Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 1:

The meaning of life: Where I was
in which all is without purpose and I look the other way.


And there was light. And time and space. And there was heat. And space and time expanded, faster than light itself. And what was All cooled and light became matter, and the expansion slowed and matter attracted matter, lumped together. And matter ablaze anew, gave birth to stars and suns, elements forming within borning stars, combined in the flame by which it burned. Stars grew old, burned out and exploded, turning to dust. And dust attracted dust, became stars again, and planets, and moons, in a doomed cosmic circle of combustion.

It was during the second cosmic circle of this universe, some 13.8 billion years into its existence, in the beginning of May. It was one of the first days of the year when it was pleasant to sit outside in our part of the world and I was doing just that with a bottle of wine and my friend Notme. She was going through a depression, something I too wrestle with on a fairly regular basis. I knew she had a conundrum which she had been carrying with her for a while. She couldn’t explain it to me, she didn’t want to. When she finally did, by the second glass of wine, it was in the form of an interrogation, which would turn into a discussion. The following is a transcript of the most fragile kind–from memory. The first question, and my answer, I know I recall correctly:
Notme: “What’s the meaning of life?”
Me: “There is none.” 

Question: What is the meaning of the word ‘meaning’? Used in a sentence: What is the ‘meaning’ of the cosmos? 

A decade or so before this took place, I read a quote by Baruch Spinoza, which I had taken to heart. My memory, of course, had distorted it over time and it was with some surprise that, when I looked it up, it said this about Spinoza: “He believed, too, that it is part of the wisdom of life to refresh oneself with pleasant food and drink, with delicate perfumes and the soft beauty of growing things, with music and the theater, literature and painting.1 My memory had added: “Surrounded by those who one loves and who love one in return.” I guessed that for Spinoza, doing all those things in solitude must have seemed unfathomable. 

Notme: “What’s the meaning of life?!”
Me: “There is none.”
Notme: “So why go on then? Why do you?!”
Me: “The conclusion I’ve come to is this: distractions! I’m happiest when I don’t think of whether there is any meaning or not, when I’m too busy living. Thinking of ‘the meaning of life’ only makes me depressed and then I try to distract myself from the fact that life is ultimately pointless.”
Notme: “Yeah? How so?”
Me: “Sometimes distractions just happen, by chance. I get busy for some reason. Other times I seek them out on purpose.”
Notme: “What kind of distractions?”
Me: “I sometimes do it with art, escapism if you like, movies, TV-series or a book. Sometimes I busy myself with work, which is not only distracting but also makes me feel productive; it gives me a sense of achievement. But the best thing to do when I feel down is to meet with my friends and family, near and dear, people I like and who I think like me–as with you now.”
Notme: “So you use people as distractions? You are using me as a distraction right now?”
Me: “Yeah, I guess you could say that. Definitely, yeah. Just as you are using me.”
Sigmund Freud: “In the course of centuries the naive self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the center of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness. This is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, though something similar had already been asserted by Alexandrian science.
    The second blow fell when biological research destroyed man’s supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature. This revaluation has been accomplished in our own days by Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, though not without the most violent contemporary opposition.
    But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on un­consciously in the mind.”2
Me: “We are on a speck of dust in a headache-inducingly large cosmos, just another species on this little rock of ours, neither more nor less advanced than a chanterelle, nightingale or birch-tree. And, what we think of us being ourselves is but an ant on the top of the tip of the iceberg of mental processes going on in the subconscious brain–and then life is supposed to have meaning? No, we’d better get distracted.”
Notme: “So you use people as distraction?”
Me: “No, not just people. But sure, that too.”
Notme: “But how can you find meaning in life by distracting yourself from the fact that there is no meaning?”
Me: “What do you draw meaning from then? In the end, life is nothing more than a combustion process; it’s a process of oxidation. And our lives are so infinitely brief by any measure. A lifespan is but a tenth of a percent of the existence of the human race, and humanity has only existed for one tent housandth of the time animals have existed on an earth which has been completely life-less for ninety percent of its existence. Dinosaurs existed for a thousand times longer than humanity has so far! The perspective! Imagine, if dinosaurs came into existence half an hour ago, then they have only been extinct for the last seven minutes, and we have only existed for what? Five seconds! And we’ve only had civilization for half a second. How will we have time to find meaning in such a miniscule time span as that of a human life? Hm? No, it’s best to just try and enjoy life as well as we may–while we may. We have been given senses, let’s make the most of them–let’s get distracted!”
I put a cigarette in my mouth and lit it.
Notme: “Is that really the best we can do?!”
Me: “Life is too short for anything else. I’m just being pragmatic.”

I did not know at the time that this conversation with Notme, which began on that day in May and would continue to this day (and beyond?), would significantly change these views of mine. The sun which was near the horizon forced me to squint as it shone at my face. I was still too greedy for the light to be moving out of it just in order to relax my face. At this time I was sure about the correctness of the answers I gave Notme, I had thought it through and I had reached my conclusions. Later I would come to associate this disconnect with myself and those around me with my own insecurity, with my social awkwardness. I now strive for not being cynical about life and human relationships. But I’m getting ahead of myself, this was then, and Notme was speaking.
Notme: “But that’s just it, isn’t it, we seek meaning because all is pointless, we want to live forever, because life is short–and isn’t that a way to find meaning? By trying to be a part of something greater than ourselves, somehing eternal? Thereby we can fight our brevity. We can do it backwards in time, connecting with our pasts, the continuity of our ancestry, of our cultural heritage, our nations and historical monuments–our culture. We can do it through traditions.”
Me: “Ah, but how do we know that what we are a part of is even old?”
Notme: “The traditions don’t have to be very old, they just have to seem old, eternal. We get married because we think that we’ve always gotten married, we go to church, we go to war for our traditions and cultures–even if they are just a couple of generations old! They seem eternal to us because they were already there when we were born, just as the mountains and rivers were. Ah, no, but we want to honor those who lived before us, because if we honour them, then their lives mean something, so maybe ours’ will as well…”
Me: “Listen to yourself, you must realise that you are contradict…”
Notme: “Yes, we can be part of something that has lasted forever, and we can also live forever in the future, through some sort of legacy we build during our lifetime, we want to leave something behind, make a mark. Even if what we leave behind does not bear our names, we somehow think that at least ‘I’ will know that I made ‘that’, after I’m gone. That I was part of something lasting. Something that imbues a ‘sense of achievment’.
Me: “Bah, what magical delusions!”
Notme: “All we can hope for is to make a mark in the present so deep that it never disappears.”
Me: “Ah, but so what? What kind of a mark can I leave that will last forever? What can I be a part of which is greater than myself and will last forever? Humanity is a brief occurrence in this universe. Eventually the sun will die, and take this planet with it, and then no mark will be left.”
Notme: “But again: maybe it is enough if it feels like forever? I can become famous, a celebrated celebrity!”
Hjalmar Söderberg: “One wants to be loved; failing that admired; failing that feared; failing that hated and despised. One wants to evoke some sort of sentiment. The soul shudders before oblivion and seeks connection at any price.”
Notme: “Yes, and we see ourselves live on in our children, just as we see our ancestors’ legacies live on in ourselves. And we respect eachother’s legacies above all else. When someone dies, we want to do what that person would want us to; to honor that person’s legacy. We respect their final wishes, even if they go against our own. Why is it like that? The person who is dead can no longer have a wish, but yet we treat them as if they do. Is it because we fear that our legacy wouldn’t mean anything otherwise? The strongest symbol for legacy is perhaps that of the martyr, someone who died for a cause. And it works; the cause becomes strengthened by death. Nothing builds a legacy stronger, and we honor the dead more than we do those who survived. Che Guevara more than Fidel Castro. Martin Luther King has his own holiday. Would Joan of Arc be such a symbol, had she died of old age? Look at Mohamed Bouazizi! Martyrdom is even a strong motivator and rallying force. It’s as if death is more meaningful than life.”
Me: “But why even bother? Why build a legacy? Why do you care what people think of you when you are dead? I’m not saying that I don’t care, but why would I? Presumably you will not feel anything after death. What do you expect? Being proud at the mention of your name when you are no longer around? Somehow knowing about it? Hm? How? And what about all those that also died toghether with those you mentioned before? All those who died during the Cuban recolution, or during the American civil rights movement, or with Joan of Arc in whatever her war was about (against the English maybe?), or during the Arab spring. All those who are not remembered?”
Notme: “OK, so what if we save a lot of lives, like Mother Teresa? She saved thousands of lives… “
Me: “And what for?! You cannot save a life; you can only save a death for later! Those she saved who are still alive will soon be dead anyway! This legacy-seeking is a weakness, a sign of arrogance. It’s such a hollow pursuit. Why write a book to be remembered by, when even most Nobel Prize winning authors are no longer read? Sure, our children will remember us, and our grandchildren, and they may even tell their grandchildren of us, but then what? Even if we are remembered for a thousand years, which is extreme, it’s still but a flicker in the cosmos… How arrogant to think that one may live on through one’s legacy or one’s offspring! And how vain to even care!”
Notme: “But, okay, suppose you are right, that the meaninglessness of life comes from its brevity. Can’t the same thing be said about the things from which we draw meaning as well? That it’s because life is short that we are able to appreciate things within it?”
Me: “Why would we enjoy this wine less if we were to live forever? Hm? Would it be more meaningful or meaningless to drink wine then? If you knew that you were to die tomorrow, would that make this conversation more or less meaningless?”
I refilled the glasses with what little was left in the bottle.
Me: “Tell me, if I step on a worm and kill it, is that tragic? The worm is dead, so it doesn’t care. Does it have a family? Even if it does, they are worms! They won’t care! So, where is the harm? Hm? What would happen if a giant planet collided with Earth and in a blow eradicated all life on this planet, all of humanity? Hm? Would that be undesirable?”
Notme: “Yes, it would be!”
Me: “Why?! It would not affect most people in the history of the human race, since they are already dead. It would not affect most people alive much either, since we are all going to die someday soon anyway. We might just as well go together, all of us! And afterwards: who would care? There would be none left to grieve. If one person dies it’s a tragedy, but not for the deceased (that person literally couldn’t care less) but for the ones that are left! So then, where is the tragedy, if there is no one left behind to grieve? Hm? Where? Right or wrong, good or bad can only be defined by the effect it has on feeling and caring creatures, such as ourselves. If everyone dies–who cares?!”


Me: “There is no legacy. Life may be meaningless, but death is even more so. To me this is as good a reason as any to continue living. And to continue drinking! Cheers!”
Dusk was setting in, and mosquitos were coming out to bother and nibble on us. With a lucky swat I deprived one of them its next generation, and she left me with a blood-stained and scratchy hand. I was getting peckish.
Notme: “Is being pragmatic about life really the best we can do then? Are distractions all we can hope for? Just catering to the basest of our senses?”
Me: “I’m afraid so, yes. That’s why we have senses. That’s the conclusion I heard from your arguments as well: if we want to cater to what feels like eternity, we may as well make it easier for us and enjoy the here and now. Let’s get inside.”
Notme: “It’s your fault, you snared my arguments with your logic, your framing! I refuse to believe it, there has to be something else! There has to be some meaning! ”
Me: “No, there really hasn’t. Come on, I have more wine inside.”
And then, to my surprise, she said of me what I was thinking of her:
Notme: “Bah! You are so naive!”
I shrugged. We collected the few items we had brought with us and went inside. We were both young then, our views were yet to change significantly. I wonder, what is your view on life? Do you believe as Notme did, that there has to be some meaning? Or do you distract yourself from the fact that it doesn’t, as I did?3 Either way, I often question why I’m even writing this. To what degree is it so that my name shall be mentioned?

Why should my name be mentioned?4
by Bertolt Brecht
Once I thought: in distant times
When the buildings have collapsed in which I live
And the ships have rotted in which I travelled
My name will still be mentioned
With others. 

Because I praised the useful, which In my day was considered base
Because I battled against all religions
Because I fought oppression or
For another reason. 

Because I was for people and
Entrusted everything to them, thereby honoring them
Because I wrote verses and enriched the language
Because I taught practical behaviour or
For some other reason.  

Therefore I thought my name would still be
Mentioned; on a stone
My name would stand; from books
It would get printed into the new books. 

But today
I accept that it will be forgotten.
Should the baker be asked for if there is enough bread?
Should the snow be praised that has melted
If new snowfalls are impending?
Should there be a past if
There is a future? 

Should my name be mentioned?

Next Episode: Understanding Understanding I–Manufacturing (meaningless) meaning






 TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.

  • Julia Grebenyuk

    Have you read Weber on rationalisation and disenchantment, and in general about existentialism and antipositivism?

    • ToT

      :-) Sure, at least some of it… Do you want to specify/elaborate?

  • mcarefully

    I’ve been thinking on this piece. On first read, I could recognize the rationale of Me as logical, even if it is not my own general POV, and the position of Notme felt over-simplified, even though I identify with it’s “keep trying/we can do better” spirit. After a few days, I can articulate this: I don’t think there has to be a Meaning of Life in order for us to have the desire and drive to live meaningfully. I think the distinction is the recognition of subjectivity in qualifying meaning. One of the spots upon which I got hung up in Notme’s bit was the tying of meaning to legacy, fear of mortality, etc. While I understand this POV, it doesn’t personally resonate. I have never felt any attachment to notions of personal or family legacy, and don’t spend much energy or time thinking about my name after death, some notion of ‘judgement’ in ‘afterlife’, etc. And yet it is important to me to strive to live meaningfully. This drive is, I believe, a fundamental component of fulfillment/happiness (& thus health/wellbeing), not just for me but for enough people that studies evaluate it regularly. Maybe on some deeper level it does have to do with railing against death, because I associate living meaningfully with rightness, and justness, and acts that are life-affirming. But it doesn’t connote the same small and fearful stuff that the legacy business does, for me at least. And it makes space for the understanding that living rightly/meaningfully is not dismissable as some floaty/altruistic endeavor that is somehow at odds with rational self-interest, but is in fact aligned with self-interest when our understanding of what constitutes the self and the broader organism is expanded.

    • ToT

      Wow, you just rendered the rest of this season redundant by summarizing much of what I want to say ;-). I need these pieces though, to deal with my own hangups and insecurities, and I believe there is a value in sharing them since I don’t think they are uniquely mine. I’m glad that you call Me rational and logical, since one thing I had to learn was that being that does in no way also mean being right…

      • Axel

        … and rational does in no way mean without emotions. That’s an interesting point I stumbled upon lately: you can’t make decisions without emotions, because in order to decide between two (or more) alternatives you have to value one over the other. Since there is no ‘objective’ value (of anything), you need emotions to assign such a value and make decisions.

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