My last post featured a video of a philosopher’s reflections on the meaning of life as he neared death. The post elicited this response from a reader, Austin Stiller, which I reprint here in full.
It’s foolish to think that there’s an answer out there in the world to this question, [what’s the point of it all?] that there’s a transcendental answer … Those answers seem like self-delusion to my mind. The universe doesn’t care about life, about anything. We do and we’re indebted to each other.
So in terms of our mutual connections, it’s not foolish to think of a point to life. Not just humans either. In terms of what was given to us and what we continually take from other lives and our environment balanced with what we contribute back. Not simply extracting value and death as a tax on others to sustain our existence except as justified by enhancing the lives and world around us. That with rights come responsibilities, that everything must be in balance. Perhaps I’m overly austere. I have uneasy qualms about existing for the sake of existing or getting old and that video strays very close, maybe over that line for me.
The idea that we don’t inherit our place in the world but borrow it from those who come after us makes a lot of sense. Systems that are furthest from that seem to be the most unstable — and less just and more immoral. We borrow from what others have made of it with the charge to pass it on better still for the next people to borrow. I think we should look at our food, our purchases, etc and reflect more regularly on what we’re going to do today to justify our having it, our taking it, our asking others to have sacrificed small or large for our benefit.
I find this video about old age to be both moving and with a better grasp of what life is about.
4 thoughts on “What’s the Point of it All?”
This is a very thoughtful response to a very thoughtful video. However, I think it’s all for naught, because it’s all biology. We are programmed to survive and our fear of death, or worse, losing our comforts in life, overrides all morality. Fair play falls to the wayside in the struggle for survival. Meaning is reduced to whatever small shreds we can delude ourselves into thinking we have some higher purpose. We have no higher purpose than survival. We would have no need for laws were this not so. It is collective ego that creates religions and spirituality. These are fantasies and to me, it is best that we face up to this, jettison all religion, and accept that life is brutal and meaningless. What to do about it? Laws and the prospect of punishment are the only defense against tribal chaos as we see in the Middle East. Cultivating compassion for the situation we are all in can help, but again, that is only possible in nations where our basic needs are generally met. And to get those needs met, endless war is the solution, and if you are not able to wage war effectively, poverty ensues…it’s an endless cycle.
appreciate your thoughtful comments on my site. many of the issues you raised are touched on in other posts and in my book on meaning in life.
“Meaning is reduced to whatever small shreds we can delude ourselves into thinking we have some higher purpose”
From a Zen perspective, perhaps the point of it all is that there is no point to it all.
Another shred is that the point of it all could even be to place a bagel on Saturn. Mr. Natural might say,
“having a bagel to eat on Saturn is better than having nothing to eat on Saturn.”
Stiller’s reaction to Fingarette’s video and my comments in this blog’s previous post have cleared up something of a mystery for me about Thoreau that has troubled me for the longest time. You can search his vast oeuvre in vain for any comment (as far as I am aware, anyway) about life’s meaninglessness even during times of great personal tragedy—the death of his dear brother and his own decline and death from TB. I used to wonder how that could be. Was he stonewalling, oblivious, or what? He was obviously too smart not to have been aware of the subject. And while the custom of the day seems to have been not to display deep personal feelings in public including by way of the written word, Stiller’s comments show what must have been really going on. It was almost a nonissue because, for him, meaninglessness was simply a metaphysical fact of existence—again, in Stiller’s example, like gravity.
However, as foreign to my sensibilities as this outlook is, I should have known it was valid from seeing how my wife dealt with the prospect and reality her death during a two year struggle with cancer that can only be characterized as heroic. Except for one—and only one—time did she ever utter anything close to a “woe is me” note of despair, and even that one instance was more about disappointment verging on anger rather than lament. It’s not that she didn’t feel sad as much as recognize that she had simply been dealt a bad hand. She chose to play it out the best she could rather than throw in her cards. It nearly broke her heart to have to give up teaching high school math and the students she loved, but during the time she had left, she took up quilting, assembled a cookbook of all her recipes, tutored math, and organized all the photos of our family we’d accumulated over our 34 years of marriage. About a year into her illness rounds of successful chemo allowed a respite in which she helped in planning our daughter Jennifer’s wedding with typical mother-of-the-bride pride and energy. Until a week before her passing she was actively engaged in planning a family vacation to the North Carolina shore. Even during her very last days, as the cancer finally overtook her and she slipped into a coma, she complained only about the considerable pain, never her fate. She was a hero to me, our three kids, and, really, to everyone who knew her in any depth.
I write in such detail to show that how we feel about life and death can be about more than the cold objective facts of physical existence, but affect us personally and have an outsized impact on how we view the topic of meaning. I don’t think it’s wholly unreasonable to view our inevitable end with something stronger than disappointment or philosophical detachment. Characterizing it as “horror” might be excessive, I admit, but, still, I maintain it is extremely hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other when you know that the next step could well be off the edge of a cliff! Is intrinsic meaning sufficient to sustain us and if not, what do we do about it? This is the conundrum my essay (previously posted on this blog earlier this year) was in large part all about and what Fingarette struggled with during his decline. I don’t think any of the conversants here actually disagree with one another as to the facts of the matter of meaninglessness as would attribute any differences of reaction to it to temperament. I think Fingarette would actually agree with Stiller’s even though he could quite see himself embracing it.
As I conclude these comments I cannot help but feel dissatisfied—with the facts and how I naturally seem to react to them and mistakenly assumed everyone else does as well. I somehow thought my wife Jan’s strength of outlook was an aberration. Putting two and two together in terms of Thoreau’s likely and Stiller’s actual take, I see it is not.
I think what I’m saying is that it’s not that I don’t accept the universe’s indifference to human concerns as much as I don’t like it. It’s a visceral sort of thing that seems beyond almost beyond reason. I don’t like not being in full control and, even more, I don’t like appearing illogical and weak. Perhaps this dissonance is as much of a metaphysical fact of human existence as gravity and magnetism are of physical existence and is just something we have to live (and die) with. The best of us seem to be able to do it with more grace than others.