Sunday, April 5, 2009

On What Constitutes Meaning in a World of Six Billion People; or, Holy Solar Implosion, Batman!

I like to tell people the sun is going to implode.

It is, eventually.  One day, billions of years in the future, a time so far from now that our measly little minds can barely comprehend the concept, much less apprehend the actuality, the sun will implode, and all life on Earth will fade in a matter of days—if it hasn’t done so already—and even our monuments and histories and fossils will be as dust, the trampled remains of a speck of civilization on one very small planet in one corner of a solar system in the corner of a galaxy in a corner of a universe that is slowly dissolving into entropy.

I like to tell people this when they are worried about which major they should choose, or the ten pounds they’d like to drop; I like to tell myself this when I am consumed with misery over some breakup or other, or when I have no job prospects.  It actually makes me feel better.  Maybe that’s weird, but it’s my own personal form of perspective.

Barely more than a year ago this idea scared the shit out of me. 

For the past few years I have been, in some form or another, consumed by the idea of what my life means in the face of such immensity as the sun imploding, and the universe expanding, and billions and billions of years of existence enveloping both ends of my lifetime.  The only rational conclusion I’ve been able to produce from the reams of my philosophy courses is that life has no meaning inherent in its existence, but that your efforts and your desires can combine to give it meaning to you (yay, existentialism…!). 

After this conclusion comes the problem of just what it is you want to do.  It’s easy to get trapped in a state of limbo, agonizing about what it is that you will do with the next sixty years of your life, stuck in the conviction that, should you put your mind to it, you could really do anything, but simultaneously drowning in the quicksand of the realization that you can’t think of one thing you like doing that would actually earn you a living.

Just how, exactly, do you reconcile the cubicle and the impeding solar implosion?  How do you die with honor in this world and yet manage to eat lunch every day?

I don’t really know the answer, but I know what I’ve been trying hasn’t been working.  Right now I work as a laboratory technician, cubicle and all, and try to write on the side; right now I’ve got my life’s meaning riding a make-it-or-break-it mentality.  But I’ve learned that I can’t do something for nine hours a day without letting it become part of who I am; and I’ve learned that when my own personal quest for validation is the driving force behind my writing, my writing sucks.

William Faulkner said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “[The young man or woman writing today] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

And my make-it-or-break-it attitude has made me into a writer driven by fear, and I write not of the heart but of the glands.  If I do not succeed at this, I have told myself, then I will not have any meaning, I will not matter, and my life will be nothing at all.

How better to set myself up for failure than to stake everything I have on my success?

The writing must be for the sake of the writing, and my meaning must come from myself, and not the work that I do, or the success that I find or lose. I think most people have acknowledged that chasing after money and property and objects of wealth is not satisfying in the least—this is a common enough theme in popular music and television that I feel safe in declaring it to be part of the common consciousness of America these days; and even if people do want such things, they know better than to say so.  But I don't think most people realize that graduation and marriage and having children—these things are objects, too, and there is no more fulfillment in them than in purchasing the hot tub for which you have been saving.  And until now I have not realized that I have done the same thing with my writing, and with myself—I have made them objects, something to be gained, and that is not at all the way of it.

Everyone should have a job that means more than a paycheck—I don’t know if that’s possible, but it’s a necessity of the soul.  And there is nowhere to go; there is only where you are, and whether you are content. 

So I am tired of my cubicle, and I am tired of the failures I inflict upon myself, and I am tired of my very tired writing.  I know there is something more—there is “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice;” there are defeats in which somebody loses everything, and victories in which they gain everything, too.  And these things are not found anywhere but the self, in who and what you are today, and what you hope to be tomorrow.  I know this is true, but for a long time I doubted.  For a long time I looked up at the stars and my stomach turned cold in fear. 

Lately, though, I feel only awe.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Lots to ponder...