Monday, October 15, 2012

Atheistic Existentialism and the Search for Meaning

I am an atheistic existentialist. I believe there is no inherent meaning attached to life, and that we must find our own meaning to make existence bearable. The atheistic component comes into play when I consider where that meaning is derived from. I have no reason to believe that a higher deity has a plan for me. I do not believe in any romantic notions about our souls descending into heaven once we die. I believe our hearts just stop beating and we cease consciousness. Our bodies are placed in wooden boxes and are either buried six feet under or cremated. It'll be like going to sleep, but NEVER waking up. Now, I find that idea very unpleasant. Still, I value truth and evidence, and would prefer that grim prospect to a life wasted by praising a god that isn't there. I'm aware that some of my opinions in this post will make me sound like a nihilist, but I reject that label, because nihilists tend to abandon all moral principles, and I do believe there is a right and a wrong.

Love and Death (1975)

As of late, I've been obsessed with the philosophy of Woody Allen. Yes, Woody is primarily a filmmaker, but I love his mind first and foremost, and his films second. In the clip below, he talks about the artist's role to alleviate human suffering. This is a man who, since 1969, has averaged one film per year. He's always working because, if he takes a break in his schedule, he begins to think about the terrifying nature of existence—how old he's getting, if he'll get cancer, how much longer his heart can hold out. Work is a distraction for him. He doesn't care if his films are not perfect, because a successful film does not alter the human predicament that everyone will eventually die.

He doesn't keep his Academy Awards on display. They won't change the fact that he is mortal, so why should he grow attached to them? He summed up his outlook on life in the opening monologue of Annie Hall—that it is "full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly." In Crimes and Misdemeanors, he toys with the idea that, in a godless universe, it's up to the individual to monitor oneself. Without a god to punish you, you can get away with anything, including murder. In Hannah and Her Sisters (my favourite of his films), Allen plays Mickey Sachs. When a doctor tells Mickey he doesn't have cancer, Mickey runs out of the clinic and does a little victory dance. Then, he suddenly stops, realising that, while he may not have cancer, his time will be up one day. 

I mentioned some of Woody's beliefs because they are virtually the same as mine. I was always ashamed to tell people that I think life is meaningless, but since discovering Woody Allen, I've realised my view is more universal than I originally thought. Why must I spend my time on Earth going to school, university and work? Sure, these things seem normal because humans have been doing them for a while now. But before these became societal institutions and checkpoints, did we humans roam around like savage beasts, living primitive lives? Why do we have to take life so seriously? Why does it matter what grades you get in school? One day, you'll be dead. The teachers who marked your essays will be dead. The canteen lady will be dead. The principal will be dead. All gone. Yet, even with this knowledge, I still want to succeed. I know it won't matter when I'm just some ashes in an urn (at the moment, I prefer cremation over burial—just), but I'm forced to buy into this illusion that success will mean something. If I didn't sit any of my tests in high school, or if I choose to never find employment in my life, then I'll become a nobody and descend into a life of poverty. It's like there's this tacit agreement amongst everyone that, while we all end up as dust, we have to pretend that we're 'getting somewhere' or making an impression. 

On the notion of creating impressions and leaving behind legacies, I return to Woody Allen. He said that you can admire the works of Rembrandt and Plato, but that won't bring them back to life. Sure, YOU are enjoying their works, but THEY are long gone and wouldn't have the slightest idea that their works matter. Allen said he wouldn't mind if all of his films and the negatives of his films were thrown in the sewer once he is gone. He's realistic, as demonstrated through his admission, "Not that I think I’m totally untalented, but I don’t have enough to get my blood circulating once rigor mortis sets in." The majority of people who were alive 100 years ago are now dead. In 100 years' time, the vast majority of you who are reading this in 2012 will be dead. Some people will remember you. They might stop by your grave every six months and lay some wilted roses next to your headstone. You won't be aware that they're visiting. They'll do it out of respect and love, and one day they will be the ones who have flowers placed on their grave. As generation after generation passes on, you become nothing greater than an entry on a family tree. You'll become that great-great-great-great-grandparent, when you were once a mother or a father.

And all the celebrities who you admire...they'll die too. Every single one of them. Kevin Spacey. Kate Winslet. Emma Stone. Adam Sandler. I'm just tossing up names here, but the truth is, assuming you live a healthy, prosperous life: you will live to see all the news bulletins announcing the death of every celebrity significantly older than you. It's a scary thought, but we don't think about it because we find distractions. Just like you try and disregard that the lead singer of your favourite 70s band is sporting a head of grey hair now, you have to brush off some of the inelegant facts of life. Otherwise, it all becomes too miserable. If you sit around thinking that nothing at all matters, you might think about killing yourself, and that's a horrible thing to do, because it makes the people who love you very sad. 

"But if life has no meaning, why does it matter if one chooses to throw it away?" I hear you asking. Here's how I see it. If you're reading this, you are a miracle. Your father's sperm fertilised your mother's ovum, and you came into fruition. There would have been a point growing up where you realised you won't be around forever. You realised that education, work and settling down are stages of life that most people adhere to. You discovered the pleasure of distractions such as music, art, film and literature. You've made some friends along the way because it's enjoyable to let others share in your happy moments. Now, all these things you've done have not, in any way, changed the fact that you are mortal. However, there's no denying that while we are alive, we can enjoy ourselves. Yeah, we'll die, and that diminishes the experience a little bit, but if we tuck that fact at the back of our minds, we can get by. Appreciate the little things: the froth on your coffee, a trip to the zoo, birthday cards from your grandparents, bubble wrap. If you take all of these things into account, killing yourself becomes the last thing on your mind. We may only be around for a relatively small time, but we can have a ball while we're at it, can't we? Like Camus wrote, "It's no use reminding yourself daily that you are mortal: it will be brought home to you soon enough." I'll leave you with a scene from Hannah and Her Sisters. It's my favourite movie scene of all time. I hope you find it as meaningful as I did.

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