We have been engaged in a very interesting debate with a reader in recent days. Put simply, he (we assume it is a he) questioned our assertion that given the meaninglessness of existence, it does not "matter" if one's wife has an affair. In his view, we are being too dogmatic about the meaning of "meaning," and not recognizing the (in his words) "tapestry of personal meaning" we all weave around ourselves. Thus, we are failing to recognize the difference between the universal (which is meaningless) and the personal (which is not, even if said meaning only has relevance to each of us individually).
This is an interesting point, and one which seems to have a great deal of validity. After all, as our reader points out, if you take our position to its logical extreme there is absolutely no difference between spending a weekend skiing in Vail with your supermodel girlfriend (for example) and sitting on a park bench staring vacantly into space. In fact, why bother to get out of bed in the morning at all when you know everything you do is futile, doomed to complete and total irrelevance?
Well...why indeed? As we noted in a recent post, the first decision one must make after recognizing the absurd is whether or not to go on living. But a deeper question is whether one should live for certain "things"--be they other people, material possessions, or certain feelings--or for the sake of living itself. We obviously believe the latter, but this is in fact a much more complicated question than it first appears, with (in our opinion) some very dangerous pitfalls.
For example, our reader referenced Douglas Hofstadter's excellent book "I Am a Strange Loop" as support for his position that the personal is meaningful. Indeed, in the book, Hofstadter, who makes a compelling case for the self being nothing more than a grand and incredibly seductive illusion, nevertheless clings to the memory of his wife (who died unexpectedly of a brain tumor) as meaningful to him. Again, this seems fairly straightforward--why must our embrace of meaninglessness on a universal level preclude feelings and self-created meaning on a personal level?
Basically, our reader draws a sharp distinction between reliance on what he terms "externally-imposed" meaning (e.g., what the church or society says "matters") and "self-created" meaning. In his words: "To accept externally imposed meaning is to subject one's self to the whims and machinations of others. But self-created meaning is a wholly different thing. With self-created meaning, I am the one who chooses. There is no ceding of control here. If anything, there is a taking of control... a stepping up to the task...Self-created meaning is a beautiful thing, because one can make of [it] whatever one chooses. One can cut off the left side of the distribution, so to speak, and tailor the contours of your metaphysical existence however one sees fit."
Well, as Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast, my friend!" The error our reader is making is that by embracing meaning (even as he admits the whole thing is a fraud) he invalidates his entire belief structure. Put simply, if your happiness (or perhaps a better word is contentment) is dependent on external things--even if they are things you choose, and even if you recognize the ultimate absurdity of it all--you are indeed ceding control. How could it be otherwise? Can you really control whether your wife has an affair? If you believe family is all that "matters" (and many people do, even as they profess sympathy for the absurd), what happens if your wife and children are killed in a plane crash? What if they are all stricken with cancer?
More importantly, there is no difference whatsoever in external and self-created meaning. Consider someone who believes the teachings of the Catholic church to be meaningful, and who thus models his behavior around church teachings. While our reader would no doubt place such behavior in the "externally imposed" category of meaning, would the church follower agree? We think not. Just as all parents believe they have an enormous impact on their children, and all children believe they are their "own" people, so everyone believes the things that "matter" to them are important because they chose them. The individual in our example would almost certainly claim to believe in church teachings not because someone told him to, but because he has recognized their validity of his own free accord. Indeed, to turn this around, we would argue that the things our reader views as "meaningful" to him are simply products of his genetic makeup and environment. Put a slightly different way, to believe what our reader proposes you must also believe in the existence of a self, and therefore in something that exists beyond the physical. Otherwise, who is the "I" that "chooses" the things that matter?
Consider the original example, that of one's wife having an affair. We recognize that for most people it is jarring to hear us assert such an event does not matter, but ask yourself why. The answer, for those who choose to find it, is that jealousy (along with other human emotions) is nothing more than a biologically advantageous strategy passed down from our ancestors. Thus, men who were more successful at keeping their wives from mating from other men tended to pass down more genes than those who were less successful. It really is that simple, as Richard Dawkins revealed in his groundbreaking work The Selfish Gene. So...it turns out the reason I am jealous if my wife has an affair (and let's be honest - most people would be) is simple biology and evolution.
But the crux of the matter is the false distinction drawn between externally imposed and self-created meaning, which masquerades as truth, but instead creates self-imposed obstacles to achieving true contentment through acceptance of our fate. In short, in his quixotic quest to create meaning in the face of an uncaring universe, our reader unwittingly denies himself the wondrous experience of embracing the abyss.