Occasionally I’ll ask someone whose mind I respect to share something they’ve been thinking about for a while. I won’t necessarily agree with their statements, but I think someone once said something positive about being open-minded. In this piece my friend Lu Zhang Gram offers his reflections on that most humble subject, the meaning of life…
The End of Life is Love
Why are we here on Earth? The meaning of Life, the Grand Plan, the explanation of it all has probably tantalized young philosopher men and women since the invention of Language itself. As Russian revolutionary Trotsky put it: “If the end justifies the means, what then justifies the end?”
The Nihilists contend that there is no Grand Plan beyond the necessity of death, survival and reproduction, that the meaning of Life is biological life simpliciter and that Reality is a strangely colourless, odourless, valueless mass of atomic particles. Venerable philosophers from Nietzsche to Sartre and Camus saw existence in this light. The unenviable task of Superman was to somehow weld His own feeble, abstract and ephemeral value predicates onto this unfeeling, dark void through a manly display of sheer willpower and in the process create a habitable space for Mankind.
However, as Heidegger points out, this viewpoint is flatly contradicted by the obvious fact that our daily lived experience is teeming with meaning. Unless we are specialized research academics, we do not navigate an everyday world full of neurotransmitters, line integrals and quarks and muons but rather one of mortgages, telenovellas, industrial strikes, corrupt landlords, get-aways, get-togethers, break-ups, heartbreak and all the rest that quietly passes by, day after day. During 99% of our lives, these experiences form the ground of our reality and the little army of valueless, colourless, charged particles conspiring to make reality appear like it contains such things as Minimum Wage seems better suited for Plato’s realm of Pure Ideas.
On the other hand, we may one day wake up fully realizing the certainty of our own Death, that final end to all conscious experience, and this may lead us to question the ultimate meaningfulness of our everyday pre-occupations. We may ask ourselves like Trotsky, like Heidegger, like countless ones before them. In the face of Death, what is it all for? We work to earn our living, but what is our living for? We save our money for security, but what is our security for? We expend our savings on goods, but what is our consumption for? We struggle for our right to freedom, justice and equality – but is it worth it in the end?
We may despair and declare the question of the meaning of life as itself a meaningless question, as Wittgenstein, the tormented genius of linguistic philosophy, was wont to maintain. But I believe there is pattern in the madness. Life is a chameleon who would rather shift her colours to suit her Perceiver than reveal a glimpse of a core, invariant “essence”. Is it not true that when we find ourselves down in spirits, Life seems empty of any purpose, whereas when we are giddy with joy, Life does not seem to need a purpose after all? Then is it not all the more true that Life only appears as an endless stream of valueless particles in our more Scientific moods, as a chaotic profusion of petty worries, doubts and triumphs in our Everyday moods and as a nagging cacophony of philosophical questions in the mood of Angst?
Philosophers with their ever-enquiring, ever-critical minds have traditionally privileged the mood of Angst as the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of our own existence. This seems to me self-defeating, or as Marx would say, doomed to self-contradiction, for once in the state of Angst, one is bound to ask oneself what getting into that state was really all for in the first place? Therefore I would like to propose an alternative vision, one perhaps marginalized due to the sexual make-up of philosophy faculty throughout history. As Valerie Solanas wrote in her infamous SCUM manifesto: “A woman … knows instinctively that the only wrong is to hurt others, and that the meaning of life is Love.”
What happens in the mood of Love? Here I speak of Love in the broad sense, Love of Humanity, Love of the Other, Love of Growth, Love of Ideas and Causes, Love of Freedom, Justice and Equality (rather than love of possession, power or prestige). Something remarkable. Not the bleak hopelessness of despair or the aimlessness of giddy joy. Not the robotic intellectualism of the Scientific moods, the uncritical, un-reflexive conformity of the Everyday moods, or the philosophical masturbation of the Angst-ridden moods.
With Love comes simply: Trust. Peace. The loss of fear of Death. Openness. Communication. Being plugged into something greater than ourselves. Commitment. Getting off one’s armchair and doing something. Patience. Because we do things for their own sake, not to please people or for the sake of other things. Strength. Being brave and vulnerable and open and respectful all at once – because nothing else ever mattered quite as much.