Associate Opinion Editor
“The only thing that is immune to change is our desire for meaning.”
This line, from Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, speaks to a near universal desire to know why we exist and what our purpose is in life.
But is the meaning inherent or do we create our own? I come down firmly on the side of absurdism: the universe is random and chaotic with all things tending toward disorder.
The meaning we find must come from inside us. We have to drive ourselves toward greatness. We must strive to be better and create a better world, because in the words of the late Carl Sagan, “there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
This shouldn’t be cause for despair though. This is the freedom to forge your own path. The responsibility that we bear with this freedom is how we treat one another.
Pop culture can be a great lens through which to view this.
In the Joss Whedon series “Angel”, a spin-off of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, the lead is a vampire whose soul has been restored and is seeking redemption for his past crimes. An early series of events breaks Angel’s world view on good and evil leading to an epiphany.
“If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do,” he says. “Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.”
This underscores the immediacy of acting. There is no time like the present. We don’t get a second chance to decide. Being purposeful and mindful in action is vital.
“All I wanna do is help,” he continues “I wanna help because, I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”
That kindness is key.There is also a possible danger to this kind of freedom from someone who is held to nothing and seeks their own self-interest at the expense ofothers.
In modern fiction, this is best exemplified by Petyr Baelish from “Game of Thrones”. He’s is a schemer who pulls the strings of the kingdom for his own goals. In an exchange in season three, his rival Varys claims that without the idea of the kingdom holding it all together, chaos would be all that remains. “A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all,” Varys refers to this as.
Baelish counters: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
Now while you could take this as not letting anything hold you back and a self-reliance that could be commendable, this is a recipe for the wrong person hurting others with indifference.
While “Game of Thrones” may be grim, the world of Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” gives a far more upbeat look at a world without meaning.
The series follows Rick, an alcoholic genius scientist and his grandson Morty. The two are somewhat based on Doc Brown and Marty McFly from “Back to the Future.” It deals with fantasy and sci-fi elements while grappling with big ideas of what it means to be alive and uses this to undermine common expectations for a sci-fi cartoon.
One episode had the characters destroy the world. They failed to save the day and instead decided to jump ship to a version of the world where they did save the day but died.
The pair must then bury the bodies of their other selves in order to take their place. While Rick is indifferent to the experience, it ends with Morty giving a thousand-yard stare. His understanding of mortality and reality is shattered.
A few episodes later, Morty reveals this all to his sister to help her deal with finding out she was an unplanned pregnancy.
During the reveal, he ends with: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
On first take, this is a horrifyingly bleak outlook. YouTube commentator Will Schoder examined this line in a video examining the existentialism in Rick and Morty. Schoder states that that this exemplifies what the character finds important.
“Rick and Morty in particular tells us that friends, family, and doing what we enjoy are far more important than any unsolvable questions about existence,” Schoder says.
Pop culture provides a lens to look at this all through, but it won’t provide answers. That comes from within. So, don’t get too caught up in what you can’t answer. Do what you can with the time you have.