The Meaning of Life

“To be or not to be—that is the question” (Shakespeare III.1.64). Within this famous soliloquy from Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist raises perhaps the most important question of all time: what is the meaning of life, knowing the certainty of death? If all people will die, their accomplishments and any semblance of their existence will eventually amount to nothing more than a pile of bones. Then, why go through the difficult and arduous process of life? Thousands of people, from across the world and from different cultures, have tried to answer this overriding question. From literature to academia to Judaic knowledge, there are various answers to the question of life, but which answer is correct?

Throughout the play Hamlet, Shakespeare, through the voice of Hamlet, explores the meaning of life. Hamlet’s search for the ultimate answer of life and death is what drives him to accomplish his task of avenging his father’s death. At every opportunity, Hamlet pauses in his actions and contemplates on why he should “bear the whips and scorns of time…when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?” (Shakespeare III.1.78, 83-84). Life has dealt Hamlet a horrible hand; his father has been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, ignores his letters and desires not to see him. He does not see why life should be desired above all else if it is only filled with pain and torment. Upon returning from England to complete a task for his uncle, Hamlet walks through a graveyard and happens upon gravediggers removing bones from their resting places. Hamlet picks up a skull, turns to his friend, Horatio, and says, “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this made knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery?” (Shakespeare V.1.100-105). Hamlet raises an important question: why should one live if one will only die and one’s accomplishments will be forgotten? To him, then, life is meaningless if there is no reward for the troubles put into it. But still, Hamlet does not kill himself because he is afraid of what may lay beyond the plane of existence. His quest to find meaning is what drives him and gives him courage in a world wrought with death. Upon being poisoned by Laertes and murdering Claudius, Hamlet lies dying on the floor of Elsinore. He draws Horatio close and whispers his final wish: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart…draw thy breath in pain to tell my story” (Shakespeare V.2.381, 383-384). Hamlet now comes upon his meaning of life, which is to tell his story. Hamlet will live on in the tale he has weaved and the experiences he has had living on through death. His life has amounted to something in the end, as his story will hopefully teach others how to live their own lives. Shakespeare has revealed that the meaning of life is to tell one’s story. The narrative of our lives can affect the world around us, even though we may not live to see it. Albert Camus, however, has a different perspective on this existential question.

Dr. Rieux, the hero of Albert Camus’s The Plague, has his own reason for living in a world of strife. In the novel, the Algerian town of Oran has had an outbreak of the bubonic plague and people are dying by the score. Rieux works with his friend, Tarrou, to try and quell the plague at every turn. When Tarrou asks why he does not believe in God, Rieux responds by telling him “that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him” (Camus 127). Many of Rieux’s acquaintances, especially Father Paneloux, find solace in the notion of a supreme deity, finding it easier to believe He will protect His children, rather than doing something about it. However, Rieux is a man of action; he does not sit around and believe God will save Oran, but instead risks exposing himself to the plague by helping the citizens of the coastal hamlet. Tarrou begins to question why he does this and Rieux poses Tarrou a question: “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?” (Camus 128). It is here, through Rieux, that Camus begins to answer the question of life. Rieux believes that resisting against death whenever possible and fighting for life even though the fight will eventually be lost are the reasons for humanity’s existence. We fight because we live; the task is the purpose, the purpose is the task, a very Sisyphean outlook. Rieux’s motivation and his belief on how one should live is not answered until many months later, when the death toll has reached its peak and the quarantine seems like it will last forever. Tarrou proposes that he and Rieux take a short respite and enjoy each others’ company. Tarrou tells Rieux that he desires to be a saint and a hero who is venerated for his task. Rieux, on the other hand, responds by saying that “Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me…What interests me is being a man” (Camus 255). Rieux’s meaning of life is revealed within this quote. Coupled with his earlier statement on the struggle against death, Rieux believes that men should not strive to be heroes, but simply men; a man should help others if it is possible, without reciprocity. A man, according to Rieux, does all that he can to help others in the fight against death simply because he is alive and fighting, too. Camus’ novel ends with the plague being defeated and Rieux continuing his humble task of taking care of the people of Oran. He does not seek glory for his task, but does it because he is compelled to. This idea of interacting with other people whenever possible relates closely to the Jewish perspective on death.

Tsafreer Lev has had to answer the question of life on numerous occasions. As a rabbi and teacher at New Community Jewish High School, he not only helps those affected by death through the grieving process, but teaches congregants and students about this subject. When asked what the meaning of life is, he says that “The purpose of life is to bring godliness into world by interacting with those made in the image of God” (Lev). Like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Lev believes that people should use holiness to conquer absurdity. According to this, all ethical behavior stems from the notion of inter-personal relationships; every person has the spark of the divine within himself or herself and by interacting with different people, one has the ability to experience new forms of godliness. To do this, he says, one must carry out “kodesh moments…[because] That’s our way of bringing other-worldly divinity to us” (Lev). That means people must maintain relationships with one another if one and do good deeds for one another is to achieve infinite understanding of God. Though not completely possibly, one must try to interact with every type of person to come close to understanding every facet of life. Just as a diamond has many faces to its surface, the experiential perception of God has many different perspectives that must be approached from all angles. This becomes more vital when death occurs, according to the rabbi. He believes that “Death…gives meaning. It makes life scarce and precious” (Lev). Because there is a finite time on this world, every action people take is important. There might not be another chance to accomplish what one desires, so one must do whatever is possible to experience life to its fullest. Rabbi Lev says that our interactions with the rest of humanity give people the chance to experience God in the real world. The necessity of human interactions is also the main truth about life Viktor Frankl discovers in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. While working in Auschwitz, Frankl often thought about his wife, until he realized “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire” (Frankl 57). Even with very little reason to continue living, especially within the bleak conditions of the death camp, Frankl finds meaning in life because of the love he has for his wife. He still finds positive thought through a period of his life filled with despairThe fact that humans are mortal and have a limited time to live relates closely to Professor Shelly Kagan’s philosophy.

Shelly Kagan, the professor of philosophy at Yale University, teaches the course “Death,” throughout which he discusses what death is, if immortality is possible, and, most importantly, how death affects how one lives life. In his lecture “How to Live Given the Certainty of Death,” Kagan tells his class that “We should be careful…The fact that we’re going to die intuitively seems to require a particular kind of care because, as we might put it, ‘You only go around once’” (Academic Earth 2011). This means that one can live one’s life incorrectly, ruining the only chance one has. This puts into perspective how important one’s goals and actions are. Mortality demands that one must carefully act if one is to make the most of the limited time one has. An analogy that he brings up is that of “a musician who…has a month in the recording studio[;]…it’s less pressing to make clear what are the songs that [he] should record. But instead of having a month in the recording studio, you’ve got only a week…time is much more precious” (Academic Earth 2011). Because there is an inadequate amount of time, the decisions that a person makes are all the more important. People are forced to make the best choices and to not be careless or sloppy in how the choices are approached. After discussing the importance of what one does in life, the quality of enjoyment received, and the quantity of things to do with one’s life, Kagan ends the lecture by saying, “To have done something significant that abides, that seems to me, to add to the value and significance of my life” (Academic Earth 2011). This is his approach on what the meaning of life is. Just as Shakespeare subtly interweaves his belief of the meaning of life through Hamlet’s last words, Kagan reveals his belief within the final lines of his lecture. Kagan tells his class that doing something which fulfills the self is what makes life important. Life is fleeting and the actions one makes must be carefully decided. However, to do that which adds meaning to oneself makes life worth living. There are a number of possibilities that one can and should do, but, if Kagan is correct, the action of ultimate importance is to bring significance into one’s own life.

Throughout time, the question on the meaning of life has never been definitively answered. There has never been one single interpretation that is perceived as correct. Many different sources, from different periods of time and geographic locations, have varying answers. Shakespeare, through Hamlet, says that the meaning of life that history provides meaning. Camus, in The Plague, explains that the meaning of life is to resist death and help others. Rabbi Lev, theologian and teacher, states that the meaning of life is to make as many relationships as possible, in order to achieve an understanding of God. This notion is also asserted by Viktor Frankl, who believes that the primary purpose of life is to love. Kagan, in his philosophical lecture, teaches that the meaning of life is to carefully make decisions that add importance to our own lives. But who is correct? Maybe it is safe to say that all of these answers to the question of life are right, and, yet, none of them are. There is no one answer because there is no one perspective on the matter. There are billions of diverse lives and points-of-view. The answer to the question of the meaning of life depends on the person asking it and the answer will never be the same. The variety of answers shows that each answer can be correct in its own terms. There is no great answer to the question. One must make of life what one will. Each person makes his or her own answer to the meaning of life and he or she must make the most of it while he or she can. Much like Viktor Frankl, who, after his experience in the concentration camps, determined that the meaning of his “life was to help others to find meaning in their own lives,” the hope one can obtain from the information presented above is that everyone has his or her own meaning in life (Park 2011). All that is left is to go out and find it.


References

Camus, Albert. The Plague. First Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy New York: Washington. Square/Pocket, 1985.
Print.

How to Live Given the Certainty of Death. Perf. Professor Shelly Kagan. Yale University, 2011. Academic Earth. Online
Video.

Lev, Tsafreer. “The Meaning of Life from the Jewish Perspective.” Personal interview. 14 Feb. 2012.

Park, James L. “Meaning in Life Bibliography.” Meaning in Life Bibliography. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, 2011.
Web. 12 Mar. 2012.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New Folger ed. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Print.

Drishat Shalom

What’s the difference between blood and a BMW? Confused? Well, Parshat Tzav answers that question. You may be asking: what kind of Bible have you been reading, the Top Gear Torah? Well, even though the Torah makes no specific reference to cars (which it should, because that would be awesome), delving into the text reveals some enlightening information. Let’s take a look.

Parshat Tzav consists of God telling Moses how to prepare Aaron and his sons to become the Kohenim. God tells Moses the rules about the altar, preparations for sacrifices, and the different types of sacrifices. After God finishes instructing Moses, Moses initiates Aaron and his sons by giving them a ceremonial tunic, teaching them the sacrifices, and anointing them in blood and oil.

Now, many of you may be thinking: blood? Ewww! Well, that’s right: in order to be prepared for sacrifice, not only must the Kohenim be first covered in the blood of the slaughtered animal, but they must sprinkle blood around the sacrifice-site and carry the ashes of the animal into a site outside of the camp. It’s all about cleanliness. Yes, bathing yourself in blood may seem rather “unclean,” but in ancient society, cleanliness meant something far more important than being immaculate. Cleanliness of the soul, ritual purity, was valued over bodily cleanliness. This is still apparent in Jewish tradition today. During Netilat Yadaim, you “wash” your hands with water but do not use soap. You’re not supposed to clean your hands of germs, but rather, ritually purify yourself to be prepared for various ceremonies considered holy. This is obviously far different from society today. Within our school alone are Purell dispensers at every corner. We are expected to wash our hands when going to the bathroom. We must shampoo our hair when showering. Every bit of “cleanliness” today focuses on cleaning the body rather than cleaning the soul. It is less about our Self and more about our self-image. This raises an important point: a factor of the Self is internal purity. Even through the change in dynamic of hand-washing, the change from taking care of our internal Self to taking care of our external Self is apparent.

There’s some part of us that wrestles around with our feelings of what it is that is distasteful to us and what is tasteful. What’s “Yuck!” versus what’s “Wow!”? Societal dynamics have changed greatly since the time of Moses. We’ve become more conscious of our mortality and short amount of time on this Earth, so we fill that time with people and objects that we believe will fulfill ourselves and make us “complete,” but actually drive us away from what does fulfill the Self. Our Self is who we are. It is our hopes and dreams, our desires and talents, our personality and focal point of understanding. The Self encapsulates everything we are and everything we will become. However, we are focusing less on our Self and more on how others perceive us. With the simple actions of, for example, wearing “fashionable” clothing or driving an expensive car, we are conforming to how society wants us to act rather than what we ourselves specifically desire. We are taking care of the external while not focusing on the internal, doing what pleases others instead of ourselves. Ask yourself: how are we supposed to get back to finding our Self? The answer is within the text. The various steps and types of sacrifices all hint at how to conduct your life to keep the Self sustained.

Kohenim must wear linen over their own “flesh,” signifying the Self must be protected from external intrusion. Ashes, after the sacrifice is burnt, must be moved outside of the camp, showing how even in death, the manifestation of our Self is considered holy. The fire of the altar must always remain lit, meaning the fire within ourselves, our passions and spark of creativity, must remain alight. The Kohen who eats the Asham Offering dashes blood around the slaughter-site, signifying the importance of the life-force of the once-living creature, reminding ourselves of our mortality. The Hamat Offering is eaten by the Kohen who brought it and some blood is sprinkled onto a piece of clothing, which shows the focus on life and carrying with us the burdens of the consequences of our actions. The Grain Offering is portioned off so the Kohenim can all eat of it, recognizing the importance of friendship and relationships with others. The Near Offering is burnt completely, representing how we must sometimes let go of something when the time comes. The Shalom Offering is split in half, with one half given to the Kohenim to eat, the other burnt upon the altar, showing the necessity of sharing and following rules at times. Finally, the anointing of the blood represents recognizing the value of life and never forgetting that it is within our power to take lives, showing how important our actions can be.

Now, on one level, I may just be reading too far into an arcane text and trying to grasp at meaning that isn’t there; that’s highly likely and I wouldn’t be lying if you asked me if that’s what I did. But, on another level – there is meaning to be gleaned through the process – that the importance of the Self is truly imperative. We are focusing less on what may make us happy and instead on what society says will make us happy. If we continue to go down this path, the Self may be forever lost behind a myriad of Sephora advertisements and Audi A4s. To cultivate the Self, by recognizing the consequences of our actions, using wisdom to discern what is right and wrong, and by staying true to your own beliefs, you may find your Self once again. Find your passion and do what makes you, you, what fulfills you and awakens your Self. Now let me ask you again: what is the difference between blood and BMWs?

Death Whispered A Lullaby

Moonglow spilled onto your face last night
Rise, fall, rise, fall, a smooth rhythm
Peace, relaxation, contentment
Creeping inward, you were surrounded
Vigilant protectors of cotton and fluff
My hand grazed your cheek, a cold stroke on a field ablaze
Whimpering, you spoke to me in words not yet formed
Don’t be afraid
Go to your dreams
Forget it all
Chill slinked its way through
The smooth rhythms became smoother and smoother, softer and softer
And with that, we both left the room


Inspired by Opeth’s “Death Whispered a Lullaby”

So I Heard You Read The Woman In The Dunes…

The Woman in the Dunes, on a periphery glance, appears to be about someone forced into a hole in a Japanese beach and forced to live with a woman as they dig ever-falling sand out of a pit. Of course, stories aren’t always as they seem at a first look. Kōbō Abe, the author, is considered the Japanese Franz Kafka, in the sense that the writing uses simplistic language but conveys an overall deep meaning, which must be peeled away in layers. Of course, it takes time to take apart the book, chapter by chapter, but once you reach the end, you should understand how significant the story is. Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is significant because it reveals one of many “meanings of life” (you remember that exploration into the various meanings of life we talked about, right?). Abe reveals that the life is a Sisyphean task that one must uptake independently and, though one might not desire to at first, one ultimately resigns his will and puts himself towards the task.

It is interesting to note, first, that Abe, with the exception of two times throughout the novel, never uses names to describe his characters. The only exceptions are when the main character, Niki Jumpei, is listing details about himself, the other time being when Niki reads the newspaper given to him by the townspeople. There is a two-fold reason to this. The first is it allows you to see yourself within the scope of the characters. Rather than naming characters, Abe uses defining characteristics to describe the main characters: the resilient, persevering man, always paying attention to detail, and the submissive woman, aiming to please and avoiding conflict. By giving general descriptions of their character, you can see yourself in both characters and relate to their situation, in the context of futility and the eternal task (which I’ll refer to again later). The second reason is to create a sense of distance between yourself and the characters. Names are how we, as people, relate to one another. We can categorize everything and give it a name, and, through that, have understanding of whatever we name. It allows people to reach out to one another and say, “I may not know you, but you have a name; we are both human.” By not giving names, Abe wants the reader to feel distanced from the characters, which is exactly how Niki Jumpei feels and acts throughout the novel: distanced and independent from others. Why Abe names his main character is difficult to say; perhaps we need a starting point of relation to see how far one can go without others. The significance of not naming the characters leads back, as I said previously, to this prevalent notion of independence Niki experiences throughout the novel. Let me explain how.

When we are introduced to Niki, we learn that he is an entomologist, an insect collector. He travels to this dune sea on the Japanese coast in order to find a new species of insect, which may eventually be named after him. Again, the significance of names. In this case, the naming of the insect allows him to, in a stretch, reach out to others by making himself significant in the world. Here is the start of his futility in a Sisyphean task. Niki has dreams and hopes of himself that he ultimately wishes to fulfill. He sees himself, as he describes, as a “Round-Trip man;” what this means is that after he accomplishes his goal, he can always return home and to the life he once had, lessening the importance of accomplishing his goal, unlike those who are “One-Way people,” who live only to accomplish a task. The idea of a “One-Way” person relates to the myth of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man sent to Tartarus, whose punishment is to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it tumble to the ground and begin his task anew. Why does he continually do this task, even though he knows he will never accomplish it? I’ll answer that later. For now, just keep in mind the one-track goal that Sisyphus has. Throughout the novel, Niki reveals a few relationships he has with other people, most importantly the woman he lives with, and the Möbius man. He may talk with them and be friendly with them, but, much like the Granny, the woman Niki lives with in the hole, these people are simply means to an end; he sees them just as tools to help him sustain the life he desires. Eventually, when Niki enters the town and is given a place to sleep, which is Granny’s home, Niki begins to change once the path of his life is altered.

The morning after Niki enters the village, he wakes to see that the rope ladder leading into his hole has been removed and he and Granny are trapped in the bottom of the pit, forced to dig the sand from the sides and keep it from collapsing in. Granny reveals that the villagers have done this to hundreds, potentially thousands, of other travelers and it is a natural part of their life (it is important to mention that Granny is actually in her thirties). Niki resists this change in his task, still seeing his ultimate goal to return home to the life he desires. He calls the villagers savages and barbarians for thinking it is okay to trap people within their town. These people, who continually dig out the sand only to have it pile in again, are “One-Way people” who have a Sisyphean goal, which they still do even though they may not desire it. As Niki plans his escape and does what he can to avoid work, he brings up his colleague, who he refers to as the Möbius man. Let me explain what a Möbius strip is: it’s a twisted circle that has no front or back; imagine an “infinity” sign. Niki brings up the idea of the Möbius man when the task is presented to him to underline the significance of a Sisyphean task. The task of digging up the sand only to dig it up again later has no beginning and no end, it simply is, much like a Möbius strip. Over time, he starts to connect with Granny more and talk with her. Though he often lashes out, they still have sex on a regular basis, she cooks him food and bathes him, and are still somewhat friendly to each other. Within their encounters, however, Niki notices and picks apart details about what he notices on Granny. I forgot to mention that an important reason Abe made Niki an entomologist is because entomologists are tasked with noticing details. In his life, Niki picks apart little, insignificant details of everyone he knows, focusing on these factors rather than the whole picture. Keep this in mind. Eventually, while still planning his escape, Niki begins to help Granny dig the sand out of the hole, beginning his futile task.

Niki still has aspirations of leaving the hole and returning, though, his mind still on a “Round-Trip” track. One night, after days of planning, he springs into action; innocuously incapacitating his partner, he uses a device of his own making to exit the hole and begins to run out of the village before he falls into a quicksand pit and nearly dies. The villagers pull him out and return him to the hole with Granny. Even though he has nearly died, he still has aspirations of leaving the hole and returning home. He convinces the villagers to let him go take walks on the beach if they watch him and Granny have sex. Granny beats Niki to a bloody pulp, and yet Niki doesn’t fully grasp the futility of his actions. He soon builds a contraption to capture crows, which he will use in a similar fashion as carrier pigeons, which he names “Hope.” Even after all that has happened, Niki still has the hope of leaving and returning to the life he desires. Months go by as Niki and Granny continue to dig the sand out of the hole and a change begins to occur in Niki. He focuses less on the details that bother him about Granny and the village and begins to take into account the whole aspects of each; perhaps it is because he is making a connection with a person he enjoys being with, and perhaps it is because he is resigning in his goals of escaping. It could be a mixture of the two. Soon, Granny gets pregnant and she and Niki begin to become even closer. However, a month later, Granny has what is called an “extra-uterine pregnancy” and loses a lot of blood. The villagers send down a rope ladder and carry her into a truck, in order to transport her to a hospital. Here is where the biggest change in Niki occurs: even though the rope ladder is there and he could climb out and escape, he continues to shovel the sand out of the way, focusing on his new goal. Niki is now independent, no longer relying on the woman he used to live with for companionship, the Möbius man for conversations and understand, nor Granny for her care of him. He knows that he alone must accomplish the task he is set out to do. It is at this point that Niki stops being a “Round-Trip man” and becomes a “One-Way man,” existing simply to accomplish a singular goal which he knows he must always do. He becomes Sisyphus, in the sense that the life he desired is no longer important to him, nor is it attainable anymore, but lives a life that he must life, even though the goal will never be reached and is ultimately futile.

Why, though, does Abe bring up the idea of a Sisyphean task of digging sand out of a pit? Abe is trying to say that life is a Sisyphean task. We live for a singular purpose and, though we aspire for greatness, we must ultimately resign to the task given to us and accomplish it, even though our end result is always the same: death. Life is, then, futile, but we live anyways because our task is our goal. Life may be difficult to live but we do so anyways. We live to accomplish our task but never achieve it, but do so knowing full well the futility of our task. We may dream, but we will never achieve. The life we desire is far different from the life we need. It is these concepts that Niki wrestles with throughout The Woman in the Dunes, this significance of our lives and goals in the world. But enough about me, what have you been reading lately?