am I moving further towards the meaning of life? Or should I be kinder, more charitable, accept that despite being, okay, stupid they’re still people, for all the good and bad that implies? Do I quest further in my search for the ultimate truth or contribute to making the world a better place? Is there a way I could do both–is that the meaning of life?
Well, no, there is no meaning. Us, our planet, our way of life, maybe the galaxy, maybe the universe and maybe everything–we’re but a sliver of a blink, the mote in the eye of a god who doesn’t exist.
It’s frightening, yet it’s reassuring in a way the endless quest for a ultimate answer never is. Instead of trying to find something to fill the hole in our souls we might as well accept we’ll die incomplete, and that no amount of soul-searching is going to change that.
Such a shame, then, that at the centre of that hole is a spark we call foolish human beings call hope.