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By Jason Michael
“Can I ask you a question?” asked one of my maths students earlier this afternoon. “It’s nothing to do with Stats,” he assured me. “Aye, sure pal,” I said, “fire away.” Neil (not his real name) is having a tough time of it. He’s an exceptional young mathematician, but, like a lot of exceptional people, his mental health isn’t always the best. Being seventeen isn’t a walk in the park, and for Neil this has been compounded by tragedy. His girlfriend’s little sister recently passed away, ripping a terrible hole in her family and breaking the hearts of her small community. When one of these kids pulls you aside to ask a question, in my experience, it pays to listen.
“Really, like. What is the meaning of life?” Tears welling in his eyes, “Why do we have to go through this? Is there a meaning?” In fairness to him, this wasn’t a Statistics question. No x bar here, but oddly enough, a question not a million miles from why I teach maths. It wasn’t a week ago, as I listened to the priest at the graveside of a friend pray the words; “In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection…,” I asked myself the same question – why? It’s easy on a Sunday morning to thoughtlessly recite the Creed, to repeat the words we’ve said thousands of times; “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” but it’s hard work believing them watching someone we love being committed to the earth – hoping we’ll see them on the other side and fearing we won’t.
The question of life’s meaning, coming from someone of riper years, someone who has hopefully read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is one I reckon I can make a decent stab at. Easier still if the person asking is familiar with Aquinas or, better still, Karl Rahner:
We know as a doctrine of faith that the moral quality of each individual human life, when consummated before God, becomes co-responsible for his attitude towards the world and towards all other individuals; in a somewhat similar sense, the individual person, once rendered pancosmic through death, by this real ontological and open relation to the whole cosmos, might come to have a direct influence within the world.
But how does one go about translating the theological equivalent of Donne’s “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” to an angsty teenager in 2019? How is this shared with a youngster, the product of capitalistic and atomised personal nihilism and pervasive cultural pessimism? Nothing makes me fear for the future of faith more than the thought that an uncrossable chasm has opened between the generations of our grandparents and that of their grandchildren. The modernity they bequeathed to us was an unholy tradition, the first chapters of which were set in the trenches of Flanders, in the conflagration of total war and in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and in the looming clouds of nuclear holocaust. It is little wonder, then, that this generation, these bewildered millennials, has become the rich soil for Schopenhauer’s bleak philosophy of life as constant dying and Nietzsche’s destruction of truth and morality.
Hal Lindsey it was, I think, who said “men can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” In the world of the disposable, the world of cheap entertainment and endless distraction, the world of instant gratification, hope – the quality of seeing the world as the angels see it – has no value. It is worthless. The machine that has transformed us all into thoughtless little shoppers, the Market, has done away with the old currencies of family, the community – the tribe and clan. It has reduced us all to units of base economic value, and colonised our minds and spirits to the point of our subjugation at which we reproduce its alienation all by ourselves. We are all bowling alone.
How then can I articulate Hope in a way a child of the void can understand? Suggesting God wouldn’t work, this wouldn’t anaesthetise his pain or pave the way for explaining meaning. There can be no meaning from this when final and cosmic justice for all the victims of history is denied, boiled down to a mockery – a flying spaghetti monster. Something more immediate was required, something we might both understand and stand some chance of sharing, but something too I know has been devalued and commodified. “Our only chance of finding meaning,” I said after a thoughtful pause, “is to love without reservation and allow ourselves to be loved in return.”
It has bothered me tonight that I could not write out an equation for meaning. Nothing like this exists. We have no homophilosophicus, no guide for the perplexed. It bothered me as a younger man that my father never wrote me an instruction manual; sound advice on everything from shaving to dealing with the agony – the crucifixion – of waiting long and lonely hours at the bedside of the person we love in a terrifying intensive care ward. It bothered me to think he didn’t think enough of me to do this. But wisdom is wasted on young shoulders. The manual was always there. It was inscribed on the pages of my heart in that greatest of the great scriptoria, the community of love that surrounded me in the family home. In being loved I learned to love – and it is from here, in this most elegant yet infinite formula, that everything in life, in the world, and in the whole of the boundless cosmos is blessed with richness and, dare I say, meaning.
It is well. It is well with my soul.
Dmitri Shostakovich – Waltz No. 2