LETTER NO. 10: ON THE MEANING OF LIFE
by Chris R. Morgan
I was a bit blindsided by your request to for a letter on the meaning of life. I’ve tackled several subjects since the beginning of this month, but none seems more susceptible to bumbling headlong into a quagmire of platitude within the strictures of this medium than this one. And with more indulgence it risks sending all involved into an existential tailspin. But I’m thankful to have caught upon my self-centered error quickly. Of course you would ask me about the meaning of life. You’ve probably mulled it over countless times in the course of your career. How many humans have you personally brought into the world? Hundreds? How many of them are on the cusp of retirement age? Have you not supplied an entire generation of northern Floridians? I admit I never considered what it would be like to witness, time and time again, first breaths being drawn, umbilical cords being cut, or to be depended upon to help perpetuate family trees. Maybe I’m being a bit operatic here, but this is not something that I have properly appreciated, I admit, and it certainly helps serve as a contrast to where I intend to go here.
There was a video game released in 2008 called Euro Truck Simulator. Available for Mac, PC, and Xbox One, the player would travel the digitized continent by truck and earn money by picking up and dropping off cargo from country to country. I’ve not played it myself but I’ve seen demonstrations of it on YouTube. Its realism is something to behold. The player is literally a truck driver, possessing powers limited by those of the vehicle they drive and their ability to drive it. Their obstacles would seem to be the traffic conditions and laws to which any other European driver is subject. I’ve not seen what happens when these obstacles prevail, but I can’t imagine they reach Grand Theft Auto levels of excess.
I have a friend named Sarah who wrote a book on the ethics of childbearing and suicide. It is a largely empirical study, written in the analytic and moral tradition of John Stuart Mill, albeit with a degree of wit that was impossible for Mill. In it she asks “If human life were a video game, would anyone choose to play it?” The question may have been put rhetorically, but the answer, it appears, is quite literally yes, as Euro Truck Simulator has not only spawned a sequel but also German, British, and American spinoffs. But not everyone is suited for gaming, and Sarah’s book is a fascinating study of the motives of and moral questions surrounding those who are even less inclined to it. More than that, though, the book asks the reader to consider whether a child “might be harmed by just being created.”
I don’t know if you’ve heard of antinatalism, but had something of a moment a little over two years ago when True Detective first premiered. Frankly I can’t imagine a choicer sounding board for bleak philosophy than the purred drawl of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust “Life is a Flat Circle” Cohle. “I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat,” is one of several such lines, which are echoed from a treatise by horror writer Thomas Ligotti called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. On the map of the humanities, antinatalism is more of an overgrown, under-lit detour than a proper destination. But it has a genealogy, a canon, and a set of principles, prime above all being that the preference for existence is not unanimously accepted as granted. Though pronatalists are not naïve to the inevitability of human suffering, the antinatalist solution proposes the ultimate radicalism. “Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way,” Ligotti wrote. “It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be a magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun.”
In mentioning this it is not my intention to shock or to stake my place in one position against the other and rule on it. But I think it necessary background to be better transparent about how I think.
When it comes to thinking about life, or really any other subject, I have a habit of never being of a single mind about it. I credit Mom and Dad with this to an extent, neither of who ever clung willfully to the abstract. As I see it, belief for them came out of those things material and tangible, whatever could be put to use or which could produce desirable results. I mean this as a compliment. It is a thinking that has served them well in building a life and in most respects I and the other three are the richer for it. But at the same time, as a wider way of thinking, time has not proven it to be very flexible. As times of stability gave way to uncertainty, certain people (me) had begun to lose a great amount of faith in the contingency of contingent thinking. But using the method instilled in me to see nuance in absolutes, I have over time begun to use it against that thinking. It has allowed me to approach ideas as a mechanic would approach spare parts, which in this case are pessimism and realism.
Ideas like antinatalism, and its nearest relatives depressive realism and antihumanism, do not offer me a concise system for living, let alone inspiration for programs to be implemented on a wide scale. They are part of a tapestry I have been making for myself for the last 15 years meant to convey what I think a person is responsible for. As I write this, civilians in Syria, regardless of age or gender, are being “shot on the spot” by its military, while civilians in other parts of the world live in fear of drone attacks. In the United States authority figures and those they protect live in fear of each other. And we’ve amassed enough nuclear arms across the world to vaporize it entirely. Whether from civilized institutions or rogue actors, the successive generations are going to come of age with an understanding of horror totally alien to our own. To get to the meaning of life, it is first worth pointing out how brilliant humanity is at bringing about death. “That man is the noblest creature,” G.C. Lichtenberg wrote, “may be inferred from the fact that no other creature has contested this claim.”
I’ve come to see the optimism in which I had been raised as a bug rather than a feature. And to perpetuate it now would be as egregious as any act of war, because hope is as strong an enabler of war as fear is. I would like it, in fact, if we as a race all stopped thinking as we do. If we stopped thinking that existence has a clear endgame rather than, if not a totally absent one, then at least a mysteriously defined one, and that that end is anthropocentric. Moreover, if we stopped thinking that goodness, while right and true, is not a default, let alone an entitlement. This past year has had talk of new emerging “countercultures” and “revolutions,” but the only revolution that remains to be waged is the self-removal of our species from its pedestal. Not as an act of self-denigration but of self-abnegation. From there a whole reordering of priorities would take place. But the contradiction of human life is that even this thinking is fanciful. So it lives in my head and makes scant appearances in my acted ethics.
John Gray wrote that “other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” Aim, of course, is different than meaning, and possibly a greater demand. Few have the time or the opportunity to see much further than what is in front of their faces at a given moment. Another friend once said that culture today is overweaned on meaning and underfed on mattering. He was talking about the predominance of criticism over art, but when I think of John Gray’s question I can see it fulfilling a different purpose.
If there is a balance that can be achieved between the grand tragedy of humanity and the rougher reality in which it lives, it is to accept and even embrace a world in miniature. There isn’t much wonder in a life bereft of significance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t be joy where it can be gotten. One does not need a grand plan to get out of bed in the morning. For my part, I have no idea where this life is going; I’ve come to expect mostly curveball after curveball. If I have gained any solid truths in the process they are these: friendship is like bread to the starving; family is like a foreign language that is beautiful in cadence and tangled in grammar; and peace is something we go out of our way not to deserve or want but which we need in increasing, perhaps critical, doses.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.