K anye West recently commented that “the point of life is getting s--- done and being happy.” This boiled-down philosophy is not a bad approximation of what appears to motivate the average Penn student. Some of us work harder than others; some of us play harder. But the overall point of life is to balance our craving for serotonin with the desire to get one thing done or another.
At 62, Ernest Hemingway was a best-selling author with a Nobel prize and a Pulitzer prize, which means he’d got a lot of s--- done. If wine and women have anything to do with the happiness hormone, he would have also had plenty of that. But around 1960, something had started to go wrong: He’d lost his ability to write, which meant that he wasn’t getting much done anymore. Happiness wasn’t happening enough either, so he put on his favorite dressing gown and shot himself in the head.
Psychologists have also linked Hemingway’s suicide to other causes — including, in a vaguely Freudian style, an intense desire to kill his father which was transferred to his mother and finally to himself — but these ignore the fact that Hemingway got along in his own way for more than 50 years before the suicide attempts started.
In any case, the problem with West’s simple formula remains: The work-hard, play-hard philosophy provides temporary distraction, not real meaning. And when something goes wrong — when you’re out of work or suddenly stop feeling the fun — it can all come crashing down.
Then most of us, it would seem, pick up the pieces, grit our teeth and keep going. Life may feel meaningless, but it’s better than death. And so we live it the best we can. If failure persists, of course, a few — like Hemingway — may commit suicide. But the majority stick to West’s formula — getting done what they can and trying their best to be happy.
Still others — when faced with too much pain to cope — turn, according to their own testimony, to an irrational belief in a higher meaning, often based upon the religion they happen to have been raised in. For example, a few weeks back I attended a Fox Leadership Lunch featuring a New York Times best-selling author. He claimed that the heart-wrenching experience which inspired his book had also created in him a deep, irrational belief in God. He told the room full of bright-eyed students that we just needed to have faith — never mind if it’s in God, goodness or a benevolent Big-Foot — so long as we could get ourselves to really believe in something transcendent; something bigger than getting stuff done and being happy.
It’s hard to argue with someone who openly admits that he builds the meaning of his life on irrationality, so I didn’t raise my hand at the time. But I could see a little smile go around the room, and I guessed what many of us were thinking. We grew out of Neverland a few years back, and in the regular universe — even if the whole room full of us got to yelling and clapping and shouting, “I do believe in fairies” — very few of us would believe that Tinker Bell was coming back to life. Fanatical allegiance to religious tenets may help us feel better about the world for a time, but if at bottom you know that your faith isn’t backed by fact or even logical coherence, it ends up serving as nothing more than a distraction. And — as many who left the religion they were raised in might testify — the distraction often fails when faced with a little bit of rigorous education.
To be sure, there will always be people who can get through life quite satisfied with a baseless belief. There will also be people who die happy at 90, looking back on all kinds of s---- they got done. But these are not people with answers; they are just a lucky bunch good at ignoring tough questions. As time consuming as it may be to seriously study the rational arguments surrounding worldview and religion, at least it provides a chance at finding some real answers — answers more co mpelling than “getting s--- done and being happy.”
Jeremiah Keenan is College sophomore from China studying math. His email address is email@example.com. “Keen on the Truth” appears every Wednesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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