I have been reading a book titled, The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith. The subtitle of the book is intriguing: Finding Fulfillment In a World Obsessed with Happiness. I have concluded that modern people believe that happiness is primarily found in wealth and pleasurable experiences. Yet, this leaves many people with nothing but a life that is empty. There is no sense of fulfillment. I am not sure we realize that one of the foundations of happiness is a life filled with purpose and meaning.
I first began thinking seriously about the meaning of life after watching several Woody Allen films back in the 1980s. Most of his movies focus on man’s search for meaning and truth. As an atheist, Allen has a totally pessimistic view of life, once stating publicly his belief that, after the search for truth is concluded, man is left with a real predicament:
“… alienation, loneliness, and emptiness verging on madness. The fundamental things behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless.”
In the movie Play It Again, Sam, Allen plays the role of a confused divorcee. In his loneliness and insecurity, he desperately attempts to pick up women. At a museum of modern art, he approaches a lovely young woman who is admiring one of Jackson Pollock’s paintings of random drippings.
ALLEN: “What do you see in this?”
WOMAN: “It reinstates the negativeness of existence. Nothingness. The hideous lonely emptiness of the universe. The predicament of man forced to live in a godless, barren eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straight jacket in a black absurd cosmos.
ALLEN: (Nodding in agreement as he looks at the painting) “What are you doing Saturday night?”
WOMAN: “Committing suicide.”
ALLEN: “Well…what are you doing Friday night?”
This woman’s description of the Pollock painting is a true reflection of the despair found in modern atheistic philosophy. If it leads to total despair, then suicide is indeed a logical solution to be considered. It is easy for people to believe that if life has no meaning, the short existence we have on this earth will be painfully grim. Instead of having to endure it, why not simply put an end to life? Sadly, Allen numbs this bleakness with humor.
In an interview in Newsweek magazine, Allen said, “I still lie awake at night terrified of the void.” He is speaking of the difficulty he has reconciling his strident atheism with all that he observes in the real world. Allen admits, “I make movies not to make any type of grand statement but simply to take my mind off the existential horror of being alive.”
As depressing as this sounds, it is the natural outworking of his godless view of life.
If you have an atheistic worldview and you logically think through its implications, you cannot help but experience despair when you consider that life is purposeless. We are here by chance, and when we die we go into everlasting nothingness. This generally culminates in a life of emptiness.
I am finding that so many modern people are like Woody Allen, who finds diversion in movie-making as a way to keep himself from having to think about all of this. Diverting the mind is much easier for us today, because of the breakneck, vastly accelerated speed of daily life. The frenzy of digital life allows so little time for introspection and reflection. We find we are subtly, insidiously encouraged to ignore the significant issues of life, particularly the issue of “meaning.”
Without realizing it, we seek to divert our minds with work and pleasure, to keep us from having to think about the emptiness of life, knowing that one day this is all going to end.
I will pick up on this in next week’s blog.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.