by Akim Reinhardt
Last month I offered about 2,000 words on the meaninglessness of life.
“Life is meaningless,” I said. “Nothing matters, nothing at all.”
I suggested that “meaning and truth are just illusions that humans chatter about incessantly because they can't stomach the sheer meaninglessness of it all.”
Indeed, your birth was an act of unfathomable randomness, as is the very existence of life on Earth and the rise of humanity. We delude ourselves by creating and embracing meaning. But the absence of truth is the only truth I know and meaninglessness is the only thing I have.
“And today,” I said last month, “I just can't bring myself to pretend otherwise.”
But 4 Mondays ago isn't everyday. The fact is, many days, perhaps most, I do pretend that things matter and that truth exists and that morality is real.
I pretend even though I know I'm pretending. I can't help myself. I'm not a guru of nihilism with single-minded purpose of pulling back the curtain to reveal the empty chair where you thought sits the wizard. I'm not a sociopath incapable ascertaining that anything might matter beyond me.
I'm just a regular person for the most part. One with a devilish smile and more corduroy than the average person does or should have in their wardrobe, perhaps. But regular in most ways. And so even though I know deep down that life is meaningless, I usually give in to the temptation to pretend that things do matter. Pretending this way comes naturally, and to a large degree I'm happy with the results.
Thus, last month's 2,000 words about why life is meaningless and how nothing matters, are now complemented by these 2,000 words about why and what I pretend is meaningful and matters.
People want to find meaning in life. To do so they embrace belief systems both vast and small. And their actions, in turn, are shaped by those beliefs.
Pretending to find meaning in life is a universal human trait. And when people pretend something is meaningful, they're usually not pretending in the play acting sense of the word. Rather, they truly believe many different pretenses about life's meaning, and they often act accordingly.
Thus, if you believe something is real, then it is real in some sense. It's real to you, and it informs your behavior. You might be wrong in an objective sense. The thing you believe might actually be make believe, but it's real to you, and the consequences of your belief are also real. So while there may not be any meaning to what we pretend is meaningful, it is important nonetheless.
It would be näive to suggest, as some do, that humans are one-dimensional beings who can be completely understood through beliefs systems they embrace and espouse. To the contrary, even the most dogmatic person is capable of betraying their values, of harboring heretical thoughts, of taking actions that defy their professed beliefs, or of engaging in simple hypocrisies. Indeed, to do so is itself a defining characteristic of humanity.
Belief systems then are best understood as a framework that influences actions to varying degrees at various times. But that influence is very real even if it is faulty. On the one hand, even ardent believers stray from time to time. On the other, even the uncommitted act in accordance with vague and banal belief systems much of the time.
As an atheist who doesn't accept supernatural explanations, and as a skeptic more generally, there's no prescribed book of truth in whose pages I can locate the meaning of life or a framework for my actions.
Furthermore, I don't merely reject dogma, I loathe it. Dogma makes people stupid to the point of being insufferable. So instead, whenever I have elected to pretend that life has meaning and that things matter, I've had to figure it out for myself.
What is one to do?
I, for one, have decided to consciously consider what I should pretend matters. I work hard to construct a moral framework that seems right and an ethical system that seems responsible. I try to locate the intersection between my gut and my brain, and from that position I determine what I should pretend matters.
After 47 years on this planet, here's what I've come up with. Let's start with the bad.
1. Wonton cruelty is bad
Suffering and pain are real. We can debate what they mean, if anything, but there's no debating the reality of physical and psychological/emotional pain. Sometimes shit hurts.
Life cannot be pain free. Allowances must be made for suffering and pain that is reasonably self-inflicted (eg. fasting), willingly received (eg. a rough game that one enjoys playing), or necessary for a greater good (eg. a medical procedure). But beyond such exceptions, pain and suffering are awful and I generally strive hard to avoid inflicting them upon other beings.
I'm not perfect. I fuck up. I hurt people sometimes. Skinny motherfucker like me, it's mostly the psychological or emotional variety. But that hardly makes it any better. By accident, carelessness, or weakness, I hurt others from time to time. I almost always regret it and try to learn from it by becoming more conscientious and aware of myself and others in the hope of avoiding the repeats.
I believe that sadism (again, allowing for what two consenting adults might do), is about as bad as human behavior gets. Intentionally causing the pain and suffering of another being for no justifiable reason, relegates a person to the lowest rung of humanity in that moment.
2. Killing is necessary but should be done with discretion and respect
No lives have meaning, which is just one of many reasons why I believe that human lives are not in fact more important than the lives of other sentient animals. Other sentient beings want to live just as much as we do. Perhaps even more so given that they rarely, if ever, commit suicide. Your life might be meaningless, but it's your meaningless life, and theirs is theirs, the only one any of us will ever have. And so killing other beings, human or otherwise, requires justification and care.
The most obvious justification is that all living things must kill and devour other living things in order to continue living. Such a cycle of life and death is not a moral issue in and of itself; it's just the nature of death and life on planet Earth. In an absolute sense, there's nothing moral or immoral about a lion killing and eating a gazelle. But there is also no relative morality since lions and gazelles are incapable of contemplating the morality of their existence.
As living beings, humans must also kill other living things to survive. But since we can contemplate the morality of our killing, we should. And while we are designed to be omnivorous, the fact is we can live very healthy lives by killing just plants for food. Here in the developed world of the 21st century, we need not kill animals for food. Meat is an unessential luxury item, and plants do not seem to be sentient.
So I refrain from eating mammals and birds.
Yet I continue eating fish. Why? Because I am a hypocrite. Or at the very least, inconsistent. I'm very human that way.
In a functional sense, I simply don't pretend that killing fish is wrong while I do pretend that killing mammals is wrong. I'm on the fence about birds, but once upon a time, giving them up was a good excuse not to eat my mother's chicken.
Did I mention that this is not a proselytizing essay? I have enough awareness of my own shortcomings to realize that I shouldn't be seeking converts, and I'm certainly not trying to create any dogma.
Anyway, I wouldn't go so far as to say that life is sacred. However, I choose to respect the desire of all mammals to live. Maybe it's because they're so much like us. Either way, that's enough for me to avoid killing them or to ask someone to kill them for me.
And when I do kill, I try to do so respectfully and to minimize pain. For example, when I go fishing, I fish to eat. And when I catch a fish, I kill it instead of throwing it into a cooler to suffocate to death. One sharp, strong blow to the head. Then I silently acknowledge the fish's loss of life and my role in it. It's not a prayer or a ritual. It's just an effort to remain conscious of the decisions I make and why.
Okay, enough of the bad. Now for the good.
1. Bring joy
I suppose this is the opposite of don't be cruel.
It's important to remember that joy is always circumstantial. So joy is difficult to find at times, and it is always fleeting, which makes it precious.
In the rough draft to this essay, I accidentally misspelled “fleeting” as “fleeing.” That might actually be more apt. Joy finds you, sits on your lap, brings comfort, and then runs away like a cat frightened by the sound of your laughter.
Cherish it. Create it, for yourself and others when opportunity arises.
2. Be thoughtful
In the end, you have to figure it out for yourself. Whatever “it” is.
Your best chance of doing so is to sharpen your mind. Always strive to be smarter. And don't measure that by a tally knowledge. Rather, hone your ability to think. Strive to understand nuance and complexity. Be intellectually honest. Be courageous. Challenge yourself. Instead of merely accumulating knowledge, accept that the more you learn, the less you know; it is better to have a sliver of the big picture than most of a small one.
Being thoughtful is important because your beliefs do shape your actions. If you have shoddy beliefs, your actions will often follow suit. And so think instead of merely accepting what your eyes see or what everyone else tells is you true. The person who will not think for him or herself is more spectator than participant in their own life. Socrates was right. The unexamined life is not worth living.
Case in point: everything I've said in these two essays may be wrong. In fact, it probably is. Use your noodle. Recognize it.
While I don't believe it is possible to discern a purpose to our lives, I do pretend to find meaning in the way we live them.
So far as I can tell, the human quest for meaning is largely inescapable. Even if, like me, you attempt to peer through all the make believe and own up to the meaninglessness of it all, you're still apt to continue pretending life has various meanings. The human urge to do so is very strong.
As someone who rejects dogma, finding a meaningful life I can pretend is real is itself a work in progress. It's life by trial, and the consequences are as varied as life itself.
Along the way, I continue to interrogate the values and ideas that I'm willing to pretend are real. If a pretended ideal will define me or represent me, then it must remain palatable to me over time as I continue to taste test it again and again amid changing circumstances. What I pretend is meaningful today, I may disavow tomorrow. So don't hold me to anything I've said here. Rather, walk with me along this road, thoughtfully agreeing or disagreeing as you see fit, until the time comes when you feel you must take a different path. And I will wish you all the best on your journey.
Akim Reinhardt has a website. Sometimes he pretends it's meaningful, but deep down he knows better.