Living with pointlessness and the loss of meaning.
One of the great issue I hear people struggling with if they meet "a Spong" is that they will lose the certainty of their faith. I also hear all sorts of arguments where one side says, "But if we don't believe 'A'... then we can't know anything." Or "... then there is no basis for faith" Or "... then we can't trust any of the bible." There is a great fear of the loss of certainty. This essay seeks simply to deal with living the inevitable loss of some certainties that must occur if we grow up.
Some people apparently are aware of the very tenuous nature of our knowing but are not greatly affected by it. My wife is like this- "How could you not have some sense of purpose... how could you say you can't see the point of anything?!" She accepts a person could feel like this in theory, but she can't imagine it.
Others of us are aware of the very tenuous nature of our knowing because we feel it with a great certainty! We don't imagine it, it is our reality. I know it from experience. For me, life is ultimately about finding a point to things... and a good deal of the time, I can't.
Pointlessness has various flavours. It ranges from the acceptance of the basic inescapable uncertainty of life, through to an extreme and crippling "utter pointlessness." At a time of utter pointlessness the question "Why... what is the point? (of anything) is simply unanswerable.
Basic uncertainty is what we all live with, along with our basic aloneness. In the end, we are alone... no one else can actually know us... we cannot ever fully describe to them who we are and what we feel. We are ultimately alone. And ultimately we cannot know what life means and where it is going. There is a basic uncertainty of meaning, let alone uncertainty about what might happen tomorrow and transform life from relative comfort to a great grief.
Some people deny the basic uncertainty of life and manufacture an hermetically sealed world view which pretends there is certainty. They elevate some contingent thing to the level of the ultimate. Christian fundamentalism, for example, makes its scripture ultimate by claiming literal historical inerrancy for it, thereby appearing to guarantee God and claim certainty. Of course this elevation of a mere book, whatever insights and power it carries, is arbitrary, and the "certainty" is false. Fundamentalism betrays a lack of human maturity which still lives out of fear, shying away from freedom, rather than seeking the freedom, albeit fearsome, which comes from seeking to live according to what is. It is a fundamental lack of courage. (For more detail see this paper on Jans pages.)
Even in non-fundamentalist Christianity, the idea that "life after death will compensate for all our hardship and make everything worthwhile" is elevated beyond a valid status . (This usually includes excusing God from the arbitrarily unjust and indefensible nature of his creation if he is truly omnipotent.) The idea is made into an ultimate, along with the notion that following Jesus will get us into heaven, which does a kind of epistemological trick to remove the basic uncertainty around us. It is only a trick, and all it does is put off the horrible moment when we find we are alone, and must die alone, and have no verifiable idea of what existence is all about.
Knowing the basic uncertainty and aloneness of life is not necessarily a hard thing. It is simply the acceptance of what is. Basic uncertainty is merely the backdrop of all life. One still goes about seeking to make sense of what is, looking for reasons to live, for good things to do, and basic enjoyment of creation. As children we discover that Father Christmas is not real... and then after that first sharp grief, find life still has fun and some purpose to it. This basic rite of passage ought to be reflected in people's faith journey as they discover God is not Father Christmas either and then after that first sharp grief, find life still has fun and some purpose to it. But being more basic... we put a lot more energy into denying this discovery.
I reckon that finding a durable fun and enjoyment in life involves some seeking and choosing of a Divinity for life... an ultimate around which to base life. Otherwise we simply drift, driven by the whim and circumstance of the moment and then, when "utter pointlessness" strikes, we find we have no foundation. In Western culture of course, the immediately obvious divinity is the god called Consumption... the meaning and purpose of life can be found in Consumption... or so the television tells us. When people get seriously sick they are inclined to abandon this view and seek some more ultimate meaning in relationships with those close to them.
Utter pointlessness, I was going to write, is the extreme where we simply cannot make sense. But while this might be so, we may actually make very clear sense of what we see. And then all our constructs of the world and its purpose become plainly and only what they are; ideas... They lose the power to sustain us. They lose that appearance of reality they normally have which allows us to function. We find we can make no sense of things... or even that there is a great clarity, and the clarity is that there is no point to anything.
Why keep working for good when we will all die and when evil will always abound? Why keep going? Why?.... Oh- so don't worry about being good and just live for myself then? Like; the one who has the most toys when they die wins... Yeah right... and they still die. Why keep going? Why?
It's not as though we forget the answers that sustained us yesterday. It's not that we do not know answers, it's simply that nothing works, and for a few seconds or hours or even months... there is nothing. There are no answers which have any power, and hopelessness drags at us, draining the joy of life, even drowning our ability to function, driving some of us to suicide, and drawing many others of us to consider it.
I want to say that if none of this makes sense to you because you do not ever experience it, don't ridicule the person who does feel this way. What they are feeling is real. Just because it makes no sense to you, does not mean it is not real. You need this person, because they will understand and be able to listen when your time of "utter pointlessness" comes. They will be able to guide you through the dark places. They are of the brave who face the areas of life that you have not been called into.
For those who know utter pointlessness I want to say do not be ashamed. What we feel is real. There is not something wrong with us. We have seen something of Reality. I am glad of it- I want to be real, not living under an illusion. The closer I can be to what is, the better.
Utter pointlessness is also a freedom from fear. It is freedom the idolatry that demands we maintain control of life with a dreamed up ideology which explains away the scary stuff. It is the beginning of a new walk to freedom because we can see with great clarity the emptiness of so much which people lust after and devote their lives to. And we can also see more clearly the few things really worth seeking and find the few things which will remain true for us. We are not like the hero in the old cowboy film who takes cover behind a picket fence and imagines he is safe.
The world needs people who are living in the real and who are brave to face the real. It is the people who live in the real who can see clearly and help us survive the stupidities and fear-full-ness of the un-real ideologies like the religious and scientific fundamentalisms of our time.
How to survive.
For all that, utter pointlessness is hard to live with. I find there are some good things to do to help survive the bad times.
Let's glory in who we are. We can see the real. This is good. Let us be clear on what we see. If we work up a theology/philosophy/world view of our being able to see the full uncertainties of life then we are less vulnerable when bad times come.
It's like knowing about the grief curve... you can't avoid the grief but it can help to know that this is common, and that there will be an end. And "honouring and cherishing our grief", a phrase I think I first heard from Andrew Dutney , somehow enriches it and disarms it. Sterile suffering is replaced by something with colour. I can only explain it in terms of going from numb inarticulate heart-crushing pain to a kind of pain that lets me cry. It's not some perverse enjoyment, but I can grieve rather than the grief being an external thing hammering me. Understanding who we are, rejoicing in it and seeking to live it to the full may not decrease the pain, but it removes some of its power. I find the same when "utter pointlessness" rolls over me.
When "utter pointlessness" envelopes me I remind myself it will pass like all the other times.
Ritual and regularity help. It is easier to live through the darkness when there are regular habits and tasks we can undertake. They at least fill the time and shut out some of the pain as our minds are diverted somewhere else. This is not denial... trying to blot out the reality is foolishness and will fail. It is having a routine to follow despite, and through, the pain.
Obligation helps. We know that sometimes our employment helps... weekends can be horrible as the pointlessness rushes in to fill the emptiness. Without being foolishly over-committed we can help ourselves by building obligations that again shut out some of the pain as our minds are diverted somewhere else. Being obligated... I promised... sometimes provides that final bit of motivation to keep us moving. The obligations need to be "good." Obliging ourselves to be a doormat is also pointless. But some good obligation to people helps with the living through.
Loving someone else is a particularly potent form of obligation. Seeking the best for a person focuses us on them and away from our pain. It also seems to have its own healing. Gazing on my baby daughter, remembering her and the pain that would follow my not being there, always cut into the power of "utter pointlessness." Relating is one of the most basic things, and helps herd pointlessness back to its proper place.
Worshiping Divinity is important. It is a way of seeking truth. I am not speaking of the easy denials of popular religion which are a substitute for truth. I mean the struggle to understand, to find what is ultimate, and to live to the best of who we can be. Perhaps this is just another way of saying "glory in who we are" as I did above. My sense is that worship, which I understand to be the exercise of ascribing due and appropriate worth to all we see, and seeking the divine, the most worthy, build a strength of character in us that thrives on all that is good about being able to see utter pointlessness, and protects us against its dangers.
Health and exercise are useful. Walking, gardening, swimming, running, contemplating the beautiful all help keep us in balance and keep the knowledge of utter pointlessness in its proper place.
Let us be gentle to ourselves. Utter pointlessness can develop into depression. Not the "depression" of a bad day, but the illness that means we cannot regain our function. This is not a thing of shame. It is an illness. It happens.
It could even be one path of progression to health as we deal with the life draining futility, or the abuse of our situation. It is perhaps often the healthy response of the saplings of our minds bending in winds of circumstance that are too strong. I would rather this than the brittle wood which simply snaps.
Drugs are scary, but not bad. Common wisdom is often that they clog the mind and anaesthetise the soul. Friends talk of living in a fog, and have sought desperately to get off the things. Yet I am alive because of drugs.
A good doctor who has some age and life experience is who I would trust to prescribe me drugs. What does an affluent, high achieving 26 year old, fresh out of medical school know of a life which has lived through love and death and knows nothing?
I would not trust a doctor who I felt did not take me seriously. I had a friend who went to the doctor with a severe problem which was strangling her life. She came away with a prescription... after that first 15 minute visit. This seems to me to be reprehensible behaviour. By contrast when I was too sick to work, Bruce Martin finally grabbed and shook me by the mental shoulders. "We've given you time. We've done all the right things- you've walked your legs off. It's time now to be gentle on yourself and try something else." He worked with me. He respected me. And so I could trust him.
Follow your doctor's instructions. Never just stop drugs cold turkey without advice and support from the doctor. If you trusted your doctor to start taking these things, trust them about how to stop! Don't listen to some jumped up priest or counselor who doesn't really know what they are talking about. Especially don't stop because you are starting to feel OK. I had two friends who "just stopped" under this sort of advice. One is lucky... she had people watching who caught her each time as things spun out of control. Not so the other... dear, kind Toby, struggling on his own, is dead. He just stopped.
Avoid suicide. I seriously wondered if everyone would be better off without me. But seeing what suicide leaves behind, I know they would not. Suicide is never really a relief for family and friends- it is only an escape for those who did not love us anyway. There is no coming back. There will be no relief for we will simply not be... and our problems will remain for others.
Posted January 2003