Via Basel: Meaning and Aging
In spite of his advanced age, Cormac McCarthy is still at the top of his game in his new novel, Stella Maris, where there is a dialogue between the protagonist, Alicia, and her psychiatrist in a mental institution about language, evolutionary biology, and our unconscious mind. As in many of his novels the plot seems secondary to the deep, extensive, and confounding (outlandish) philosophical discussions, although they both share a strange dark perspective. “[T]he arrival of language was like the invasion of a parasitic system” and “[a] biological system under successful assault by human reason” and “the unconscious system of guidance is millions of years old, speech, less than a hundred thousand” are just a few quotations that illustrate that the evolution of language is the source of our problems. I found his concepts fascinating and disrupting, if not fully convincing.
Most of the time when we’re young and even in middle age we are occupied with the usual forms of living—doing, accomplishing, producing, and similar activities. Then at some time, sooner or later, some of us start the internal dialogue of life’s meaning: who am I? what am I here for?…etc. I doubt other creatures in the animal kingdom worry about that. As a consequence they suffer less, even with violence and death being a constant threat in the natural world. They don’t have our level of consciousness, so does that signify their existence has less meaning, and it if does then is the meaning of their existence a function of ours? We have artificially inserted that concept (of meaning) into nature, because we are still basically part of nature in spite of our belief to the contrary and under the same universal laws that run it.
Ironically, because of our brain evolution, language, and reason, we have manipulated and affected the natural world in a destructive unsustainable way. By most scientific parameters the odds are that the humans species will expire at some time, hundreds or thousands of years, mainly because our habitat destruction is proceeding at a faster rate than our physical bodies’ ability to adapt to the changing environment (barring a technological feat we can’t even imagine presently).
That can actually help in bringing meaning to our existence, since I believe meaning is always associated with endings. Perpetual existence cannot have a purpose, and knowing that we are finite is at the core of our search for meaning.
If all the above does not impart meaning or make sense to you dear reader, that’s fine. It just means that I have to end this column so that we can at least start the discussion.
Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, writing, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family, and now, semi-retired, he is exploring new avenues in medicine, education, public speaking, teaching, and social engagement.