In this second installment, in trying to understand the liberating and redemptive power of meaninglessness, let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. Let’s slice off some of the nonsense that philosophy has handed down to us. Let’s get back down to the clean dirt of mother earth:
Meaninglessness is not Nihilism. Nihilism is not worth considering. A nihilist, driven to certain desperate straits or torments, will abandon his fake philosophy and begin striving for better conditions. Bereft of the luxury of pretending that nothing matters, he begins to work for things that do matter to him, even if it’s only his next meal. So much for Nihilism. No, meaninglessness is not a place where nothing matters. On the contrary, meaninglessness is a place where things do matter. It is a place where hearts desperately crave meaning and purpose, but cannot latch on, or have become conscious of the circularity and distressingly human-centric aspect of life here on earth.
The things that we pursue here do matter, and it is important to live well. Before moving on to more nourishing notions in future posts, I wanted to make sure that I explain that with these essays I am not here to wallow in the imaginary problems of the well-fed. Existentialism is not a way to occupy a mind unoccupied by crushing want. It is an honest attempt to live truthfully and well, according to the heart, and against all dogma.
This series is focused on how to live well in practical terms. Please don’t harbor any thoughts that any of this is supposed to veer off into the clouds. What we want is to recognize that life is ours to embrace, and that things do matter, but we must come to terms with the true nature of meaning and meaninglessness if we are to improve ourselves, the way we treat others, and our lot here on this beautiful planet.
Permanent marker and gold leaf on cardboard
In the coming weeks and months I am going to roll out a series of essays and stories about a topic that I believe is the key to a life well and authentically lived. I don’t believe that it has ever been explored in quite this way before, and my art and blog are dedicated to it. The three topics of Meaninglessness, Rebellion, and Joy are closely interlinked. Take a look at Joseph Campbell’s quote:
“And in this life-creative adventure the criterion of achievement will be… the courage to let go the past, with its truths, its goals, its dogmas of “meaning” and its gifts: to die to the world and to come to birth from within.” — Joseph Campbell, ‘The Masks of God, Volume IV’ page 678.
Campbell placed the word meaning in quotation marks. What a grand and understated nod to our central condition in this life! I want to expand on this for months, maybe years, but the gist of it is that meaning, that meaning which so consumes those who strive to live consciously, is not a foundation or a solid rock. Rather, it is more like a useful model of how to live here, and what to do to live well and truly. Meaning, so to speak, is a structure which gives form and impetus to a life. Obviously, a life without meaning is unbearable. Yet, meaning itself is not a thing. It does not exist as anything. There is no meaning or meaninglessness at all, unless someone chooses one or the other. In other words, the basis for the meaning of our lives is just a choice to have meaning in our lives. There is no deeper ground.
Now, I can hear the protests of the religious saying that the ultimate ground of meaning is God. Sure, I too believe in God. But God notwithstanding, it is still your choice to give meaning to God. God gave you the freedom to choose, but he did not give you meaning itself. It may very well be that the great abhorrence toward atheism and nihilism by the religious is nothing more than an unrecognized dread of this truth about meaning—that is, that it begins and ends with us alone. God or no, I must face the universe myself.
At birth and throughout life, everyone gets a package of ready-made meaning. Meaning is presented as something real, as truth. And generally, rebellion against the myth is not tolerated. Enter Rebellion and meaninglessness. To live truly, you must rebel. We are on a “life-creative adventure” and the chief achievement will be “the courage to let go the past with its truths… its dogmas of ‘meaning’”. The rebel is the one who sets out from the warm hearth of his inherited meaning. She ventures away from meaning and crosses through meaninglessness– “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”. There are many wastelands, but this is the ultimate. It is also the one most worthy of being crossed. You must “…die to the world and come to birth from within”. So the rebel crosses the valley to new meaning, to truth and authentic life. That is the process: Rebellion, Meaninglessness, Joy.
In a certain country there lived a ruthless commander of the King’s army. This man had established a rigid law, and any infraction was punishable by death. Although the army lived in dread, their obedience and conformity led them to many victories. They moved and fought with one mind, like a school of fish darting here and there.
One day, it came to the commander’s attention that the enemy was hiding somewhere deep in the woods near the borders of his country. This news came to him from the sole survivor of a scouting party that had left a week before. “What happened to your comrades?” the commander asked. “Sir, we ran low on supplies and the others ate some large mushrooms that grew in the woods. I was ill and had no appetite. The mushrooms were poisonous and the others died.”
The next morning, the commander sent for his two best scouts, known for their loyalty and unquestioning obedience. He said to them, “This is my command: Find the location of the enemy. As I command you to survive, you must not eat the mushrooms that are in the forest.” With that, the two scouts ran into the woods.
After two weeks, the commander believed that the scouts had died like the others. However, one of them finally returned, looking exhausted and dirty.
“Tell me,” said the commander, “what happened and where is the other?”
“We went in different directions, but I soon got lost, and so, it appears, did my comrade. I found him lying dead in the field of mushrooms, his stomach bloated and flies on his face. As I had also run out of food, I too sat down and ate the mushrooms, and they kept me alive.”
The commander, who was inflexible in his law, ordered some other soldiers to take the scout over to the wall and execute him. Before putting the scout to death, the commander said to him,” You knew me to be ruthless and inflexible. Why did you break my rule?”
The scout looked up and replied,” I broke your rule in order to obey your ultimate command, which was to survive and locate the enemy. When I was a boy, I lived in the woods and my grandmother taught me which plants were poisonous, and which ones were good. Others died because they broke your rule. But because I broke your rule, I lived. Furthermore, the enemy lies in ambush on a bluff nineteen miles to the east”
The commander turned to his officers, “Untie this rebel and give him a commission. He will be second only to me.”