SECTION ONE. THE PROBLEM DEFINED.
I am looking at a newspaper photo. It is of a woman lying face down on square pavement stones on a street in Sarajevo. The toes of her shoes touch, but the heels are splayed apart giving her a pigeon-toed appearance. There are long socks slightly rumpled, winter overcoat secured around her body, a hint of a scarf showing around her head, some sort of message clasped in her hand. She was on her way to do something or see someone, a mortar round exploded nearby, and a piece of shrapnel hit her in the head. She must have fallen forward, dead-struck, crashing on her face. Yet, the appearance is somewhat as if she were taking a quick rest --as Central Park sun-bathers do-- against the cold; there is no blood showing or any grotesque contortion. Three men, probably in their early 20's, are walking up stairs leading to the pavement and are glancing down at her body, looking without dread or fear, only benign interest --the same look we would give a dead street pigeon. The picture reeks of the horror of sudden death and the total apathy and mechanical disregard the world and its persons can have for it and one another. Remembering the conditions described in the chapter on existentialism. we wonder if death is considered to be so trivial, so factual, so fatalistic, so complete in its extermination of meaning, so absurd that a stroll could be taken beside the body of a person who was only minutes before just like us, could not life be the same?
Let me rub the intellectual terror of the picture into the eyes of your mind. With death surrounding us, with the inevitable prospect of our own death, with the terrible suffering of persons (especially children) and animals for no good reason, with the cryptic, skeptical remark of "So what!" to anything we may claim to be of value, sooner of later, we are forced to deal with a most serious question, "Is life meaningful?"
Asking this question is in fact asking a number of questions: "Is there meaning to the universe, as a whole?" Or, "Is there meaning IN the universe? Or, "Is there meaning to human life?" And last, "Is there meaning to MY life?" An adequate answer to any of the more general questions must include a satisfactory response to the last question, for that one is most important; the world may have some sort of meaning but if our own lives have no meaning then the value of our lives in our own eyes amounts to a big zero, maybe even worse. That nihilistic outlook is hard to live with. Look, if we are but poor players on a stage of cosmic rubble, then the matter of a meaningful life is pretty damned important, less we end up finding ourselves as mere spectators of the tragedy/horror of human slapstick existence.
So, what makes life, and especially each of our lives, meaningful?
The answer that I propose is unusual in its concept, though not really foreign to us, for it builds upon the conclusions we reached in the chapter on existentialism. It is that the meaning in and of our lives consists in being a "moral artist," that what (the goodness) we create out of our rational (free-will) and emotive powers, along with the developed capacity to enjoy discovering values that are already there in the world, constitute the meaning of our lives. Put another way, creatively doing right --choosing the rationally correct (moral) and aesthetically beautiful option-- and enjoying the beauty and goods of the world are what make life worth living at least on an individual basis. Each of us creates our SELVES and "colors" the world much in the same way an artist brings a work of art into being and adds to the beauty of the world. Each self is a novel work, created by deliberation, the product of trying to find the best reasons for what action is done, which action becomes a determining factor of goodness or badness in the processes of the world. Whatever the action, whether considerable or minute, it makes a difference to the overall goodness/beauty of the world. No person or action is so small to not effect the outcome of the world. Some actions, needless to say, will not make a big difference. Yet, the smallest most insignificant action, perhaps one of “random kindness,” may change the overall course of history. Hindsight is always best sight, so it’s hard to tell which actions will lead to what consequences. On the overall, however, it is safe to predict that the more right actions are done, the better the world will be.
But, my thesis sounds rather “spacy;” we must search for a better understanding of my intuition.
I shall take us on an intellectual journey into reasons or stories which support my thesis. Some of the explanations are rather complicated and I beg apology now for insufficient exposition. Our journey will look like this. First, we will examine the questions raised above by researching what we mean by having a meaningful life; we'll examine what a truly meaningful life would be like. I shall do this exploration from the point of view of a theist. Then, we'll switch to the other side of the coin and review what existentialists say about the horror of living in this world which can be labeled absurd. Having done these two tasks, we should be in a position to consider the nature of free-will, for I will claim that this power is the condition which, when used properly, is the critical ingredient which makes life (one's own life) meaningful. I'll talk about the novel and moral/aesthetic natures of free-action and how right actions make the essence of a person. While doing so, I will comment on some old problems that we have touched on: the mind-body problem, the problem of personal identity and the problem of evil. Finally, I will have some remarks about the nature of wisdom, friendship and religion.
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