Monday, January 27, 2020

We search for meaning because we've exhausted our answers

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.
- Saint Augustine
There are times when I'm engrossed in a book or a TV show. Not something where you can watch out of order like episodes of "Seinfeld," but maybe a crime procedural or something with a fair amount of suspense, where the viewer cares about what happens to the main character or the story arc. Something like "Game of Thrones." 

And I might come across an innocent spoiler somewhere in the corners of the Internet. Bruce Willis was dead all along! The message would say. I'd read it, immediately realize that I've made a mistake in reading it, then try desperate to forget it while all at the same time digesting the ramifications of the spoiler in my brain, and then finally...

...lose all interest in the book I'm reading or the TV show I'm following if the spoiler indeed came to be true. I find the answer - the answer I've been looking for the entire time! - but because I didn't find it myself, the journey loses meaning.

When almost every conceivable answer is one Google Search away, we lose meaning in the struggle to find the answer.

I think life, in general, is the same way. Before mass communication and instantaneous information was a thing, it was easier to assign meaning to things that are beyond our comprehension. Space, the stars, the deep, disasters, but as we progressively became more technologically advanced, we slowly began to realize that there were scientific explanations for everything, and the prerequisite knowledge it took to wonder at the cutting-edge borders now at least took a Ph.D. education. 

The eclipse - I saw the eclipse that swept across the U.S. a few years ago and the sense of wonder I felt was incredible. I think it must have been a sight for people living in ancient times. Now we know that the moon moves in front of the sun and this happens and it becomes more of a curiosity than an experience.

We no longer question why we get sick - the Wikipedia article on Germ Theory is clicks away from knowing the answer to that question: little things get into our bodies because we don't wash our hands and then we get sick. We no longer think about what's at the edge of the universe - it's billions upon billions of galaxies, some of which have undoubtedly already died when their lights hit the earth. Outside of the observable universe, light is literally too slow to catch up with the expansion space, so we will literally never get any information out of there. But if it's up to me to guess, I'd venture to say there's just more stardust.

The only things we have left to grasp are the same questions we've argued about for millennia and science will never be able to answer because the questions are too philosophical:
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Is there a God?
  • What happens to us after we die?
I'm not anti-science. I believe in Global Warming, I believe in vaccines, I think despite what we see on TV and read about in the newspaper, science and technology has brought us to the most peaceful time in humanity's history. But I can't help but wonder if science has also robbed us of meaning and wonder by providing all the answers to us. 

Information shows us the possible lives and every one of them seem better than mine.

Another channel where we are being robbed of meaning is of the open world of Social Media. It's no secret at this point that social media has a tremendously negative effect on the user's mental health, where we constantly feel that our daily lives are nothing compared to the highlights posted on friends' and influencers' pages. But I think there's one more connection between social media and the feeling of the lack of meaning: If I want to experience a possible life, the answer to that is an Instagram profile search away.

A singer's life is like this. A model's life is like that. If I've always wanted to tinker with machines and gadgets, this is what I can look up. Here's another person who's more creative and more artistic than me in every single way.

It's easy to marvel at someone else's highlight and foster a sense of profound alienation when social media is involved. I think a large part of what makes up a person's well-being is being with a personal social circle that not only supports, but teaches and learns from the person. Social media is all about consumption and marketing and it's easy to take in what we want to see, but hard for our bodies to move up and make a concrete change, especially from social media. We look at the perfect life of a stranger on Instagram and think both, "this is it? this is the pinnacle of what I'm working so hard to achieve?" and "this person's life is better than mine in every single way."

With perfect understanding, we live in contradiction. We both strive to wonder and yearn to marvel, and at the same time we find that we don't have anything to be curious about anymore.


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