July 31, 2005
A Life Worth Living
How should a person live? what should be a person's goal? I suppose those are roughly the questions I want to muse about for a while, but I think it's dangerous to ask them that way. Dangerous because when put that way, all of the nice, pat answers I learned growing up come crowding to mind ... that "life's all about loving God and loving people" "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever" "the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever" and such. I consider such answers to be misleading ... not because I think they're wrong, but because I'm not sure they mean anything to me. I'm not sure they have any deeper impact on my heart than the knowledge that the answer to the question of "what is 2 + 2" is "4." It's just that I read those answers or heard them and filed them away as answers to the question. I suppose it gets down into the whole "head knowledge" versus "heart knowledge" thing ... which is terribly cliche. But saying something is cliche is roughly the same as calling it a "worn out truth."
Truth, of course, can't really wear out. I suppose we're bumping into a limit of the thought/language barrier. That I (and anyone else who knows enough English) can say "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," but that the meaning of that phrase is somehow lost. I suppose "meaning" is just "the thought behind the word." And I'm not sure if I know what "the thought behind the word" is for those answers to the most important questions of life. Well, some of them, anyway ... right behind "what's for breakfast?" and "what shall I make for lunch?"
I want to ask a different question that I feel more. What gives meaning to life? What does it mean?
Let me muse about the nature of stories for a minute. I love stories. I love to read fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. There's something in me that truly delights in a story. Some other time I'll have to philosophize about what that is, but today I want to focus on something else. What do the stories I love teach me about meaning?
Stories as philosophy texts can be misleading. Most stories, of course, seldom spell out their thoughts and meanings. They're shown in the thoughts and actions of their characters. A good author is far more concerned with telling a good story than trying to make a good point. Those who lose that focus tend to write bad stories. But I think that, to a large degree, writers trying to write good stories not only write better stories than those who try to write good meanings, but they write truer stories. As Chesterton said in Orthodoxy,
Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out," you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word "damn" than in the word "degeneration."
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, beginning of chapter 8, "The Romance Of Orthodoxy"
I think that authors who try to write good stories are obliged to write their ideas in short words. They are obliged to try to make their heroes act not only in ways that they think they should but also ways they feel they should. I've heard that authors often agonize that some character just won't do what he or she is supposed to. This is a very fine thing for an author of philosophy to run across --- with luck, it might force the question of "why?" When a story doesn't match up to real life (more correctly, our intuition of the way real life should work that manifests itself in our feelings), it's generally a fault in the story, not real life.
Any sharp reader has noted that this entire post is philosophy (and it would be generous to call it second-rate philosophy), and yet it is written in blunt, non-story form. This can be easily attributed to the laziness of the author; it is much harder to write good stories than it is to write bad philosophy. And it is easier to tell a good story from a bad story than it is to tell good philosophy from bad philosophy. Another good reason for me to stick to philosophy.
So essentially, I think that good stories are often the best philosophy. An author that has stumbled onto a genuinely good story has probably also stumbled onto something that is roughly true about life.
Now, getting back to the question of what I think good stories teach me about the meaning of life, I must admit that I'm not sure. I think that stories are mixed ... and I think that they're mixed because we need to reconcile two facts. First, that most people's lives are boring. Second, that no-one's life is boring.
This is a straight logical contradiction, so let me hasten to add that we can't quite decide which to believe. Optimists want to believe that no-one's life is boring (or that no-one's life has to be boring). Realists and cynics look around and notice that most people are bored, that most of the things we give our lives to are meaningless, and that almost everything dies. Ecclesiastes is straight, deadly, glorious truth. It seems to me that almost all good stories are adventures (Of course, that may be just because I'm a guy). And adventures have heroes, whether they take place in the future or the past or the present or in another universe. They also have excitement. But one of the feelings I often have when reading a good adventure is that I want to be the hero. I trust I'm not alone in that. I think everyone wants to be the hero. There's great romance in being a hero. But I think that one of the strongest pulls of to being a hero is that their lives mean something. AT least, the author of the story thinks so (otherwise he wouldn't put so much care into them), and I generally think so. I don't want the hero to die. Kill of a planet of people, sure, but don't kill the hero. Doesn't it strike you that if Luke had stayed behind on his farm on Tatooine and been a good moisture farmer for the rest of his days, his life would have been meaningless? We wouldn't know about him. We wouldn't care about him. But he did something. He meant something. It mattered that he destroyed the Death Star and learned to be a Jedi and fought Lord Vader. It was important.
And before you scoff and point out the terrible flaws in the story, or point out the obvious fact that it's pure fantasy, answer me this ... isn't there anything in you that agrees? Any part of you that resonates to the idea of adventure, of a life lived boldly and largely and heroically? I suppose that anyone who read Wild at Heart thinks that all this has been said before, and very much better. I've never read the book, though I'm sure that it is put better than I'm putting it now.
But another blessing of stories is when you read a story about something ordinary. An ordinary life ... or it seems so. I've read stories about a pair of shoes, and I liked them. Anne of Green Gables is one of my favorite series ever, and yet Anne's life winds up being a relatively ordinary one ... at least, on the outside. She grew up to be a wonderful wife and mother. The thing the story brought out is that it was worth it for her to do that. Her life wasn't wasted. In reading it, I cared about her and her existence.
Does a person's life matter if they never become a hero? Never do anything great? I think we're uneasy about that question ... uneasy on the inside, at least. On the outside, we can quickly say that everyone's life matters. Yet on the inside, I think most people want to be the hero. They want to be someone great ... someone who means something.
But not everyone can be a hero. Most people aren't. At some point, I think just about everyone looks at his or her life and thinks "it isn't enough." Not everyone can be the best. In fact, only one person can be. So is life a rat race, where only a handful of people can ever attain to excellence and heroism, and where most people are condemned to be extras and props. There can only be one captain, but you can have lots of expendable crewmen.
Besides, Ecclesiastes reminds us that even heroes die. Even heroes are forgotten. Nobody's life is bright enough to outshine the fog of death. Even if you make it to top of your class, no-one cares. Even if you become a top businessman, no-one cares. Heck, even if you become president, in the long run, no-one cares.
So what do you do with that? Ecclesiastes seems to advise that you give up - give up your search and dreams of "being somebody." Settle down, enjoy what life gives you, do your best. I don't know if I can follow this sage advice. If I do, certainly some part of me has to die.
Sorry, I think I'm going to have to leave these thoughts here and let this be enough. For one thing, Sarah's asked me to get these thoughts off of my computer. For another, I'm not sure what else to say just yet.
A fond greeting to all of you!
This post has been classified as "Musings"