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July 14, 2014 | by  | in Features Online Only |
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Nothing Really Matters

Has anyone else seen ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ yet? A few weeks ago, I found myself wading through throngs of glossy-lipped high schoolers to watch the movie adaptation of John Green’s bestselling novel.  Gus and Hazel are the film’s teenage lovers, their romance rendered unique by the fact that both are cancer patients with limited time left on the clock.  Humorous yet deeply poignant, TFIOS is a raw depiction of two not-quite adults attempting to figure out love and life in light of suffering and imminent death. The ending credits were punctuated by a symphony of sniffles from the audience and the odd snotty trumpet blast into crumpled tissues.  I admit my own eyes were somewhat shiny, but for reasons that went beyond the blatant tragedy. No, despite the heart wrenching finish, my reaction was in response to the utter bleakness of Hazel’s final conclusion about life’s ultimate meaning: essentially, that there is none. None, at least, other than what we choose to individually give it. After death comes inescapable oblivion. The sooner we resign ourselves to that fact, the better.  Indeed, we should learn to see the beauty in this pointless state of cosmological affairs over which we have no control.

Or so John Green would suggest.

Let’s be upfront here. I am not about to divulge the much sought-after answer to the question of the meaning of life. What I am going to do is throw out a consideration or two concerning how we tackle life’s bigger questions. You know the ones.  They’re the questions that often itch away under the surface of our normal routines, calling out to us in those rare moments of silence, persistently soliciting contemplation. Why am I- or any of us- here? When everything extraneous is stripped away, who am I really? What happens when this finite body goes back to the ground? What’s the point of it all?

Yep, today we’re talking beliefs and worldview.

Current research suggests that the world is becoming both increasingly secular and increasingly religious- in short, it’s getting more polarised over belief and the place it should have in shaping society. Regardless of what views we hold about the world and our place within it, these core convictions are what effectively shape how we live life as individuals and humanity en masse. The causes we fight for, the way we treat people and our surroundings, and our responses to tragedy all stem from our worldview.  Beliefs underpin the tireless efforts of Generation Zero campaigners just as much as they influenced the creation of a caste system with its elites and untouchables. They inform our perceptions of morality, our purpose and what happens after we’ve kicked the proverbial bucket. If you’re in the global majority who believe in an eternal afterlife of sorts, you’re likely to agree that your beliefs and consequent actions on earth may well dictate precisely how enjoyable that post-coffin experience will be.  Given their impact, I’d argue that it’s worth taking a closer look at not only what we believe but why we hold fast to those beliefs.

As kids, we largely accepted the beliefs of those who raised us as gospel truth. As teenagers, we took cues from friends, teachers, and coaches.  School and the media conveyed our society’s modernist approach to reality, praising the supremacy of science and human reasoning as sources of true knowledge. We hear happiness widely extolled as life’s highest pursuit. As uni students, we’re taught to be oh-so-critical of assertions in general but truth claims above all. By the time we hit our twenties, most of us have been exposed to a plethora of philosophies purporting to have the answers, such that it’s easy to develop a consumerist attitude towards our approach to spirituality.

There are those who subconsciously treat the construction of their worldview almost like an ideological pick and mix. We find the Buddhist concept of karma resonates with our concept of fairness so we blend it with the Christian emphasis on loving our neighbour and atheistic notions about the origins of life, all the while failing to recognise the incompatibility of the different ideological premises. Yet taking snippets at random from the smorgasbord of secular and religious ideas on offer inevitably involves a level of inconsistency in one’s overall worldview. Think about it. Since when did an all-encompassing survival of the fittest ethos support social justice movements privileging the weak and oppressed? The two have decidedly divergent foundations and logical conclusions.

Some of you may be wondering “so what?” at this point.  What does it matter if there’s an inconsistency or two in our convictions? Simply put, I’d suggest it matters because our beliefs have consequences. We all know that merely believing something to be true doesn’t necessarily make it so, and the gap between belief and reality is sometimes accompanied by less than savoury spinoffs. Case in point: I may be convinced that I’ve got swag to rival Queen B but this doesn’t alter the reality that I move with all the grace of a three-legged elephant.  On a good day. Only there’s a slight difference between the implications of misguided belief in one’s dancing (dis)abilities and the weightier ramifications of skewered perceptions when it comes to more serious matters, such as what genuine justice looks like.

Consider the women subjected to so-called honour killings because their rapists accused them of playing the temptress. While the majority of Westerners balk at such interpretations of ‘justice’, the killers in these contexts are simply acting in accordance with their particular belief systems’ rulings of right and wrong. Somehow I doubt that those insisting “it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere” are prepared to take that line of reasoning to its logical end in extreme situations like these. If we are to consistently hold that morality is culturally relative, then we have no grounds on which to legitimately label such conduct as reprehensible in any sort of absolute terms. It’s a sobering conclusion sure to leave the cultural relativists among us squirming.

Now allow me to run for a moment with the un-PC premise that some beliefs actually are fallacious.  Indeed, the whole human rights discourse is based on the presupposition that there are certain universal entitlements owed to people regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, or any other conceivable identifying feature. All well and good. But whose authority do institutions such as the United Nations appeal to when endeavouring to uphold certain ‘universal’ rights over which there is global disagreement? Their own authority as an influential international organisation?

If so, human rights are nothing more than a human construct, subject to the changing definitions of those in power. This would render them fluid rather than concrete. To be truly inherent, it makes more sense for rights to be discovered rather than humanly dictated, their universal relevance stemming from the authority of a higher power whose say supersedes peoples’ conflicting opinions. Otherwise we are left in the sticky situation of having to either decide which society’s superior version of human rights should apply to everyone else, or else abandon a commitment to such rights’ universal applicability.

To test the robustness of our standpoints, maybe open dialogue will prove most constructive when dealing with incongruent convictions.  By grappling with our strongest opponent’s arguments, examining the validity of both their founding premises, and ours, we gain not only deeper understanding but also a measure of empathy for the folks down the other end of the belief spectrum.  Civility in a pluralist society like ours is hardly achieved without a willingness to listen, to engage in discussion, to respectfully debate issues at hand.

But back to The Fault in Our Stars and the meaning of life.

 

Hazel was convinced that this life is all we get and her choices reflected a temporal perspective. As for me, I departed the movies with Eaton’s musings echoing in my mind:  what if Hazel got it wrong and this world is not the ultimate one? What are the implications if I embrace an erroneous worldview? What if God does exist and is the rewarder of those who seek him? Because at the end of the day eternity and the existence of an eternal God makes everything meaningful.

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  1. Jason Chappell says:

    Infinity as a concept to open up doors to places you cannot see, touch, taste or hear. Futhermore, the flow beyond the rivers limited by the logical container lead to places that at times are incomprehensible. The answer may not be an answer at all.

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