By Curt Collier
Something amazing happened 13.8 billion years ago. Our universe unfolded in a blinding burst of energy. Then, 4.5 billion years ago, a vast cloud of dust, metals, and gases coalesced into our unique planet, creating the conditions for life to emerge 3.5 billion years ago. This process would be astonishing enough, but 300,000 years ago a new species evolved with simian lineage that had the gift to reflect on all of this. Our species, Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise person”), has pondered not only how all this happened, but what meaning may be in this wonderful happenstance, and how best shall we live.
Some of our species imagined that because of the complexities of our existence, a master plan and a master planner must exist, but this answer does not suffice for many others. They have come to embrace the uncertainty of it all. We are here and the significance of it all is as clay, shaped according to our whims, and nothing more. I am one of those who fall in this category, and agree with Sartre that given our existence is without purposeful design, we are “doomed to choose” how we shall live.
Others may find no comfort in this, but I frankly do. I accept a life of approximations, of transition, a life lived in fractions rather than in whole numbers, for this also means that we can choose the life we want, not the life we have to live. This ain’t easy, to be sure, but is filled with infinite possibilities. This view of life does come with an obligation, however. The things we want, such as justice, compassion, community, take ongoing work. Mistakes are bound to be made, just as when one messes with a cake batter. The question is, can you forgive yourself for that? Can you accept the failings of others, as well? We must try our best, remembering we do what we do with what we have.
A life of approximations does come with some gifts. It allows us to ask “why,” even if inconvenient. We can sing our own songs even if others want to smash our guitar. But, this is also not a license for brashness, for shoving ourselves to the head of the line, as some would think. Rather, because we recognize the uncertainty of it all, we proceed with open eyes, minds, and hearts to ensure that if we do personally value a better world, our own actions are part of what is necessary to bring that dream to fruition.
The writer Albert Camus was one who initially despaired at the absurdity (as he called it) of the human condition. If there is no embedded meaning, then what’s the point, and all human aspirations are laughable before the pit at the end of our existence. The story is, however, that Camus had read about a city in France where a plague had broken out. He heard of a doctor there working tirelessly to save as many lives as possible, but the situation was dire. Camus initially mocked the efforts of the doctor. Why do this, most will probably die anyway! The doctor’s response was simply, “I am a doctor, that is what I do.”
The choice is in our hands
This had a profound impact on Camus, and became the basis of his novel, “The Plague.” In it, Camus reveals a new appreciation for life. Sure, it may seem absurd, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be wonderful. The choice is in our hands.
This fall we will be embarking together on the exploration of our underlying ethical assumptions, and I hope you like such adventures as much as I do. But let’s leave that until later. In the meantime, enjoy summer. Go on another adventure, learn something new, start a new relationship, take quiet walks in nature, mow your neighbor’s lawn, play cards with friends, take your kids/grandkids to the beach, start a garden on your balcony, laugh daily, do something wacky, and enjoy life. Perhaps the answers to all great philosophical conundrums can be found in activities such as these. It’s time for a field trip to discover what is possible. Find each other in the sun.
Curt Collier is interim leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.