What follows is the postscript from an essay by Sylvia Jane Wojcik. (She specifically asked to publish it and use her name. However, I am not advocating or endorsing any particular position she takes here.) I have also included her full essay “What’s It All About” below.
As I look back on all I’ve said, I recognize that it might appear that with all the effort expended on figuring out how the world works, confronting certain impediments of attitude, and armed with good intention to follow the path of truth wherever it may lead, I’d be well on the way to success in life and be about as happy as anyone could expect to be within the constraints of living in a world limited to intrinsic meaning. Alas, such is not the case. Success in rationalizing life’s Big Questions does not necessarily guarantee peace of mind and contentment.
In the first place, I am still frustrated by the lack of certainty about my take on the meaning-of-life problem, just as was Magee in his Confessions and, more pointedly, in Ultimate Questions. After all the reading, thinking, and emotional wrestling with the question of life’s meaning, just what in the world does it all amount to? Nothing, sadly, I think. Mr. Natural may have said it straight, but Shakespeare says it best through the voice of a woebegon Macbeth near the end of his time:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But is this true? I can’t help but go back and forth, always wondering. No one has ever returned from that “undiscovered country” to tell us what happens to us when we die. If I am wrong it means that I may well have wasted my life dwelling on misplaced concerns and false fears rather than living a fully engaged life. How tragic, and not a little ironic, too!— is the thought of having spent my life searching for something that was actually available to me all along in the form of life affirming intimacy we experience through love of family and friends.
The implication of such doubt, of course, is that I could well be wrong about many other aspects of my belief system as described in the foregoing essay. There is much that seems to be at odds with our experience in the everyday world. Perhaps the most telling example is reconciling the reliability of the laws of cause and effect with the uncertainty of what seems to go on at the quantum level? But there are many others. What about the Big Bang origin of our universe? Can something really emerge ex nihilo—seemingly out of nothing? Unless our vision of how the world works can account for these and other mysteries, that floor of certainty about reality and knowledge that we’ve always relied upon to make sense of the world when we get out of bed each morning is less able to support the weight of our endeavors. As we become less sure of what exists and how things happen, it’s but a short step to wondering if there really might be a Supreme Being running the whole show behind a veil of naturalist trappings. And, if this is true, could there be a grand purpose and genuine extrinsic meaning to life after all?
The thing is, we can only see the world from a single vantage point at a particular place and time and even that vision is compromised by inherent perceptual limitations. Any confidence that our current understanding of how the world works as definitive is as naïve as the ancients believing that the world was flat. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Magee came to identify ignorance—our inability to ever know ultimate reality—as the fundamental element of the human condition. However pressing and vital a concern meaning-of-life may seem, it is just one among many unknowns. Perhaps a better way to have phrased the metaphor that I use to end the essay proper would have been to say something like “the beat goes on even if we don’t recognize the music or even hear it at all.” There is simply so much we cannot, and seemingly will never, fully apprehend, let alone comprehend.
Second, at age 72, having crossed the threshold into that twilight period of life called old age, I am finding that the prospect of a long decline and uncomfortable death troubles me even more than the traditional sources of angst I related in my essay. With a lot of hard work, issues of meaning, attitude, and gender identity have been surmounted or at least reconciled. Not so with death. I don’t want to die by inches like my father and mother in a nursing home. There should be a way to exit gracefully and avoid the hardship and indignity of incapacity, pain, and dementia as body and brain inevitably fail. So unless Kervorkian-style assisted suicide becomes the law of the land, I think about the likelihood of having to take matters into my own hands, no matter how messy it may turn out to be. I can’t let myself become so disabled that I’m unable to control my fate.
Such thoughts are especially real and immediate after having had a series of “minor” strokes involving my vision several months ago. It is clear the end could be nearer than I had ever thought. So it is with a renewed sense of urgency that I now attend to getting my estate and other affairs in order so the kids won’t have difficulty cleaning up after my departure. Once that’s done I can feel free to exit when it becomes necessary. But how?
I like to walk the trails of the Longmeadow flats along the Connecticut River not far from where I live. Though it’s part of a national wildlife refuge these days the railroad tracks running through its length are still used for freight and passenger service. It would be so easy, I often imagine, to sit in the middle of the rails on a dark night and wait for the Amtrak. I’d hear its whistle blow from afar and feel the increasing intensity of the vibration in the tracks and rumble of the engine as it approached. The stark blue-white beam of the train’s headlight would cut through the black of the night revealing me sitting there. It is blinding and the engine’s noise now deafening. Yet it cannot drown out the rush and pounding of my heart. I shall not budge. I am fearful but resolved. It is time. I hold my breath in anticipation. And then an anticlimactic !whump! of impact and an eternity of . . . o–b–l–i–v–i–o–n . . .
I certainly recognize how crazy this might sound. But is it really? And how can anyone tell if they are? Someone in the throes of a disturbance can think he isn’t crazy as much as extremely realistic in his perception of the situation. Mass murder seems reasonable and justifiable to perpetrators who see themselves as victims or heroes. I remember a few years ago thinking I was on the brink of poverty and sunk into a depression in which I seriously saw suicide as a reasonable solution. I even did the numbers and “proved” to myself that I could soon run out of money and be faced with all the complications such an eventuality would entail. Thanks to the support of both of my daughters, the intervention of a close friend, and the counsel of an extraordinary therapist, I came out of it and recognized how unfounded were my fears.
Could the same be said about the current situation? I can’t help but wonder if these thoughts represent an exercise in delusional self-pity rather than clear-eyed, reasoned resolve. It is so easy to fall prey to ratiocination no matter the care we take “to see things as they really are.” Absolute dispassionate objectivity is, of course, impossible, since we are never truly outside the scene. We are always a player and our role warps our perception of the facts and even the values that drive our understanding and actions because we have an inherent interest in the outcome.
I also wonder if poor attitude or depression might be contributing to these dark thoughts. The fact is in many moments these days I feel much of my life is tipping to being more of a burden than a joy, more mechanical than something I look forward to. The inertial force of youth, good health, family obligations, and career responsibilities that once acted as a counterbalance to the enervating weight of ultimate meaninglessness have waned. Traditional interests in nature and gardening, ideas and books, along with a more recent attraction to the joys of ballroom dancing and the diversion of part-time work in the Staples copy center, are increasinly insufficient to sustain me. These things, even when approaching the sublimity of “pure experience,” are losing their ability to satisfy as health fails, friends and family die off, and one has done most everything one has ever wanted to do. I do find myself closer to my three kids and their families but I do not want to unduly impose, for if I really care about them I can’t make it all about me—been there, done that with Jan. And I haven’t had a whole lot of luck trying to find friends and that special someone to love, though I admit efforts have been half-hearted, as much due to gender identity complications as disposition.
I want to underscore that I really am well aware of how disturbed all this might seem, but please do not mischaracterize this outlook. It’s not as if I’m a catatonic paralyzed by despair, moaning and rocking back and forth in some dark corner, arms wrapped around myself, unable to function. Far from it. I do still enjoy life—laughing at Non Sequitur everyday, cheering for the Boston Bruins, following Trump’s shenanigans, and much more—but do appreciate, now from recent first hand stroke experience, that things are inevitably winding down in the way this amazing thing called life is biologically designed to do. Things, including people, inevitably wear out physically and otherwise, and I realize that things could go south in a hurry. Then what? I do not want to be functionally helpless and dependent on others if/when something bad happens and not be able to call my own shots.
With all this in mind, I honestly think that, objectively, old age suicide is legitimate. We treat our pet dogs and cats with more respect than we do each other when we put them down rather than have them suffer. Are we not entitled to at least the same consideration? We shouldn’t have to accept living out the remainder of our lives consigned to a wheel chair or hooked up to life support. How we live is more important than that we live. If life has no dignity, no quality, and if we are really hurting, is it really worth living?
The end of a life well-lived should be celebrated rather than mourned. Ideally, the way to go would be to have a gathering with food and drink where we could reminisce and laugh with family and friends, while still able, before bidding everyone a final farewell and going “gently into that good night.” But that is not the world we live in.
And so I’m going to stand by my inclinations and go with the “majority of one” point of view here. We’ll see how this plays out. Time will tell. Life is a moving target and something can always happen to change my mind. But right now I feel myself ever-so-slowly slipping and find it increasingly hard to want to hang on, especially given what the strokes portend.
I cannot deny I am scared and wonder, when the time comes, if I can actually go through with it—so strong is the biological imperative to live. It’s one thing to write about it and another to do it. I think necessity born of desperation is the thing that will ultimately compel my decision. When infirmity becomes unbearable I suspect I will feel I have no effective choice and the decision won’t be all that difficult. I just wish it didn’t have to be so messy, for it will be troubling to many, especially my family. I will have to find a better way.
A frustrating aspect of all this is the difficulty of breaching the topic with just about everyone. The topic is naturally unsettling and, with medical and mental health people especially, there is the risk of intervention if it is thought I am seriously entertaining such ideas. But I cannot accept anyone telling me what I can and cannot do with my body. I am trans after all, and, beyond the right to alter my body, I believe the right to life inherently includes the right to end it. So, as much as I long to talk to someone about all this, for the sake of prevalence, I will have to be choosy about whom I share these thoughts with.
I hear a lonesome whistle blowing from the tracks near the river. I think hard about a certain train to meet. I have a few more things to do, though, and then … ? . . .
I invite any and all comments. Please send to: SylviaJaneW@hotmail.com
What’s It All About?
Sylvia Jane Wojcik / January19, 2021
Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, “that dear delight;” when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious – incomparably – than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. “Life has meaning,” we feel with Browning. “To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”… So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand. “Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with!” We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov – “one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.” —Will Durant
I have wanted for the longest time to set down what I believe about the world and me in it. This means how the world works and how to then live in that world as well as my understanding of how I think I myself am doing in it, but I’ve always had a hard time sustaining the effort necessary to produce a finished product. Part of it is the inherent difficulty of the project, particularly finding a way to navigate the vast length, breadth, and depth of the briar patch of inquiry in a way that is both simple and truly explanatory and therefore useful in living everyday life—mine and hopefully the reader’s. But the bigger problem is a debilitating perfectionism which sees me always second guessing myself with never-ending revisions and adding ever more material in the quest to be comprehensive, if not omniscient. The result is constant doubt and discouragement which sees me putting things aside for yet another day when I supposedly will have a clearer head and new resolve. Also, I’m a procrastinator and am easily distracted by the next shiny intellectual idea, new book, or current event that catches my attention. Finally, it doesn’t help that I want what I write to be so good that it not suffer the fate of most such endeavors: oblivion. Knowing my efforts are unlikely to stand the test of time, I become easily discouraged and wonder “What’s the use?”
Experience shows that when I do manage to complete a piece here and there it’s often because I am reacting to someone’s thought. The decreased formality and limited scope allow me to relax and just spit out my ideas without undue deliberation. I seem to need someone I can imagine myself conversing with—not just to test and refine my thinking—but as much to share the excitement of discovery of ideas as well as the joys, sorrows, and regrets of some of my experiences. In short, I need a friend, a soulmate. (I had one once but I held her off at an emotional arm’s length. Now I am nowhere with no one. My folly haunts me always, much like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s Rime. Though I have become less self-centered and appreciate and enjoy others more so in recent years, it is hard to overcome ingrained disposition and a lifetime’s force of habit. I believe I am damaged goods—whether by nature or nurture—constitutionally incapable of seeing beyond myself and letting someone into my life because there seems to have been room for only me. But that’s another story.)
Someone who figures large in my thinking in this way is Bryan Magee. He’s best known for bringing serious philosophy to the masses through a series of interviews of contemporary philosophers about history’s Great Philosophers presented on the BBC in the 1970s and 80s. He gives his take on the history of Western philosophy in his 1997 Confessions of a Philosopher followed by Ultimate Questions in 2016, focused on what he calls the “human predicament”—our inability to ever know ultimate reality and the consequences it poses for living in the everyday world.
Both are somewhat atypical when it comes to serious philosophy books. They go beyond technical analysis to being very personal—at times intimate—accounts of how his take on philosophy evolved out of his life experiences as much if not more than what he learned at the academy. With the feel of autobiography and personal essay they resonate with readers because they see that he has lived “into” his philosophy more than merely learning it in a classroom. I find it a welcome throwback to a time when philosophy was something any intelligent person could and should participate in to lead a fully human life. Philosophy needn’t be a sort of rocket science using arcane terminology and demanding technical expertise to practice it. Philosophy, as has been said, is everyone’s business.
What initially attracted me to Magee was his interest in the problem of meaning-of-life—one of the central concerns of my life. For those of us with a first-things-first mentality, it’s the biggest of the Big Questions and at the core of the human condition. For why do anything without a reason and reward, why invest the effort to succeed when all will be lost at death without a compensating ultimate cosmic purpose to which our efforts contribute? We humans seem to require a purpose in life—a reason to be—for us to fully engage with life with the zest and spontaneity it takes to live in a fully human way. How do we cope with the reality that an honest evaluation of the facts seems to show that there very well may not be one?
His Confessions has the best account of the emotional turmoil that the topic of meaning-of-life can wreak and I am surprised that so little of it is explicitly carried over into Ultimate Questions. He shows how the search for meaning, if taken with the utmost seriousness and carried through to its logical end, can easily become all-consuming and, some would say, unhealthy. I take consolation in the fact that if someone as insightful and accomplished as Magee felt it important enough to invest so much energy and intellectual capital in wrestling with the problem, I am at least in good company with my obsession. His comments extend over several pages, so I have cut-and-pasted the most pertinent into a single narrative excerpt below.
This feeling, when it came, was not an ordinary fear or anxiety but was hyper-vivid and preternaturally powerful. As in a nightmare, I felt trapped and unable to escape from something that I was also unable to face, Death, my death, the literal destruction of me, was totally inevitable, and had been from the very instant of my conception. In the face of death I craved for my life to have some meaning. I found the thought that it might just mean nothing at all–might, in a long perspective, be nothing at all–terrifying. Confronted with this fact, I felt what can only be described as existential terror, a horror of nothingness.
To anyone in this frame of mind nearly all human pursuits seem vain beyond all description. What can anything I do mean or matter to me when I have gone down into complete nothingness for the rest of eternity? If the void is the permanent destination of all of us, all value and all significance are merely pretended for purposes of carrying on our little human game, like children dressing up. It is, of course, a willing pretense: we cannot bring ourselves to face eternal nothingness, so we busy ourselves with our little lives and all t`heir vacuous pursuits, surrounded by institutions that we ourselves have created yet we pretend are important, and which help us to shut out the black and endless night that surrounds us. It is all, in the end, nothing—nothing whatsoever. I am biologically programmed to want to go on living, so I do: I eat, drink, sleep, try to ward off danger, and all the rest of it. But the idea that it means anything is a pathetic little piece of self-delusion.
There are, evidently, contemplatives who would agree with all this and view it with calmness and serenity. I have never been one of them. I was terror-stricken by these thoughts. I felt like someone standing on the gallows with the noose round his neck and the trapdoor under his feet about to open. I was on the point of being flung into eternal night. I raged against it with the whole of my being. And the impossibility of doing anything about it came close to sending me off my head with frustration and panic.
I used to look at people going about their normal lives with everyday cheerfulness and think: “How can they? And how can they suppose that any of what they’re doing matters? They’re like passengers on the Titanic, except that these people know already that they’re headed for total and irremediable shipwreck. In a short time every one of them will be dead, either a heap of grey ash in an urn or a corpse rotting underground with worms wriggling in and out of its eye sockets. Why aren’t they overwhelmed with horror at it? Why don’t they seem even to mind?” In some of my moods they seemed to me like a lot of lunatics chuckling dementedly while the asylum burnt down and turned them to ash.
I can relate to Magee’s emotional reaction as to just how horrible the recognition of meaningless can be. When it hit me for the first time, the image that came to mind was feeling as if I were an insect pinned alive to a specimen board—flailing and struggling to escape but to no avail. I had that awful nauseating, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that comes with knowing you’re utterly trapped. There was nothing I could do, no place I could turn—no way to save myself from the malevolent black cloud of death I imagined looming on the horizon creeping, creeping, creeping . . . ever closer, day by day, to claim me.
The scope of the problem is magnified when we shift our focus from how it might affect us on a purely personal level to a wider cosmic one. History shows how our lives are like so many leaves that fall at the end of each year only to be trodden underfoot by succeeding generations in never ending cycles of birth, growth, and death. All that living: that first kiss and falling in love, witnessing the wonders of science and technology, waging war and peace, and simple things, too—like noticing a beautiful flower unexpectedly emerging from a crack in a sidewalk or that wholesome feeling of worth and pride—of mattering—you experience by helping a child cross the street. The tight grasp of his warm little hand around your finger says everything about the sense of safety and trust he implicitly feels in your presence. What pride there is!—and the weight of responsibility, too, in having this precious little human being in your charge. Yet it’s all doomed for oblivion, as individual and collective memory inevitably fade and physical traces of our existence in writing, images, and place crumble into dust with the march of time. Our individual lives are but instances of a larger exercise in meaninglessness if not absurdity—or so it appears to those who, like me, see the world through Naturalism’s disinterested lens.
Maybe if we knew our species was at the top of the cosmic heap, the fear of our inevitable demise might be mitigated. But we are merely part of an ongoing evolutionary chain, the state of the art of animate complexity on earth, not its acme. It is likely that advanced electronic and genetic technology will result in posthuman creatures that are far superior to us. It’s one thing to deal with death so long as we think we’re the highest form of life that ever was or will be. It’s quite another to realize we are merely another link in a long chain. We can’t stand the reality of our insignificance any more than the idea of our nonexistence.
Consider, too, how unlikely it is that any of us exists at all. Every one of us is the product of a random union of one each of zillions of eggs and sperm from two people out of any number who could have become our parents and who, on top of that, had to survive disease, war, accidents, and natural disaster to produce us. When such randomness of the reproductive process is compounded over centuries the chances of winning Powerball seem infinitely greater than the probability of any single one of us being here at all!
The image of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel The Shadow of the Wind serves as a wonderful metaphor for the longing we have for immortality. It’s a mysterious place that has a copy of every book ever written—no matter how obscure—stored on tier upon seemingly infinite tiers of shelves that twist and turn down narrow walkways and through tunnels in every direction with stairways and ramps here and there connecting the floors. It’s an elaborate three dimensional labyrinth, like something out of Poe, constituting a sort of Heaven for books. Here their authors achieve a kind of immortality because their thoughts and stories have eternal shelf “life” no matter how unpopular or obscure they may have been in their time.
Each person in every era had aspirations and felt as if he mattered. Some even managed to build monuments to their memory, but inevitably everything crumbles á la Ozymandias. Would that there were a library of forgotten souls—never mind books! Some think it already does and call it Heaven. But this is of insufficient comfort for the naturalists among us who want to live consciously and honestly—in the world as it really is rather than how we might like it to be.
So what does it all amount to? Nothing—nothing at all. It ends, not with a bang, but with a mere whimper—to borrow a turn of phrase from T.S. Eliot. Mr. Natural is right: it “don’t mean sheeit.” I have known this at some level ever since reaching the age of reason at age 10 or so after seeing the biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. The beginning scene of what I took to be legions of slaves harnessed like mules to pull huge stone blocks for Pharaoh’s pyramid struck me as so hopeless and sad as to question whether their lives were worth living. While the specific instance was misinterpreted (I later came to understand that laboring for the Pharaoh was considered an honor), the question was not.
I have always wanted to know the “why” about things in the very same way Magee described certain of his childhood experiences in the opening chapters of Confessions and Ultimate Questions. I especially remember wondering about meaning. There was something about my sense of life even at that tender age that unconsciously gave rise to the idea that our efforts require a personal return on investment, as it were, to be meaningful. I began to see that death itself was the source of our earliest sense of life’s ultimate meaninglessness because it robbed us of our accomplishments and the people we love. If life wasn’t worth living, what was the point in going on, I reasoned. I concluded humans have what I came to call “the curse of consciousness,” meaning a knowing-that-I-know self-awareness in contrast to the oblivious autopilot of instinct possessed by all other living things. Still I wouldn’t have it any other way. As John Stuart Mill observed, “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” There is a certain nobility to living a fully human life however disappointed we may be with the way it ends.
So how in the world does one live in light of this terrible knowledge? Magee and I are of the same mind, I think: life can be worth living even without ultimate meaning. There isn’t a solution so much as a way to cope by way of what I have come to call the compensations of pure experience. I call it pure because it’s direct and unmediated—there’s nothing between the individual and the experience itself. But pure does not mean raw in the William Jamesian “blooming, buzzing confusion” sense of unfiltered sense data such as babies experience in their initial encounters with the world. Rather, there’s an awareness about it that something unique is happening—to us, with us, by us—in which we lose ourselves in the flow of the activity. We transcend and yet simultaneously retain the ego as we become a part of, or, indeed, the very activity itself. These are powerful experiences resulting in a deep and profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that go beyond mere pleasure or joy to a sense of the sublime. For Magee the highest form of such experience was sex (of course, as it is for most of us) but also art and especially music. For me, it’s these things, too, but I also think some of the most rarified are serendipitous onetime happenings that can emerge unexpectedly in the course of everyday life. No doubt Magee would agree.
Thus it is that having so much in common temperamentally with Magee leads to a natural affinity for the man. He ranks right up there with my other intellectual heroes, particularly Will Durant and Henry David Thoreau. While they all share in their own distinctive ways a passion for inspiring us to live mindfully and authentically, Magee’s sense of the importance of coming to terms with the meaning-of-life problem as one of the keys to living a fully engaged life speaks most personally to me. I never feel completely alone as long as I have Ultimate Questions close at hand. It’s a slim and compact little volume easily carried in a coat pocket or a handbag. I look upon his book as a talisman of sorts— a means of tactile connection with someone I imagine as a friend, mentor, and colleague. It’s the kind of thing I almost want to put under my pillow at night fantasizing that I can somehow mystically connect with its author and channel his thoughts in a continued journey of discovery and enjoy the warmth of his companionship.
This is not to say that I agree with everything Magee says (and doesn’t say). For example, I do not understand why there is no discussion of the problem of consciousness and, by extension, artificial intelligence. How does that pound of meat in our heads lead to conceptual thought culminating in personal identity—that sense of “me” emerging in each of us? Is it possible to replicate it mechanically via computers and, ultimately, biologically? Does our inability to solve the problem of mind (so far) lend credence to dualist claims of the existence of mind as a separate kind of stuff from matter? I would have thought that Thomas Nagel, at least, would have gained Magee’s attention for his original work on philosophy of mind in his Mind and Cosmos. In the tradition of James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Nagel argues that because science, as currently practiced, has yet to solve problems like how mind arises from brain, traditional scientific methodology may well need to be rethought if it is to ever fulfill its aspirations of being a complete “theory of everything” as to how the world works. This includes considering consciousness as an irreducible property of the universe and the validity of direct “mystical” experience as one of the tools to know it.
In this vein I would have liked to have seen Magee mention New Ageism and the paranormal as legitimate realms of inquiry to solve this problem, if only to refute it. Even though 99.99% of what “fringe” thinkers have to say is typically nonsense, we should not dismiss the chance that on occasion they just might be on to something that science has yet to develop the tools to research. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” cautions Hamlet in Shakespeare’s famous play of the same name. We must ever be open to possibility. Despite a sense that Magee seeks knowledge wherever he can find it, he doesn’t invite some of the very people to the table of inquiry whose nontraditional perspectives offer the possibility of further progress. Rupert Sheldrake, for example, believes in something he calls “morphic resonance.” This is a theory of mental telepathy holding that members of a species have an enhanced ability to communicate with one another by psychically sharing a common group memory—something perhaps just plausible enough to disturb status quo complacency and encourage further research. Magee also makes no mention of mind expanding techniques—everything from meditation to psychedelic drugs—that could shed light on the mystery of consciousness.
But my biggest beef is with his fixation on ignorance—how it limits our ability to know reality on a deep, all-the-way-down level—as the fundamental element of the “human predicament.” In the first place, to my mind the problem of meaning-of-life takes precedence. If we don’t have a reason to be, it’s awfully hard to meet each day’s challenges, for what would be the point. Intrinsic, instrumental motivation only goes so far. For the long haul our psyche requires an extrinsic rationale—a cosmic purpose transcending self-interest to which our efforts contribute.
Second, I think Magee is unduly agnostic. While agnosticism does speak to concerns about how confident we can be about the limits of the validity of knowledge, it isn’t a practical outlook for life in the real world. Just because we can’t be 110% sure of knowledge doesn’t mean we cannot know, or at least have a well-justified idea about, what is likely to be true. His acknowledgement of the conditionality of knowledge would seem to allow him to get past such doubt, for it’s not that (our knowledge of) truth changes so much as it’s refined. Einstein didn’t so much prove Newton wrong, just incomplete.
The result of so tentative a stance on our capacity to know reality is failure to fulfill the book’s titular promise of providing his take on a wide range of “ultimate questions” that matter to us all? Is there a God? Is there life after death? Is mind separate from or a function of matter (brain)? Do we really have free will? And of course that primary question with which we began, meaning-of-life: why are we here and where might we be going? These important questions and more deserve answers however subject they may be to revision.
It is in this spirit, then, that I’d like to do what I wish Magee had done: to produce a broadly scoped, high level statement of beliefs about the way things are in the world and what we should do to live good lives—in short, being and doing—and their relationship to the meaning-of-life problem. My approach is to focus on those foundational ideas that allow us to get out of that bed each morning confident that when we stand up there will be a floor underneath to support us. To my mind there are but five (albeit very wide!) boards in this floor. They involve the fundamental fact/value differentiations necessary to make sense of the world, that is to say, being able to tell the difference between the alternatives listed in the first column in the figure below:
Distinction Topic and Question
Real from Imaginary Reality What exists and how/why do things happen?
True from False Knowledge How do we know it?
Right from Wrong Ethics How should we interact with one another?
Fair from Unfair Politics What is the role of the state in facilitating interaction?
Good from Bad Values How should we compose our lives?
We judge what’s real, true, right, fair, and good by comparing what we experience each day to the state of our beliefs about the biggest of the Big Questions of life to which the distinctions respectively correspond shown in the second column. Our beliefs are continually being updated based on what we learn.
Reduced to lowest terms, this is really all there is to it. When we peer down at the world from on high, like we imagine did the gods of ancient times, I believe this is the optimum framework with which to conceptualize existence and behavior. It aims to be simple without being simplistic, allowing us to see the Big Picture without becoming lost in detail, and has the cash value of practicality in that it addresses what we need to know to get along in the world of the everyday.
The implication of the need to make these key distinctions is that beliefs matter. Beliefs are the ideas we are prepared to act on whether or not they are actually true. This is to say they are not necessarily factual and can cause all sorts of misery when erroneously acted upon—witness the impact of what Germans thought about race in the Nazi era, especially if you were Jewish. Unlike animals, which act in instinctive stimulus/response fashion, we are self-aware beings and cannot act unless we think and choose what to do, how to do it, and why. This is not always easy. It is all too convenient to live on autopilot, uncritically accepting the beliefs we absorb from parents, institutions, and popular culture. There are all kinds of pseudoscientific ideas and off-the-wall conspiracy theories out there driven by preconceived notions and irrational fears rather than an interest in objectivity and truth. An additional complication is that some things, like the existence of God and the efficacy of certain values, are beyond factual proof yet still require decisions that could have adverse consequences. We must constantly test our beliefs against personal experience tempered by reason and take nothing on faith or authority. Otherwise, we become dependent on others for the ideas we use to decide how we should act. How true it is that if we don’t take personal responsibility for what we stand for, we could fall for anything.
The place to start is with reality and knowledge. These two problems constitute the greater realm of being and are actually two sides of the same coin. What we think about existence depends on how we know it and what we know can only be a function of what exists. We can’t think about one without implicitly thinking about the other.
I think of the realm of reality as three nested topics: the world (at large), life (in the world), and man (in life).
The world-at-large is about existence and causation—what’s here and how do things happen? There are just two kinds of things that exist: material stuff, like tables and animals, and activities of material stuff, like animals jumping from tables. Ideas, like the concept of freedom, for example, are activities of material stuff (i.e., brains) and do not have independent existence outside of the living entities in whom they arise. The material stuff has fixed properties and its activities are governed by similarly fixed laws of cause and effect, like gravity. When my cat jumps off the table, I can rely on him going down, not up in the air. Because of the stability of an object’s properties and rationality of laws governing its activity, it is possible to know how things are and work and thus survive and thrive if we learn the properties and obey the laws.
How do we know all this? The short answer is through sensory perception interpreted by reason, not divine revelation or mind alone. But it’s actually more involved than this: though truth is an absolute, knowledge is not. This begins with understanding that despite the probabilistic, uncertain nature of reality as shown by quantum theory, things do have a specific, immutable identity. They are what they are, but, because of our perceptual limitations, we have a hard time knowing them fully. So, although our knowledge of reality aspires towards Truth with a capital T, it is always conditional and subject to change as we learn more and more in a never ending process of refinement. However, because claims to knowledge can be independently tested by anyone who may doubt their validity, knowledge, imperfect and incomplete as it is, can be said to be objective—the same for all—never subjective. We may be entitled to our own opinions but never our own facts, even if those facts “evolve,” as it were, with new discoveries. Again, Einstein’s relativity theory didn’t prove Newton laws wrong so much as incomplete. There is always potentially more to the story.
These foundational tenets of reality and knowledge, respectively, are the basis of naturalism; it’s the “Big Idea” in answer to the “Big Question” that what exists and how things happen can be discovered by observation of nature by anyone curious and motivated enough to look and learn. Naturalism is anti-skeptical in its view of being and anti-relative regarding doing. As long as human nature remains fixed, as it has across time and place to date, there is, in principle, a single way to act in the world, just as there is a single way the world is physically constituted.
Now practically everyone would agree with this so far as it goes. A good many people would, however, want to add one big thing that challenges naturalism’s stand-alone adequacy to explain everything that is and everything that happens. This is the belief that the natural world is actually embedded within a greater supernatural realm controlled by an all-powerful God responsible for the creation, operation, and destiny of the world including the power to intervene, whether on the basis of whim or in response to prayer, in what would otherwise naturally occur. Man is thought to have an immaterial, indestructible consciousness, or soul, that survives physical death and is rewarded with eternal happiness in Heaven or damnation in Hell based on his conduct while alive on earth according to a divinely prescribed code of private and public ethics. Knowledge of all this is revealed by God through certain favored individuals (prophets and saints) with the power to “divine” what God is and wants.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the principal types of theistic supernaturalism. The many varieties of nontheistic, secular supernaturalism seem to be of two general classes. Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, like their theistic counterparts, hold that one’s fate depends on the quality of one’s conduct while alive. But instead of eternal bliss in a Heaven or banishment forever in a Hell, the spirit endures cycles of physical death and rebirth as lower forms of life, gradually advancing to higher forms based on merit, until it’s finally gotten right, perfection of being is achieved, ultimately allowing merger with the eternal universe.
A second class of supernaturalism, common in the West, involves a dualistic conception of existence as mind and matter. The spiritual realm of mind is seen as a distinctly different sort of substance from objects in the physical world. This immaterial consciousness is thought to survive death into eternity and includes the retention of one’s personal identity, or sense of self, in contrast with Eastern traditions in which the ego is seen as illusory and ultimately disappears as part of making one’s way towards perfection in the form of unification with the All of eternal Being.
Mind, as something distinct from matter and surviving death of the physical body, seems to be the sine qua non of supernaturalism, whatever its variety. For naturalists, however, the mind, or soul or spirit—call it what you will, is an entirely natural phenomenon. It’s a function of the body, not an irreducible, separate thing above or beyond nature. When we die, we are dead forever. There is only one life to be had and it is a strictly physical one here on earth. We don’t know how the mind works but the best research seems to show that it is an emergent property of brain complexity. Consciousness becomes what we call mind when our brains evolve to the point where experience expands to include self-awareness as personal identity. How this exactly happens is a mystery (for now) but there is nothing mystical about it. There is no justification for characterizing mind as something outside of nature just because we do not yet have the tools to explain how it works.
I am not a fan of the often espoused idea that we live on after death through our descendants. It may offer psychological comfort but is true only metaphorically and then only temporarily at best. The mechanics of biological inheritance certainly do not accommodate the transmission of personal identity and memory of loved ones gradually fades with each succeeding generation and soon, as a visit to any cemetery will attest, it’s as if they never were.
So we are all either naturalists or supernaturalists. There is effectively no middle agnostic ground to stand on and any claims to the contrary are disingenuous at best. Despite what we might say, what we believe is revealed by what we do. We vote with our feet. We may not be able to prove this absolutely (something that frustrates Magee, fixated as he is on Kantian doubt) but I think we have a pretty good idea. You don’t have to know how deep the water is to know it’s deep enough to drown in.
The simple fact is that all these supernatural variants are not only incorrect but, moreover, superfluous, for naturalism is sufficient in all respects to explain everything about the world in which we live. The world is independent, not contingent, on God; mind is brain activity, not a separate stuff; miracles do not supersede natural cause and effect; and death is final and not succeeded by an afterlife or the continuation of one’s consciousness. So if there is no need to look further, why do we? Why the persistent attraction of supernatural explanations of reality in the face of ever increasing evidence offered by science to the contrary?
The answer lies in human nature’s fundamental concern with security and survival: we fear death and loneliness, crave forgiveness for our sins, and want God on our side. Supernatural explanations seem to offer a way past death and isolation, guilt, and disadvantage. But the fact of the matter is that supernatural “explanations” actually explain nothing. They are merely confabulations and make-believe rationalizations to make us feel better about what we find distasteful about the world and ourselves in it and nothing more. Many of us all too often lack the strength of character to see the world as it really is rather than how we want it to be.
In this way, deciding what to believe becomes a moral as well as practical problem of how to best live in the everyday world. We should be willing to follow the path of truth wherever it may lead, even if it means giving up long held beliefs. I have always liked science fiction writer Philip Dick’s simple but profound view of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” We are at our best—our most fully human selves—when our beliefs aspire to coincide with the way the world really works rather than how we might wish it could be.
Now this naturalistic outlook on the world is foundational. It informs everything else we believe and ever will believe beginning with our view of life-in-the-world and man-in-life.
What drives life-in-the-world? Life is Darwinian—it’s driven by competition for survival rather than entitlement. We are each ultimately responsible for our own welfare and, because self-interest is thus required to succeed, selfishness, properly understood, is good.
For many of us this conclusion is counterintuitive and does not ring true. Selfishness has unfortunately acquired a negative connotation because it is typically conflated with self-centeredness; that is, seeking advantage without regard for the impact one’s actions have on others. But there’s actually more to it. In a state of nature it’s pure biology playing itself out. Bad things happen to those who cannot compete, but it’s as a function of instinct, rather than premeditated ill intent, driven by free will, as is all too often the case in human society. At the same time, we are social creatures, mutually dependent on one another and can only flourish within the context of a healthy group dynamic. So, while we certainly must make our own way in the world and compete for survival like every other living thing, there is nothing wrong with kindness and providing support as appropriate, as long as it’s not coerced, for these, too, have survival value. The difficulty comes in knowing where to draw the line between the abusive pursuit of self-interest and an altruism that becomes self-sacrificial instead of life affirming. It’s complex with much more to be said but the basic lesson here is that self-interest and benevolence are not mutually exclusive. Before you can take care of others you must first take care of yourself.
Man-in-life has identity, reason, and volition: his consciousness is not oblivious, his actions not driven by instinct, and his choices not predetermined. This unique combination of self-awareness, ability to think analytically, and consciously choose result in a multidimensional “mindfulness”—an awareness of being aware of what we’re doing and why—that makes us accountable for our actions. Said another way, when consciousness becomes conscience we become responsible for what we do.
The role that free will plays here has lately been challenged by studies which show that much of what we do is influenced, if not altogether determined, by autonomous brain function as part of the workings of an ultimately predetermined universe. Choice seems real to us, it is thought, only because we cannot fathom the immense breadth and complexity of the constituent variables and the laws of cause and effect driving what happens. But deciding which shoe to put on first is hardly of the same ilk as a decision about right and wrong, for example, where we actively deliberate among alternatives that can have life or death consequences. It is a misconception of what free will means to conflate the two and conclude that free will is illusory. We aren’t just intelligent stimulus-response automatons. There is a wide range of decision making activity that does not originate in our biology, as such, but from independently conceived purpose. This has implications in the realm of human interaction. When our decisions intend gratuitous or unjustified harm, the possibility of evil exists and, more fundamentally, without the personal responsibility inherent in free will, there is no right and wrong, and the entire ethical/political enterprise falls apart.
Naturalism’s view of reality in the realm of being as described above informs what we believe about the realm of doing. What is right, fair, and good is that which promotes flourishing. Since these requirements are a matter of objective fact, ought is derivable from is in principle however difficult in practice. We don’t need God to tell us what is right, fair, and good. All we need do is to take a realistic look at human nature in terms of what we need to flourish.
The idea of the existence of objective moral facts upon which ought-from-is depends is of critical importance, for the very possibility of establishing the legitimacy of any moral order depends on it. We have to be able to rely on what we learn about world and our place in it to guide our behavior and structure our society. Otherwise, anything goes, might makes right, and chaos reigns.
This is controversial and I never have been able to understand the given reasons why. All the arguments seem to originate in questioning what a “moral fact” actually is and challenging whether or not there really are such things, either because they lack universal situational applicability or express mere subjective preference. I do not find this criticism credible. The first fails to account for just how complicated life can be. Theft is wrong because it violates the principle of property rights, but would we really condemn a luckless parent stealing bread to feed his children? The second denies the reality that we have a common human nature and thus the same needs that must be satisfied to survive. It follows that there has to be a prescribed way we ought to behave to secure those needs. In either case complications in applying principles does not invalidate the principles. As Aristotle said a long time ago in his Ethics, “We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter admits.”
The realm of doing encompasses ethics and politics. Ethics asks how we should make personal decisions in the course of dealing with people and situations involving right and wrong. Politics is about facilitation of interaction: the best way to organize our societies so all of us can pursue our lives without getting in one another’s way. The challenge is to simultaneously promote the need for and restrict the abuses of the pursuit of self-interest. Life’s grounding in the biological imperative to survive certainly requires men to be selfish and look out for number one, but they must do so without allowing rampant exercise of free will to result in taking unfair advantage of others doing the same thing. For anyone to succeed, all must have equal opportunity to succeed or else everything falls apart in a frenetic implosion in the form of violent cutthroat competition ending in mutual destruction.
Management of this push and pull of self-interest requires an ethics of plurality. It’s not about any single principle or set of fixed rules. The Ten Commandments’ imperatives, for example, are clearly incapable of fitting every situation and the Golden Rule lacks specificity. Though actually intended to proscribe murder, the ‘thou shalt not kill” rule is commonly interpreted as taking a life under any circumstance, but there are such things as just wars and we do have the right to kill in self-defense. As for the Golden Rule, why should anyone necessarily presume he knows how someone else wants to be treated? Wouldn’t the rule be better stated as, “Do unto others as they ought to want to be done unto,” in recognition of the right and the good (and even love and beauty, by the way) as fundamentally objective?
When we look at how people actually decide right from wrong in everyday life—how we work through the “moral calculus, as I like to call it, it’s rarely a simple black and white exercise but a deliberative process involving a range of criteria (pragmatic utility, universal imperative, virtue and more) always simultaneously in play. I see it as a five tiered hierarchy of principles, running from lowest to highest precedence, as follows: (1) personal (individual) preference, (2) group (majority) preference, (3) obligation, whether voluntary (promises) or structural (duty), (4) civil law, and (5) human rights. Theists would argue that there is a sixth “divine command” tier reigning supreme over all.
Generally speaking, each higher tier trumps all lower tiers. But it’s actually more complicated in that it’s not a straight forward choice between what is clearly right and clearly wrong. Often, ethical situations are dilemmas of “right versus right” and involve exceptions to the conventional application of decision making principles. These include loyalty vs. truth, justice vs. mercy, long term vs. short, and individual vs. community. This recognizes the importance of motive and context in judging right and wrong. Frustratingly, while the principles are absolute, their application is not and becomes situational because of legitimate disagreement about the facts and values involved in a way that facts concerning how the physical world works do not. It can become quite a mish-mash which is why it is properly said that ethics is as much, if not more, an art rather than a science.
The famous Trolley Problem thought experiment is a good, albeit contrived, illustration of the complexities involved in moral decision making. The situation is that of someone who observes a runaway trolley hurtling towards five innocent people crossing the tracks. He has to choose between doing nothing, in which case the five will perish, or throwing a switch, which he happens to be near, to divert the trolley to a side track where a single person lies tied to the track. In this choice between omission and commission, between the principles of greatest good and sanctity of life, what should he do? If one of the potential victims happens to be a member his family, issues of loyalty and obligation add another layer of complexity to an already intractable problem. In deciding right from wrong, sometimes there is no single correct answer.
Politics is about the promotion of liberty, equality, and justice as part of government’s fulfillment of the Social Contract: the idea that men give up their unconditional state-of-nature freedom in return for state protection to live as they desire so long as their actions don’t impede the ability of others to do the same. Liberty means people must be free to fail as well as succeed. This truth about human nature—man’s need to be free—is what totalitarian forms of government fail to understand and why they ultimately fall. Equality is based on the conviction that no one person is inherently more important than any other. Justice proceeds from a vision of equality founded on basic fairness—establishing a level playing field of opportunity as access and rewarding merit rather than a system based on privilege, whether for the few at the top or expectations of institutionalized equality of outcome from the masses. As with survival in a state of nature, success is not an entitlement but must be earned. Government may provide a basic safety net as it is able but its support is not unlimited. This typically means providing such essentials that individuals can never, as a practical matter, be expected to provide for themselves: clean air and water, utilities and transportation, and education—all in the spirit of “promoting the general welfare.” But, in the end, despite whatever support the state may provide, everyone is responsible for his own well-being. There is no free lunch in a social context any more than in a state of nature.
As in ethics the pursuit of self-interest in the political sphere is not unconditional. Just as we are entitled to free speech but not to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater, our right to assemble to advance an agenda does not mean that a majority can tyrannize a minority. A way must be found to balance competing interests. History shows that this is best accomplished through a multi-branched government with offsetting powers of checks and balances and a constitution institutionalizing basic equality through democratic elections and rule of law.
But no democratic government—no matter how well designed—can be guaranteed to endure for the simple reason that it cannot possibly anticipate all the ways in which the letter of the law could be used to subvert the spirit of its unwritten norms. Ignoring these to advance a partisan agenda can “hollow out” democracy from the inside until it eventually becomes so weak it can no longer stand. A good example of a step in this direction is FDR’s attempt to use his Democratic majority in Congress to pack the Supreme Court in the 1930s to circumvent unfavorable rulings on much of his New Deal legislation. But the most egregious has to be what amounts to a coup d’état attempt by populist demagogue Donald Trump through his campaign in the courts and threats of violence against Congress to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations of voter fraud.
Voter apathy is also a factor. An energized minority can thwart a complacent majority if that majority does not exercise its electoral franchise and vote. This was the case in 2016 when Trump was narrowly victorious in a year of low voter turnout, winning in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote.
The bottom line is that government will work only as well as its officials and those who elect them want it to. The moral of the story: people generally get the government they deserve.
Taken this far, naturalism fosters an optimistic sense of control over our lives that is so essential to human well-being. By revealing the mechanics of being and the principles of doing; that is, how the physical world works and how to interact with one another in that world, we are conceptually equipped with the basics of a world view that enable us to set out on our own journeys in life confident that we have the intellectual tools to make the Big Question critical distinctions needed to meet any challenge. These include the conviction that the senses are a reliable guide to knowledge, existence is stable, and physical activity is governed by fixed, rational laws. Nature stands self-contained and self-sufficient without the need for a controlling deity to explain everything that is and happens. To survive we have but to learn and follow the rules of physical nature and abide by the requirements of human nature centering on the constructive promotion of rational self-interest and fair play.
But we soon discover that there is more to it than just mechanics, as the example of driving a car illustrates. Reality and knowledge can be compared to the how-tos of automobile operation and ethics and politics to the rules of the road, but where to go and the best route to get there are less evident. Just as we know that we can’t stop a car without applying the brakes and that we should drive on the right side of the road and obey traffic lights to avoid accidents, we need a destination and a road map. This is the realm of personal conduct and is all about figuring out what we want out of life and how we should act as we go about securing it.
In other words it concerns how we conceive of the Good Life, and in particular, the notion of happiness—the master motive underlying everything we do. Happiness is a difficult thing to pin down and it may be easier to begin by trying to show, rather than explain, what it means. I can think of no better example than that of the following bit of verse apocryphally, though not undeservedly, attributed to Emerson, but actually written by Bessie Stanley in 1904. Here is my amalgam of its several variants:
To laugh often, love much, and appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others
and win the respect of intelligent people
as well as the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To fill your niche and accomplish your task
by leaving the world a bit better than you found it,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
a perfect poem, a rescued soul,
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
To live a life that inspires,
and whose memory becomes a benediction:
This is to have succeeded.
True happiness goes beyond mere pleasure to an enduring sense of contentment resulting from the successful pursuit of the “good” according to “right” behavior. The good is about satisfying real needs rather than the whims of ill-conceived wants. The right is about conducting our lives in pursuit of that good in virtuous, not vicious, ways. It’s about replicating in our own lives the harmony between ends and means we see in the natural world. Happiness, then, is less a destination than a way of traveling—it’s what happens to us if we live well.
Key to attaining happiness is the concept of character— a dispositional synergy of proper intention, adequate knowledge, and perspective that governs how we are likely to act and react as we go through life and confront its many challenges. It’s the psychological catalyst that enables the philosophical formula for happiness—the virtuous pursuit of the good—to work.
Character is formed very early in life and is extremely difficult to change so it’s important that we get it right. There are no guarantees, as the prevalence of crime and other social ills show. Ideally, it begins as imitation of proper role models when we are children, develops into habit with practice as we advance through adolescence, and ends with understanding and buying in to the moral rationale underlying the behavior itself. In this way, we learn to tell the truth and play fair, for example, before reaching the age of reason and understanding why it is advantageous and proper to do so. It’s what makes us want to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.
Also of critical importance to happiness is the role of attitude. If the good can be said to be about Maslowian need and the right about Aristotelian virtue, attitude is essentially concerned with Stoic judgment. Although it has much in common with character—indeed, it is easy to see attitude as one of the cardinal virtues (along with mindfulness, prudence, and rationality), it differs in that it has more to do with self-appraisal rather than propriety. It’s the difference between action itself and self-evaluation relative to that action and involves having a sense of proportionality. An example of this is the difficulty that parents sometimes face trying to get through to problem children. We have to be able to reconcile the weight of feeling a responsibility to do more than we already have against recognizing inherent situational limitations and accepting that we’ve done all we reasonably can. While there may be regrets over an unhappy outcome, we should never have feelings of guilt or inadequacy because we know we have been true to our purpose.
Attitude arises at the junction of reason and emotion. These can conspire in any number of ways to foster self-destructive thinking that sabotages success. Among the most pernicious (and those that I’ve personally struggled with) are self-repression, guilt—both earned and unearned, and perfectionism. These are the result of transgressions and shortcomings, both real and imagined, creating an enervating sense of unworthiness that eats away at our psyches. A part of us is always preoccupied with doubt or fear, draining us of confidence and compromising our ability to cope with life’s vicissitudes and otherwise fully engage with life.
An important part of the solution to such woes is to learn how to live in the present moment, but I never did until recently and by then I had caused much damage to others and myself. Dwelling on the past and worrying about the future do not serve us well, for the former cannot be undone and the latter is problematic. All we can do is try to correct our mistakes in the “now” as we go forward into our tomorrows.
We may also have to contend with certain constitutional elements in our nature that, while not strictly harmful in and of themselves, can adversely affect attitude depending on how they play out in our lives. These are traits that are baked into us, whether by nature or nurture, and, like a reflex or an appetite, are nearly impossible to resist yielding to. They are like stains that continue to bleed through our best efforts to paint them over. We can mitigate them but not fully suppress them. All we can do is be mindful and work hard to cultivate new attitudes that can grow into habits that are stronger than the negative ones leading us astray.
In my case, problems of self-repression, guilt, and perfectionism mentioned above were exacerbated by self-absorption and gender dysphoria. This is complex with many layers and nuances but the bottom line is that in one way or another it was always all about me. I could not easily relate emotionally to what was happening in others’ lives because I was always focused on mine. It was as if I had a compromised affective sense in that I tended to view others’ concerns with disinterest or as obstructive to my own. This took various forms ranging from feeling superior to others, on one hand, proud of my intellectual interests and abilities, and inferior on the other, realizing I couldn’t and never would measure up to objective, let alone my own, expectations of success. More often, I simply couldn’t sustain interest in social engagement, finding it annoyingly frivolous and boring. To a great extent ideas were more interesting to me than people. I fear I fit Susan Sontag’s characterization of the personality of a polymath as someone who is “interested in everything and nothing else.” Unless the topic was one I deemed worthy, conversation was forced and uncomfortable. I could never easily relax. I was self-conscious and always felt as if I were on stage performing. I couldn’t just be—I had to be something I imagined others expected me to be. It was stressful and exhausting and I often wanted to just run away.
Such experiences tempt me to believe that the best friend I have and ever will have is the notebook in which I first wrote these words! It gives me a semblance of validation and refuge—someone, as it were, or at least some thing, to confide in, where I can relax and just be myself. Yet at the same time I recognize that its comfort is false or at least incomplete, for vicarious human contact is no substitute for the real thing. I feel my spirit slowly withering like a neglected houseplant, drying out and gathering dust, and wonder if I will ever find a way to escape this cerebral bubble that both shields and isolates me.
Gender identification issues added and continue as another layer of complication. This is a combination of intense frustration due to being unable to act on gender aspirations—I never felt wholly comfortable as the boy I was born as—and guilt over the hypocrisy of having kept this part of me secret for the first thirty years of marriage. While preaching the importance of morality to my children, I betrayed their trust—not to mention my wife’s, by misrepresenting all that I really was. That I married Jan anyway because I thought I could be “saved by love” doesn’t seem adequate to excuse what I did despite what seemed like a valid rationale at the time. Why tell her, I thought, when the activities and joys of marriage would see me outgrow my gender conflict? But the price of my having a clear conscience would have likely been the destruction of our marriage and I never wanted that. When time proved my female feelings were not a passing fancy, I thought I could gut it out, suppress my desires with sheer will power, and learn to be satisfied with my lot, for Jan was a wonderfully loving wife and mother and marriage’s rewards were many.
Alas, being true to one’s personal identity is a more fundamental thing than love. Like water, it seeks its own level despite all efforts to keep it from coming to the surface. Love and marriage may delay its emergence but ultimately cannot contain it. Even though I have come to understand this, I have had a very hard time forgiving myself. This remains true despite the fact that Jan actually did in her “Let Me Start by Saying I Love You” letter (shown following the essay proper) she left for me after she lost her struggle with cancer in 2006. Many are the nights I recall waking up in the wee hours to hear her inconsolably crying in the dark on the living room sofa trying to come to terms with the awful tragedy of what I had done. I am haunted by it still and know I always will.
This ambivalence as to what my true feelings really are continues to this very day. I don’t feel completely uncomfortable as “Dave” as much as more comfortable and genuine as Sylvia. I’ve had my beard removed, hormones have given me small breasts and smooth skin, and I love how I look and feel as a woman. I can emote more freely. I love the freedom of feeling less self-conscious about my emotions as when, for example, I’m inclined to give a hug or touch an arm in the course of conversation. I smile and laugh more and I feel happier.
But at the same time the prospect of going further with transition seems daunting. How to explain to people what is going on—especially the reaction of children and grandchildren? What will they think when they see me with earrings dangling from pierced ears, a bra strap showing through my top, and wearing makeup? (S)he’s a freak, delusional, and totally messed up, they will surely think. Is there a way I can go half way or part time when around those who are used to seeing me as Dad, Grandpa, and Dave? I often think to myself, “just do it” and live with the consequences in the spirit of “to thine own self be true” authenticity. At other times it’s as if I’m outside of it all watching myself and thinking, “If I don’t seem to feel 100% sure, does it make sense to go ahead?
What and who am I really? Even though I realize that my gender conflict is a condition of birth and beyond my making, there’s also a part of me that cannot help feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I’ve often wondered if identifying as a woman isn’t ultimately grounded in a paraphilia of some sort, for I do not deny there originally was a certain element of sexual gratification to it. In any case, shouldn’t I have the discipline and strength of character to overcome it? What should people like me who genuinely feel in the middle do? There are so many stories of people who have transitioned having monumental regrets and sad consequences.
My ignorance and fear together with lack of honesty and courage left me feeling impotent and unable to deal with my conflicts. I am sad to say that I compensated by taking out my frustration on those I professed to care about the most. My love and approval were too often conditional, whether it involved the kids’ performances on the soccer field or how successfully Jan watched her weight. It took me years to realize that what I deluded myself into believing was good discipline and stewardship was actually abusive and made everyone in my family feel insecure and even afraid of me. I was alternately remote and argumentative. In the face of disagreement or fear, I would often disengage and withdraw into myself in a deep impenetrable sulk. My mood could freeze the atmosphere at any family gathering. I gradually began to realize the error of my ways and feel unfit as a husband and parent, and, ultimately, as a human being, for how in the world could anyone who claimed to love his family treat them this way? I often wonder how I would have survived living under such conditions. I am by nature sensitive to criticism and probably would have imploded. That my strong and resilient wife did not and never wavered in her love for me remains a wonder! That, too, is another story that deserves to be told, for it was her example, especially during her truly heroic two year losing struggle with cancer that showed me what love, goodness, and strength of character are really all about. With all this on top of seeing life as inherently meaningless and the pessimism that comes with it, my life became—and, despite substantial progress that comes with much reflection and trying to embrace the healing perspective of a stoic outlook, still is—a difficult row to hoe.
These negatives are hardly the complete picture, though. I was by no means the total monster that the above account would seem to suggest. There were many, many good times with laughter and affection. It was wonderfully fulfilling shepherding our three children, Jenn, Mike, and Kate, as they grew up and went through school and started lives and families of their own. I particularly remember with fondness a Father’s Day incident where six or seven year old daughter Kate helped her mother make me ham and eggs tinted with green food coloring for breakfast. I loved reading Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham to all three kids in their time and she thought it would be a good joke to play on me. I was speechless with surprise and we all laughed so hard. It was wonderful! Nothing on the Hallmark channel could have been much better. But such moments couldn’t overcome my deeper troubles. It was like wearing shoes a half size too small. I could function, but I was always uncomfortable.
I dwell on this at some length because I want to show by concrete example how in the back-and-forth of philosophical discourse about well-being, what we feel is all too often underappreciated relative to what we think. We are not strictly, and perhaps even primarily, rational creatures. Academic philosophy does not pay enough attention to the fact that many/most people have their “issues” that get in the way of happiness. This is why the importance of good character and sound attitude for happiness cannot be overstated. Without it nothing else matters. We would all do well to heed the wisdom of Proverbs 23:7, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Our thoughts play a large part in our destinies. We are as much what we think as what we eat. Knowledge by itself is insufficient. We must want to be good and do the right thing and proper outlook has a lot to do with it.
So we are complex creatures and defining what proper attitude is and how to cultivate it is not a straight-forward task as countless shelves of books on the topic attest. The place to begin is with embracing its underlying spirit. I’ve always been partial to Max Erhmann’s poem “Desiderata,” shown in full below, which makes the case that, if we would be happy, our conduct should emulate the harmony we see in the natural world. But perhaps its best expression (and most deserving of a place in the poem, too) is Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous maxim, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” for it perfectly mirrors the very essence of the poem’s Stoic outlook and positive sense of life.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
A consequence of looking back from whence we came and assessing the success of our journeys is the emergence of what is perhaps everyone’s ultimate concern: does anything really matter: why are we here, where are we going, and why should we want to live in the first place—what makes life worth living? Together these constitute the problem of meaning, and so we come full circle, back to the topic which inspired this brief foray into life’s Big Questions. But the meaning-of-life problem is subtle and deep and there is more to say, though it means having to revisit certain arguments previously made in order to do so.
We can neither generate the interest nor sustain the energy required to live effectively unless we take life seriously and a large part of taking our lives seriously is living as if they have an essential permanence and that our strivings are rational and count for something. When we realize that we will not live forever, we ask ourselves why we struggle to make something of our lives when death will inevitably see us lose everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve and everyone we love. We naturally wonder, too, whether there isn’t some grand plan that gives cosmic purpose to our lives so that despite our inevitable deaths we will not have lived our lives in vain. If I didn’t know better I might be inclined to think that the universe was playing a dirty trick on us. We get lulled into embracing life with all our might only to have the rug pulled out from under us by death. But this is giving the universe too much credit. The truth is that it doesn’t, and cannot, care. It simply is. How we reconcile a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against a persistent sense of life’s apparent pointlessness and indifference to human concerns determines the extent we can go on and lead fulfilling lives.
And it’s amazing just how debilitating the problem can be. It can feel so utterly futile and exhausting—like trying to divide by zero or an exercise in schizophrenia. We realize there is no logical solution yet we continue to search for one because we so want what we want and convince ourselves we just haven’t looked hard enough. We persist even as we realize that achieving immortality would not and could not be life as we know it and want it to be. Life holds the attraction it does precisely because it is so fleeting. Life is life because it is about change and the experience of growth. Without the risk posed by the prospect of death, life and its rewards wouldn’t have the same value. It’s just not how life as we know it works.
And there are a host of practical problems, too. Where would we put all the people from millennia past and to come? What age would we want to be into eternity? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with avoiding an uncomfortable, painful death than dying itself, we wonder.
We live our lives as if there were an infinite number of tomorrows awaiting us. It’s part of what allows us to exert the effort it takes to survive. But as we grow older we begin to experience episodes of our impending mortality realizing that we might just be doing certain things for the last time in our lives. Because these epiphanies typically arrive out of the blue, abruptly and without forethought, they are particularly unsettling. Firmly into retirement in my late 60s, I recall it suddenly occurring to me that the new Subaru Forester I had recently bought might be the last car I’d ever own. Another such incident involved realizing that my newly installed roof (guaranteed to last 25 years) would almost certainly outlast me. Wh-o-oa! Where there was always another round to fight for better or worse, we now see the match coming to an end and it is more than sobering.
It gets even more surreal. It’s hard to think of the world going on without us. We begin to think of our imminent nonexistence as if we’re somehow still here. I see myself as from above, outside it all, watching the scene from which I imagine myself having just departed, yet at the same time feeling like I know it from present observation, as if I were still alive. Now this is really mind bending! It’s like helping to plan your own funeral, dying, and then somehow being around to attend it. Talk about dividing by zero!
A tendency to disassociate like this is especially common among those struggling with meaning-of-life issues. Most such incidents are of a milder form but they do add up and take their toll. We find our capacity to live in the moment becoming ever more difficult as we see ourselves from a third person perspective—like watching ourselves in a movie going through the motions but not being able to let go and be spontaneous. I most often have this experience in restaurants where, while most patrons have someone to dine and interact with, I struggle to appear comfortable in my solitude with a book or my iPhone as my only companion. People see me but filter me out of the scene as if I’m invisible—like homeless people on the street we seek to avoid and walk past as if they weren’t there. Over time this can corrupt the affect and, as we drift further and further away from the shores of human engagement, we risk becoming emotional zombies—physically alive but spiritually numb—equally indifferent to good and evil and pleasure and pain. It becomes ever more difficult to climb back out of the darkness of the rabbit hole of morbid existential self-reflection and into the light of everyday life.
Perhaps most serious of all is the question of what to do if we’re convinced that life has no meaning and believe that we have a moral obligation to act on our convictions? If we are honest with ourselves, are convinced that there is no purpose, and realize we cannot keep for ourselves that one thing we most treasure—our lives, what’s the point of continuing to live? Suicide seems to be the logical and even moral course of action but it is not easy to go through with, driven as we are by the biologic imperative to survive. It might even be seen as heroic—as the ultimate act of courageous self-assertion. Is it not better to attempt to seize control of our fate on terms of our own choosing rather than passively standing by and letting death happen to us? Or is this nothing more than rationalization whether due to character flaw, psychological defect, or simple self-deception?
There are, however, some for whom meaninglessness is not the devastating situation it is for so many of us, even though they also experience certain of these and other such episodes suggestive of life’s pointlessness. Thoreau seems to have been one of them. You can search his vast oeuvre in vain for any comment (as far as I am aware, anyway) about meaninglessness even during times of great personal tragedy—the death of his dear brother, being unlucky in love, and his own decline and death from tuberculosis. I used to wonder how that could be. Was he stonewalling, incredibly resilient, or what? I have come to believe it was a nonissue for him because he saw meaninglessness as simply a condition of being rather than a problem to be solved. It made no more sense to fear meaninglessness than any other existential given—like gravity or magnetism.
Though I follow the rationale of the argument, I do not find it convincing. The bottom line still remains: loss and oblivion leading to the inescapable conclusion that all our efforts are pointless. It seems to me that it is extremely hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other when you know that eventually the next step will be off the edge of a cliff! What can account for this point of view? Is it temperament or self-delusion? What do such people know that I don’t?
The weight of these and other manifestations of meaninglessness can often feel positively Sisyphean and just about drive us crazy—if we let it. What to do? It’s all about asking the right questions. It’s not about whether life has meaning. It doesn’t. The proper question is then: what makes life worth living? In the absence of a solution, there is only a way to cope. I believe life still can be worth living, even if it is without extrinsic transcendent meaning, by embracing the pursuit of what I called “pure experience.” Again, this is about becoming one with the very experience itself—losing oneself in something wondrous such that our sense of self seems to dissolve and we become the experience itself.
This can range from the small thrills experienced in everyday life to the awe we feel in the presence of the cosmic sublime. I love the joie-de-vivre I experience whenever I think of my four year old grandson Luke’s infectious shrieks of delight . . . at chasing a red balloon on his birthday, swishing happily through colorful autumn leaves, or excitedly shouting “Grandpa! Grandpa!” over and over as he runs into my arms for a hug whenever I first arrive on a visit. As for the sublime, I remember once witnessing the full moon over Walden Pond on a perfectly still, crystal clear winter’s night. The pure white snow magnified the moon’s ethereal half-light and served as a perfect canvas for etchings of shadows of the silent black trees. Nothing moved and I breathed deeply of the cold. I was delightfully alone with the Universe at that moment and, indeed, lost myself in it, feeling an indescribable sense of harmony and unity with all things.
And it can be many things in between. Perhaps the most precious is having a lover and soulmate—someone to come home to after a trying day, who physically wants and delights in you, someone to confide in and who understands and unconditionally cares for you. To know that there is at least one place of refuge and solace for you in an otherwise meaningless universe helps make all things bearable. Or it can take the form of participating in a noteworthy event or making a great discovery—like Neil Armstrong’s being the first human being to walk on the moon and James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA, the chemical building blocks of all living things. So whatever the form and intensity of its infinite variety, it’s all about what celebrated scholar Joseph Campbell called the “rapture of being alive.”
Yet, even these fulfilling episodes sooner or later fall short because we realize we cannot avoid the death that ultimately robs us everything. I like the way scholar John Messerly expresses this sentiment: “People find meaning in life by their involvement with, connection to, and engagement in, the good, the true, and the beautiful. We should be satisfied. Yet we are not . . .
. . . There is another voice within, another perspective that cannot be stilled. After Gandhi, after Beethoven, after Einstein; after helping the unfortunate, playing our games, loving our family, bearing our suffering, and leaving our legacy—it still asks: is that all there is? Perhaps this is a voice that should be silenced, but if these meaningful things are themselves ephemeral, we cannot help but wonder if they really give meaning. The voice within cannot and should not be quieted. We can accept that these good things exist—and want more. There may be good things in the world, and we may add to that value by our creation, but that is not enough. And the reason that these good things are not enough is that there is a specter that accompanies us always. Everywhere we go, every thought we have, every happiness, every joy, every triumph—it is always with us. There to intrude on every meaningful moment, tainting the truth, the beauty, and the goodness that we experience. It is . . . the specter of death.
I do grant that for some of us death may come to seem a comfort—a release from pain, guilt, grief, or even boredom and fatigue—especially as we age. But I regard this, generally, as more of an aberration, a psychological malfunction, rather than a rational conclusion dictated by a dispassionate look at the facts. We are naturally disposed to see the glass half full. Life naturally wants to live! We are hardwired to work through injury, learn from mistakes, see sorrows in perspective, and find something to do with our lives. It is proper to “rage,” in Dylan Thomas’s words, against “the dying of the light.”
This is not to say that we should deny death’s inevitability. We should accept it gracefully (however grudgingly) when the time comes. It’s just that while we are alive we should endeavor to live life to the fullest and enjoy what I have called those episodes of “pure” experience that come our way. It is noteable that Magee himself echoes this sentiment in the way he ends the third volume of his fascinating autobiography, appropriately entitled Making the Most of It.
If it could be revealed to me for certain that life is meaningless, and that my lot when I die will be timeless oblivion, and were then asked: ‘Knowing these things, would you, if given the choice, still choose to have been born?’, my answer would be ‘Yes!’ I have loved living. Even if the worst-case scenario is the true one, what I have had has been infinitely better than nothing. In spite of what has been wrong with my life, and in spite of what has been wrong with me, I am inexpressibly grateful to have lived. It is terrible and terrifying to have to die, but even the prospect of eternal annihilation is a price worth paying for being alive.
The reality of this unquenchable, innate lust for life is, by the way, what underpins the logic by which it seems to me that Eastern concepts of resignation, founded on the denial of desire as a way to avoid suffering, do not ring true and are inconsistent with human nature. Perhaps this difference of outlook is merely a matter of emphasis. Naturalism also accepts the reality that everything at root does ultimately resolve to eternal Being. It’s just that it’s conceived in terms of atoms and quarks, governed by quantum mechanics and who knows what else yet to be discovered, rather than ill-defined mystical concepts of Being.
And so we endlessly go round and round, back and forth, in our hearts and minds alternating between despair that the problem of meaning has no solution and determination to figure it out. It’s the ultimate quandary. We’re like a squirrel caught in a trap endlessly racing back and forth, crashing into the sides of the cage in a futile effort to escape. We want something to be the way it is not and can not be. Maybe that’s why we keep revisiting the problem: we wonder if the future will somehow shed light on the problem in a way not apparent to us right now and reveal a solution.
But predicting the future is extremely problematic. We are limited by being able to imagine only what we think is possible and have a tendency to see such possibility in anthropocentric, rather than dispassionate objective, terms. Today, for example, some think transhumanism offers a way out, but I have my doubts.
The idea is that our seemingly meaningless lives can acquire meaning if they are viewed as being part of something greater than ourselves—in this case, a grand evolutionary chain leading past death to immortality through eventual bionic enhancement of our bodies and brains. In this way, it is thought, our brief individual lives will have contributed to establishing the necessary condition for our descendants to achieve the ultimate meaning in life we’ve always craved.
But the path to finding complete meaning is likely not that simple. The problem is fundamentally two dimensional and the transhumanist solution addresses only one. While we will have gone a long way towards solving the problem of intrinsic meaning by securing infinite opportunity for fulfilling experiences that immortality would afford, we still will not have solved the problem of extrinsic meaning—the ultimate reason for our existence. The only direction the universe seems to have revealed to us is an increasing complexity of form and function but we still don’t know why. Perhaps the question really is then, in the end, insoluble? Maybe an eternity of inquiry will eventually provide an answer not apparent to us today. We just don’t know.
For now we go about our separate ways and, after bumping our logical noses up against reality enough times, unlike the squirrel, we rise above instinct and resign ourselves to the reality of our circumstances and try to enjoy the ride such as we are able. As Mr. Natural says, “Twas ever thus.” It’s just the way it is. The beat goes on and so do we, even if we wish the melody were different.
Let Me Start by Saying I Love You
Janet Wojcik / April 2006
Dear David –
Let me start by saying I love you.
Our life over the years has been eventful, if nothing else. We started in a trailer looking for a furnished apartment. We struggled for years and made our way. We overcame a lot through the years. It was an interesting time, moving, separation (Thailand), and the birth of children. The kids grew up and we had our ups-and-downs. You were a difficult father to live with, but that has gotten better recently.
Our lives were busy with school and sports. The children grew up. As time passed it seemed that our lives were entering that empty nest time when we could rekindle our relationship. Then came the bomb. The gender issue changed our lives. It was and is the most difficult thing for me to deal with. I lost my husband that day. Our lives have never been the same. I still love you but not in the same way. After much time I have learned that this is not a choice, but a biological issue and there is little that you can do about it. I suppose your love for me has changed. Cancer has made me a different person. As the song goes: “Love changed everything.”
Over time I have accepted the situation and dealt with it as well as I can. It is still very difficult for me and I am sorry that sometimes I give you a hard time. I hope that with time the kids will try to manage some kind of relationship with you. Of course you need to decide what you want out of your life. You need to decide what you want and stop giving people a moving target. I hope that you will be able to find the peace that you seek. Just go slow and let people love you.
In spite of all the confusion I still love you. There was a time when I was not sure about our future. However, when I thought about our history and the wonderful children we share it was impossible not to try to work something out. It was impossible to walk away from our lives. The hard part has been the loss of a physical relationship. I realize that sometime I just don’t feel well and I am not receptive to you.. This has been complicated by the cancer and side effects.
One last thought is that I hope that you finish your book. I know that you have worked through so many revisions and I think it is time for you to finish. Things will never be perfect because it will always change with time. Send it in and let the editors help. I know you can do this. Now is the time.
We seem to have been caught up in yet another quirk of fate. David, you have been so wonderful throughout this ordeal of Cancer. You have taken care of me and have never complained. I want you to know how loved it made me feel to know that you were willing to do that. It is a true testament of your love.
I believe that your support has helped me to live longer. I have felt your love every day. I realize that I have been difficult to get along with and I believe it was from the cancer and/or the frustration of the unknown in our lives. You have been carrying the burden with work and the never ending paperwork that my cancer has created. You have been a wonder, keeping track of everything.
When everything is over and you look back — please know that from the bottom of my heart I appreciate what you have done for me. You are a good man and you are a loving father. I hope that our children will be able to accept that family and (in whatever form) love is what is really important in life.
Love, J a n e t