Saturday, March 31, 2012

Connection in the Chaos

Nihilists point out that our entire planet is utterly insignificant compared to the size of the cosmos, and one human life barely registers to the Earth as a whole.  We're gone in less than the blink of an eye, in geological time.  While we're here, so many people waste their time on petty amusements, pointless drama, watching fake reality shows instead of expanding their minds or exploring their potential.  Artists are driven to create, tearing out pieces of their souls to forge into works which will be seen by few and understood by even fewer.  The disturbing and discomforting are despised, the familiar and nonthreatening enjoy mass popularity.

What, then, is the point of even continuing to exist?  Why not get it over with and jump straight to the inevitable conclusion of every life?  Or if some inner drive prevents us from doing that, why not blur the lines of a pointless reality, dull the crushing weight of life's meaninglessness with whatever intoxicants we can?

A Christian would answer that this life is a gift, given by a powerful and awful Being, willing and capable of inflicting eternal torment if we fail to show appreciation for it.  We must go on living, terrible as it is, to avoid the worse pain of punishment for trying to escape.  We must do as our Creator bids, because we are owned, like toys, with no right to decide our fate.  An atheist would assert that no such Creator exists,  or would deserve worship if it did.

A Buddhist would say life only becomes suffering when we let ourselves become attached to material things, which are all destined to be lost sooner or later.  They say there is a permanence deep inside that we can connect with, if we still our minds and let go of everything outside.  But then why are we even here, in this place of temporary things?  What is the point of offering these distractions, and wouldn't we be better off with all our senses silenced?

A life devoted to science or math leaves a greater impact than most.  Schoolchildren know the names of the great minds whose theories, written centuries before, led to a world where instead of chopping wood and drawing water, we can sit in comfort, connected to the world.   Radio transmissions fan out across the galaxy, saying "We were here," even if there's no one out there to receive the message.  But in the end, scientists die as suddenly and inevitably as anyone else.  They peer into the foundation of the universe, but it cannot save them.

When we are all alone, these seem like ironclad arguments, no loopholes to the misery.  Then out of the blue, sometimes, there's a connection.  Even across the net, with only words and images, we touch each other and are irrevocably changed.  A voice rises above the babble and exposes the absurdity of worrying about the inevitable, or the past.  Against our will, we're swept away by laughter, confronted with the present moment, the only thing that's really real.

The mathematician Paul Erdos said math is like a great book written by the creator of this universe, and solving problems is like glancing at its pages.  Everything in that book is already written and unalterable; we can only discover it, not write new lines.  If we want something truly new, we must find it in other people.

We can't predict the course of any life.  A man might be born with enough intelligence to be a great engineer, the son of an expert in computer science, but choose to devote his life to making people laugh.  Another might be raised in poverty by a single mother and grow up to be a president.

Even those who think they've failed at life, by some arbitrary measure of fame or wealth, may never know how much their unique perspective touched someone else.  Their mind, their voice, their whole personality could be the sun that lights another's life.  They may not see how they enliven everyone around them, but the loss is obvious when they are gone.  Every one of us lives through a unique series of events, creating a point of view that can never be replaced or duplicated.

All these moments will be lost "like tears in rain," of course, but so will everything else in this physical universe.  There's no such thing as permanence, and yet there's no such thing as the future or the past either.  Each moment is the only moment that exists, and that is what makes them precious.  Even if we are facing a bleak future, with seemingly no hope of recapturing some joy of the past, those moments happened, and at the time they were the whole truth.  They belong to the story of the world forever, even after the people who lived them are gone.

The only certainty is that the future will not unfold as expected.  Every moment, events are set in motion with consequences we can't predict.  The complex web of interconnection may lead to a global economic crash, or an innovation that changes everything.  A nuclear reactor may melt down, or a lab may find the cure for cancer.  A beloved is suddenly gone, or a new adventure begins.  We decide how we react to this constant stream of surprises, retreating inward, lashing out in rage, or throwing up our hands and laughing helplessly.  We don't know ourselves what we'll choose, until the moment comes.  Finding out what happens next is what makes existence worthwhile.


  1. Nice blog. You might like this poem about life being a gift.

  2. Moving thoughts. They seem somewhat inward-looking, though. Not necessarily a bad thing, but maybe a sign of the times.

    Maybe it's a general rule that in times when people feel in control their lives, and have ample oportunities to participate and build, philosophies which seek the ultimate meaning in community tend to be popular. In times not necessarily of tyranny, but of lessened oportunity and freedom of choice, inward-looking philosophies which seek meaning in the life of one's own soul and body wins out.

    The first kind of philosophy could be illustrated by the dilemma of Socrates; he can die by the laws of his city, or flee, breaking them. He chooses to die, because, in modern terms, the city is more important to him than life, or rather, without his city he feels that he can no longer be fully himself, or fully human.

    The second kind of philosophy you'll find in the historical record, in the development of classical thought as the freedom of the citizens of the greek city states was obliterated by the roman empire, their scholars and artisans carted off to Rome to serve as enslaved tutors and administrators for the patriarch clans. Philosophies like stoicism are typical of what emerges, a western version of Buddhism, teaching the individual to endure pain, and search for ways to live well and just in a society which is at its core a brutal and horrific process of assimilation, exploitation and genocide.

    That our society is producing a thousand variants of stoicism today is both encouraging and worrying. Worrying because it indicates that our society does not offer as much freedom and opportunity for fulfilment in participation as we like to think it does. In other words, the core principle of democracy, the very definition of the res publica, is not accessible to most of us. Encouraging because it shows that so many of us are on some level aware of this, and search for ways to cope with it.

  3. That's some good thinkin there.

  4. There are two types of people (in the spirit of oversimplying everything). People with large amounts of serotonin in their brains, and they believe life is a gift because even when bad things happen, they forget them quickly. And people with small amounts of serotonin, those are the depressives who think life sucks. Some would say that they see life more clearly than the former group.

    But one thing religion does, that you don't comment on, is increase serotonin levels. If you believe, contrary to all evidence, that life makes sense, that what you do in life matters, then you are less likely to fall into the pit of depression.

  5. "Finding out what happens next is what makes existence worthwhile."

    Unless, of course, you don't give a shit what happens next.

    1. Which might work for a while, but eventually it catches up to you. Even nihilists have nerve endings.

  6. Yes, we are all searching for identity, truth and meaning in a world that sometimes does not make sense to us. The past is all determined, completely over and done with, and no longer exists, while the future remains unpredictable and is not yet in our experience. So what matters indeed is that almost magical connection that occurs from time to time when kindred spirits meet and touch, if only briefly.

    All the while, remember that when we are truly living our lives and not just experiencing what happens, we are the ones creating that future. Perhaps only about 20%-25% of what happens is due to fate, while we bring about the rest as we choose from among the alternatives that our past choices and fate have made possible. So we can make a difference in what happens to us and to others. This is what makes it all worthwhile. So says RobertDuke Drascol.

  7. This is one of the most profound messages I have yet encountered on the World Wide Web.

    Reverend M, you have posted words of Truth and Wisdom.

  8. This privileges knowledge over ethics. I'd say that what makes life worthwhile is being good effectively: having both good intentions and good consequences. If finding out what happens next is what makes life worthwhile, then life can't help but be worthwhile because we're all doing that all the time.

    Your view of time is not the only view of time. Many physicists believe that time has dimensionality, and that the past and present have an existence.

    Your portrayal of a Christian perspective seems to be a straw-man perspective. I'm a Christian and I wouldn't recognize that as something I hold to at all. When we err, we accrue guilt within ourselves. This guilt is itself the punishment. Living your life in a guilt-free manner is the ideal, not by pretending that hurting other people is wrong, for then the guilt is simply pushed down into the subconscious level where it bubbles up in damaging ways, but rather by not harming in the first place.