The Meaning of My Life?

Odysseus and Polyphemus
Arnold Böcklin, 1896

The Meaning of My Life?

Viktor Frankl wrote a book reflecting on the meaning of his experiences when he was incarcerated in a Nazi death camp.  He found that people needed their lives to be meaningful – more than they needed bread when they were starving!

I’ve always thought he was quite right and that a crisis of meaning in a person’s life – when you wonder whether your life has any meaning – is an event of the most serious kind.  This is so even if the incident prompting the crisis seems comparatively trivial.

Right now, I’m feeling battered by life’s flotsam and jetsam – by bruising incidents that appear random and therefore devoid of meaning.  Since, dear reader, I don’t lie to you, it might be appropriate to tell you what’s been going on.

The flotsam and jetsam are not the only happenings in my life, but – like specks of dust in the eye – they make it hard to enjoy the big picture.

Understand, I’m not the type of person who wakes in the morning with a song in her heart.  Or on her lips.  What’s more, if I were rooming with a person like that, I’d want to sock her.

When I wake up in the morning, I’m trying to recover from my most recent anxiety dream.  If I wake before dawn’s early light, I’m usually between anxiety dreams.

Which brings me to my present trouble.  The other night, when I was up to answer a call we need not discuss, I stubbed my barefoot little toe against a sharp edge.  Rubbing it, I noticed that the pain was not subsiding.

Uh oh.

At Urgent Care the next day, we learned that I had a fracture.  A “subtle” fracture, without dislocation, going by the name of “Jones.”  A “Jones fracture.”  (I’m not kidding.)  Ordinarily, these things take six-to-eight weeks to heal.  We were scheduled for more long-delayed neuropathy treatments, at the Loma Linda clinic in California, five weeks from now.

One of the symptoms of my neuropathic condition is a partial numbing of the sensory input that tells you where to place your little toe if you want to avoid stubbing it.  The treatment in California involves light touch massage that coaxes the micro-vascular system to open, allowing more blood to feed the blood-starved nerves.  It’s an experimental treatment, and sometimes needs to be reconfigured when new obstacles are encountered, but so far it’s been the only treatment I’ve found that’s effective, measurably and symptomatically.  However, this treatment can’t be applied as long as the patient is recovering from a toe fracture.

In sum, the very condition for which I need treatment is the condition that puts at risk my ability to get treatment!

Nice, eh?  Catch 22?

Now, two ways to think about this dilemma come to my mind.  I’ll lay out both of them for you to picture.

The first, I’ll call the Thomas Hardy Way.  In the nineteenth-century novels of Thomas Hardy, accidents prevent the novel’s main character from reaching that character’s goal in life and avoiding irreparable defeat.  A dark, fateful cloud hangs over the Hardy-esque landscape.  Sooner or later, it will descend on our main character, frustrating the footsteps we’ve been following sympathetically.  When a talented writer like Hardy describes it, this picture has a lot of magnetic draw for the reader.

In my present, Catch 22 situation, I can’t just pretend not to notice an emotional landscape like Hardy’s.  Hey, don’t think of a white horse!  Ignore the elephant in the room! 

But I know how to confront a proposed interpretation-of-life dialectically.  In Socratic dialectic, you don’t just reject a proposed viewpoint.  Rather, you adopt it hypothetically, “for the sake of argument,” to see where it leads.  The point of a Socratic dialogue is not to win the argument but to test for truth.

Accordingly, I decided to take on the Hardy-esque view – to step into that dark, compelling landscape with its clouds lowering overhead.  Here’s what it looks like, in argument form:

Premiss 1: The condition I have can only be remedied by Treatment X. 

Premiss 2:  The condition I have prevents Treatment X.

Conclusion: Therefore, the condition I have cannot be remedied.

What’s wrong with that argument?  The conclusion is validly derived.  The argument would be sound if both premises were known to be true.  Are they?

With regard to premiss 1, it’s the only remedy I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a great many alternatives) that has been in any degree effective.  So, for present practical purposes, it’s true so far as my experience goes. 

With regard to premiss 2, the neuropathy makes certain mishaps more likely.  But it doesn’t make them inevitable.  That’s why my present mishap gets called “an accident.”

So the argument isn’t sound.  Case not proven.  Is the case for the Hardy-esque life view therefore dismissable?  Let’s step into the frame of that worldview again and look at life from inside it.  People don’t adopt a despairing life-view because they find no arguments to counter it.  They adopt it because they find it compelling.  That’s how life – from the lowering sky down to the earth’s rim – looks to them from inside that frame.  Think of a piece of music, or a painting.  Once you stand inside it,  it sounds that way and it looks that way.

For me, in my world-picture, there’s also God.  What does God think of my dilemma at the present juncture?  Is God, in His remoteness, sending frustrations into my life as a test of my capacity to renounce health objectives I still consider legitimate and normal?  I have no special reason to think of God in that light.  I could adopt such an hypothesis.  But nothing in my own prayer life suggests that I should do that.

I’m ready to sum up these reflections.  The conclusion I draw is that this life of ours has a lot of jagged edges.  The terrain is uneven.  The peaks are unpredictable and so are the troughs.  We’re on rough ground here.

That said, the most truthful thing I know how to do is …

stay the course.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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