I’m currently reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces again for the first time in ten years. In the past decade, I acknowledged his book as influential in shaping my understanding of the world. And, having lived and matured for ten years since, reading his words again proves even more illuminating the second time around.
In his 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, entitled The Power of Myth, he examines many of the themes present in his book. A fan of Eastern mythologies, he is quick to cite ancient Shinto texts and Buddhist beliefs, one of which resonated strongly with me:
Everything is inherently meaningless.
This is something I would never say out loud in public, as it runs the risk of being readily misinterpreted and argued against, prompting a long philosophical discussion that I probably don’t have time for. A friend of mine once said the phrase to a coworker. His coworker responded by snatching his hat. “Give it back,” replied my friend. “If everything is meaningless, then this doesn’t matter!” I don’t suppose he knew, amidst revealing his diminishing maturity, that he was touching onto an irony even more profound, that when everything is meaningless, we can find perfection in everything.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
An ant, living under two months, goes through relatively more life in a day than a human. Similarly, mountains, existing in geologic time, exist well beyond the years of any human civilization. Our lives are a blip to them as ant lives are a blip to us. The Universe, itself, is eternal, with the only finality being a construct of time. In the vastness of eternity, my desire to cut a dope record is about as passing to the Universe as an ant’s desire to score a fraction of a piece of rice is to me.
So does that mean we should just off ourselves, fulfilling our meaningless destinies as blips in the cosmos? Only if we’re unwise, the type to snatch a hat in a childlike response to a profound conundrum. If anything, viewing existence as inherently meaningless frees us from our obsession with only achieving goals, and reminds us that, since the results themselves will be ultimately dissipated into the stream of time, we really ought to enjoy the journey toward these goals.
God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion…. One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way.
What is our purpose in life? Unless you account only for the natural aspect of proliferation, there is no inherent purpose but what we give it. And because there is no purpose, and because we cannot be sure or even comprehend yet the vastness of God or an afterlife, we are freed to be grateful for the lives we are given to live. We are free to realize that no particular moment is serendipitous, but rather that life itself is the definition of serendipity. Every day that we do not die or suffer horribly is a wonderful thing.
It’s like what a character might dramatically say at the end of a war epic (the type of epics where characters say such cheesy yet memorable lines). As Katsumoto, the second-to-last samurai in The Last Samurai, realizes with his dying breath his quest of finding the most perfect cherry blossom: “They are all… *gasp*… perfect.” Or as in Kingdom of Heaven, when the warrior-poet Balian, failing to defend Jerusalem, questions the invading Muslim king Saladin after their bloody battle, “What is Jerusalem worth?”
Adding perspective to the culmination of their years of brutal conflict and the suffering of thousands over the place, Saladin replies quickly, “Nothing…”
He walks away, but turns and smiles,