Saturday, September 17, 2011

Everything is Meaningless

We were at a funeral last weekend. Funerals bring out lots of absurd thoughts. There we all were, looking at a dead man in a coffin. And we knew for sure that one day we will meet the same fate. One day, blood will no longer run through our veins and our touch will grow cold.

People have different reactions to this line of thinking. They worry about dying or fear death. But for us, it reminded us of the absurdity of life, the futility of it, and the thought always makes us feel light and airy and humbled and carefree.

We wonder, if that man in the coffin could stand here with us for a few moments, what would he think and say? What advice might he offer? Would he see with some special clarity the absurdity of it all?

Most appropriately, given our thoughts, the minister read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which we reproduce below. We think it is a poetic statement of the absurd and so we share it here. Enjoy and reflect on the meaninglessness of it all!

Ecclesiastes 1

1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

On the Arbitrariness of Identity

We yelled at our son this morning. According to our wife, we were standing over him, pointing, and yelling for him to "KNOCK IT OFF!" In other words, the very antithesis of the absurd man we ramble on about in these pages. Yet now, a few short hours later, we sit in mystified contemplation of the morning's events, nonplussed and a bit embarrassed at the way we acted. Indeed, we felt similarly a mere 20 or 30 minutes after the incident. Which raises an interesting question.

Which individual--the ranting, unhinged father, or the calm, contemplative thinker--better represents our true identity? Were we acting out of character then...or are we now? Or are both versions somehow pieces of the same whole? But before we get to that, let us pose another question.

Consider a man about to have sex. (We speak of men because we have no knowledge of whether the same is true for women. As an aside, we recently heard that one of Goethe's primary goals was to understand how it felt to be a woman. This has seemed more and more interesting the more we have thought about it...) For a man in the throes of passion, having sex is the most important thing in the world. Bombs going off, floodwaters rising, bottom of the ninth...nothing else matters. And yet, after sex, the exact opposite is true. Sex now holds zero interest for him - suddenly, the top of the fifth seems a lot more enticing.

So...which is the "real" man? Said a different way, how can an individual's value system shift so completely (taking sex from the top to the bottom) a fraction of a second?!?

Our answer, as you may have guessed, is that this is an empty question, akin to asking what rocks think about. The reason we can seemingly be "different" people not just over the years, but from day to day and moment to moment, is that we are different, as physical changes occur and alter who "we" are. However, while sometimes these changes are radical (eg someone who has a stroke), most of the time they are minor enough to fit into our established personal narrative. Thus, while we are clearly a "different person" from 20 or 30 years ago, this is far less obvious, at least most of the time, over very short periods.

What we call identity, then, is simply a convenient fiction we establish to try to make sense of our life, with no more meaning than the arrangement of fallen leaves under a tree.

The odd thing is, even as we sit here writing about how foolishly we acted this morning, we have no doubt such experiences will occur again. (Although we should note they seem to occur with far less frequency the more we have embraced the absurd; further, our "recovery time" from such events is significantly shorter. Not that it matters, of course...;-)

And this brings us to another Goethe quote we find remarkably insightful:

"Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again."