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The Meaning of Meaninglessness

The Myth of Sisyphus

It was C. G. Jung, I think, who said that the main cause of the psychological damage to humanity is meaninglessness. This seems to me to hit the bullseye. People have been trying to find the meaning of life since they have had the time to think about it, and they came to the inevitable idea that there is another world beyond the known physical one, but so similar that it was located in a different place, a faraway country with a Mount Olympus, for example. The denizens of that country, despite being gods, were much like ourselves, with the same virtues (sometimes), the same desires and shadow-sides, but much more powerful.

Even before that many more primitive cultures considered the sun to be God – a rather obvious opinion, considering that the sun is the nurturer of all life, so must be its creator as well. All kinds of myths were imagined and accepted as true. For example, here is an American Indian creation myth, slightly retold:

The first woman and the first man dreamed that God was dreaming them. They were right. God, immersed in tobacco smoke, dreamed them while he sang and shook his maracas, and he was happy. But the dream also caused him to tremble with doubt and mystery, for he knew not what the dream meant.

The Makiritare Indians know that if God dreams of food he fructifies and gives to eat. If God dreams of life, he gives birth.

The woman and the man dreamed that a great, shining egg appeared in God’s dream. They were inside the egg and they sang and danced and made a great racket, because they were crazy with the desire to be born. They dreamed that in God’s dream joy was stronger than doubt and mystery. So God created them in his dream and sang:

I break this egg and the woman is born
and the man is born.
And together they will live and die.
But they will be born again.
They will be born and will die again
and once more will they be born.
And they shall never cease to be born,
because death is a great lie.

Even if we consider the egg and the dream and the dance as what we would call metaphors today, is this myth necessarily untrue? It even introduces the concept of reincarnation.

There are many more creation myths, including the story of Genesis. No rational person can believe today that the world was created in six days, that the first woman was sculpted from the man's rib and that the Biblical creation myth is literally true. Yes, some relatively intelligent people still do, but, as Dostoevsky remarked: having intelligence is different from acting intelligently...or, I'd add: thinking intelligently. Nevertheless, the Genesis story could have been concocted from the germs of truth and told according to the mentality of the people of the time – metaphors believed literally.

And the god – Jehovah – who did all that work in a few days (or epochs?) turns out, as the Biblical myth continues, not to be such a nice guy after all. In the arch-dualist ideology of various Gnostic systems, the material universe is evil, while the non-material world is good. Accordingly, the “demiurge” (creator) is malevolent, as linked as he is to the material world.

Then came Christianity and, where it finally took root, everything changed. Christ is the good son of a good God – a teacher, a philosopher, a martyr for humanity. And God himself, according to official interpretations, is incorporated in the Christ Jesus of Nazareth. But again much of the myth tends to insult our intelligence: the magical trick of turning water to wine, walking on water, curing the sick and, most shockingly, resurrection after death.

But what if this is a mystery teaching, metaphors to be understood by those capable of understanding them. What if Mary Magdalene and the apostles really did see Jesus resurrected, but not the physical chemical-mineral decaying body, but what Rudolf Steiner called the “resurrection body” which only they whose eyes had been opened were able to see?

All these things, and many more, point to humanity's search for meaning.

But then came modern science, the domain of contemporary prophets, a title well earned because of science's astonishing revelations. But they demand concrete physical proof of ideas. The brain thinks, so let us investigate the brain and find the thoughts lurking in its neurons. This view of evolution is one which omits a creator or creators: the gods, for there is no evidence of them, no one has seen one. Those who claim to have seen or experienced one or more cannot prove it in a way that we all can experience, if not today, tomorrow at the latest. The classic rejoinder is: there is no evidence for the existence of ... whatever, which proves that it doesn't exist. Wrong. All it proves is that there is no evidence, at this time, of its existence.

The universe was created by an event: the Big Bang. How do we know? Well, the universe is expanding, something proven by physics. And if something is expanding it must have been much smaller at - shall we say, at the beginning? At that time it must have been infinitely small and infinitely potent to explode with sufficient power to still be expanding. Well, the Big Bang may well have happened. It may also be a slightly more modern myth. Either way, does it have meaning? Does it tell us why we are here? Does it solve the psychological damage caused by our suspicion of meaninglessness? Go figure.

If we reject the old myths we must create new ones, existentialism for example: We're here, we don't know why, so let's make the most of it. As World War One's soldiers in the trenches are reported to have said: “I pray to God (if there is a God) to save my soul (if I have a soul)”. Existence is absurd anyway. The notion of the absurd includes the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it; that is, what we invent. This meaninglessness also encompasses the world's amorality or "unfairness". The notion that "bad things don't happen to good people" is truly absurd. To the random world there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person; what happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a good guy as to a bad guy. In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless world. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, thought to be the founder of existentialism, recommended religion and love as the tools for overcoming meaninglessness. It worked for him, according to him. But modern existentialists, such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, rejected such “absurdities” as true antidotes for meaninglessness. According to Camus, it is because of the devastating awareness of meaninglessness that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." It has been said that the possibility of suicide makes all humans existentialists. The ultimate hero of absurdism lives without meaning and faces suicide without succumbing to it.

In this respect it is worthwhile to quote a paragraph from Soren Kierkegaard's Works of Love:

When the God-forsaken worldliness of earthly life shuts itself in complacency, the confined air develops poison, the moment gets stuck and stands still, the prospect is lost, a need is felt for a refreshing, enlivening breeze to cleanse the air and dispel the poisonous vapors lest we suffocate in worldliness. ... Lovingly to hope all things is the opposite of despairingly to hope nothing at all. Love hopes all things—yet is never put to shame. To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope. To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of evil is to fear. By the decision to choose hope one decides infinitely more than it seems, because it is an eternal decision.

So where are we? Stuck in meaninglessness and, often, surrounded by psychotics, frauds, con-men (and women), not to mention dogmatic organized religions – unless we can find meaning somehow, somewhere. The substrate [*] of meaningless is, obviously, meaning. And the substrate of meaning can only be meaning itself. So search, friends, search and ye shall find … perhaps. It is easy, logical and comforting to realize that meaninglessness is not an option. A good place to start – depending on your karma (mythical or real) – could be right here at SouthernCrossRreview.org

* any stratum or layer lying underneath another