The only escape
from loneliness, even for God,
total gift of self
WIP: Just like software developers, I want to get something out there, then improve it later. This post needs a major overhaul.
What is the meaning of life? The classic philosophical question, and like all philosophical questions, it depends on where you start from.
Lonely and distracted
The problem of whether I am alone or not, a key part of life’s meaning, is as old as humanity, (or even eternal if you bring God into it, but we’ll get there later), but our response to the problem has changed rapidly in recent history. (Scruton 2014) points to the rise of consumer culture, a culture that asks nothing of us except production and consumption, and provides us with endless distractions in return. I don’t know which came first, but we have also lost our rites of initiation, rites that demanded the individual to become a member of the ocmmunity through sacrifice and suffering, and left us with gut-level wisdom about our place in the world. See (Rohr 2004) if you want more details, but between consumer culture and the lack of rites of initiation, the normal path is to remain an individual, not part of any particular community. Then we depend on the disdractoins of consumer culture to numb ourselves from the loneliness that comes with being the centre of our own universe.
(Mellor 2020) roughly: Greatest bookshop, life is about enjoying it while you can. Some people have it much harder. We used to have community, now we are perfecting the art of distraction
Giving vesus getting
The recent novel, “The Grandest Bookshop in the World” (Mellor 2020), (a good read for older children and adults, with an interesting take on magic) challenges the hero to explain the meaning of life, why is she struggling and suffering, why does she keep fighting? The hero, a young girl named Pearl, answers “Enjoy it while it lasts”. The villain grudgingly admits that he agrees, and accepts her answer. I couldn’t help wonder about that answer though. It fits well with the consumer culture we have. Pearl had a lot to look forward to. She grew up living with her family in a bookshop, and was fighting to preserve what she had. She really could enjoy life, and spend her time reading books with her family, whittling away the hours into her golden years. Was she fighting selflessly for her family and the bookshop, or was she fighting for her own future? If you start from a place where consumer culture is working well for you, and you have enjoyable moments, and plenty of options to distract yourself, then maybe life can really be about just enjoying the ride.
What about all those people who can’t just enjoy life, who are suffering, struggling to survive, who have no past worth savouring and no future worth anticipating? What about the people who can’t, or won’t, just numb themselves with distractions?
(Scruton 2014), paraphrasing Wagner, says that freedom requires suffering, gift requires freedom, and therefore sacrifice is a gitf given freely which cost us something, and the price is paid through suffering.
Consumer culture is focused entirely on getting. What do “I” get? The other side of that question is: What do “You” give? The wisdom of the crucifixion lies in asking: What do “I” give?
These two mindsets I am calling a “give” mindset and a “get” mindset. Mix in the idea of subjects and objects, and we find that when we have a “get” mindset, all we really care about is one subject: “I”. It doesn’t matter whether everyone else around me is a real subject with their own “I” or just dream characters. Eithre way, they are objects that get me what I want. I might be the only subject, person, in the universe! A “get” mindset can lead to a deep existential loneliness, something that our consumer culture only knows how to numb.
The “give” mindset changes my focus. “You” stop being an object that gievs something to me. Instead, I need to find another subject to give to, anther person with their own “I”. I cannot really give to something that is only an object, so I fill my world up with other subjects, other people, and I am not alone in the universe anymore.
Subjects and Objects
“The Face of God” (Scruton 2014), builds on the great western philosophers. He attempts to understand how the “god of the philosophers”, the abstract first mover and ultimate foundation, can be connected to the active and involved god of the semetic religions?
A central concept in (Scruton 2014) for me is the idea of subjects and objects. We find ourselves in a material universe, made up of objects that follow the laws of physics. We ourselves are clearly another object, you can throw me just like you can throw a rock. However, we “find ourselves” in this universe, because we are also a subject, and we have a perspective of our own. The combination of subject and object is something I encountered very strongly in “Theology of the Body” by Pope John-Paul II (II and Waldstein 2006). I am not a soul stuffed inside a body, I am both a body and a soul together, with the soul being felt through the actions of the body.
(Scruton 2014) makes it clear that the greatest philosophers in western history have wrestled with the idea of being a subject, and the best we can do is state that if you can say “I” about yourself, you are a subject. The difficult part about “I”-ness is that while I can know I am a subject, I can only take your word for it that you are a subject too. What if the world is a dream, and all the other people I encounter are just imaginary? Then I would be the only subject. How lonely, if I was the only person in the world!
The way out: lay down your life for others
I think this is a powerful idea, that a life spent sacrificing for others, a life spend giving, is the way out of loneliness. It even manages to explain why the “god of the philosophers”, that abstract first mover, might become invovled in the world. If God is a subject with an “I”, then God would be alone, unless God created other subjects to give to. (Scruton 2014) wants us to see that God is best understood as a giver, who gave us the world, life, our own subjectivity, and that if you start from the perspective of a world that is fundamentally gift, then the meaning of life centres around making our own life a gift. A gift to our world, our fellow humans, and to God.