What if this is it? What if this is all there is to life, that we are simply organisms, made of cells and atoms, struggling for survival in the blind and indifferent mechanism of nature? What if life is but a meaningless affair? So be it. It may all come to nothing in the very end, but for now it means something. What we do has temporary meaning. What we do will affect not only ourselves, but those around us, and those who do not even exist yet. We should not despair in the face of pessimism. Even if it seems to us that we have been forced into a poor and unfair deal, we should not fall into abysmal nihilism. Something can come out of the nothingness, if only for a short time. That is the paradox of life-it may be meaningless, but life does not have to be without meaning. At least for the short time we exist, we can create something that is, for the moment, and for many future moments, worthwhile. That is all that matters.
‘Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing.’ Chuck Palahniuk
It is a commonly held view that pain is bad and that suffering is to be avoided. It’s true that avoiding suffering is generally easier than facing it and dealing with it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what we should do. The idea of the importance of bearing with suffering goes back to Nietzsche who emphasised that suffering was necessary for greatness. Nothing good can come without pain, sacrifice, hard work.
An easy life can come from avoiding suffering. The most fulfilled lives, however, the lives of the greats, were made by suffering. It is because of suffering that we are able to listen to the likes of Mozart, to look at the likes of da Vinci, and to read the likes of Homer. The suffering itself may be incredibly painful, at times almost unbearable, but it is this suffering which will enable us to create art of another level. Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a heavy influence on the thought of Nietzsche, once said ‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed.’ Only through enduring pain and suffering can we become greater human beings, and, if we wish, create something worthwhile.
This is the final part of the question ‘is life meaningless?’ We have discussed that God may or may not exist, but it is up to ourselves to make life meaningful. God’s existence is, ultimately, irrelevant. Moreover, we have seen that even if there was life after death, it would not necessarily follow that life therefore has a purpose. Furthermore, if there is not life after death, this should not lead to despair, but should act as a spring-board to throw our lives into action. Not only does a recognition of death provide a greater appreciation of now, since we know it will not last, but it may also spur us on to use the limited time we have on earth to do something worthwhile. Finally, then, I am going to look life in society, the life we live today, and whether the lives we lead are meaningless. This post will mainly focus on consumerism, and the variations of culture.
Perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is ‘are we living?’, and further, ‘are we living in the ‘real’ world?’ Of course, we could spend lifetimes discussing what ‘real’ is, but for the sake of this discussion, we will be talking about the levels of reality of a consumerist society, and moreover how much, if any, of our lives is ‘real’.
Consumerist culture obviously thrives on consumption, and relies on the consumer to maintain their consumption to boost economic gain. However, what does consumerism mean for the individual? In Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club, he writes ‘people working jobs they hate, so they can buy things they don’t really need’. He further writes:’The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue.’ These are both succinct examples of how consumerism affects the individual. Are we spending time doing things we don’t enjoy so that we can consume things we don’t even need? If so, why? Before, people were addicted to pornography, now they are addicted to consumption and possessions. Society has moved from one destructive addiction to another. But why is it, we must ask, that we feel the need, the compulsion, to work for mere things? One answer, perhaps the most reasonable, is that life is meaningless, and that instead of facing this fact, consumerism acts as a painkiller, a sedative, to distract us, and give us a false sense of purpose. Not only this, but consumerist culture ignores the inevitability of death. We buy new, better, and fundamentally unnecessary things because we act as if we will always be able to work for something better, that we can replace our old phone with a new one for eternity, but this just isn’t true. Nobody likes this harsh fact, but it is a fact. No-one wants to be told that soon enough they’ll be dead, and all that will be left is a new phone or whatever. It is a form of slavery, consumerist society, and the paradox is that we’ve enslaved ourselves. We are now slaves to possessions. The most life-threatening drug out there is accessible to all. Not only this, but it is purely this drug which is supported in our education systems. Our society is a drug-induced society. We are urged to chase success, to become ‘successful’, and to achieve greatness. The problem is that success already manages to stay out of reach. We spend our lives chasing a shadow, the shadow of ‘success’, and no matter how much we achieve, we may never feel ‘successful’, since it is in the nature of a consumerist culture to never be satisfied, to always want more, to never cease. Before we do anything else, we must recognise that life does indeed cease. Only when death is recognised can the futility of consumerism be seen.
So we have established that consumerist culture is meaningless, and that in the end it is a pointless affair and a waste of a life. Are there, though, any other ways of living? How can we combat the drug of consumerism? Firstly, death must be accepted, acknowledged, and embraced as an inevitable reality. Life may be ultimately meaningless, but this does not mean that there doesn’t exist any reason not to live or any reason why life is worthwhile. Consumerism is a meaningless reaction to a meaningless existence. Think, when you die, what will you want to be remembered for? What will other people, the people you knew, and perhaps people in the future, say about you? Do people really want to be remembered as the person who owned the nicest car, the newest phone, or the biggest house? It seems that when death is at the door, nobody cares about these kind of things. At the end of the day, it is your choice how you live. It is also your choice whether you live a meaningless life, or not. All I ask is that you question what kind of life yours is.
Is death our final end?
What if death is the end? What if there is no afterlife, we die, and that’s it, we cease to exist? If death is indeed the end, then life is no doubt, objectively speaking, pointless. We live until we die would be the case. Can there even be any true justice if death is the end? No, it seems there cannot be such a thing.
But what if there is life after death? Immanuel Kant thought that due to practical reason, there must be a God, and an afterlife, if there was to be any real justice. If there is life after death, then there surely must be some kind of objective purpose to existence, even though we may not be able to know or perceive such a thing now. Could there be, however, an afterlife, yet life here on earth still remains meaningless? Perhaps, but we cannot know for sure. Nevertheless, it seems that even with an afterlife, many of the trivial things we do every day and take seriously and view as important may not be so. One thing we can almost say for certain is that material possessions will have no value if such an afterlife exists. It appears to be the case that who we are, rather than what we own, will matter. How we treated others, not how ‘successful’ we were, will matter. Sometimes, it seems, we need to remind ourselves that one day we will die, and that little things, like whether we own the latest gadget, do not really matter.
If death is the end, then we must make life on earth, it seems, more just and we must remind ourselves frequently how short our lives really are, so that we can seize the moment and make a difference in the brief period of our lives. The problem with this is that one may take the view that nothing is worth doing or nothing is right or wrong. However, just because there may be no life after this one does not mean this life here and now is not worthwhile. Our lives on earth being worthwhile is not dependent on whether there is life after death. Furthermore, acting virtuously merely for reward after death is not really virtue after all. People are treated as means, rather than ends, and so acting out of fear of punishment, or for reward from God is not a worthy reason to be ‘good’. What is a worthy reason is another question altogether, although I will mention the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre here, which may be likened to Kant’s idea of a Categorical Imperative. Sartre said that when we choose to act upon something and make a decision, we are choosing for humankind also. If we choose to get drunk on a Saturday night, we are effectively saying that we think this is the way everyone should spend their Saturday evenings. Kant taught that we should live ‘as though your every act were to become a universal law.’
It is clear that life would have no intrinsic meaning if this life is the end (although an afterlife may not mean this life was in fact meaningful), but this does not mean that life is not worth living, or that we are unable to create purpose for ourselves. Regardless of the fact that there is an afterlife or not, one should, it seems, act as if deciding for mankind, and to focus one’s life on what really matters. When you die, people will not care about the things you own, they will care about the person you have become, and the difference you have made. With an afterlife or not, surely this must be what matters.
Is death our final end?
If death is the end, then this life is all we have. Objectively, life can have no meaning if there is no afterlife. Huge amounts of time could be spent on deliberating whether there is an afterlife or not, but here we will take the view that there is no afterlife. This is for two reasons: firstly, belief in an afterlife is, fundamentally, one based on hope. Hope is a dangerous thing, and if this belief is indeed based on hope, then there is no real argument to be concerned about life after death. There are some reasonable arguments for life after death, but overall, the view here is that death is the end. The second reason is that there does not seem to be any genuine reason to believe in such an afterlife. We see death everyday, but we never see life after death simply because it’s not really possible. There may be an afterlife, for who can really say, but perhaps for now we can assume that an afterlife is irrelevant, and it does not really help us, or our lives.
If each person was told that their death was the end, there would probably arise both fear and dread. Perhaps even despair. But this is not the way death should be interpreted. The truth is that we will all die. Even if this does make our lives ‘objectively’ meaningless, this should not lead to a despairing mind-set. On the contrary, death, as we have seen in a previous post, should be liberating. Knowledge that one day all that we have know will be gone can enable us to appreciate life, to seize the short time we have on earth for something we find worthwhile. There may be a God, and there may be an afterlife, but only if we act as if this is not the case can we get the most out of life.
It may be sad to think that life may be meaningless, but life here on earth is full of meaning that we have created ourselves. With or without God, life may be completely meaningless, but as Albert Camus said, this recognition should be a beginning to a new life. For from this we can resurrect as a new, authentic, and ultimately free being.
The question of whether life has meaning is one which has been asked for thousands of years. There is no doubt that there have been many different answers to the question of meaning, but there is perhaps not one of those answers as supposedly bleak as the answer that life has no real meaning at all. Far-fetched associations are made between believing life is meaningless and despair, immorality, godlessness. It appears, however, that there is no way of objectively saying what the meaning of life is, but only what the meaning of your life is. Although life may be, or at least seem, ultimately meaningless and futile, it doesn’t mean that your life is too. Albert Camus said that a realisation of the ‘absurd’ is not an end, but a beginning. There are three questions, it seems, that must be answered to question whether life really is objectively meaningless:
- Is death our final end?
- Does God exist, and does his existence make life any more meaningful?
- Is the way we live a proof of the fundamental lack of meaning in our lives?
Do you think life is meaningless?
What makes your life meaningful?