Today’s guest post comes from an “unlikely” source, Cracked.com‘s Felix Clay. Yes, it is long, may sound a bit irreverent and contains some NSFW language, but remember, Cracked is a satire site. This article, however, really hit home with me. I hope it does with you, too. Namaste. – Stacey
The Search for Meaning
Hinduism is widely considered the oldest religion in the world. There’s evidence from thousands and thousands of years ago of funerary rituals and statuary being buried with the dead, but the meanings behind all of that have been lost. Hinduism is generally the most organized form of religion that has survived and is understandable for you and me. What do you know about Hinduism that wasn’t taught to you by Apu, assuming you’re not a Hindu yourself? It’s safe to say you probably only have a passing familiarity with it.
Because Hinduism is actually a large number of beliefs and traditions that are all tossed together, it seems a little complex, but for the purposes of understanding the meaning of life, you need to know only a few key points: Hinduism, the oldest major religion humanity has, is concerned with the knowledge of truth and reality, moral order, and right actions. In so many words, a good Hindu is someone who does right and seeks the truth. He is tolerant of others and acts in a good way. Sound familiar? It’s pretty much every major religion ever.
How did it come to pass that, as a basic tenet of Christianity, we are supposed to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? And those who follow the Muslim faith are to pardon and forgive others, for Allah loves those who do good to others? All major religions that people adhere to en masse have the same message, because it’s a good one: do good, be good, and everything is good. Only an idiot would argue with that, right? This is the point where you ignore our history of religious intolerance and bigotry and agree that, fundamentally, every human who is “normal” believes the same thing. Theists, atheists, and agnostics likely all believe or will pay lip service to the ideal that we should treat each other as we want to be treated. We should be nice and not harm or steal from one another. In fact, I will argue that you can’t reasonably, rationally propose another method of existence. No sane person could do so with sincerity, because to propose a world in which it is OK to harm some, to kill some, to steal from some, is to readily accept that you are OK with being harmed and killed yourself, for any arbitrary reason, and I believe no one who is rational would ever accept that. So it’s wrong.
It’s a reasonable argument to make that we believe goodness is not a construct of man. Goodness and the idea of what it means to be good exist independent of man (even of God, whether you believe in it or not). Goodness and rightness exist independent of us and are things we aspire to, and that’s why all religions, throughout all time, have included these things. It’s no accident or crazy coincidence. So a major aspect of simply existing is doing good. Being good. And by this definition, it’s a pretty passive thing. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. Not harming someone else is as simple as staying in bed instead of stabbing your mailman. Not stabbing the mailman is a good thing. You did well today.
I don’t want to make anyone think I’m suggesting that the meaning of life is to be found in religion. Religion, I would argue, is a good place to start looking, because it tries to answer those tough questions of how and why things are, and it’s how people have organized themselves for a hell of a long time. It’s like learning sex tips from an elderly person — they have the history to back them up, even if the reality of their involvement in it is horrifying.
Here’s the big issue with the meaning of life and why, I think, Douglas Adams proudly proclaimed that the meaning of life (and everything) was 42. Searching for the greatest, most diffuse, most incredible thing you could ever imagine is, ultimately, a letdown. Imagine being told you were just about to meet the most beautiful human who had ever existed, a perfect person in every single way, flawless and beyond criticism, the most wondrous specimen of biology nature could ever hope to fashion. What would that person look like? Can you even picture it? Probably not, but try. Try to form an image, and once you’re as close as you can reasonably get to what you feel the most perfect human in every way is, imagine them wiping their ass and a finger tearing through the paper. Not their fault; they’re perfect, but the paper was flawed. Now your perfect person has a poo finger. Are you disappointed yet?
Reality almost never lives up to expectation, and once you take something from the divine realm of imagination, from the place where your hopes and dreams are born, and set it on your sofa, it loses its mystique, its sense of awe. When you find the thing you think will answer all your questions and make your life more profound, it won’t. It can’t. And this is especially true for the meaning of life. Knowing the meaning of life will not make your life better; how could it? It will not elevate you or inspire you. Consider what happens when you know the end of a movie before you watch it thanks to some thoughtless boob telling you that Brad Pitt and Ed Norton were the same guy the whole time. It ruins it. It doesn’t make it better; it takes the thrill away. The meaning of life has to be 42 in Douglas Adams’ universe, because what the [heck] does that mean? If they got a real answer, it would suck so bad, you don’t even know. It would ruin it. Life would be ruined if someone literally handed you a booklet that explained it all.
The meaning of life is to live it.
Do you want to know what your purpose in life is? Live it and find out. Will you be a leader of men? A revolutionary? Will you feed the starving, clothe the poor, and elevate the spirit of all who meet you and hear your words? Or will you be a short order cook and make passingly good french fries that don’t have pubes on them? Both are valid, because both are lived lives. Do you prefer one over the other? Maybe. Doesn’t matter what you prefer, though. The meaning of life is not related to the life you’d prefer to live, any more than the meaning of a pile of rabbit turds on your lawn is related to the position of stars in the sky.
Asking for a preset meaning for your life is asking for the end of a story no one wrote yet, and even if you are a theist, you are presuming that God or whatever force of will you believe in has already decided where you’ll go and what you’ll do, meaning there is no meaning anymore. It doesn’t matter, because you’re just going to do it, and your thoughts and desires and feelings are irrelevant. Some meaning you have there. You have reduced yourself to a cogwheel in a big, complicated clock, just ticking toward inevitability.
So what is the meaning of a life that gets cut short? A person who dies in a tragic accident? A baby who only gets a single breath? What was the meaning of their existence? What good could have happened there? Did they bring you happiness? Teach you something new? That very well could have been their purpose, as much as a chair’s is to be sit upon or Justin Bieber’s is to be a glib little ass wrinkle. Sometimes you don’t get to know because that story isn’t yours. And that’s why the question of the meaning of life frustrates us so very much. You want to know what your story is, but you want to know the stories of everyone around you as well. You want to know how they fit together and work together. But you don’t get to. And, on some level, we know and have to accept that maybe the meaning of a life isn’t life-changing. Maybe the meaning of one life is just to be a footnote somewhere else. Maybe it’s just to be and nothing more. Or maybe not. Maybe you don’t even get to know the meaning because you never got to see how it fit into the grand scheme of things. I told you it’s unsatisfying.
The best way to approach the prospect of coming to terms with the meaning of your own life is not to ask what it is; it’s to decide what it should be. If you care, that is. If you really want your life to have a meaning, you need to kind of make it happen on your own, and it should be good. Good for you, good for others. Good for something. Make someone laugh. Be a sexual dynamo. Learn to paint ponies that are so kick-ass real that ponies should be [damned] ashamed of their shitty ponyness.
But you need to take the reins. Why should the universe cater to your whims? You need to get off your ass. The universe has 7 billion people on this planet alone to deal with, not to mention the 100 to 200 billion other planets in our galaxy, or the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets that likely exist in the entire universe (that’s a septillion, by the way). You have to assume there’s at least 100 other guys out there, so that’s 7 billion and 99 people other than you who need to be monitored. Who has the time to ensure that your life has a good and fulfilling purpose? Only you. Now go make me the best damn sandwich you can make!
Felix Clay is not a cat. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Felix_Clay.