A Meaningful Life Is Not Searching for Meaning

Zero Theorem PosterA few weeks ago I watch Terry Gilliam’s latest strange adventure called The Zero Theorem. In it, a sort of hacker, Qohen Leth (which is incidentally strangely close to “Qoheleth,” or Ecclesiates – the “gatherer; teacher or preacher”) is given a problem to solve with a strange computer program. He takes to this new problem by working alone in a massive abandoned church in the city. His goal is to isolate and persist uninterrupted.

But he is interrupted regularly by his supervisor, a virtual call girl, and a whiz kid. He is given the opportunity to experience love and happiness and these moments pop up for him both in the world outside of his cathedral and inside the virtual world of his screen.

Yet Leth persists in his obsession to crack the code of this “zero theorem” which is going to open an opportunity to get a phone call he has been waiting for – a phone call to tell him the meaning of his life.

The search is all he has. And that is the problem.

A life spent searching for meaning is a meaningless life.

This is the fundamental truth of the film. If we spend our days taking quizzes to determine our strengths, personality type, the kind of introvert or extrovert we are, the best career for us, and so forth it is all a search for meaning which is an ultimately meaningless activity. A life of meaning is not one where we seek the meaning of our lives, but one where we do meaningful things with people.

We don’t need to search for meaning in life. A life lived with others is meaningful enough on its own.

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Isis Isn’t Real

Perhaps only the allegory of the Empire remains. For it is with the same Imperialism that present-day simulators try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models. – Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (1983)

a message signed with blood to the nation of the cross
When ISIS burned Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh alive for all of the world to see it was a simulated event. Many wondered why burn rather than behead as they have become very skilled at doing. By burning him in a cage and dumping tons of concrete and steel on him, they created a punishment that corresponded directly with an aircraft bombing a building filled with people.

Where ISIS differs from their terrorist predecessors is both their media sophistication and their cheesy Western bravado. They are like the Mandarin from Iron Man 3. He is a terrorist who turns out to be an actor masking the reality of the person who is behind the violence.

ISIS operates like a Hollywood studio with production values high enough that it is difficult to discern their violence from green screens, makeup, and set production. Our experience of violence is flattened. From Ferguson, 9/11, O.J., and the “shock and awe” of Operation Iraqi Freedom; and from Jarhead, Black Hawk Down, and Welcome to Sarajevo the line between a simulated war and war itself is erased. We no longer see the difference.

ISIS, The Killing of David Haines
Your evil alliance with America, which continues to strike the Muslims of Iraq and most recently bombed the Haditha Dam, will only accelerate your destruction, and playing the role of the obedient lapdog, Cameron, will only drag you and your people into another bloody and unwinnable war.

The Mandarin, Iron Man 3
My disciples just destroyed another cheap American knockoff: the Chinese Theatre. Mr. President, I know this must be getting frustrating, but this season of terror is drawing to a close. And don’t worry. The ‘Big One’ is coming: your graduation.

Our emotional responses are an attempt at feeling disgust and horror when the referent of what actually happens is simply not there. While we raise our fists and prayers at the terror of ISIS, we have been inoculated from the bloodbath of retaliation. We do not see the beheadings and disembowling of the enemy both before and after an ISIS film production.

ISIS delivers us films, previews, and advertising of their violence while our violence comes in identical packages from Hollywood. The brilliance of ISIS is not in their killing. Their brilliance is in understanding that the West can decode meaning only through advertising and fantasy. If we do not understand the real, we will understand its simulation.

We are a society that can no longer feel anything real. We have created simulated affect to mirror a simulated reality.

There is nothing of “shock and awe” to the privileged.

There is only apathy and cynicism.

There is only resentment.

There is only “contempt prior to examination.”

Disability is a Work of Art

The phrase “inner beauty” is callous. The phrase implies that beauty in this instance is limited to something mental or psychological. It is another way of saying, “You are ugly on the outside, so if there is beauty in you, it must be where I can’t see it.”

We do this the other way around. A beautiful person on the “outside” who we learn has a mental illness or learning disability then becomes less beautiful. Their minds make them suspect of unpredictable behavior and that scares us.

Forms. Plato’s understood everything in the universe to be copies of an ideal that we cannot directly apprehend. So the marketing industry doctors up photos trying to achieve some ideal form of beauty. This ideal necessarily excludes every other idea of beauty.

When we apprehend someone who is a “poorer” copy of that ideal they become sideshow grotesqueries. With such great arrogance we proclaim them ugly and offer space for their freedom if we can only “look past” their grotesque form to see their inner beauty. At the very least our minds can correspond to something mentally beautiful inside that grotesque figure. No matter what, our senses are governed by a perfection we can never apprehend; a perfection that reflects the perfection of the ideals in the universe as we understand them.

This gaming only serves to cleanse a guilty conscience from its lack of tolerance. When our instinct is to lurch away from someone with a skin color that does not fit our ideal, a language that does not fit our own, a body without a limb, or a voice that cannot be heard, we prop up our self-righteous indignation or fold into a guilty chaos. Tolerance is the easy out; a way to retain the ideal while making room for something we still consider grotesque. Our mental boundaries remain solid, immigrant forms of beauty stay outside, but we give them temporary visas so our guilt is clean.

There is another way out of this conflict. That is to comprehend the art of all forms in the world. Step outside of the idea of perfection and sit with what is in front of you. The world is an active museum of beauty in motion. We participate in a grand movement of performance art; an infinity of objects and ideas contributing in unique ways. The body in all of its forms is art and beautiful in itself.

Plato was wrong.

Take a moment to watch the following video. In it, German artists replace the post-modern statues of David we see in display windows with the reality of bodies normally excluded from the pantheon of contemporary beauty. It it we see that these bodies are inherently beautiful. The once grotesque form is revealed for what it truly is: A work of art.

The Lesser of Two Evils is False

The statement “the lesser of two evils” is a principle adopted in political strategy. It is a defensive idea. When faced with two threats it is reasonable to choose the lesser threat. But what does this really mean without an understanding, even a basic understanding, of evil itself?

St. Augustine asks the question, What is evil without the good? His answer is simply, nothing – an understanding that has shaped much of philosophical and theological through for centuries.

Nothing evil exists in itself – St. Augustine – The Enchiridion

When we are faced with a political choice between what we think are two evils, we are basically saying that by choosing any evil we are making a choice for nothing over something at all. There is no freedom in that choice. It is not even a choice since there is nothing to choose from.

So what do we really mean?

What we mean when we say this is “I am choosing something that does not fit my ideal.” When we look at candidates for office we want someone to represent our best interests and to fit our ideal of what “good” means. If someone does not fit our idea of good, it does not follow that such a person is bad. It simply means that he or she is not quite as good as we would expect or desire.

In short, the phrase itself is about self-interest. The choice between candidates is not a choice of two evils. Rather, it is a choice for or against our desire and ideal image of leadership.

Another way to put it is this: So conditioned by self-interest are we, that choosing what does not meet our self-interest is considered evil.

Doesn’t that view of other people strike you as just a little…evil?

My Education: The 1 Thing I Must Do

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. – Søren Kierkegaard

Most of what I think I need in life is rather inconsequential. Most of what I have – data plan, TV, clothing, furniture, computer, food in the cabinet, job, etc. – I don’t actually need. These are musts in life that I have convinced myself I must have to be happy.

Perhaps what we believe to make us the happiest is the greatest delusion in our society.

I need food, water, and shelter to supply my basic needs for living. But I also need love and a sense of belonging to a wider human community. These are hard-wired into my DNA as a human being. But even a dog requires these things to be happy.

So what makes me a human?

Purpose. What is it that gives me the greatest amount of contentment around the idea that I am doing what it is I ought to do with myself aside from meeting my basic needs?

I find this identity in the honor of being a father to my two sons. I find that in helping others to feel that in spite of the challenges of the world, I can find a way to be content. I find it in the ability to communicate what I know only to be helpful. That is to say, if I am not doing something each day to help someone in the ways that I am most fit, I am not content with my own life.

I cannot fix a car, offer much in the way of financial gifts, offer home repair services, and the like. So what is it that I can do?

I communicate, listen, and offer what I know. 

This is what I do best. This is why I write. This is why I work. This is my idea. This, I believe, is why I am within the frame of human history.

In research and project management the first step is actually the last step: determine what you want the outcome to be. The rest is finding out how to get there.

Perhaps the great test in living a meaningful and content life is to imagine your funeral. What will people say about you? Who will be there? Who will weep at the thought of your absence? With your sound, touch, smell, ideas, and presence vanished, what will people say about you?

I recall the final story in the film Big Fish. The son carried on his father’s legacy by telling the greatest story of all – about his father the way his father would tell it. Not only the fact that his son told the story, but that the story was about how deeply his father is loved, revealed just how deeply his father affected others and changed lives for the better.

When our stories live on in our absence, perhaps how they are told and who continues to tell them is the greatest evidence that we have indeed found that truth that is for each of us the idea for which we are willing to live and die.

Our obligation, what we truly must do, is to do it well and commit our lives to improving it each day.

Syria, Affliction, and Simone Weil

Syria If you do not help us, we will be killed

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty

(T)he afflicted are not listened to. They are like someone whose tongue has been cut out and who occasionally forgets the fact. When they move their lips no ear perceives any sound. And they themselves soon sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard. – Simone Weil “Human Personality” 1943

The issues surrounding the Syria conflict are simpler than many of us want to imagine. Maybe the simplicity is hard to imagine given the human suffering and death that continues to pile on.

In between political leaders playing “chicken” on the international highway, stand innocent lives waiting to be crushed. While that happens they are being gassed and tortured on either side. The international political community is not so much concerned about their welfare as to what the violence means to strategic advantage.

President Obama first threatened to execute strikes before congressional approval. This was the infamous “red line.” Knowing that congress was rife with war hawks who are not afraid to bomb a potential threat, he wanted to catch Congress with its pants down. Someone needed to take the blame for an already botched policy and both Obama and congress have been playing that game since day one of his presidency. This turned out to be a political failure.

The United States needs to keep the oil pipelines and Israel safe. Without a safe Israel, the United States is weaker in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin’s plea to the American people for the United  States to work with the United Nations was not as amicable as it sounded. Syria is a strategic place for Russia just as is Iran: Protect the borders and make use of Tartus for both trade and military presence in the Mediterranean. There is territory and money at stake in Syria and all of these external forces want that land for one reason or another.

We might be more comfortable saying that intervention and death are more complicated than that when faced with religious and political whips indiscriminately flailing in school yards. But the reality does not care about the complexity of the causes.

Every conflict is about balancing the scales of self-interest. It’s just willed ignorance to think otherwise. So Putin is right, there is no such thing as “American exceptionalism” but for an over-inflated ego. However, there is no such thing as “Russian exceptionalism” either. As long as people who have no real skin in the game aren’t needlessly killed by the power-hungry lobbing missiles at them, who really cares who “wins” that game? Let’s be pragmatic, not ideological.

The French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil (1909-1943) had an incisive grasp of the simplicity of world power, how it behaves, and what it does to people who have no power to control it. For her, there was a certain limit to the force in the world that the powerful can use to assert their will on others. There are times in history when some of these actors wield more power than others. Her line of sight was on the German armies that occupied France.

The victims of force are the afflicted. One who is afflicted is totally dehumanized, has lost a will to do much of anything, and most importantly, has lost the ability to be human. Humanity is defined by its ability to receive what is good and beautiful whose source is God. She sums up her notion of force from her essay, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force with these poignant and powerful words:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.

So there is another side to force. Those who wield it are eventually damaged. No human power can possibly control the weight of the force in the world. Its sum is too much for anyone to bear. Empires crumble with the delusion of world domination.

In the predicament of Syria, Egypt, and many nations on the great continent of Africa we see force and self-interest of the powerful killing people. If those who have the power to save the people enslaved by force only use that power to satisfy self-interest, who will dry the tears and mop up the blood of the afflicted?