Posts Tagged ‘Meaning of Life’
What does it mean to be fully human? Everything I have ever written has in some way been aimed at this question. The paradoxical title of this blog points toward the answer. The same goes for the quote I highlight at the top of this page by Leo Buscaglia (If you don’t know who Leo is, do yourself a favor and watch some of his old talks on YouTube). Unlike the animal world which moves according to the relative ease of instinct, humanity lives by way of freedom in thought and action. But with the loss of instinct’s prepackaged game-plan comes the question: What does it mean to be human? What are we doing here? How should we spend this brief miracle of self-aware existence?
For a creature of instinct the question cannot arise, but for humanity, the question forms our very essence. To be human is to ask the question of what it means to be human. And with this question comes anxiety. Instinctual life has the character of unreflective security. Here thought, desire, and action are a unified whole. You can see this clearly in the lives of little children. For children, thought does not restrain desire and action (which makes them both delightful and maddening, depending on how much one must be exposed to them!). Anxiety emerges as this child-like unity is transcended.
Adult life is both reflective and insecure. In his classic book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm points to this separation from an original unity as the central problem of human existence. We long to return to this unity and have come upon many solutions that are only partially adequate. Of these solutions, he lists the temporary but intense induction of orgiastic states (either sexual or trance types), the surrender of the thrill and danger of freedom by way of conformity to a group, and the gratifying but impersonal immersion of the self in productive work. All of these solutions address the human problem, but they are all limited by the fact that they embody a sort of return to a past unity. As Ernest Becker put it, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
Only with a new unity is it possible for humanity to be “fully alive,” to be “fully human.” This new unity is a love beyond fear. It is fear that limits our capacity for love, and it is our limited capacity for love that keeps us separated from each other, from the world we live in, and even from ourselves. This insight stands behind my attempt to make a connection between the idea of adventure and salvation in a paper I presented in Oxford last year. Love tears down the walls that we have carefully maintained to keep ourselves safe. For this reason, I am delighted to hear that Jean Vanier has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. He is the author of Becoming Human and is the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. His message is simple: By inviting in those who are vulnerable and different, we can develop the capacity to embrace our own vulnerability, and in so doing enlarge our capacity for love, for being fully alive. I’ve taken my own swing at articulating similar ideas, but first, listen to his own words. They have the authority of a remarkable life behind them!
Update: I went on to write a bit more about this here.
It’s always been hard for me to part with objects that have surrounded the childhood of my kids. This morning was no exception. Today, as part of a recent de-cluttering kick, I walked to the curb with this infant car seat—the car seat that both our kids took their first voyages home in—and set it in the trash.
I know I am not throwing away their childhood, but it reminds me of the easily overlooked fact that it’s already gone. Years later Brynn would often crawl back into this car seat as if trying to reclaim the security of her earliest memories. The trouble is, there’s no security there, not for Brynn, not for any of us. All we will ever have is happening right now, and that’s no stable ground. Hanging on to an old car seat won’t bring back the sweetness of an early childhood, but the ache I feel inside at this moment is pulling my attention back to this life that is still happening (So call your folks and tell them you love them!). We lose so much life without even participating in it! We are too busy trying to resurrect the dead past or filling our barns in preparation for an unpredictable future to notice the utter futility of an awareness thus restricted. Better to burn every pair of baby shoes, every love note from your spouse, every photo of the family that raised you, than to miss the moment in which you now sit that is calling your name.
* * *
This morning as the kids were getting ready for school, I told my son that he had done a good job getting his stuff ready and that I loved him. “I don’t care”, he said. So I did what the moment demanded. I grabbed him and tickled him until he nearly peed. Our neighbor boy who waits for the bus at our place said, “man, I never hear you guys laugh like that.” It was like someone punched me in the gut, but he was right. Every morning my head is full of the rush and worry that surrounds the completion of my PhD. This anxiety regularly bleeds over to how I am around the kids as they get ready for the bus. It won’t be long and there will be no more kids waiting of for buses, no more giggling when they should be reading, no more hugs and “I love you” signs made out the bus window as it drives away. Will I look back and ask, “Where were you?”
True to style, Radiolab recently produced an especially stellar episode on the obscure topic of nihilism (the view that life has no meaning or purpose). And apparently, they did such a good job with it that Glenn Beck picked it up and did an episode of his own on the matter. Beck thinks that Radiolab is endorsing nihilism (and also that they are a part of a progressive movement to seed the public mind, apparently). In thinking this, Beck entirely misses the real thrust of Radiolab’s episode, which is a shame because he could likely benefit from a bit more “nihilism.” Allow me to explain.
The Paradox of Serious Nihilistic Denial
My own work centers on the classical insight that the fulfillment of life comes only after a certain kind of death (e.g. Mt. 16:25, Mk. 10:42-45). This entire blog, is one long meditation on this single monumental truth. So when I heard this episode by Radiolab, I could hardly stay in my seat. “They’re on to it!”, I shouted to my somewhat startled wife as we were cruising down the interstate. “On to what?”, she asked. “This is what I’m writing my dissertation on!”
Here I must clarify. I’m not writing my dissertation on nihilism. But then again, Radiolab’s episode was not really on nihilism either. Their episode was on the draw of nihilism, and that ends up pointing to something much larger. They noticed a trend in popular culture to valorize nihilism. Specifically, they noticed how the cover of Eugene Thacker’s philosophy text In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 had made its way into popular culture (appearing on tee-shirts and even inspiring a character on the program True Detective). The question (because Radiolab is always about the question) was: why?
In seeking to answer this Simon Critchley suggested that nihilism is as old as human history itself. Jad went on to explain that you’ll see it crop up whenever social structures begin to come undone, either by cultural decay, natural disasters, or war. He points to Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons” as the moment the term nihilism was coined. In that novel the son turns to the father and says “We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful thing we can do is repudiate. And so we repudiate everything.” The father says, “Everything?” “Everything… with indescribable composure.” In our time, all we need to do is turn on the news and we are bombarded with what seems to be a nameless evil that continues to emerge from both without and from within our own culture. It makes sense, then, that this urge to repudiate should manifest yet again. But when asked if there was something more potent about it in our own time, Critchley said, without hesitation, “yes.”
Recounting a class he taught with Eugene Thacker on mysticism, he tells of how in the fourth century AD, there was a movement in which people began to leave the great city of Alexandria for the desert. Influenced by a Neo-Platonic philosophy (and its suspicion of material reality) and a desire to encounter the pure love of Christ, these people fled the seat of all culture and learning of their day for the desolation of the Egyptian desert where they engaged in ascetic activities of self-renunciation and prayer. They wanted a love that was pure, and so they left what they deemed was evil in the world and sought to purge the evil within themselves in the solitude of the desert. What struck Critchley was that the students were deeply captivated by this image in a way that undergraduates are not typically prone to be captivated. Something in these strange mystics and their practices of solitude and bodily mortification in an attempt to free their capacity for love was hitting them in a very deep place.
Notice this: We are not talking about nihilism anymore. We are talking about forms of denial and about forms of criticism, but this is not nihilistic denial. Nihilistic denial must deny even the seriousness of its own denial, but these mystics denied and criticized the world and themselves out of a yearning for a goodness and truth the surpassed the world’s (or their own) ability to fathom. They recognized that even the very best human goods are ambiguous. As Thomas Merton said, “The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.” Thus, even the very best in human culture is open to criticism.
Negative Theology: Denial and the Transcendent Good
Again, this is not nihilism. This is what theology calls apophatic, or “negative” theology. Negative theology speaks of God, the ultimate good (Goodness itself), by way of negating the elements of creaturely goods that fail to rise to the level of the ultimate good. For example, we know that justice is good. But we do not know what perfect justice looks like. We only know what human justice looks like. Thus by way of the apophatic method we would seek to get closer to speaking of perfect justice by negating all the ways human justice fails to rise to the level of perfect justice. This way of thinking is thus critical of all human attempts to say positively what perfect justice is, but it is not nihilism. It is the denial that any human (ourselves included) have a positive and adequate concept for our longings for perfect truth, goodness, and fulfillment. There is a pull within us that we can hear calling our name, but though we have names for it (fulfillment, justice, salvation, etc), we do not know its essence (a classic source for this style of theology is Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced almost all Western theology. Check out a marvelous passage of his here).
Rationalized Consciousness Sees the Apophtic as Nihilistic
Now, to the one who is convinced that they do have a positive and adequate concept for this deep goodness, apophatic criticism cannot be distinguished from nihilism. To their minds, their own concept is not open to criticism. They are convinced that they have the answer, thus any criticism is deemed not faithfulness to a transcendent good, but instead a merely corrosive attack. Beck seems rather obviously in this place. At the end of his episode he says “As this world devolves into chaos and depravity, people are searching for meaning. We have to provide them with truth on every platform possible.”
For him the matter is straightforward. “We” (as opposed to “the progressives”) have the truth and what is needed is simply to distribute it.
The Paradox Beyond the Alternatives
The desert mystics would see such truth, in spite of its divine claim, as being all too human. It is too bound up in the city and the world that they had abandoned. It represents the prison bars behind which eternal love lives, longing to be freed. This is why Christ was such a powerful figure for them. Not because, as Beck thinks, he came to impart an adequate concept of goodness, but because Christ, in a single move, exposed the evil of the world and a love beyond understanding by completely giving himself away. In this act, the ultimate nihilism and the ultimate meaning are one.
UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been pressed on they way (in a previous draft) I affirmed Simon Critchley’s suggestion that nihilism goes all the way back. “Nihilism is a modern problem,” said my critic. I think that’s probably right. The examples the Critchley sites as nihilism prior to the modern era are in fact being conflated with other forms of criticism, including the apophatic criticism that I discussed in this paper. Thanks for the push-back, unnamed interlocutor.
The return of life to the recently frozen landscape has been slow in coming. Just these last few days the song birds have started reappearing. We saw the first Gold Finches on Saturday, then the Orioles, and finally today we were awoken by the sound of a Mockingbird. May it gladden your day as it did ours!
I am more or less incapacitated as I write this. A few moments ago I was picking up a few of things in my room before I settled in to get some reading done. In the process I came across an old picture frame that my son Adrian (who is now 7) had tossed on my bed since it was broken. As I picked it up to have a look, it was as if someone had grabbed a hold of my stomach and squeezed.
The photo was of Adrian as a chubby little guy, along with a small impression of his hand. I don’t know if it had something to do with the fact that the frame was broken, or the way the construction paper with his hand print had already begun to fade, but whatever it was, it got to me. I’m writing through tears.
This moment has reminded me of why I’m in the line of work that I am, why I spend my days reading, taking notes, and writing. I do it, because life matters—because love matters. Yet so much of life deadens us to this primal awareness! So much thought hides the significance of life behind walls of speculation. Wake up! It’s all around you! It’s in you! These are not the assertions of a man who’s hoping. These are the sounds made by one who’s been punched in the gut and for whom the world is now wavy with tears.
Every moment and every event of every man’s [sic] life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love. –Thomas Merton, 14.
I often think that the little town I live in is a pretty stupid place to live. It’s flat. There’s a double-lane highway constantly making noise less than a mile away. The nearest city is St. Cloud, a horrible place that amounts to one giant, sprawling strip mall. But then I crawl up on my roof one random evening and witness this.
Then I think that sometimes I’m the stupid one.
As I was running down a lonely gravel road today, I heard from behind me what sounded like an approaching waterfall. Just as I was noticing this, wind began to blow grass and dust past me from behind. I stopped and spun around only to be stunned by the realization that I was now in the middle of a quickly rotating mass of air. It was about 25 feet across and surging all around me, blowing the grass and dust into a ring of frantic activity. It was marvelously unexpected. I must have looked like a dazed five-year-old standing there in the middle of the road slack-jawed and wide-eyed.
Slowly the vortex began to move off of the road and out into a bean field, contracting and expanding as it went. Not wanting to let the experience go, I ran after it through the knee-high beans. Now the presence of the funnel was even more obvious for it flattened the beans nearly to the ground as it spun over them with enough force to occasionally rip off leaves and send them spinning a hundred feet or so into the air.
I clumsily dashed about for a bit trying to capture the most intense center of the little devil, but eventually I realized I wasn’t likely to experience anything better than I already had already been gifted with, so I stopped. I stood there for maybe five minutes or so watching it work its way across the field, snatching up bean leaves and twirling them skyward. Above me the sky was blue, dotted only with the occasional puffy cloud. Grinning from ear to ear, I pulled some bean stalks out of my running sandals and walked back to the road.
What a strange thing, this life.