Geek confession; I love fantasy books. Particularly Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; Rand’s journey towards becoming the Dragon Reborn in order to defeat the Dark One has kept me entertained for over a decade now. I love it so much I have to choose very carefully the time I start a new book in the series because productivity, social life and my general ability to function significantly diminishes until it’s finished.
Hiking his way up to Mount Everest base camp in a singlet, shorts and flip-flops that he eventually swapped over for sneakers (clearly born and bred in the UK.), I met another fantasy book fan recently. Not satisfied with at least 3 readings of each of J.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, Olly brought, as his reading material for the trip, a book outlining the history of Middle Earth, in a dry, chronological way as good history books should.
So Olly got it when I explained that sometimes, having grown up in a religion like Pentacostal Christianity and then leaving it, can feel like waking up from living in a fantasy epic. Talking with him reminded me how religion’s characters and plot give meaning to life; the Creator, the war against the Dark One, each person destined to carry out a mission, the reverberation of every move you make potentially echoing in eternity… only to wake up and discover it was a dream. A fantasy. None of it was real.
Clarifying the purpose of life is one of – if not the – hardest thing to do after leaving faith.
It’s not just the eventual dying away into nothing rather than living on forever in eternal bliss that is disconcerting.
No, no. There’s plenty more where that came from.
It’s the complete vastness and randomness of the world and the sudden insignificance of our own place in it. When human lives are suddenly reduced to nothing more than a coincidental grouping of atoms and self-consciousness, rather than eternal players in an epic (but when you think about it also sort of pointless) battle between good and evil, it’s so easy to slip into a space where lives, consciousness, waking, breathing, anything really, seems completely pointless.
I had my peak of despair, although not the only one, about the purposeless of life on the beach a few weeks after arriving in Malaga at the beginning of this year. I looked up from my towel and stared at the high rise buildings, tiny boxes piled on top of each other, each box containing a life, or a number of lives, that did nothing more than scurry about their day, waking up, interacting, stressing, laughing, crying and then sleeping again, only to do it all over again the next day. And the next day after that… and the one after that… like an advanced civilisation of ants.
Ironically, the first two chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes sums up the feeling up entirely. Why store wealth? It will only be left behind for some idiot to squander. Why do good things? Wicked people and righteous people have the same fate befall them. Why pursue pleasure? It all becomes empty in the end. Greatness? It will be forgotten. Posterity? Just two generations on, I don’t know and don’t care about even the name of my great-grandparents.
When life no longer echos in eternity, as we were told it does, its so easy to wonder… ‘Is there any reason to bother?’
Of course… there is…
Moving outside of the viewpoint that only eternal actions or actions that others see or remember have any meaning is truly liberating. Discovering the joy and, in the non-spiritual sense of the word, miracle of actually being alive reverses the drive of life from the need to be significant to simply being grateful for this self-consciousness and the opportunity to experience this world and all the challenges and joys life offers. Instead of beginning with the great expectations of eternal life and a grand conquest, we begin with the incredulous fact that we are simply here and self aware, all odds against odds. This is the foundation on which we can build up purpose and meaning; simple awe and wonder at being alive.
That was a short paragraph outlining the conclusion of a very long journey. For those of you who have made the same journey may have arrived at different conclusions and I’d be interested to hear about them. I’ll be posting more blogs on this purpose / existentialism / meaning of life conundrum, from voices other than my own as well but for now, I wanted to introduce you to a great little book on the subject by a Holocaust
prisoner and psychologist, Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
One of my favourite websites, BrainPickings, does a wonderful write up of it here if you’d like to see some excerpts. If you’re working through your own search for meaning, after waking up from the Fantasy Epic, Viktor Frankl’s book is a must-read.