Books/Films (other media) on Why Life and Everything Matters
September 6, 2010 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Please suggest media (books, films, other types) that might help me construct a non-religious, "Why all of life and existence matters" narrative.

I read several of the quarter-life crisis and meaning of life questions, and while I did see a few good book/movie recommendations, the posts in general weren't quite what I was looking for. Thus, this question!

I'm 35 and live a fairly simple life. I have a small but close-knit circle of friends. I have an interesting, all right-paying job that I usually enjoy going to. I'm involved in a couple of "meaningful" volunteer activities. I have some recreational interests that I pursue fairly frequently. So, all in all, I have a satisfying enough life.

But... that's not the issue. I suffer from chronic depressive episodes which certainly dampen my quality of life. Some of this, I'm sure, is innate/neurophysiological (for which I've undergone treatment with only modest success), but another large part of it is existential angst. I don't so much worry that my life lacks meaning relative to anyone else's. Rather, I find myself despondent over the possibility that all of life and physical existence lacks any sort of meaning or significance -- that everything lacks significance in the grander scheme of things, and that a million years from now everything will have been dust and nothing will have mattered.

My gut doesn't like this idea, though (thus the depression), and a part of me feels like such an analysis can't really be true, whatever factual evidence notwithstanding.

So! Can anyone provide any suggestions for things that I can read or watch that will help me construct some sort of philosophy or narrative of Why We and Everything Does Indeed Matter? I'm not looking for religious, metaphysical, quasi-scientific/new age spirituality answers, really, as my mind seems to automatically dismiss those as hocus pocus.

Thanks a bunch!
posted by GnomeChompsky to Religion & Philosophy (26 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Contact, admittedly one of my favorite films of all time, deals explicitly and extensively with conflicting views of science and religion. It's near-future science fiction, so in part the issues it's raising don't directly relate to the world we currently live in, but I've found it to be a very cathartic narrative regardless. The main character, played by Jodie Foster, struggles to be taken seriously among people who often privilege faith over hard science, and is thus given ample opportunity to explain her own thoughts -- how she feels that magical thinking only detracts from our appreciation of how amazing the universe, and our own existence in it, really is.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:03 AM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you're looking for existentialism?^ There are atheist existentialists.^
posted by XMLicious at 10:04 AM on September 6, 2010

As a fellow non-religious person, I find meaning in the ways that my actions help make other people's lives more happy (or at least less sad). Meaning for me is found in human connection with other people. Books that have helped remind me of this idea when I'm losing "faith" are ones that show the power one human can have to make another human's life better. In this vein, I would definitely recommend The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. Certainly nobody in this book is perfect, but it's a bunch of messy, real people dealing as best they can with a difficult situation, with a few really stand-out examples of goodness from one person to another.

I also find a lot of personal value in learning, and find that curiosity seems to make life feel much more worthwhile. In that vein, I recommend The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman, as well as any other well-written book on subjects that interest you.

Also, I find that public radio's weekly program Speaking of Faith series (soon to be renamed, I believe) helps remind me of the things that give life meaning. Often their programs are about various religious traditions, but just as often they're not. They focus on the things that are beautiful and difficult and meaningful in the human experience. The weekly podcast or downloadable mp3 is free, as are a huge selection of archived programs.
posted by vytae at 10:14 AM on September 6, 2010

I'd suggest Alan Watts or Robert Anton Wilson. Not so much for giving you a reason for existence to... exist, but for coming to grips with the fact that it is all meaningless and why that's a great thing.
posted by cmoj at 10:14 AM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Like cmoj said, Robert Anton Wilson (with Robert Shea on Illuminatus! and by himself on The Schrodinger's Cat) is most definitely some life-affirming stuff.

(SPOILER ALERT) The entire universe gets destroyed about a hundred pages into Schrodinger's Cat, and yet the narrative goes on.
posted by griphus at 10:24 AM on September 6, 2010

How about Neil Degrasse Tyson? Sample, and more.
posted by yaymukund at 10:33 AM on September 6, 2010

Reading any of the science or non-science works by Feynman might help. He manages to approach life from an atheist/science perspective while still finding beauty and mystery in the world.

Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything gets recommended a lot as an overview the Universe as we know it, and may be what you're looking for.
posted by auto-correct at 10:34 AM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whenever I feel myself in the grip of such thoughts, I find it strangely comforting to remind myself that I (we) know absolutely nothing about what is really going on in terms of "life and all existence." This video helps remind me of that fact. I have it bookmarked under the label "perspective." My life and all of existence could have meaning that I can not even begin to conceptualize, given that so much of all existence is completely unknown to us. Therefore, who am I to say? This simple thought is my non-religious version of the conviction that "I am part of something bigger that I do not presume to understand."

Also, star-gazing aside: contemplating the natural world of our very planet does wonders for this kind of ill, I've found. If for some reason you can't immerse yourself in nature (but really there is no good reason why you can't), you can read the writings of those who have. The nature writing of John Muir is a good place to start. A religious man, yes, and that might be a turn off for you, but his spirituality is firmly rooted in the earth, and that might be a turn on. It works for me.
posted by beanie at 10:39 AM on September 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

GnomeChompsky, I do want to address your central question, but first, I would like to point out a paradox central to your angst: as an atheist, the only experience you have during your time on earth is your own. You cannot know anything that happens after death, any more than you can have direct experience of anything that occurred before your birth. The only "meaning" that you have is the one you make for yourself, in the moments that you have.

You're not Alexander The Great. And that's perfectly okay. Your name is not going to echo through all time. That's true of the vast majority of people. What's important - the only thing you can ultimately control - is the richness, diversity, and meaning of the millions of interactions you have in your life, and your appreciation of that experience. I know that sometimes seems unfulfilling, but there is more than enough to fill a dozen lifetimes. You create meaning by living as large as you can.

That being said, some suggestions:

Anything that reminds you of the sheer unlikeliness, and thus uniqueness, of the fact that you are you. From the billions of manifold possibilities, you were created. So:

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, by Carl Sagan, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.

Two left-field recommendations: Temple Gardin's talk at TED about the diversity of human experience, and how we, as a society, need non-neurotypical people, of every type - to nuture, encourage, and learn from them. Almost any talk at TED on human potential.

The Geologic Podcast, George Hrab: musican, writer, comedian, skeptic, atheist. It's a fun show, but you'll also find moments that Geo takes such joy, enthusiasm and wonder at life that it's contagious. For the same reason, anything by Neil Degrasse Tyson, recommended earlier.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:40 AM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

In his essay "The Absurd", Thomas Nagel writes about one of the arguments that bothers you: i.e., that nothing we do now will matter in a million years, so nothing matters now.

Nagel argues that, even though nothing we do will matter in a million years, that doesn't give us a reason to think nothing matters now. The reasoning goes like this. If we accept that nothing we do will matter in a million years, then, by the same token, nothing that happens in a million years should matter to us now. That's intuitively plausible--how often do we worry about things that will happen in a million years? But if we accept that what happens in a million years doesn't matter, then the fact that in a million years the present won't matter, is actually one of those million-years-away facts that shouldn't matter to us now. Thus, the fact that nothing now will matter in a million years can't be a reason to think that nothing matters now.

You might find the essay interesting. He doesn't come to any glib conclusion about how life really is meaningful, e.g. on the basis of arguments like the above. In fact, Nagel thinks that reflections on geological time are a natural way of expressing what is really absurd in life--even if, treated as arguments, they are fallacious. (For his answer to what makes life absurd, you'll have to check out the essay!)
posted by Beardman at 10:44 AM on September 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Funny, I used to take solace in the indifference of the vastness of space and time, myself - puts the petty troubles of a given day in perspective. But I suppose I can understand how it would be depressing, too.

I think the science-ey stuff here is all great, but I also suggest reading Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture" or viewing the video of it in long form. I think his point was that you have to make your life meaningful, on your own terms.
posted by richyoung at 10:45 AM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

What really matters to people is other people. So, since my own contact with you occurs solely through the medium of comments read on this web-site, those comments are what matters to me about you. Post good comments and you will make a worthwhile contribution to this site and to those who read it. What consequences ultimately flow from such comments? We will never really know, because human interactions are very complex, and everything you do has consequences, and those consequences have further consequences, and so forth, in endlessly propagating waves of consequences. A million years from now, there may very well still be meaningful consequences of your life or even of the comments you have posted, although no historian would ever be able to track the consequences back that far in time. You & I will never know whether we have made a lasting impact on the world or not. We do our best. Meanwhile, your life is meaningful as long as you pesonally can find meaning in it. It is really up to you.
posted by grizzled at 10:50 AM on September 6, 2010

I'm not religious at all, but the works of Søren Kierkegaard (a 19th century Danish, Christian existentialist) have helped me with this very question. It may help that Kierkegaard, unlike many philosophers, writes beautifully.

Read Fear and Trembling [amazon / wikipedia]; the narrative that the pseudonymous author is interested in is the story of Abraham and Isaac, but the result is not restricted to Christians at all. Kierkegaard essentially thinks that anyone with any sense (and some shred of bravery) comes to the realization you've had: that we can't locate a source of meaning outside ourselves. But only the person of faith can come to terms with that and throw him or herself into the world, full force. He maintains that having faith (and this, I think, doesn't need to mean Christian or religious faith) is acting "by virtue of the absurd." That is, it is at once a recognition of meaninglessness ("infinite resignation") and an act of will that reinvests meaning into everything. The person of faith understands that the world is intrinsically meaningless, and commits fully to that world anyway.

If the Christianity aspect turns you off, take the advice of an earlier commenter and look into some other existentialists. But I don't know if there's anyone who makes the case as persuasively as the great Dane.
posted by roast beef at 12:19 PM on September 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

or Robert Anton Wilson. Not so much for giving you a reason for existence to... exist, but for coming to grips with the fact that it is all meaningless

Can't speak for Alan Watts, but I never saw Wilson arguing for meaningless so much as unknowingness. That is, whatever answer/non-answer there might ultimately be to the mysteries of life/universe/everything, we're really tripping over ourselves if we think we'll ever get even close to the bottom of it (or perhaps the top of it).

So, the challenge seems to be reconciling with that great uncertainty, which is where art, music, conversation, travel, reading, falling in love come in -- all things that may not give life reason but they sure give it motivation.
posted by philip-random at 12:55 PM on September 6, 2010

Well, "meaningless" is a vast simplification. Unknowingness would be a better one. I just mean whatever's going on here is likely to have nothing to do whatsoever with any concept that would satisfy a human's idea of "meaning."
posted by cmoj at 1:05 PM on September 6, 2010

I'm going to take a different tack and recommend The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.

When I had just finished my MA in Eng Lit, I had the luxury of spending a month in the rural countryside of Ontario. I took this one book with me. YMMV, but it was a revelation to me. I looked at nature and society with new eyes.

Yes, Dickinson was famously reclusive--damaged, even, depending on who you listen to--and many of her poems are couched in the religious terms of her day. But don't let that fool you. She is an inerrant observer, by turns funny, passionate, angry, sarcastic, desperate, mocking, questioning and, yes, sometimes, inaccessible.

To give one quick example of her take on religious orthodoxy:

Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence—is denied them.
They fling their Speech

By means of it—in God's Ear—
If then He hear—
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer—

Does that sound like something written by an unquestioning believer?

If you can stick with it, and it's a long haul, no question about it, I believe that you will have one comprehensive answer to your question about "some sort of philosophy or narrative of Why We and Everything Does Indeed Matter."
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:07 PM on September 6, 2010

This one can be a devil. I think reading autobiographies and memoirs of other people who lead great interesting lives can help with this. We take for granted that we can't change things, but the people who did change things, sometimes felt that way, too. I'd recommend Grace Lee Bogg's excellent Living for Change: An Autobiography as one such book.

Second, the million years thing can keep me up at night as well. I think there's enough pain and joy, horror and ecstasy within the lifetimes of ourselves, our community, the world, and our immediate offspring and their immediate offspring, to work with and so maybe we'll never get to the point of worrying about the people a million years down the road.
posted by history is a weapon at 3:48 PM on September 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might consider the somewhat long-winded Fun theory sequence.
posted by novalis_dt at 3:58 PM on September 6, 2010

I like the Nagel argument quite a bit, but it only goes as far as demonstrating why logically thinking about what happens a million years from now shouldn't matter. But why think that way to begin with? I think it's not about what people a million years from now will think, but looking at the world from a perspective that's beyond human finitude. When we imagine the universe after everything has been reduced to dust, whose eyes are we looking through? It can only be God's. The anxiety is generated because when we project ourselves into the future like that, we find an absence or empty space where God should be - that's why the most emotionally satisfying answers are either religious or New Age metaphysical, which fill in this lack.

A second question is whether the problem really is meaninglessness. There are all kinds of meaningless events - a hydrogen atom releasing energy in a distant star is meaningless, but it's not the kind of thing people are concerned about when they talk about a lack of meaning. The issue is with things that are meaningful - my ordinary life, my job, my hobbies, and so on. It seems like the real problem is not an absence, but the exact opposite, an excess of meaning - I find meaning in all these things, but why? In a million years, they won't mean anything. So the real question is something like, does my meaning have meaning? Or, why is there no God who will relieve me of this terrible burden of meaning?

It's possible that this type of thinking is a symptom rather than a cause of depression. When life's events are too difficult, you might distance yourself from them by projecting yourself a million years into the future where all this excessive, overwhelming meaning is gone. From this safe place, new problems like existential angst arise, but only as a side-effect of avoiding an even more terrifying trauma. In this sense, it might be a false problem, you unconsciously sustain it to keep you occupied and distract you from what's really going on. It seems like belief in God would solve your problem, but for some reason you reject it. Not that I'm suggesting that you should believe in God, but perhaps it indicates that you unconsciously need this problem to stay unsolved. When something comes close to taking it away, your mind automatically dismisses it, as if to protect it.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:35 PM on September 6, 2010

Response by poster: First off, thanks everyone for all of your great recommendations. I don't think it's possible to pick a best answer (and certainly not until I have the chance to delve into all of the thoughtful books, movies, and sites you've referred to me).

Short Attention Sp, thanks for mentioning poetry. I've read a smattering of Dickinson in the past and liked her. Perhaps a more exhaustive reading is in order.

History is a weapon, I like the idea of reading biographies, but I wonder... Are there many biographies which include the author's personal struggles with existential angst (or whatever you want to call it)?

AlsoMike, you offer some provocative thoughts (which seems par for the course for your comments!). In terms of the "this type of thinking is a symptom" theory, you've certainly at least partly right. Whatever the root cause, this type of thinking tends to precede depressive episodes, which then tend to reinforce and further this type of thinking. That pattern makes sense based on what we know about the brain. Our brain's physiology influences how we think, and how we think actually influences our brain's physiology.

You also make a good point about meaninglessness/too much meaning. A good way to sum up much of my thinking would certainly be, "Does anything I think a care about really matter? Is it really worth caring about?" (and yes, that's somewhat typical depressive thinking). But, on the other hand, I also worry about true meaninglessness. I find myself empathizing with the plight of bugs and birds and all manner of other creatures. I found myself thinking the other day that even if I could concoct some sort of "meaning narrative" for humanity (and my life personally), that such a narrative would still be fairly pathetic. What about all the rest of life? It would seem rather unfair for all of life to only matter because it led to humanity or to my own and others' personal satisfaction or sense of meaning.

As I alluded to in my original post, I don't really have a problem with the idea that my life lacks meaning or that it doesn't matter -- within the context of human relations. It's that I worry that all of human relations is just a silly little game in a far off corner of the universe (or grand cascades of the multiverse) to be as easily discarded or forgotten about as an old set of checkers missing a few pieces.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 8:11 PM on September 6, 2010

Dang, I can't even get past your question. What is "meaning?" It sounds as if your definition might have something to do with longevity or lasting effect on the world in the future. In other words, once all is dust again life will not have mattered because it will not be evident in the eschatological "dust?" (forgive me if that's the wrong interpretation, but it's the sense I get.)

Might I suggest that you not tie your definition of meaning to time? Time, it seems to me, is a useful human notion. But really what we have is the present moment.

Phew, I just can't approach your question without getting metaphysical or spiritual to some degree because you ask about that which provides context to all life. "Meaning" usually refers to the relationship between something and its context. Human life does appear to be meaningless if time is your context for the meaning of life. Human existence is temporal and is indeed nothing compared to the expanse of time.

But what if your source of meaning was a quality not tied to time? Mine (staying secular here) is love (other-centeredness, selflessness, etc.) Maybe the extent and quality of our love gives life its meaning? In each moment I can choose to love or not to love, reach outside myself or satisfy only myself. I have no such choice with respect to time, I can only go forward to the next moment and the next until I run out of them.

Ultimately we choose the context with which we define the meaning of our lives. I prefer to use a context which gives me the opportunity to choose meaning in each moment, each now.
posted by cross_impact at 8:29 PM on September 6, 2010

Response by poster: Cross_impact, you're certainly right that I have difficulty divorcing time from my perception of meaning and value.

I suppose my mind sort of works like this:

It_matters_overall_factor = Raw_significance_factor * Time_factor

I've found many people seem to balance "staying power" and "momentary, raw importance" when making decisions (i.e. deciding meaning) in their life. For example, I often choose to do things that are extremely, powerfully painful if I know that such pain will be momentary. However, if I knew the pain wouldn't be fleeting, I'd be much more reticent.

An important leap for me would be deciding that time doesn't matter -- or, at least, that time as humans perceive it doesn't matter. If, for example, someone proved that the human notions of past, present, and future are basically a perceptual illusion and that all of time exists perpetually, not simply that one moment in time exists now then that would probably do a lot to reassure me.

I did have fun once, though, playing with the notion that our lives are a set of infinite moments which we experience at an infinitely fast relative rate, meaning that each live is its own encapsulated eternity. Such bull shit puts me to sleep from time to time but does little more. :)
posted by GnomeChompsky at 8:43 PM on September 6, 2010

Perhaps totally off topic, but I've found the later episodes of Dead Like Me to be thought-provoking and entertaining.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 9:24 PM on September 6, 2010

Well, okay, Gnome_Chompsky. When it comes to the nature of time, I doubt there will ever be any proof. So you can definitely choose our very human phenomenology of time as your base assumption. My point above is that, lacking proof, all we have are assumptions and which one you embrace is a choice.

If the meaning of life for you is tied to time and the impact of human life on it, I'm afraid I see no meaning to be hoped for. I would definitely share your depression. All we are is dust in the wind, so to speak.

What I was pointing out is that there are alternative assumptions that lead to considerably more hope if you choose to entertain them. And to assume that one is somehow more "scientific" than others is giving way too much credit to science.
posted by cross_impact at 8:42 AM on September 7, 2010

Might I suggest that suffering is the most meaningful reality in life, and eliminating suffering the most meaningful pursuit?

Pain tends to difficult for even the hardiest existentialist to dismiss. Especially when it is inflicted on them.
posted by shii at 4:41 AM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Might I suggest that suffering is the most meaningful reality in life, and eliminating suffering the most meaningful pursuit?

Which always gets me reflecting on that profound emotion sorrow. Which wouldn't exist if there hadn't first been joy. Or as I once heard it put, "Sorrow is just joy, with gravity added, and that's exactly what My Bloody Valentine's Loveless sounds like."

And then there's Henry Miller's paradoxical notion of the rosy crucifixion. Simply stated: all suffering is unnecessary, but one can only achieve this wisdom by first having suffered.

So, in answer to the original question. The doctor recommends that GnomeChompsky read Henry Miller's entire Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy, whilst listening to My Bloody Valentine.

That's living.
posted by philip-random at 10:38 AM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

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