Saturday, April 4, 2009

Life, Death, Meaning and Meaninglessness

The older one gets the more one thinks about death. When thinking about death one is going to obviously consider the meaning of one's life. When we hear the news of someone's death we often consider the life of that person and wonder what purpose the person served -- we wonder if their life had any meaning. More importantly, we wonder if that person believed their life had any meaning. When we hear of suicide, we might be even more intrigued by the person's life.

I had never heard of David Foster Wallace until his suicide made national news this past fall. He was found dead in his home in September of 2008 at the age of 46. I read his commencement speech given to the 2005 graduation class from Kenyon College and I was immediately intrigued. Here was an obviously very intelligent individual who had had some success as a writer and then decided to end his life because living was just too painful. From a very limited perspective, I have some empathy for his feelings. I have been lucky to have never suffered from depression in my life. However, DFW’s writings had an appeal to me because of his ability to describe the meaninglessness of everyday life in our society.

I went to the library and checked out a couple of his books. He railed against the ironic, and coplained that irony was making it very difficult to be a fiction writer in today’s world because television had surpassed the novel as the descriptor for modern life. DFW believed that television was the prime mover of irony in modern society. I’m not sure if his depression was a result of his inability to find true meaning in his life, but I have a feeling it must have played a part. DFW was smart. He was a lot smarter than I. As I read him, I could not help thinking in my mind as he made acute observations on the mundane world around us, that this person eventually killed himself and basically came to the conclusion that life was not really worth living -- for any of us.

I know depression is more than just an intellectual exercise. I also understand that some people who are clinically depressed are really not that intelligent to begin with. But, the inability to find meaning in our lives is a symptom of modern society and the rise of depression must have something to do with the ironies and meaninglessness that surround all of us.

Reinhold Niebuhr observed that “every universe of meaning is constantly under threat of meaninglessness,” or something to that effect. Niebuhr was a social critic and a theologian. He had an understanding of the ironic and was aware of both the comforts and the pitfalls that science and modernism has brought humanity. Materialism has brought television, automobiles, cell phones, and other conveniences. The modern age, along with science, has also demonstrated the folly of certain religious beliefs and makes individuals who attack scientific theories such as Darwin’s evolution seem foolish and intellectually dense. Niebuhr had no problem with recognizing the limitations of literal beliefs from the Bible. However, Niebuhr’s observation that the Bible and religious faith provide meaning within the meaninglessness of existence is worth heeding attention to and could have saved DFW the torment that eventually led him to take his life. I think it might be the only thing that saves any of us from following DFW's example.

DFW was cool. He made many references to popular culture. He was obviously well-read and could pontificate on many subjects including philosophy, mathematics and literature. But, he could also talk about television and the internet. He was not just an intellectual. He wrote for Rollingstone, Harpers and the Atlantic. DFW was fully immersed in modern society and popular culture. But, despite his talents and success, the meaning of his existence eluded him. Was he just too smart?

Charlie Walters died on January 17, 2009 at the age of 83. I had never heard of Charlie Walters until a few years ago when I began subscribing to an organic farming magazine called ACRES,USA. The magazine was very informative and contained a wealth of information on farming and gardening that arrived each month. Charlie was the editor and, I assumed he put together many of the articles that gave me many facts for becoming a better gardener by taking care of my soil and using different organic techniques. But, the real value of the magazine was Charlie’s editorials. Charlie was a genius. He was incredibly smart, like DFW a lot smarter than I.

Charlie understood how to find meaning in his life even though he was confronted daily with the same ironies and meaninglessness from modern society as DFW. No, being smart, or thinking about all the examples of the meaninglessness in our lives and jobs in not necessarily a sentence for depression and eventual suicide. There has to be meaning among the meaninglessness. We have to find it. Sometimes that takes a little faith, but even when we find meaning it has to be understood that this meaning will be under attack by meaninglessness as Niebuhr says. So where do you find meaning? I cannot answer that and I’m not sure that Charlie can answer it either. Faith can mean many things and it can also lead one to blindness, but in the end everything is built upon the faith in something and because of this meaninglessness is built into any metaphysical or religious thought. But we can’t address the mystery without some sort of metaphysics and beauty in the world is as unexplainable as the ugliness and the mundane.

Meaning in our lives is found wherever we can find beauty or maybe love. We can tear down all of this meaning with irony and, I suppose, that was why meaning could nosustain DFW. For Charlie Walters, equally aware of the ironies and meaninglessness of modern life, meaning was sustainable because he had faith in something beyond the meaninglessness, call it God, call it humanity, call it beauty or love. Charlie had faith in something and I don’t think DFW had faith in anything. I can understand why DFW didn’t either and that’s what scares me most.

Which brings me back to Niebuhr’s “every universe of meaning is under constant threat of meaninglessness,” or something like that (I don’t remember the exact quote, but it really was something either exactly like that or very close to it). It’s a tenuous hold on sanity for all of us. People like Charlie and Niebuhr shine a light on meaning and faith, while not asking any of us to be fanatics or to sacrifice our intelligence to fundamentalism. This faith or meaning is mysterious and our inability to describe it or defend it with reason is what makes it fallible. It is the same as saying there is not Truth or nothing we can point to that describes exactly the workings of the universe – or knowledge is not discovered, but made. Acknowledging this does not mean we are nihilists. We can still be pragmatists and still have a faith in a meaning of our lives whose outcome is not predetermined or known by a larger being or entity. The meaning can be in the process of living or even our acknowledgement of the beauty and order amongst the chaos or meaninglessness.



Richard said...

I think we can take comfort in knowing that we wouldn't understand meaninglessness without experiencing genuine meaningfulness, and vice versa. In a helthy indevidual, feelings of irony are as short-lived as some of our meaningful activities. I think suicidal people have something wrong in this balance.

Richard said...

Happy summer.

Richard said...

Wow, this post must have depressed the hell out of you. Nothing since.

Andy B said...

Sorry for the lack of posts RIchard. I'm doin' all right, just not near the internet too often. Was a busy productive summer. I am hoping to keep up the posting, now that winter has set in.