Monday, July 15, 2013
Sympathy for Dinosaurs
The fundamental question of philosophy is whether or not to commit suicide, said Camus. Once this question is answered, everything else falls in; one either kills oneself, or one eats food, sleeps, works, loves, and moves through the days toward some other kind of death. Some people never have to ask this question, and some people never wonder, but other people have to ask and answer more than once. Camus thought that philosophers had to ask and answer, and that if Nietzsche was right and philosophers had to 'lead by example' insofar as they had to live the philosophy that they espoused, then philosophers had to examine the question of suicide and answer it through action. Once there was action, the answer was clear.
Yesterday, I woke up wondering what the point of "it all" is. Camus would say that I was ambushed by the absurd:"at any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. As it is, in its distressing nudity, in its light without effulgence, it is elusive," he says. Absurdity is hard to get a handle on, as the mind hesitates to look at it. Feeling the absurdity of existence can make a person despair. The ultimate pointlessness of life, if one takes the long view into the future of the planet, is overwhelming. So where can the mind go from there? Absurdity pushes us towards the fundamental question. If absurdity makes you say yes to suicide, then living is completely out of the question. If it makes you say no to suicide, then you have to find something about life to say yes to. A no to suicide is ultimately a resistance to absurdity's compelling evidence that nothing really matters, but in this world without gods, what does matter?
My answer in the face of absurdity is that all the little things matter, and that being alive matters, as a nice gift of existence that one might never have had and which will be taken away from one again at some point in time. There's no real, ultimate, deep meaning to life. It's nice to be here though, to love people and be loved back, to feel the sun on one's face and to help other things live. Trees never ask what the point of it all is, and maybe that's why I like them so much. In a way it's just a really stupid question. The answer, that there is no point, is obvious. The question of what you're going to do about it is the one that matters.
I recognize when absurdity slaps me in the face that about 60% of my feeling comes from sympathy for the dinosaurs. Their world ended while they were in the middle of doing things with their lives, and ours will too. There won't be much warning, or when there is warning it will come way too late for us to do anything about it. So I sympathize, and empathize, and fear, too, the end that they didn't fear. Another 30% of my feeling is a kind of distress that comes from my impression that what I'm doing right now with my life doesn't matter right now in the world, and that's hard. I'm someone who wants my existence to have a positive impact on the world around me, even if small, and to help people who don't know me. Sometimes my work gets me there, but sometimes not. I'm working on changing that, but it's slow-going. The final 10% is fear and doubt of various kinds, related to my own future - maybe I'll fail, maybe I'll never get where I want to go, maybe I'll never feel satisfied. When the world ends, I don't want to feel like I've wasted my whole life.
Ultimately, though, 100% of the absurdity gets overridden by the meaning that I make for myself in the world around me. My life has meaning because of the people I love and who I want to spend time with, and the things that I enjoy doing. Not thinking about an afterlife really frees one up to think about what's good now - eating food, drinking wine, riding my bike, talking to people, taking road trips, connecting to the world... Lots of things are worth doing and living for in this short time that we have. Work is an unfortunately large part of life, and it's easy to let it grind you down. But when absurdity pushes me to ask the fundamental question, my answer is always no.