Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Non-Meaning of Life

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I watched the Westminster Dog Show Monday and Tuesday nights. I am not a "dog person, but my wife has never seen an animal she didn’t like. Because of her, I, too, watch the dog show every February.

As I watched and listened to the descriptions of the various dogs, I was awed, as I always am, that a dog’s behavior is innate. Some breeds have to herd cattle, sheep, or whatever. Other breeds hunt, retrieve, etc., etc. No one teaches the dogs to do what they do. They just know how to do it.

Thinking about this led me to wonder, is there any activity that is innately human, a quality that is shared by every person who has ever lived?

When I asked my wife what she thought, she said immediately that humans are the only species driven to seek meaning. I think she’s right. How many times have you heard someone say, or said yourself, “Everything that happens, happens for a reason.” Whatever happens to us, especially the unpleasant events, we want to know, “What does this mean?” And to the extent that we can find an answer we find consolation.

We are plagued by wanting to understand our lives; we want to know that our lives not only have meaning, but that this meaning will continue after we are dead.

The older I get the more I find myself wondering, what if there is no intrinsic meaning to our lives or to life itself? What if the existence of this planet is a random accident, and our lives are also?

More and more I find myself returning to the Sartrean existentialism of my college years in the 1950s. I still remember Sartre’s simple but profound formulation: "Existence precedes essence." We are not born into meaning; we are merely born. It is up to us to give our lives meaning --- or not.

When I am the one who gives meaning to my life, I take responsibility for my words and my deeds. I do not justify my actions by saying I am carrying out God's will. I do not justify my actions using words written thousands of years ago.

We are living at a time when people are being killed daily because they do not ascribe to the beliefs of others. The most dramatic daily example is the carnage wreaked by Shiites against Sunnis and Sunnis against Shiites.

The older I get the less I know what my life means, and the less it matters. It is enough that I am alive. I wish that was enough for all those - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Democrat and Republican - who are convinced that they, and they alone, embody TRUTH, and those who disagree deserve death, cultural or literal.


“Only fools think that everything can be explained. The true substance of the world is inexplicable.” p. 172

Carl Jung: Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930


In February, 2005, the conceptual artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, set up their installation, The Gates, in New York's Central Park. My wife had to convince me to go, and I am so glad I did because I had one of the great experiences of my life. As we walked along the sidewalks beneath the pieces of orange cloth, my mind kept trying to find meaning in what we were doing. When it couldn't it told me what we were doing was stupid and ridiculous. But when I was finally able to get my mind to stop looking for meaning, I was overwhelmed with joy at the complete absurdity and yes, the ridiculousness of all these miles of orange weaving through the park. I haven't decided whether the experience was one of silly holiness, or holy silliness. It was an experience beyond meaning, beyond what my mind could grasp. And so is my life. So is life itself.