What’s the meaning of life?
There isn’t one, obviously. In a globalised world as maddeningly complex as the one we find ourselves floundering in, secularised, individualised and increasingly insular, there could never be some kind of universally accepted reason for being. In pockets, people seem to be returning to religion as a sort of reassuring bulwark against the uncertainties and instabilities of the modern age, but this looks unlikely to stop the general crawl towards secularism. God isn’t dead, but if he isn’t on the way out he’s certainly taken a step back out of the spotlight.
Even if they aren’t properly taken up by a lot of people who’d call themselves atheist, the implications of rejecting God are huge. ‘Meaning’, in the grand(iose) sense of the word at least, ceases to exist – the word implies that life was set up, somehow knocked together in the beginning, by someone or something with a specific purpose in mind. Which it wasn’t.
Everything alive, ever, wasn’t built or purposely shaped by anything, but just happened to happen in the way it did. Humans don’t have souls, which, plucked from the nether and briefly stuffed in a fleshy wrapper, eventually swan off to the afterlife to hang loose with the great Creator. All life is just the product of an unutterably miraculous biological accident that’s proved a runaway success. Even calling it Evolution seems to give it a pseudo-religious grandeur it doesn’t warrant – it’s something that has mindlessly unravelled, forwarded by generation after generation of organisms that have minutely adjusted to the environment around them, with billions of years-worth of tiny adaptations turning microscopic sea-bacteria into things with arms and legs and, eventually, mortgages and inflated senses of self-importance.
The profundity and scale of the process is mind-numbing, almost entirely beyond the limits of the comprehension of we gangly ape-descendents. When it’s belting down with rain and bone-rattlingly cold at night in December, and you’re gnawing on a lukewarm Subway, imploding with petty irritation at a bus that’s seven minutes late, you should be giddily marvelling at the fact that, from its gloopy primordial origins three billion or so years ago, life on earth has attained enough sentience to invent motorised conveyance, let alone organise it into some kind of schedule we all expect it to unfailingly adhere to. Not to mention that it has become commonplace to expensively purchase limp processed sandwiches you could make for half the price in your own home.
Add to that the sheer, unadulterated, pulsating trillion-to-one-against fact that you exist, are alive, can actually physically feel the rain soaking into your jeans and taste rubbery sandwich meat in your mouth, and that every one of your hundreds of thousands of direct ancestor organisms, be they cavemen, chimpanzees or sea sponges, managed to survive to the point where they could reproduce.
But before all this starts sounding too much like a Honda advert, we’ll dispense with the breathless euphoria and turn instead to the heavier implications of the above. In a universe that’s 13.7 billion years old and impossibly big, on a planet that’s 4.4 billion years old and teeming with life, as an individual human being you are at once a staggering biological marvel and an insignificant jot among the billions of your own species, the trillions of other living things aboard Earth, and the frigid immensity of the void outside its atmosphere.
It says a lot about the short-sightedness and insularity of Western societies that we don’t have an appreciation of either – that as a species we’re fragile and contingent, an astoundingly successful chance happening, and that, despite this, as individuals we’re not so much dwarfed and microbed by the enormity of everything else.
We have a definite tendency to shrink from enormity. The prevailing form of turbo-charged individualism shuns anything profoundly large-scale, our triviality-obsessed popular culture conveniently stepping in to help us hide from anything scarily heavy and keep us immersed in the banal immediacy of our day-to-day lives. Collaborative ostriching is the result, as people half-consciously collude in shutting out anything discomfortingly real, and resolutely keeping society’s head buried in the sand. The strange outcome, to clunkily paraphrase Tenzin Gyatson, or the 14th Dalai Llama to you and me, is a planet full of people who live as if they are never going to die, then die never having really lived.
If we were more aware of how life came about, and its shakily contingent, precarious place in the universe, we’d have access to some much-needed humility-engendering cosmic perspective that could squash our over-inflated twenty-first century egos back down to size. If we were more willing to face down our own mortality, the same could be true, and we might live generally less deluded and more satisfying lives to boot. But these are just the relatively minor ill-effects of our existential cowardliness, dwarfed in comparison to our ignorance of, and indifference to, the suffering of our own species.
Our cultural aversion to brute reality makes us shy away from the suffering of others, because it’s depressing. As a slightly younger left-wing troglodyte-phenomenon, we were heavily influenced by Buddhism – specifically the secularised Buddhism of thinkers and teachers like Stephen Batchelor – especially in the way we thought about suffering.
Reductively as hell, we divide suffering into two ridiculously broad categories. Suffering that we can’t and probably never will be able to do anything about – death, mourning the deaths of others, diseases, freak acts of nature et cetera. And suffering that we can – everything from overwork to mass death through starvation.
The former should be confronted and accepted, with a hard-hitting cocktail of cosmic perspective, humour, and an awareness of life’s transient absurdity making survival a bit easier in a chaotic, meaninglessly cruel universe. The latter should be addressed, deadly seriously, as society’s highest priority.
As a reading of human history it’s perhaps twisted, perverse, selective, and/or indicative the worst kind of knuckle-dragging miserablism, but it’s hard to look at civilisation since the discovery of agriculture and not see wall-to-wall tragedy.
Our species is the first and as yet only to learn, create, innovate, think abstractly, have a culture beyond the most basic level demonstrated by chimpanzees, not to mention feel complex emotions and empathise with our fellow (wo)man. Every human that plops arbitrarily into existence has such immense, unique potential – and the last 10,000 years have been characterised by the repulsive, harrowingly consistent waste of that potential.
Most obviously, hundreds of millions of people have died before their prime, been squashed by poverty, killed in war, or struck down by disease while struggling through existences that were unremittingly harsh. And yes, a lot of those deaths, and a lot of that suffering, might well have taken place when nothing feasibly could’ve been done to stop it. Weeping in a skip at, say, the fate of the Egyptian slaves who slogged their guts out and died heaving together vanity projects for megalomaniac pharaohs, isn’t a particularly constructive way of spending your Saturday afternoon. But cold rationalism shouldn’t lead us to brush over horrendous suffering that might happen to have occurred outside our immediate frame of reference. All anguish deserves empathy, sympathy and sober remembrance, regardless of when or where it happened.
The problem with Western civilisation, as far as perspective goes, is its abject lack of self-reflexivity, ingrained ignorance and unshakable triviality – a world in which birthdays, the Glastonbury Festival and Graze Seed Boxes are treated as being as innate to existence as trees, rain and death. We’re obsessed with ourselves, and know and care next to nothing about what goes on outside of our personal bubble. This is a society that takes itself stonily seriously, while simultaneously being mind-numbingly petty, which is the exact opposite of how things should be.
We’re essentially just fleshy bags of chemical reactions who try desperately to make some sense of the meaningless, purposeless existences into which we’ve been arbitrarily spat, looking for permanence and security when there’s none to be had. In a universe like this, the only Meaning is that which we make for ourselves. In a liberal society, the most common Reason for Being is typically self-centred – we heard it in potted form only recently when sat in the pub, decadently and hypocritically lingering over a wad of chocolate fudge cake. Life, said the person we was with, is about having as much fun as you can while not hurting anyone else. Unsurprisingly, we think this kind of thinking is a massive part of the problem – the richest, most educated, most comfortable citizens of the most well-off part of the world pursuing their own happiness while other people die squalidly.
We need to brush away all the existential salad-dressing, this idea of an individual’s life as some pseudo-epic, soap-operatic journey dotted with grandiose rites of passage, and disrupt the general unblinking seriousness with which we take ourselves. Looked at in context, the ethnic, cultural and geographical divisions that divide one bit of humanity from another are shown as the arbitrary guff and random happenstance they actually are. Selflessness, dedication, and an indifference to material status and arbitrary cultural divisions are values in chronically short supply, which is a shame, because they’re at the heart of the exact kind of ethical overhaul that’s needed.
The unchanging, yet ultimately very changeable, fact is that every hour human beings fundamentally no different to any other human beings, distinguished only by where they happened to be born, agonisingly exit the only existence they will ever have through lack of the most basic biological inputs. While that continues to happen, any attempt at some kind of respectably profound Meaning of Life that just revolves around personal hedonism is cringe-makingly shallow.
We have an unshirkable moral responsibility to help alleviate suffering. In a world like this, that’s the only Grand Purpose worth the awe-struck capitalisation. As the bloated residents of a West that’s grossly overfed and drunk on excess, the blazing imperative should be to take some of that excess and use it to stop our fellow organisms suffering unnecessarily. We have to face scary enormity, rather than shy away from it, and reconcile ourselves with our impermanence, our insignificance and our ridiculousness, and engage wholeheartedly with the grim realities of the world we live in. The fact we ignore it – that we’ve developed a society where banging on about people dying in other places is seen as tiresome and depressing – is an emphatic indictment on our way of life.