Atheism And The Meaning Of Life. Pt. 5: Biting The Bullet

The previous parts of this series:
Pt. 1: A Distinction

When I was a teenager, I became enthralled by heavy metal. The music had so much energy and passion, but the guitars were the absolute highlight to me. I resolved to learn to play the guitar, and my mom bought me a cheap classical guitar and got me lessons from an interesting middle aged burnt out rocker type guy who smoked about 30 camels a day (not once during a lesson though!). Learning a new skill is extremely frustrating and unfulfilling,  when you learn to play guitar it is really bad. Not only do you sound horrible and keep screwing up every three seconds, your little softie fingers have to keep those chords that feel so contrived and they start to hurt pretty soon. My teacher always used to tell me just to "bite the bullet", and I did. Not only did I choose to suffer through this learning process, I also chose to not occupy that time by watching television and gorging myself on crisps and condensed milk.

Why is that though? Why is it that we can set aside immediate gratification? The simple answer is that sometimes delaying gratification has immense payoffs in the long term. This is the very thing that makes the human species so successful. Toiling right now to plant crops that we will only harvest much later was one of the single greatest achievements of mankind. But the payoff at the end of the suffering is not only food we eat or the new ability we gained by painstaking practice, when we reach that point we feel an immense feeling of gratification, and all the suffering before starts feeling very much worth it. 

Through this learning process we realise that delaying gratification is worth it, and we can even find joy in doing it. We like being challenged because we anticipate the delight of eventually meeting the challenges we set for ourselves. We enjoy climbing mountains because we know that if we can reach the top, we can feel accomplished and content as we look back down at our perilous journey to get there. 

This is where we can find higher meaning. It is not some cosmic destiny, but it certainly makes us feel like life is worth pursuing, because in life there are things worth doing. The things that are often most worth doing are things that require us to set aside our immediate desires, and we do this with stunning gusto.

When a runner runs every day so that they can one day run a long distance marathon, that is quite puzzling to me, but it isn't to them, and therein lies the next key to meaning. We find our meaning subjectively. We get to choose. We get to choose exactly because there is no cosmic predestination. What we find meaningful some other people might find boring or senseless. For religious believers the same principal applies.

Religious believers try to engage in the ultimate act of delaying gratification. The goal is to diminish gratification in this life so they can have it in the next. When they see other people not engaging in this same mission, they think that those other people have meaningless lives. It seems as though they think that their subjective meaning is the only valid meaning to be found, so they equate it with absolute and ultimate meaning. The arrogance of this kind of position is tragic. How can someone call themselves humble when they actively demean that which others find meaningful?

So we are left with lives where we find and choose our own meaning. This question used to bother me as a Christian, because I always wondered what god's purpose for my life was. When I realised that the choice was mine, it made my life more meaningful, not less. The purpose of life is life itself, to find fun, challenges, and learning. There is not much more I could want, but life offers us even more, something I will explore in my next post.

The next, and possibly final part in this series:

Pt. 6: Dude, I Am You!
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