The fabric of society: 12. Individuals find meaning

Published Oct 14, 2015 at 4:00pm

[Article 12 of 14: The previous article examined how individuals take responsibility.]

A philosopher asked the meaning of life. Say to anyone who asks, “You selfish, egotistical bastard! You sit there, surveying the world from a very pretty perch, indeed, provided you by everyone who has ever gone before. And you dare to break the gift they have given you. You contemplate abstracts self-indulgently, complain how hard you have it, and that there is nothing to live for, when you cannot see the gift you have been given. You rush to escape, into drugs, alcohol, television, hedonism, small talk, self-pity — anything to stop looping in your head or facing the reality of the meaninglessness of it all. Oh, the horror! Well, grow up! You may not find meaning, but meaning can find you. Your job is to get out of bed, no matter where that bed may be, and say, ‘Damn! This is a wonderful day, and I’m going to make the most of it. I am going to laugh, cry, and work myself until I’m happily tired. And, by God, when I die, someone will be able to look back on what I have done, and say thank you for clearing my path just a little more.’”

Uncertainty — that is what we are given. Certainly, we are alone, but we are also together. Sartre reminded us that, although alone, we still have those that we love on whom to practice loving.

Society is so simple, but it is not understood easily or often because appreciating ‘why society’ takes more steps to independently deduce than it takes steps to see clearly once society’s simple elegance is pointed out.

Once you do figure why society matters, you can sell the personal advantage society offers others, and, furthermore, you are armed with the tools and the courage to defend it against those who, resigned to living just the law of the jungle, would destroy it.

To protect society, you need to know what it is and what it does. That arms you to detect and label behavior that would undermine it. The first weapon of choice is laughter, but every weapon in the arsenal is available to those who would use every weapon in the arsenal against you. Speak softly, but carry a big stick. Keep the big stick but keep it sheathed if possible because you can’t predict its unintended consequences. In the end, use the tools you’ve got.

Whatever authorities may try to impose in schools, we have the tools to independently educate ourselves. Books give you insight, perspective, hope, and companionship. Books nudge you toward a way out. They give you clues to what is wrong. Literature is the way to become sensitive to patterns and the consequences of them. Literature compresses enough experience into a concentrated point that one can manufacture a way to bust out of limitations.

People have every reason to hope. Just as Confucius’ carvings on some ivory could reach out to touch someone 2500 years later, any insight recorded now can reach out to touch someone else in the unimaginable future.

Congratulations! Individuals get to disperse the creeping fog — now that they can survey the past centuries in coffeehouses, work, journalism, art, education, character, individuality, politics, economics, advertising, history, academia, religion, literature, language, community, and culture. Now, make your own hope.

[The next article examines your place in society.]