Futility, Frustration, and Hope

Dr. Brian Allison

What I write here is depressing. Please, read no further if you feel fragile. Here goes: life is futile. That may sound like an overstatement, or even too simplistic, but it's true. I don't wish to discourage, much less upset, anyone, but I do want to be honest. Life is indeed futile. What I mean is that much of the daily activities of our lives – like buying a tie, or washing the dishes, or walking the dog – really have no deep or lasting significance. These things may have some practical value, perhaps even some social or moral value, but they don't have any deep or lasting value ­ value which is intrinsic, having meaning in itself. When we really look hard at the many routine things we do – like reading the newspaper or watching a sports program; and the innumerable matters that fill our days – like making bag lunches or mowing the grass, we wistfully and uncomfortably discover that much of what characterizes and fills our lives (though perhaps personally satisfying) is absolutely meaningless. We can, in our moments of self-conscious reflection on the details and happenings which comprise our lives, gently shrug our shoulders with an uneasy, vacant face and whisper, "So what?" If we are really honest with ourselves, we will say, in our moments of sober contemplation, that life is futile – so what?

The rack and stress

What's the point in spending some 20 years in the rack and stress of school (apart from expediency's sake) training to be a professional, just to work and slave the next 40 years (with their own peculiar rack and stress) cruising involuntarily into death? What's the point in devoting so much time and energy to healthy eating and regular exercise, apart from temporarily enhancing the quality of life (which, I suppose, is something worthwhile, for no one likes pain), when our bodies will eventually breakdown and pine away with disease or old age? Why not hasten the inevitable and get it over with, rather than living in hushed fear? What's the point in investing innumerable laborious hours in our places of employment (perhaps reaching the mark of over 100,000 hours) – with the often early arrivals, late nights, and overtime (often unappreciated) – endeavouring to achieve some financial security, only to have it taken and enjoyed by surviving family members or, heaven forbid, the government, some 10 years after our well­deserved retirement? What's the point of it all?

When we come to the twilight of our lives and reflect on all that we did: the deadlines we reached, the reports we submitted, the clocks we punched, the pants we sewed, the Christmas trees we decorated, the golf balls we hit, and on and on and on (apart from the momentary sense of obligation or feeling of pleasure), what will this myriad of acts – both the obviously frivolous and seemingly important ones – mean in the light of the whole course of human history, let alone the vast eternity which lies beyond the grave? Thus some stinging and taunting questions undeniably assail us: What really is in all this for me? How am I advantaged anyway? What have I really accomplished of real value anyway? Is there any ultimate sense to my life at all?

Monotony and permanence

Babies are born, thousands every minute. Many of them die. Many babies enjoy or, at least, experience childhood. They play with toys; they have fun with games; they join clubs. Then children become teenagers. They value their friends; they discover themselves; they make big plans for their future. Then teenagers become young adults. They court and marry; they settle into a (good) job; they start a family. Then young adults become middle­aged adults. They pay off their mortgaged homes; they enjoy their gardens; they help finance their children's education. Finally, middle­aged adults become senior citizens. They play with their grandchildren; they welcome their retirement; they get used to loneliness. This life cycle continues on and on and on, remaining the same for every generation.

One generation dies, another generation is born. Generation follows generation ­ babies are born, senior citizens die. The faces change, the lifestyles change, the social issues change, but the world remains constant; its laws are fixed. We appear as insignificant flux within the monotony of constancy. People grow old, weaken, and die; but the world remains uniform, permanent, and enduring. The sun still shines. The rains still fall. The four seasons still come. The continuous cycle of constancy remains.

The monsoon winds invariably blow seasonally, about six months from the northeast and six months from the southwest; and every May the southwesterly Indian monsoon is well fixed over Sri Lanka ­ May after May after May. The great Atlantic ocean incessantly receives the waters from many of the great rivers of the world: the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Orinoco, the Amazon, the Congo, the Rhine, the Niger, the Elbe, the Rio de La Plata, the Loire...day after day, month after month, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium...and still it is not filled. Evaporation becomes condensation; condensation becomes precipitation; precipitation becomes evaporation; ad infinitum. About every 76 years, like clockwork, Halley's Comet speeds past the Earth – 240 BC...1531 AD...1986 AD.... We die, but the world remains the same.

Unfulfilled aspirations

Life is not only futile, it is also frustrating. There is so much to do, so much to learn, so much to discover, so much to experience (even though it appears meaningless), for which we as human beings crave; and yet there is so little time. There is not enough time to do, to see, to feel, to smell, to touch all that we as human beings are inherently capable of and desirous for. I will never be able to visit all the major capitals of the world and truly appreciate the various cultures. I will never be competent in more than 2 or 3 professional areas (not that I have the heart), like internal medicine, corporate law, astrophysics, or concert music. I will never be able to read (and assimilate!) all the great literary works and classics that the human genius has produced – Iliad, De Rerum Natura, Meditations, City of God, The Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, The Prince, Don Quixote, Holy Sonnets.... I will never be able to consider and contemplate all the rich ideas of the world's great thinkers – Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Einstein, Jung.... I will never be able to hear all the wonderful sounds and songs that nature can afford. Never. The intellect itself has the capacity to entertain endless ideas; the eye itself has the capacity to observe countless objects; the ear itself has the capacity to hear innumerable sounds. Capacity, yes; opportunity, no. Life is so short, and the human heart is so large ­ this is cruel frustration.

Repetitious old hat

So life continues on as it always has; yes, a different setting, a different place, a different era, but not a different human experience. The Nordic Vikings aspired for new frontiers just like the New England Puritans. The ancient Babylonians desired Art just like the Renaissance Italians. The Caesarean Romans pursued law just like the Napoleonic French. The ancient Egyptians built their pyramids, the modern Canadians their CN tower. The Hellenistic Greeks worshipped their goddess Artemis, the young Postmodern Americans their idols, such as Kurt Cobain or Marilyn Manson. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Adolf Hitler all wanted world empires.

The dynamics of human life have been the same since the dawn of civilization, only the forms have changed. We can pride ourselves on sophistication, but not on novelty. We can discover nothing new which has not already been of old. The past is the present is the future. Both the world and the human experience are repetitious old hat. When we read or hear of the extraordinary technological discoveries and inventions in our day, we are amazed. We marvel at our knowledge and skill. We celebrate our incomparableness. What other generation has put a person on the moon? What other generation has harnessed atomic power? What other generation has capitalized on electronics? None. But who discovered the concept of calculus making modern aerodynamics even possible? Archimedes in the 3rd century BC. Who was one of the first to systematically treat atomic theory, laying the foundation of nuclear and mechanical physics? Democritus in the 5th century BC. Were these earlier discoveries any less impressive in their social milieu, than these modern ones are in the present? I suspect not. In fact, are not these earlier discoveries perhaps more impressive, for our discoveries are simply built on these older ones? We are always working with borrowed capital.

We can claim no absolute originality. Nothing is really new, just different. The forms change, the applications change, the sophistication changes, but what it is to be human does not. The human experience has always been, and will always be, one of analysis and insight, of aspiration and passion, of determination and resolve, of conscience and courage. Now the tragic and inexcusable misfortune is that our present generation is glaringly ignorant of the life and experience of the past generations. We have no sense of real rootedness. Being creatures of the self­conscious present, we self­centredly view ourselves in detached isolation, experientially disconnected with our past. We audaciously believe that we are the people; and equate the past with the primitive or, at worse, the irrelevant. Yet individual and generational human experience and life are but droplets in the unending stream of human existence. Yes, we have forgotten our past, and, tragically, those of the future will forget our present.

Gaining wisdom

So, why paint such a gloomy, depressing picture (I feel Nietzsche, the nihilist, smiling)? Well, realism precedes disentanglement. I believe that within this perceived maelstrom of futility and frustration, hope lies at the centre. Wisdom must chart and navigate through the turbulence and uncertainty. An instinctive drive exists in the human mind to discover itself and its physical environment. The very essence of mind is to explore and to solve. This fact is true for the savage of low degree, as well as the official of high station. The natural bent of the mind is to acquire wisdom. The actual gain of wisdom is the noblest and most sublime of human pursuits. Only through the gain of wisdom, shall we then address and dispense with our sense of futility and frustration.

Yet, what kind of and how much wisdom do we require? Its actual gain is limitless. Certainly, the potential wisdom to be discovered in our little corner of the universe alone is immeasurable. We cannot discover all the precious pearls that the cerebral cosmic sea contains. Though our world is finite in form, it contains the infinite in content. Wisdom is found in so many things. The person who can calm down a vengeful, angry man is wise. The person who makes provision in response to a bleak forecast is wise. The person who accepts timely rebuke and does not become resentful is wise. The wise person understands himself, understands people, and understands his times. He or she knows how to listen, and knows how to respond. But what good is wisdom ultimately? What will wisdom profit us when our corpses lie in the grave? How will wisdom advantage us with the turn of the 23rd century, with any memory of us eternally untraceable? What is the point in gaining wisdom anyway? Wisdom disarms its possessor, and reveals the true human condition and one's appalling helplessness; and through this brokenness comes healing and freedom.

Wisdom and hope

The person who gains wisdom feels, ironically, more deeply the futility and frustration of this life – the embryonic stirrings of hope. The more wisdom we own, the less knowledge we possess; and the jubilant joy of wisdom subtly veils our deep dissatisfaction with life. The pursuit of wisdom is therefore grievous, though its actual gain is pleasant. Wisdom is sweet, but its aftertaste may be sour. The wise mind clearly perceives the utter meaninglessness of life. Wisdom tears back the presumptive layers of life's facades and pompous forms. It alone can perceive perceptively behind the pretentious scenes. Yet wisdom offers a portal of hope; and only hopeful people truly understand and enjoy life. As the wise Solomon said long ago, "How blessed is the [person] who finds wisdom...for its profit is better than the profit of silver, and its gain than fine gold...Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who hold her fast" (Proverbs 3: 13ff.). The wise person realizes that, in confining aspirations, dreams, and meaning to this world alone, there is no hope. The hope of wisdom ultimately must reach and lead beyond this world and touch, and secure, the eternal. The path of wisdom is clear. As Solomon writes, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding...If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, and if you scoff, you alone will bear it" (Proverbs 9:10,12).