Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Search for Meaning: Let Things Mean Something

I spend more time than it is likely healthy for me contemplating the nature of other people and what motivates them. I am particularly intrigued as to how is it that the vast majority of people manage to live their lives without being plagued by the big questions such as the meaning of life, what is Truth and how can we come to any reasonable certainty as to any of these issues. To put the issue starkly, as far as I can tell, the universe existed for twelve to fifteen billion years in which time I did not exist. Before this century is out, barring major advances in technology, I will once again cease to exist and the universe will go on for billions of years without me as if I never existed in the first place. So what is the point? If I am to perish from all existence, let me at least come to some knowledge as to what this world, I find myself in, means. This lack of concern seems to infect both sides of our religious/secular divide. We have our materialistic secular culture searching for new ever greater pleasures almost as an opiate to avoid considering the obvious. I find that religious people are materialistic in their own more subtle ways just as secular people are. I would even go so far as to say that this particular brand of religious materialism is far more corrupting to the mind than anything the secular world could offer. In my experience, belief for members of organized religions is social in nature; you believe in the beliefs of your society. This can be seen as its own opiate and an attempt to avoid the obvious. In a religious setting, we can at least expect the big questions to be asked in a perfunctory manner. But since organized religious tend toward claiming that they have the answers, the questions lose their meaning. They become like the Four Questions of the Passover Seder, to be asked and perfunctorily answered so we can go on to other things.

Do not get me wrong, in many respects, I envy such people. They overall seem to be much happier than I am. If I ever were to be tempted to take some sort of pill to "cure" my Asperger syndrome, I think this would be the temptation, particularly if you threw in a sweet pleasant cute (along with other meaningless positive adjectives) woman to marry. Let us face it, my inability to engage in small social chit-chat and avoid talking about the big issues for any length of time does tend to scare people off and why I am still gloriously single. Not only do most people not actively engage the big issues, they find it objectionable to talk about these things at certain times, such as before breakfast, at dinner, on a first date or within thirty seconds of meeting them. Like hello, my name is Benzion Chinn. What do you do? I am working on a doctorate in history and write a blog. What do you think of the babel fish argument against the existence of God? (I will take the fifth as to whether I have ever literally had this exact conversation with anyone.)

People, who know me, throw my question back at me. Why do I care so much about issues? I am not so arrogant as to believe that I am a being of such intellect as to solve the mysteries of the world. It is also very clear that to go up against the limits of my intellect frustrates me. This is only exacerbated by the fact that I look around and see that most people do not care about these issues and live perfectly happy lives not banging their heads against a wall. Humor for them is simply something to be enjoyed, not a life and death defense mechanism to defend one's sanity in the face of utter despair. Would not my life be so much easier if I could only let things go?

I admit that I am stubborn, and in many respects in a self-destructive manner. My father often tells me that I would rather be right than happy and he is right. And if I did not have a sense of humor about my situation, I think I would have long ago been overwhelmed by it. I do believe there is a purpose in what I do and how I live my life. I may not be able to solve the meaning of life, but I can strive to give meaning to the world within my own mind. This means an insistence that words mean something and as such there are consequences to the words you use. Similarly, categories and ideas mean something and there are consequences to employing them. The ultimate goal of this process, which this blog is an expression of, is to create an internally coherent system of thinking. This system of thinking can then serve as a map outlining the world at large. Agree or disagree with what I write on this blog, but I challenge you to find where I am incoherent, simply throwing words around as rhetorical props, or where I am inconsistent. You may dislike what I say, but my positions are consistent, even brutally so. It may be useful to consider this blog as a long-running game of chess, played usually against hypothetical opponents, in which I hypothetically move my pieces around seeking to create the strongest position possible against any hypothetical attack.

This may be part of my Asperger personality, but I find meaning in this construction of my own logical world, populated by meaningful words and categories. Asperger syndrome itself is simply a useful category to be able to describe a particular way of thinking and place it in this neat little mental universe. It is useful as long as it contributes to the creation of a mental map of the world that is either more accurate or more easily comprehensible. I may not be able to give meaning to the universe. But at least I can be at home in my cozy orderly mind. From this cozy orderly mind, I can hope to venture forth, map in hand, into the world and hope to, at the very least, be able to have a meaningful discussion about it with other rational beings.

Let me end by making it clear that I do not deny the value of humor and the inner emotional life necessary in order for a sense of humor to be possible. On the contrary, in the universe I outline, while it may be built around rational beings, is not one of emotionless humorless robots. Humor has its place as we, together come to the limits of our reason. Rather than collectively bang our heads against a wall, have a good laugh at the absurdity of our situation and, by so doing, maintain our sanity despite everything.


...the second Faigy said...

Hey Benz, I love this post. It's really on-target, honest, and beautifully written. However, don't despair. I'm not sure the hypothesis you take for granted-namely, that very few people contemplate the "bigger" questions-is true. Maybe they don't think about it quite as often as you, or engage in casual conversation about their deepest thoughts, but that doesn't mean most people don't have substance and depth. Perhaps they're simply keeping it to themselves and sharing it with a select few in their inner-most circles. As any human's best guess to the questions of existence are just that, a guess, it seems to me being light-hearted isn't necessarily avoidance, but may also be simply doing the best we can do given our unchangeable circumstances and enjoying this enigmatic existence. Maybe this sounds like a cop-out, but partially giving up on ever "knowing," or even holding much stock in how much happiness or meaning having "answers" would give you, may be a key part of making the most of your time here.

One more thought: Although I know the hiding within or behind communities you are describing, however, spirituality is also for many a communal pursuit. It often grows amongst and within the synergy and energy flowing between people. And Judaism especially has many elements that have their fullest value in the context of other people and not simply within one's self.

Izgad said...

All I can say is that I hope you are right and that there are a lot of people doing a fabulous job of hiding it.

I certainly agree that religions, particularly Judaism, are communally based and that there can be spiritual value in it. This becomes particularly important if one is going to take a non-fundamentalist attitude toward religion, where one’s given religion stops being established unquestionable TRUTH.

Lion Kimbro said...


Why so harsh?

It is a richness.

Clarissa said...

"Let us face it, my inability to engage in small social chit-chat and avoid talking about the big issues for any length of time does tend to scare people off and why I am still gloriously single."

-Nah. My Asperger's is bigger than yours :-) :-) and I keep hoping people would start getting scared with no results so far. :-) :-)