Monday, July 1, 2013

Why I Can Live Without the "Why" Questions

Two separate people recently asked the "Why me?" question in conversations I had with them. Which prompted me to think: "There must be a reason for this... Yes, 'Someone' is trying to tell me to write a new post!"

Both cases involve a person suffering an injury that's had a major impact on their life. The first question came from a third party, asking how the injured person was doing: "Do you ever think about 'why' this happened to them?" My response: "Honestly, no. Not once. Not at all." The idea of there being a cosmic "reason" behind someone's misfortune (or fortune) is entirely foreign to my consciousness. There is not one scintilla of a thought lurking in the back of my mind that maybe the tragedies that befall people fit into some sort of larger "Divine plan". I don't believe it for a second.

But it's not just that I don't believe it - I have no need to believe it. As a point of contrast, I was speaking with another friend once about this topic, said I didn't believe there's any "grand purpose" to the events in our lives, and they told me that they couldn't even go there, because the thought was so deeply unsettling to them, so disturbing, that it would be like pulling the rug right out from under their reality. And I thought it's amazing how different people are. Here's this person who's profoundly psychologically dependent on the idea of "objective meaning" in the universe, and here's me who has absolutely no psychological need for it whatsoever!

Does that mean I live in a "meaningless" world? Is everything just "vanity and striving after wind" (to quote Kohelet)? An emphatic NO.

I get meaning from all the things and people that mean something to me. I get meaning from helping people, from trying to bring more sanity and joy into the world. I get meaning from spending time with my family and friends, from quiet moments with my wife and less-than-quiet moments with my kids. I get meaning from experiencing the world, from breathing forest air and listening to the sound of the waves (two things I need to be doing more of, come to think of it!). I get meaning on the intellectual plane from trying to make sense of things and gain clarity, from Torah, and from writing in this blog and elsewhere. Life is literally packed with meaning! And yes, I know that this is only meaning which I myself have constructed, that it's not necessarily meaningful to anyone else, let alone "objectively" meaningful. But I'm 100% OK with that. I don't feel any sense of "lack" in that kind of meaning, like there's some sort of "hole" that needs to be filled. That doesn't mean I'm not continually seeking more meaning, greater meaning (via more varied experiences, deeper relationships, expanding intellectual horizons, etc.), but the meaning I do experience is very much "shalem", whole.

So for me, there's no "living in vain", and there's no "dying in vain" either. Why? Because the very "vain"/"not in vain" distinction assumes purpose - or in this case living or dying in such a way that does/doesn't comport with the purpose. So that's right - it's really the opposite of what you might think. The whole notion of "vanity and striving after wind" only arises out of the assumption of "objective meaning"! Replace that with personal/psychological/subjective meaning, and voila - there's no more "hevel", at least not in any existential sense. (Put that in your philosophical pipe and smoke it!)

Anyway... I mentioned there being a second person who got injured - this person suffered a fall requiring surgery. On the phone they said to me, "I know it happened for a reason. I just don't know what it is yet." And you know what I responded? Nothing. I kept my mouth shut - apart from a simple "Hmm" of acknowledgement, that is.

I know I've mentioned this before, but more than I believe in there being no "objective" purpose or meaning, more than I believe in intellectual honesty and truth-telling, I believe in people coming first. And sometimes (many times in fact - and believe me, as a married person I can attest to this!), the highest wisdom is to be able to zip your lip, hold yourself back from saying something, even if you believe in your heart of hearts that you're right. Yes, when someone is suffering because of their "why me" perspective (and that also happens a lot), there's a place to gently try show them another path. But even then you have to be judicious and sensitive. And besides, there's only so much you can do - ultimately people need to come to these kinds of things on their own. To quote The Matrix (a movie worthy of a separate discussion): "I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."

But again, that's just me. I'm interested to know how you relate to these questions.


  1. I feel like I could have written this post (though not so elegantly). Thanks!

    1. Thank you for all your smart and articulate comments.