Saturday, January 05, 2013

On the ontology of meaning

A friend of my older son killed himself a few days before Christmas. I barely knew the kid myself – had met him once or twice in a crowd of young people, celebrating my son's birthday – but that is neither here nor there, of course; as a mother and a human being, such a thing wounds one with sympathy pain. Today is his funeral.

What stuck in my mind from our conversation this morning before my son left for the funeral was his line "his mum wants to be alone with him for a little while before we come". I cannot stop turning the phrase over in my mind, over and over and over again. It seems to carry the horror crystallised into one image, of his mother alone in the chapel, with the coffin of her son. I cannot know how she feels, and yet I can almost imagine the taste of her grief, her devastation, in my soul, like one can imagine the flavour of salt without tasting it.

There are no answers to any whys. This I believe. I mean this in the sense that while the young man must have felt he had reason to do this, there is no external great plan into which this catastrophic individual tragedy and its reverberations would fit and through the fitting, become meaningful. Yet as humans, we are bound to say "why". Why, why, why, and also: if only. If only time could be reversed, if only we could go back to where it hadn't yet happened and stop it from happening. Christ, even as removed as I am, being the mother of a friend, find myself thinking this: if only we could go back to where it hadn't happened. Why did it happen. If only it hadn't happened.

I am now going to take a fairly big leap into something that is going to sound callously light-hearted within this context. I am sorry. I don't mean to be callous. Bear with me.

Jon Butterworth wrote an article in the Guardian explaining how the Higgs boson resembles the tooth fairy (and, at a stretch, Father Christmas), and how this resemblance can be utilised to keep going the magic of these things without actually lying to one's kids. As I have linked to the article itself, I need not explain it all here. The gist (as I understood it, right) was that the Higgs boson cannot be shown to exist, if you interpret "shown" as in having a photo or suchlike proof. Instead, things ("events") happen which correspond to the theorised and calculated behaviour of the said boson. While some of these events will be caused by other things, some will indeed be Higgs boson events. I quote, "…it is not physically meaningful to say which way occurred (sic)." 

Now this is where tooth fairy steps in. I quote again, "Anything which has the same initial state (tooth) and final state (money) might in fact be an event in which a tooth fairy was present." Therefore, "…when tiptoeing into the bedroom with a shiny pound coin, I really am the tooth fairy. I am of course also at the same time Dad." 

This article not only amused me (yes, I know, sorry, a semi-secret nerdy-geek here) but also bothered my brain enough for me to keep the article window open on my desktop for all of the Christmas period. Until now, in fact. There was clearly something I wanted to do with it, but I didn't know what. But now, maybe, I'm onto it – and "it" is also to do with the unbearableness of my son's friend's suicide. Here we go:

Remove the Higgs boson and the tooth fairy, just keep the mechanism, the thought pattern. Into the mechanism, insert
a) the fact that we humans are meaning-seeking animals; meaning-seeking and, hence, meaning-making. We cannot help it. It is in our cognitive make-up.
b) the fact there is no external plan which would supply meaning to life. Any of it: pain, suffering, horror, death, anything. Pain and suffering are, in this sense, needless; they do not contribute to a greater master plan. Nothing outside of us moves in mysterious ways.

Allow these facts to interact.

Meaning is created. Maybe. Our own meaning; not something that exists outside of us (or the individual person doing the marking-with-meaning), but which certainly exists, lives and breathes within our interpretation of the senseless data of life, because we cannot help but to perceive events as meaningful.

And this is the very gist of my thought path of today. Our lives and deaths, like Life and Death themselves, are (/may be) meaningless; yet as we (the human species) cannot help but perceive events as carrying meaning, meaning is created. The pragmatist view, exactly like the case is with values: where there are humans, there are perceived values. It is therefore (and I quote) "not … meaningful to say which way occurred" (see above, the Higgs boson thing), whether values (or meaning) would exist outside of the human minds perceiving them. It is not meaningful to send to know whether any event (including, for instance, the senseless death of a young man and the unhealable pain caused by it) carries a meaning outside the one it will receive from those who experience it.

Does this make any sense at all?


Fire Bird said...

yes... not sure how else to respond, but yes

Reading the Signs said...

I am not sure how to respond either - except to say that I had a similar experience last year when an erstwhile (childhood) friend of my son killed himself. It was upsetting and disturbing on so many levels and though the question why was made clear by the letters he left, the question "what if" did assert itself in many forms.

Anna MR said...

Fire Bird, Signs – dear ladies – hei and hello.

Thank you for your responses, even though or perhaps in particular because you say you're not sure how to. In a sense, that is what we all are doing for all our lives, is it not? Groping around in the dark, not sure how to deal with the world or respond to it, but doing it anyway, as it's all we can do. (Although I think you both do a damn side better than merely groping around blindly, I hasten to add. Speaking in general, metaphorical terms here, yes? Yes.)

Wishing you both as much goodness as can be fitted into one year, this year. We soldier on, don't we, ladies – trying to make sense of it all, making meaning where ever we can.


Montag said...

I think it is brilliant: the radical embodiment of "meaning".

Even dark death - with whom I have recently had some business - recoils before this light.

I am going to read this a number of times.

Anna MR said...

Montag - thank you. And also hei; how are you? Do you want to talk about the business with the dark one? There ain't nobody here but us chickens, so feel free, if you should feel that way inclined.

Good to see you, my friend.


Montag said...

I'm still trying to express my feelings. Everything is very much NOT what everyone says about such things.

Did you ever see Cocteau's film "Orphee"? That's what it is like: encoded messages on radios and promenades through a glass darkly.

Anna MR said...

I didn't see the film; but I do see it's available full-length on youtube, so I will give it a watch sometime soon. It sounds like a way of portraying life and its weirdness that generally strikes a chord with me.

I suppose encounters with the dark one may be like so many other defining human experiences: falling in love, becoming a parent…whatever…We are driven to try and express our feelings, and we should go on doing so (in my opinion), and it is both noble and achingly human. Yet it may be that nothing in this world will ever prepare one for the actuality of one's own experiences. I know what I feel is not what I would have thought I would – and my dealings with death are only beginning, really, although a close encounter is marching relentlessly towards me, closer day by day.

And then there is, of course, that final doorway that we have to fit through, ourselves, alone. It may be safe to hazard a guess that that will not be like we imagine it, either.

What is that Beckett line? Something like "when you're up to your neck in shit, the only thing left to do is to sing". Good old Sammy on one of his less-dark days, clearly. In fact really rather comforting, I find. I hope it feels consoling to you too. Let us keep on singing, Montag.


Montag said...

Reading your comment made me realize:

Thank God the feelings and emotions are so different from I had been led to expect!!

Thank goodness for the originality of vast yet clean emotion.