A reader by the name of “nikhil” posed the following question on one of my recent posts. After devoting much thought to his/her inquiry, I opted to respond in a separate post. This is in part due to the fact that I feel as though this is a sufficiently interesting topic on its own to deserve its own separate post; and second, because there is no straightforward way of handling a question of this nature.
I have a question, how do you continue to do what you’re doing, living, in spite of knowing how utterly pointless existence is, the burden to create meaning when the very notion of meaning is just another piece of human fabrication.
I’d like to first respond on a purely personal/biographical level; second, I’d like to give a rough philosophic response – not only to that which the question speaks – but also to the very asking of the question as such.
For me personally, there’s no over-arching answer as to how or why I continue to live in the face of a meaningless existence. Most of the time I find myself comfortably acclimated to the absence of any grand meta-narrative for human life. The presence of absence is, I think, what it means to experience human finitude in its most radical form – that subtle call that reminds us of our own individual finitude, but also what makes possible individuation at all. It’s the possibility that comes with the dread – a possibility of finding one-self through the cluttered curiosity and idle-talk of the average everyday experience of being-human.
What’s more problematic for me are those times when my own meaningful relations to my world seem to break down; that is, when the things that show up as meaningful to me seem to lose all meaning (for me). I don’t have any answer to these situations, which it must be conceded I find myself in more often than I’d otherwise care to admit. I regularly feel disconnected from the world around me, and there are even more severe moments where the most basic meaningful engagements seem nearly impossible. I also am constantly besieged by my own melancholic moods, which precipitates my withdrawal from the world and into myself – which in turn makes it almost impossible to go back.
In those moments, I try to remind myself that I mustn’t take things so seriously; that the opening up of the abyss that always seems to haunt me is, at the same time, a reminder that no matter how absolutizing the void feels, there’s always an element of absurd humor that belongs to it; a kind of playfulness that always brings you back to the contingency of yourself and the multiplicity of worlds in which you’re involved. It’s here that I find myself able to have a real dialogue with myself and actually take notice of myself. It affords me the possibility of being-alone, of entering a solitary mode of being-with-others that allows for the possibility of selfhood – but at the same time it also brings with it the danger of loneliness (which I take is a deficient mode of being-with-others subsumed in loss). I enjoy solitude, but I’m constantly at a loss in my loneliness. I find a certain pleasure in the meaninglessness as possibility, but often find it too difficult to return to average-everyday coping in the world. These moments of existential crisis are cathartic; but they are also what reminds us that we are responsible (response-able) for our own existence; that our being matters to us, and it is our choice to own-up to our finitude and become a genuine/authentic self.
I don’t think the average person reflects too heavily on questions of meaning. They’re able to go about their lives, either completely ignorant or un-concerned with the questions you’ve raised; or, if they do encounter them, then it’s perhaps more from the perspective of some type of regional crisis; one that takes on more ontical features (I no longer am able to relate to my wife, my job no longer has meaning for me, etc.). That we’re so easily capable of losing ourselves to the “they,” and to flee the anxious dread of our own contingency and finitude, is what allows most people to go through their lives largely in a detached and abstracted way. The comfort of everyday existence is certainly easier; but also has its deficiencies. In some odd ways, the confrontation with nullity is not exclusively a negative experiences; that’s not to underestimate the tension and turmoil that one can experience in these moments; but rather, it is the possibility of experiencing the pure catharsis of our being. Otherwise put, I think it’s the ground for the possibility of the encounter with something that both truly belongs to the type of beings we are, but yet remains unspeakable. This is something that invigorates and at the same time besieges me; it enables me to re-think and re-interpret a lot of the ways in which I find myself in the world; and, perhaps I’m worse off for it, but it has allowed me to engage my melancholy on a more personal and concrete level.
The second part of your question that I’d like to address is with respect to the point you’ve made regarding meaning as human fabrication. I agree that meaning is not something “out there” that human being must uncover; but nor do I think that meaning is something we consciously impose on the world through intentional acts. I think it belongs to human-being to interpret its world as meaningful, at the very least in the equipmental way that Heidegger refers to as “ready-to-hand.” We don’t “impose” or “fabricate” meaning, as in the way we might if we were trying to determine the use or meaning of a cultural relic from some ancient or foreign civilization. For the most part, except perhaps when one adopts the scientific world-view or else experiences a crisis, we don’t generally view entities in the world in such a present-to-hand way. The very essence of our thrown-ness is that the world always-already appears in some (shared) meaningful fashion.
But I also think that our primary mode of experiencing our being-in-the-world takes the form of narrative. Not to dwell too much in this literary analogy, but I think the way we experience ourselves and our being-in-the-world as interpretive beings means that we do encounter other beings in our world as if part of a meaningful narrative. For most people, I think this narrative is mediated by das Man or the Crowd; in other words, meaning or significance is completely divorced or abstracted from the individual, and is sourced outside of itself through historic-culturally determined “roles” that one passively takes on. But in moments of crisis, we are called back to ourselves (dread, despair, etc.), and reminded of the radical finitude and contingency of our being, and thus must either choose whether to own up to our responsibility to become an individuated, genuine self as anxious being-toward death; or flee back into the comfort and security of the Crowd.
I think the very asking of the question epitomizes the un-homeliness of human-being; but it also shows the desolating effects of the culmination of metaphysics, which stands for the bifurcation of subject from its world. It seems as though the question itself recognizes this homelessness – but also backs away from it, into a type of humanistic thinking that dwells within the subjectivism of the metaphysical tradition.