There have been several, scattered moments in my life that have had me considering "life's meaning." Now I don't mean that I sit in dark corners with a furrowed brow examining the deepest recesses of my heart and mind or doing whatever else it is that one imagines old philosopher guys doing. It's general some quick thought or quirky object that sets off a short flurry of ideas - some stick, others don't. The closest I have come to "understanding the meaning of life" is when staring into the grill of a car.
A couple of years ago I found myself walking along a street in Oberlin, Ohio, passing by a row of parked vehicles. Walking past one car after another I was struck - as I have often been in the past - by how much the grill of a car looks like a wide, human grin. Add in the headlights and bumper and you've got yourself a dorky face. I was then led to thinking that this resemblance between the face of a car and a human is probably no coincidence - after all the human body is the most sophisticated machine (at least on the planet earth) that we are aware of. The infinite wonders of the human body are, as I understand them, unknowable and irreplicable. Which led me to giving a huge shout-out to whatever it was that has created us for being so damn amazing.
Now I consider myself somewhat of an agnostic which means I am a person of non-denominational faith and I believe in "god" but only as a signifier of that something out there which is, again, unknowable and incomprehensible. So, no, for me it's no old man with a snowy beard seated on a throne in the sky. But walking along the street that afternoon god sprung into my head as a puppeteer - a terrible sadistic one at that - who was cruel enough to make us believe that we really counted for something, that we had some control over "life," indeed that our lives meant anything. Zoom out, way, way, WAY out from the street, and I became a little, self-important thing, believing that I was functioning, at least in part, of my own accord but really was just being played - BIG time. Now I know I haven't said anything particularly unique or insightful here, but the reason that moment has remained with me because that was when I came closest to realizing that the meaning of life is that life is meaningless.
I'm not being a cynic here - instead I think that this meaninglessness of life is quite productive. I'm sure Jacques Derrida would have something wonderfully poetic to say here - something like the only way to live life is through meaninglessness for once we try to infuse meaning into life we begin to die. I'm not familiar enough with Derrida though, so he may not agree with me or for all you know he's already made some comment about the meaning of life somewhere. I'll update this post if I come across something of the sort. The reason I think meaninglessness is productive is the precisely that which brought me to this post - death.
Yesterday, I was incredibly shocked to hear of the passing of (MS)NBC journalist Tim Russert. My partner gave me the news in passing, in a very unremarkable, matter-of-fact tone. For a moment, although I heard him say Tim Russert, I thought he was referring to Russell Crow. But even I detected the dissonance, so I asked "who's Tim Russert?" When I realized that it was indeed Tim Russert, the journalist, who had died, I was struck with decided disbelief and yes, some grief. Now, am I no fan of Tim Russert's, I haven't ardently followed his career or admired his work... I've barely "know him" a few months, since the presidential primaries began. But over the past few months, while I've been hooked onto MSNBC, Daily KOS and Huffington Post, Tim Russert has definitely been a huge part of my everyday. And when someone becomes so much a part of your everyday that you take their existence for granted, death can come as a very rude jolt.
Death often has a huge impact on me even if it's not a particularly personal one. My first encounter, so to speak, with death was when the son of a family acquaintance contracted rabies. I don't recall exactly how old I was - maybe around 7-8 or so - but I remember first hearing the news that this young man, barely in his twenties, had been hospitalized for rabies; his heart stopped beating at some point but he had been successfully resuscitated and was now in intensive care. I had never know the man, I can't at this point even recall his name; all I knew about him was that he was the son of this popular figure in our neighborhood. Yet, I found myself praying incessantly for his recovery, asking my parents for constant updates, and finally bawling for hours when, after a few days, I found out he had passed away. I didn't understand then, and I'm not sure I understand now, why the death of someone I had never met, and probably never laid eyes on, affected me so much.
When I turned on MSNBC yesterday to learn more about Tim Russert's passing, I was moved at times but more often frustrated and disgusted with the spectacle. MSNBC of course had wall-to-wall coverage of the event which meant they had an unending line-up guests being asked for their reactions to the news. The valorization and romanticization of Tim Russert that was underway seemed, to me, in many case, so superficial and disrespectful. What really upsets me in situations like these is that those folks who might have been disrespectful and dismissive in life to the now deceased, suddenly turn to more glowing, flowery language to describe the person in death. I remember as a child watching the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi, the assassinated Prime Minister of India. The massive procession of mourners accompanying the PM's body to the funeral pyre, marched to the chant of "Rajiv Gandhi zindabad" (i.e. Long live Rajiv Gandhi). Watching this spectacle, I recall blurting out through tears, "Now, they say zindabad. When he was alive they said 'Rajiv Gandhi murdabad' (i.e. Death to Rajiv Gandhi). "
I guess the point I am trying to make is that the reason death affects me so much is because the valorization and romanticization that follows death reveals the triviality and falseness of life. The valorization and romanticization is false because of the superficiality of the source (i.e. enunciator), but more importantly it is false because it makes heros out of flawed humans. Thus, the spectacle of mourning death through its very grandiosity in fact points to the triviality, the meaninglessness of life. For if life did have meaning, I believe, it would be unspeakable in death. Which is why those that are most intimate to the deceased tend to have the least to say about the person and instead focus on the incomprehensibility of the death. The closest one comes then to finding "meaning" in life is not through the performance of life, but rather through the silence of being (existence). Perhaps that is why I was impacted so much by that young man's death - because, precocious child that I was, I knew how death would shatter the illusion that was his life. And maybe that is why I have such a discomfort with visible acts of mourning because the act of speaking one's life robs it of the very little meaning that it has, to begin with.
So if you ever find yourself in the position of mourning my death, please shut up!