Life in a post-purpose world

The more abstract the truth you wish to teach, the more you must allure the senses to it.

This little piece then, is in my head not intended to be an essay, or even the cousin or neglected uncle of anything that formalized. This is just a marching little paratrooper army of metaphors and quotes, dropped far behind enemy lines, none of them great soldiers on their own. We just hope that perhaps together they can get the bridge blown and the girl saved and the tattered blue flag silently waving amidst the darkness.

Because below the crisply shaved, caffeine enhanced ‘great to see you again’ of this suburban projection, on soft pillows with the bed-light off, I submit that for many of us, it is dark. Many of us are afraid. Many of us are alone. And all of us are heading towards the waterfall.

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‘What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.’ (the Teacher, Ecclesiastes, the Bible).

‘There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy… How can we square this conception of ourselves (humanity) as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational etc, with a universe that exists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non-rational, brute physical particles?’ (John Searle, American Philosopher, Freedom and Neurobiology).

“The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference…all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.” (Jean Baudrillard, French Philosopher, Simulacra and Simulation).

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Materialism (noun)

A. A tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.

B. The doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.

Nihilism

(Most commonly)

C. The doctrine that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

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Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?

Happiness, like a locked safe in front of our eyes. And us spinning, like a piece of timber cut off from a ship, floating off into the sea. Like someone falling, continually downwards through the air. Like a compass stuck above a magnet. Like a dizzy person trying to run. Like an animal indiscriminately rewarded and punished, for so long, that it no longer knows how to behave. Like a pendulum that has been swinging back and forward, out of habit, slowly running lower and lower, as momentum fades, as all turns to grey, this life in a post-purpose world.

The average American buys one book per annum.

We are pebbles amongst the foam, tossed to and fro without comprehension or direction. We are breathing and talking, laughing and walking, but we are hardly alive. Everything is inch deep, everything is surface; dehydrated people sipping a few drops from the Pacific ocean. We don’t know truth, we don’t know error, we don’t even know why we exist, and we do not care. The world is spinning, we are rich, comfortable, entertained zombies with trendy footwear. We live in a post-modern lethargy, a post-knowledge era, a stale, satisfied, caffeinated, advertised age where we study what we are told to study and drink what our friends drink. We are miserable, self-conscious, individualistic sheep, just dissatisfied citizens, living life in a post-purpose world.

“Our whole European culture is moving for some time now, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade, as toward a catastrophe: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher, The Will to Power)

We have no cause. We act like conscientious objectors in the war on poverty.

We use money we don’t have to amass stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. We are slaves to society, to ‘fashion,’ to ‘cool,’ to ever-changing opinions crafted for the benefit of corporations that are passed through society like viruses through train stations. ‘Fads’ cling on to us like leeches; sucking out vitality. Art is made subservient to profit, social division and vanity. We are rich slaves, thrashing about with our wallets searching for happiness, violently living life in a post-purpose world.

“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (William Shakespeare, English Playwright, Macbeth)

We started off on a voyage, heading towards material progress. Now the first word of one in four children is a brand name. ‘Advertising at its best, is making people feel that without their product you’re a loser.’ (Nancy Shalek, Advertising Executive). The trains of progress have no breaks; they refuse to to be decommissioned. The wheels keep turning, the fires keep consuming.

‘I’ve thought about this a lot, and all that really matters is money.’ (Jeffrey Skilling, Former CEO of Enron Corporation)

“Run rabbit run
 Dig that hole, forget the sun
 And when at last the work is down
 Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one.” – (Pink Floyd, Breathe)

US gross domestic product has more than doubled over the last thirty years. The proportion of people describing themselves as ‘very happy’ has declined by five per cent. Houses in Australia are on average twice as large as they were in the 50’s, families are 40% smaller and the self storage industry is growing at 10% per annum. The rate of growth of debt is trying to outdo the rate of growth of depression. On current consumption levels the human race requires 1.4 Earths to sustain us. Our problem is not deprivation, it is the emotional costs of over abundance.

The great questions of our society, when they come up, are of a second tier. ‘How can life be made comfortable’ rather than, ‘What is life for?’ “Wealth increase is the only goal that Western society has to offer. The two previous great competing objects of striving – military glory and eternal bliss – are radically out of favour.” (Lord Robert Skidelsky, Economist, Politician, Author, Keynes: The Return of the Master).

“Most people gaze neither into the past nor the future; they explore neither truth nor lies. They gaze at the television.” (Radiohead concert t-shirt).

“We are half awake in a fake empire.” (The National, Fake Empire).

The Vertigo of this Post-Purpose World.

“If you could have had a holiday for a month, in the grandest hotel on Earth, sipping wine by night, swimming in light blue sparkling water by day. If you could have had that holiday, and then immediately forgotten it. Never remembered it again. Lost all consequence of that time. Deleted it from your reality. If you could have had that forgotten experience, how much would you pay for it?”

“Almost nothing. If it isn’t remembered, it isn’t valuable.”

“What do you believe will happen to you when you die?”

“That is the end. Utter non-existence. Zero point annihilation.”

“So answer me again, this time honestly, how valuable do you think life is?”

If we get it all, if we have the lot, do we not still have our first problem? Are we not still atoms in an endless universe, just unanchored probabilities in a quantum cosmos, specks of dust in the multiverse? Are we not still cursed with minds and hearts and friends in a galaxy slowly cooling down and freezing up? Are we not still finite, when everything finite is infinitely irrelevant? ‘Memento mori.’ (Latin saying repeated to Caesers as they inspected their legions, translates as ‘Remember your mortality’).

What is the value of a thousand digits multiplied by zero? Happiness in a fleeting world is a scrap of paper in the wind. Materialism is us clutching for that paper, blindly and irrationally, reaching out for meaning and finding only dollars, groaning under the weight of mortality, crushed by the gravity of living life in a post-purpose world.

And it seemed to him that everything that was temporary was insignificant, and that for something to really matter, it must last forever. Then he realized that even the universe itself did not pass his criteria. It too had a date of expiry, ordained from the beginning. So, perhaps, he concluded in the silence, even reality itself isn’t really important.

“Whither is God?” he cried, “I shall tell you. We have killed him- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us a sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the Earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there not any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” (Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None)

“Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it a nicer name.” (Tony Judt, British Historian, The Memory Chalet.)

Death is coming, creeping up upon us like the shadows at dusk. Non existence, knocking at the door in the early hours of the morning. I am not satisfied with a short reality, a brief life as a soul, before I become a corpse, a limited dalliance with existence, before I transition from human to just atoms, swallowed by entropy.

“…but gravity always wins…” (Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees).

“If God is dead, then man is dead too.” (Francis Schaeffer, American Philosopher).

“He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across this landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left.” (Karl Marlantes, Author, Matterhorn).

“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, American author, The Great Gatsby).

If there is no God, then we have never seen anything permanent. Everything that exists is temporary.

Let us sit together, at the edge of reality, and wonder at the darkness.

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”  (T.S Eliot, English Poet, The Hollow Men)

“All you touch, and all you see
 is all your life will ever be.” (Pink Floyd, Breathe)

We will go and the world will remain unchanged, and if the universe is indeed an accident of physics, then that is that. Why shouldn’t we crack under the obtuse burden of reality, the nausea of existence, the raw chaos of atheism, the vertigo of living life in a post-purpose world?

“And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing – nothing at all.” (Archibald MacLeish, American Poet, The End of the World)

‘A man said to the universe:
“Sir. I exist.”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.” (Stephen Crane)

“There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this one, just this rock.” (The Thin Red Line).

Purpose – real purpose – is not created, it is discovered. It is received. And no alchemy will turn iron into gold. These subjective purposes, these wilful delusions, these delightful little creations, wash over us like so much soma, and ultimately, leave us feeling blank and meaningless. They came at us over-hyped from the beginning, Sartre was grasping at straws from the start. We are bankrupt in Park Lane, and the philosophers tell us to pretend that we are Zeus.

“The philosophers are coming. The philosophers are tearing down the walls of reality.”

And if our brains are just biological coincidences, why trust what they tell us? Why believe in truth? Why treasure knowledge? Postmodernism too, is a natural product of materialism. We are lost in the forest and we don’t believe in maps.

And that, perhaps, explains why ‘new apathy’ is a far bigger threat to Christianity than ‘new atheism’ will ever be. If we live in an objectively meaningless universe, in which truth is a mirage, then why not just ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.

And how much control do we have over our short lives in this purposeless world? It does seem to us as if we are in control. Reality stands behind us, like a drummer in a marching band, yelling, ‘choose!’ with every stroke of his hand, ‘choose!’ ‘choose!’ ‘choose!’ and the rhythm only gets quicker, as we stumble along the parade.

But the choices are not infinite. We are hemmed in by our circumstances, and these are so often beyond our control. In the scheme of things, the level of choice we seem to have is small, next to the weight of context, next to the mass of other causes and affects that dominate our existence. There will be things in your life that will mean everything to you, and you will lose them, and you will never get them back. Reality will taunt, reality will offer and then subtract, reality will stare at you with its grotesque mystery, and you do not get a say. You might get cancer, or you might not, it is beyond your control. You might choose the wrong wife, or you might not. You might have been born disabled, pretty or ugly, smart or less so, wanted or an accident. It was out of your hands. You might have been born to an illiterate rural family in China or Rwanda, or in the 8th century BC with infant mortality at 80%.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.” (Richard Dawkins, English Biologist, Unweaving the Rainbow).

We are passengers in a chaotic universe. A cosmos in which everything is interrelated, everything is co-dependent, and the infinite horde of causation’s, co-mingled beyond recognition, rock back and forth, like a swimming pool on a cruise liner, producing the significant events of your life, which themselves may owe as much to the movements of birds in the wind, as to the conclusions you reach and the choices you make.

The future changes as the butterfly flaps her wings. Humans are suckers for certainty. We sit in a great ocean of noise, on the cusp of a tsunami, flapping about with freestyle, thinking that we control the Pacific, constantly fooled by randomness.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’” (Victor Frankl, Austrian Psychologist and Holocaust Survivor, Man’s Search for Meaning)

The quote cuts both ways. Those that lack a why, would be burning with hunger as they chewed through an endless feast.

The two definitions of materialism have fused, and we have nihilism.

Beneath the chipper expressions, that is the inheritance our zeitgeist offers us.

But there is an alternative. To search, to study, for truth, bedrock, reality, and with it just maybe, purpose. To search for a constant in a relative world. To believe in inviolable, immutable reality, out there somewhere beyond the madness.

For perhaps the universe is not as meaningless as we all decided.

Perhaps it is not the accident that we thought it was.

Perhaps our first instinct was accurate.

Perhaps everything happens for a reason.

Could the reductionists have overplayed their hand? Perhaps there is more to life than the material.

The Renaissance of Meaning.

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.” (C.S Lewis, English Author, The Silver Chair).

“There are people who live in close surroundings, like a dense forest, and who therefore believe it’s impossible to see beyond a few thousand yards. And if you take them out into the open, they still can only see that far. But if you persuade them that there’s more to see, why then the scales fall away and great vistas are opened.” (Robert Masters).

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (Jesus Christ).

The few starry-eyed believers are outcasts in a nihilistic world, clinging to a belief in eternity, like barbarians at the gate, like lepers in the valley, just simple people transfixed by the beauty of the infinite. In a society that has chosen pessimism they lift up their eyes and wait for the revolution.

We are born in what must be admitted seems at times a very miserable and irrational universe. The good news is that this is only a shadow, a vague reflection, seen in the mirror dimly. This is not home.

That thought of death that hits us in our youth, that thought of non-existence, of the end of myself, of the annihilation of my thoughts and dreams, my memories, my nostalgias, my injustices. That fear, every thinking person buries, stores in the deepest silence, behind locked doors, at the border of our minds. That nightmare can be exhumed and resolved. God offers us permanence.

“When we’ve been here ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, that when we first began.” (John Newton, English Clergyman, Amazing Grace)

“God is God because he remembers.” (Elie Wiesel, Professor, Nobel Prize Winner, Author and Holocaust Survivor)

They want to tell us that the world is meaningless. They want to wipe away the shoreline of truth, smudge it into apathy.

The atheist Richard Dawkins once wrote that, “There is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Richard Dawkins, Biologist and Popular Atheist, The God Delusion)

The bible says that, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God.”

This world of ours is either a jumble of words, spilt across a page – meaningless, accidental, directionless – or it’s a poem, full of rhyme, rhythm and pulse. It’s either an abstract outburst of noise, or it’s a song that can be sung. It’s either an accident of physics, or the greatest stage ever set.

And we, the characters, you and me and everyone we’ve ever met, are either momentary, meaningless matter, just biological machines, complicated rocks, evolutionary flukes and no more, or we are eternal, chosen, children.

Meaningless, meaningless, meaningless. Imagine that, written a hundred foot high above the hills of Rwanda, above the fields of Cambodia, above the chimney stacks of Auswitch and Buchenwald. Imagine Dawkins’ sentence – “There is, at bottom… no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference,” as the smoke rises into the air. Do you still believe that evil does not exist? Do you still see the world in the tone of grey indifference? Reality matters. Horror is horror, not just a biological incident.

“They are committing the greatest indignity human beings can inflict on one another: telling people who have suffered excruciating pain and loss that their pain and loss were illusions.” (Elie Wiesel, Professor, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Author and Holocaust Survivor).

Stop looking in the wrong places! You cannot make gold from iron. You cannot create purpose. I have tried to argue with you, for your sake, that this universe is meaningless, meaningless! It is an oddity, a sad mistake. We are irrelevant freaks. Isn’t that so clear, such an introductory observation? Aren’t our lives so entirely inconsequential, so morbidly unsatisfactory? Isn’t it all a sham, this suburbia, this chasing after wind? You will find joy and peace the day you find purpose. You will find joy and peace the day you find purpose. And you can’t do that in a purposeless universe.

So listen closely.

If you do, early in the morning, by the sea, from the mountains, or just anywhere but the city, you can hear in this world the soft echo of another. In the silence, the drumming sound of purpose, meaning and glory, waiting for their unveiling. The Great Uncaused, the Lord of Hosts, I Am, out there in the rustling of the trees, in the gentle wind, in the dark blue sunset.

At the core of the universe, or so Christianity claims, is purpose, and joy, and most of all love. Not the sort of love that burns, like staring into a flashlight. Not the sort of love that stops you from seeing around, that confines your reality to a single point. No, rather love like the light of the sun, overwhelmingly radiant, and allowing you to see the ground on which you walk and the society in which you live. Love that injects colour into an otherwise nihilistic universe, that sketches out right and wrong, up and down, redemption and restoration.

The son rises, light cascades over the horizon and meaninglessness evaporates.

And perhaps we can see it now. Perhaps, having walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we can look down from the mountaintop, like Moses upon the promised land. Perhaps we can see it, sparkling beyond the great rim of mortality. Perhaps we can glimpse the infinite grandeur of theism. The possibility of hope, beaming out, like a floodlight, in the iconic shape of a wooden cross.

And so we no longer fear the waterfall.

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