We are all trying to make things intelligible, to make sense of our experiences, ourselves, and our world. The fact that we still disagree concerning the best or right or correct interpretation, the fact that there are so many perspectives, suggests that perhaps meaning is nothing more than a construct.
Most of us adopt values and beliefs simply because they are familiar, because they are those that dominate in our community, our country, our…The real reason we have adopted certain values, that we see the world the way we do, is convenience, happenstance. We, in short, believe what most people believe…we conform.
“Madness is rare in the individual – but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it is the rule.”
When Nietzsche points out that when it comes to groups, peoples, parties…madness is the rule, he means that there is a tendency to conform and protect the dominant perspective even when faced with evidence to the contrary. We lose our ability to think for ourselves when we conform, but the fundamental problem of meaning is (at least in a certain sense) solved. We know what’s true because we participate in a shared construct, in a shared worldview.
Sartre famously claimed that for humans “existence precedes essence.” He meant that we must make ourselves into something, that we only define ourselves after we exist, and that in truth there is no such thing as human nature which would otherwise determine who we are (and who we could become). The only thing we know with certainty is that we will die. We are beings aware of their own existence and their own mortality—a fact that has a far greater influence on us than most of us would probably like to admit.
We face a reality that is opaque. Try as we might, the world around us gives up only small secrets, and on all important matters remains utterly silent. We exist, to be sure, and we know we will die. We want answers, we want to know why and what for. We want to know what the meaning of life is, the purpose of our existence—but, as Camus points out, the universe is indifferent to our appeals and wants.
Humans are meaning makers—we create meaning and we have a drive to do so. We organize our world; we form a picture that allows us to operate day-to-day without fear. When we believe we can explain our experience, our interactions, when we think we understand our place and role in the world, we gain confidence and feel secure. We want to make our life intelligible because by doing so we remove unknowns, irregularities, we assign a value and place to everything.
Our desire to make sense of things, to make everything intelligible, drives our attempts to leave nothing unexplained. We quickly try to find a place for the new, the abnormal, the irregular, because everything that is not accounted for by our beliefs and values is a direct threat to the integrity of our worldview, our perspective. We think we understand things when the room looks clean, when everything is in its box, in its place, and we feel secure knowing there is nothing that we might trip over.
There is some part of us, a part that is perhaps deep within, one that rarely comes to the surface, but that nonetheless exercises great power—our fear of death, of threat, of danger. We know we will die, and experience tells us that the universe, existence, is indifferent to the individual entities that enjoy life for a short time. Death is the great unknown—it is an unknown in the sense that it comes unannounced, it is unknown in the sense that there are conflicting accounts of what it is (a transition, an absolute end, a new beginning…), it is final, and death is not bound by our sense of right and wrong or good and bad.
Making the world intelligible, making sense of things, makes us feel secure and comfortable because we are not surprised by irregular, unknown, or new experiences, which in turn assuages the fear and anxiety caused by awareness that we will die. Humans are self-aware, conscious entities, who are mortal and thus aware of their own mortality, of their temporality. But we are also meaning makers, and through meaning we create a familiar, knowable, and therefore less harsh and indifferent world, one in which our fears and anxieties need not be so intense, so overwhelming.
What many fail to recognize is that all the various perspectives people have are just so many ways of constructing a meaningful experience and world, but by no means are any representative of what is true, what is objectively the case. A world without meaning, without purpose, is simply a world in which we must each make meaning and create purpose.
The fact is, we thrive when we have reasons for acting, for living, for doing. Better that these reasons are our own, are ones that we have accepted and arrived at because they work for us. We should resist merely adopting values and beliefs because others have, we should resist conforming, because when we do the meanings that define our world and through which we make our experience intelligible are not our own. All we can do is live our own life, be our own person.
Recently, I listened to a fascinating Radiolab episode, Dinopocalypse Redux, exploring how the world of the dinosaurs came to an end.
I find previous iterations of life on earth fascinating. The world of the dinosaurs was literally a different world than the world we know today.
The era of the dinosaurs was long. Dinosaurs ruled the planet for almost 200 million years and inhabited every continent and ocean.
Nevertheless, when the end came, it was fast and violent. The dinosaurs were wiped out in a matter of hours—and wiped out so thoroughly that an entirely new world would take shape on the ashes of their world.
The cause of the death of the dinosaurs was “an asteroid…headed directly for Earth at about forty-five thousand miles an hour” (Douglas Preston).
The asteroid’s impact was intense, causing rock to vaporize and debris to get ejected into space. The consequences of that catastrophic impact would bring about the end of the dinosaurs.
“After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed.”
We find evidence of the reign of the dinosaurs everywhere. We get a glimpse into that world whenever we uncover a new fossil or discover a new piece of the complicated puzzle of earth’s past buried in rock and sand.
All living things eventually perish. In the case of the dinosaurs, their world perished along with those last individuals some sixty-six million years ago.
Every living thing eventually dies. Death is a part of life. The end of the dinosaurs is a reminder that life can end at any moment, that nature is indifferent.
Human beings stand apart from other creatures insofar as we are self-aware, and that awareness means we are aware of our own mortality. Whether we accept death and face it, however, is an entirely different matter.
People do many things to avoid facing and accepting death. Some refuse to think about death, refuse to acknowledge it, as if pretending it does not exist will somehow make it so.
Others create stories, they use belief and myth to craft alternatives to the inevitable end of life. The immortal soul, the transmigration of the soul, or…all attempt to explain away death, to make it something else—a transition, or only partial, or…
(See my related article, The Death of God – Nietzsche and Nihilism)
Philosophers have identified the importance of accepting death, of accepting the brevity of life. The Stoics, for example, saw death as natural.
“Think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.”
For the Stoics, death is simply a part of life, of being alive. They even encourage us to reflect on our own death so that we can truly live.
Memento Mori – Remember you must die. If we accept our death, if we remember death is a part of life, we are reminded to make the most of our time, our life.
When we deny death, we fail to realize the fact that any day could be our last, and this can cause us to look at our life, our time, differently. We might waste time, waste our lives, or we might fail to live a life that is our own.
To face death, to accept it, is to also recognize the importance of how you live and what you do. We exist, we are alive, and for a short time how we live, who we become, is entirely up to us.
(See my related article, Understanding Our Relationship to Suffering)
When I think about the dinosaurs, it reminds me that without death, life is not possible—life and death go hand-in-hand.
Take advantage of the time you have, of the life you have, and live a life that is right for you. For most of us, the only thing stopping us is ourselves.
“So death…is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”
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Episode 3: The Meaning of Life & Death – Available wherever you get your podcasts!
What is the meaning of life? What is death? How can you live a better life? Danny and Randy discuss these questions and more in this week’s episode. Listen to find out how they interpret life and death, and learn what you can do to improve your own life and attitude.
The Existential Stoic Podcast – The Meaning of Life & Death, available now wherever you get your podcasts.
Or listen to any Episode of The Existential Stoic Podcasthere.
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