My recent post, “A Skeptic’s View of the Meaning of Life” elicited the following response from a regular reader.
[Your post] really gets at the heart of both a description of and the optimum response to the meaning-of-life dilemma, doesn’t it? … How in the world do we deal with the recognition of pointlessness while feeling a natural inclination to engage with life? … your reaction turns out to be exactly the same as mine that I characterized as “pure experience” in my “What’s It All About” essay: there is no solution, only a way to cope.
Reading your post gives me the same sort of comfort that Magee’s Ultimate Questions did in terms of confidence that my thoughts about MOL weren’t weird or a sign of weakness—his about a visceral reaction to the horror of it and yours, a reasoned reaction to living with it. Actually, the way you put it is probably more accurate than mine … It’s not limited to reflecting just the ethereal high of transcendent experience but is actually inclusive of a broad range of down-to-earth satisfaction to be found in much of everyday experience that makes us feel as if life is worth living even though we realize that nothing cosmically purposeful will come of it (so far as we can presently anticipate, a la Magee, anyway).
Sylvia, there is a lot to say here but I’ll comment briefly. I agree there is no ultimate intellectual solution to the meaning of life problem, only various ways to cope, as my grad school mentor wrote to me many decades ago.
As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.
I also agree with you that meaning must be found in the small things as Simon Critchley has argued,
Critchley finds a similar insight in what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the plain sense of things.” In Stevens’ poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” the setting is a funeral service. In one room we find merriment and ice cream, in another a corpse. The ice cream represents the appetites, the powerful desire for physical things; the corpse represents death. The former is better than the latter, and that this is all we can say about life and death. The animal life is the best there is and better than death—the ordinary is the most extraordinary.
Critchley considers Thornton Wilder’s famous play “Our Town,” which exalts the living and dying of ordinary people, as well as the wonder of ordinary things. In the play, young Emily Gibbs has died in childbirth and awakens in an afterlife, where she is granted her wish to go back to the world for a day. But when she goes back she cannot stand it; people on earth ignore the beauty which surrounds them. As she leaves she says goodbye to all the ordinary things of the world: “to clocks ticking, to food and coffee, new ironed dresses and hot baths, and to sleeping and waking up.” It is tragic that while living we miss the beauty of ordinary things. Emily is dismayed but we are enlightened—we ought to appreciate and affirm the extraordinary ordinary. Perhaps that is the best response to nihilism—to be edified by it, to find meaning in meaninglessness, to realize we can find happiness in spite of nihilism.
Putting it differently, as I have written previously,
Nothing then completely silences all our doubts and soothes all our worries—not the limited meaning life offers us, not the knowledge of a purpose, not the promise of hope, not the engagement in activity. How then do we proceed? We must accept something of our present life lest resentment causes us to curse it. Yet, at the same time, we must reject the present or nothing will improve. This creative tension acknowledges the limitations of reality as a starting point while rebelling against its shortcomings. It involves working to mold, create, and increase meaning. We don’t know that reality will progress, but if we partially accept our present reality, and if we dream of a future without limits and struggle to bring it about, then we may increase the meaning in our lives and in the world.
Yet for now, we are forced to live with uncertainty and angst—that is a testimony to our intellectual honesty and emotional integrity. Unlike those who adopt blind faith, we scorn the facile resolutions of the fearful. And if we must die, we will die as free people who did not yield to the forces that sought to destroy them from the moment of their birth. Those are the forces we seek to defeat, but which have not yet been defeated. In the meantime, we should relish the limited joy and meaning life offers, work to eliminate human limitations, and suppress negative thoughts as best we can.
This is no solution, only a way to live.