Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Many people have argued that humanity is privileged because we have meaning in our lives. Religious people often say that God has made us as a mirror image of his own magnificence, and we should rest assured that nothing happens outside of his cosmic plan. They say, moreover, that even the astronomical notion of the Goldilocks zone proves God's paternalistic love for us. I find this theory quite boring and contradictory to particle physics. Particles seem to move in chaotic spasms instead of well-defined paths; randomness is an apparent characteristic of nature.

But where does that leave humanity? How can we find meaning in a meaningless, godless universe? These questions plagued existentialist philosophers like Sartre, Nietzsche, and Camus. These philosophers have truly struggled with the idea of personal meaning. Sartre, in his work Existentialism is a Humanism, gives us a prescription for this very struggle. When claiming that human existence precedes essence, he writes, "... man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterwords defines himself. If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with, he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it" (22). I find this observation personally astounding and hopeful. Where the Christian believes that he is born a sinner from the sins of his ancestors, the secularist is free to make his meaning on his own. This is truly liberating.




Monday, January 7, 2013

Solid Ground - A Short Story



Prologue

The last batch of embryos drifted down the conveyer belt at the Institute of Piety, as the Holy Men welcomed the end of their laborious shift. Embryos, otherwise born in complete innocence – as clean slates – were instead determined by the liquid righteousness injected into the forming bodies. But, just like any human action, mistakes are unavoidable.
            As a direct order from the Great Doctrine of year 3064, all embryos formed within legitimate marriages succumbed to this highly regarded chemical. Righteousness, as they called it, molded individuals into model, moral citizens and ensured that utter impossibility of sinning. Illegitimate childbearing was strictly outlawed, and the price of the travesty against the law was death – along with any sort of sin for that matter. Society, being brainwashed and chemical laden, was a community of zombies that feared the law as they feared impiety. No police force was necessary, for the pious leaders remained convinced that a higher power insured the success of their endeavors.
The Leader made public all of his decrees and doctrines regarding morality, so any unfit action was inexcusable. Eventually, further down the progression of history, those who rebelled against the Leader’s totalitarianism arrived at their deathly demise. He sought them out, ridding his world of immorality. The police force, resembling the Nazis and inquisitors, served as the Leader’s brainwashed force, attempting to quell all unfit acts. Once the great purge ended successfully, the police returned to their regular, dull lives and were heralded as heroes.  
 Holy Men first began experimenting with the chemical long before, when they were referred to merely as pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams. The massive Nuclear War of 2211 signified a drastic turning point for the world’s three biggest monotheisms – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  People of the three beliefs saw their inability to exist peacefully outside of their own theological frameworks, and cast their once divine beliefs aside in order to come to an agreement with the others. No one, in the days preceding these events, would ever guess such a harmonious destiny for the warring disagreeables.
Humanity remained in a bit of chaos through the first hundred years after the nuclear war. Hardship after hardship, day after day, night after night – men and women struggled to make sense of the disaster. The finale of the War was complete obliteration of the earth and its civilizations. A small population survived the vast explosions and radiation, for the world received a large amount of practice from times past; nuclear warheads loomed in the background since the late twentieth century, a degrading reminder to them all or their inability to exist peacefully. But they eventually did.
The numerous nuclear explosions – that saturated every nation of the earth – ended the bickering of the doctrines of the monotheisms. Humanity noticed, as they built from anew, the necessity of some sort of government. Foolishly, they elected a Leader for a global government, one who noticed the divine importance of his role. He would answer to God and God would speak the law of the land through him. Citizens called him the Seer and the Final Prophet. The Leader had complete, sovereign ruling over the laws. The humans rebuilt, steadily disregarding history.
Science developed and served as the catalyst for new discoveries, and the Leader spent zealous amounts of to see that his godly, divine ventriloquism remained supreme. Holy Men experimented entirely on immortality. They worked in shifts, ceaselessly toiling to discover the cure for death. The Leader, dubiously enough, once suffered from the fear of it. Discoveries, as hundreds of years elapsed, developed greatly. The Leader, under his own tyrannical ruling, cursed himself to this immortality that others vainly sought; the rest of humanity were mere peons and did not deserve such a holy status.
But, it is well to say, that one individual found her own sort of holy status, one defined by a species of civil disobedience. Her disobedience, which must have originated by God himself, gave her an ability to conceptualize the world in her own way, apart from the Holy Men’s effort to mold her into conformity with the law. Here, she finds salvation of a different kind – the kind that only individuals can make with their own perseverance.

The Ignatius Household, 3346

            Joanna Ignatius cursed to herself while she accidently spilled butter all over the stovetop. It was not an audible curse of course, for she knew from childhood that she was different than all the others, and did not wish to draw attention to herself; Joanna knew that the righteous would call out the infringement. The eggs sizzled subtly upon the stovetop, as she called out to her husband in the front yard. Mike came inside, frowning from his earthly toil of the land, and sat down at the kitchen table with a grunt, his mature forty-three-year-old hands resting hungrily on the his lap. Joanna, wishing to fulfill her wifely duties, quickly rushed to serve him, leaving a thin trail of steam that wafted from the warm plate, a transparent snake slithering through the insulated air. She proudly placed the warm plate on the table in front of him, proud of her matronly masterpiece.  
            “Here’s breakfast, master,” Joanna said, using the lawful address to her husband. Mike did not answer, and forced a bit of egg into his mouth, half cautiously. “Joanna, I must say,” he began, “When I met you, you did not cook very well. I am pleased to say that your housewife skills have improved since we married.” Joanna smiled in response. “Master, I worked long and hard to develop my womanly skills,” she said. Then, seeing her husband’s happy demeanor from the response, added, “Our Leader requires all women to improve their duties for their husbands and families.” Mike smiled with agreement, his short brown hair twitching in response to the muscular shift of his face. What a righteous wife he had.
            The Ignatius family lived in the suburbs of Indiana, about 15 minutes from the city of Indianapolis. Farmland still existed in small increments around her community, leftovers from the old days of primitive agriculture. Mainstream religious structures of the past were deemed obsolete and the Leader called for their demolition; all that remained were luxurious, spacious temples designated as shrines for the Final Prophet. By the decree of the Leader, people must dedicate three hours each day to commemorate his divine sanctity. Of course, everyone did this seemingly out of instinct, the imprisoning consequence of the Holy Men’s embryonic injections. Surely, all righteous peoples pray for the well being of their leaders; and they remained openly dedicated and complacent to such devotionals, all except Joanna.
            After breakfast ended, the clank of dishes resounded through the Ignatius home, a cacophony from the porcelain symphony. Joanna, now alone with her own private thoughts, yearned for an egalitarian household. Mike sat in the living room, watching the Leader’s global broadcast. She could hear the Leader’s suave, mellow voice: “Today, like all days – my people, is a day of acceptance. We must all accept our lot in life, our positions in society. There is no possibility of development. Let us all imbibe on our total and complete freedom to live as we choose, honoring our God above all else. Our God has revealed to me great things, and this we all know. Take my words as truth, for we all know it is so.” Joanna, overhearing the Leader’s wisdom, turned around in silent disagreement, and caught a glimpse of Mike’s face in a mirror next to the television. His eyes were closed, and slowly nodded his head to the sound of the tyrant’s monologue. She observed the same demeanor in her husband many times before, along with the extreme pity that came along with it. No one else, not even her closest friends and family members, ever admitted any heresy akin to her feelings. She was not like the others.
            After finishing up the morning dishes, Joanna entered the living room and sat down beside Mike, and he calmly placed his arm on her shoulders. She kissed him on the cheek and, after reluctantly asking Mike’s permission, changed the channel. “Lets see what’s on the Global Art Channel,” she said excitingly. Mike closed his eyes exaggeratedly, for he did not particularly enjoy such creative enterprises, but he always managed to sit through them for Joanna.  To Mike, only things concerning the Leader mattered. He liked to see himself as righteous, and righteous people had no need of anything else.
 Joanna changed the channel quickly, leaving a harsh and infuriating afterimage in her eyes of the Leader – his depressing, devoid visage. The Global Art Channel was always Joanna’s favorite thing to watch. She always, since she was a little girl, yearned to become an artist. Her late mother, who refused to kindle her daughter’s talents, crushed her dreams. Even with her peculiar fortune early in birth, the blunder of the Holy Men during her embryonic state, she still remained controlled by the Leader’s command to honor her parents under all circumstances.  Even though her young luck remained unknown to her, she remained convinced of her peculiarity from everyone else.
           
Institute of Piety, 3322

Embryo batch 116 descended the conveyer belt. Holy Men worked confidently in their labors, surveying and injecting the pious liquid into the membranes of the unborn and placing them into the wombs of women; there were so many women.
Holy Men were regarded by all as having divine-inspired qualities. They were skilled men – and very educated. Only the most prestigious scientists were elected for this sacred task. How dear the Leader venerated this great covenant.
But they were flawed. One of the Holy Men, on one particular day, suffered from obliviousness; for one crucial instant, he lost his train of thought. An embryo glided past unnoticed.

The Seer’s Temple 3346

            Joanna smiled to herself – still thinking about the success of her breakfast. She sat in the front seat of the vehicle as it rolled into the parking space, and met Mike’s chillingly blue eyes. He looked at her with satisfaction, noting of her wonderful makeup; she was such a beautiful girl.
            They both kissed and exited the car. The Seer’s Temple lot was full of worshippers, rushing inside to find a good seat. The usher welcomed them at the door, and their emotions piqued as they entered. Joanna met the sad gaze of the Leader’s portrait, which hung at the back of the altar; the depressing eyes followed her. “I think there are some seats left in front,” Mike exclaimed, looking to the usher for acknowledgement. He smiled and nodded. Mike took Joanna’s hand and briskly walked toward the front of the temple. The padded seats of the auditorium smelled of fresh synthetic materials, products of modernization. A professional worship ensemble provided music, and they played so dramatically. Lighting consisted of numerous rows and columns of fixtures that shone like Jesus during his transfiguration. The apostle, who served as the leader of the temple, preached with such conviction, and everybody, except for one, mumbled in trances. Joanna sat in complete distaste, and her boredom led her on various journeys of her imagination. “I don’t know why they worship the Leader. They are slaves,” she thought silently.
            After praising the divine Leader, who claimed a divine relationship with God himself, the apostle slyly moved on to the subject of giving. The Leader’s apostles, just like himself, were experts of manipulation. Offerings of great sums overwhelmed the numerous apostles, who ran all of the temples throughout the world. All other economic enterprises fell short of the Leader’s financial power. Citizens, in their unnaturally caused stupor, never hesitated to provide money. Many of the offerings were given electronically, giving the citizen easy access to their cyber pocketbook.
            Joanna listened, intrigued, as the apostle brought up sex. The righteous man stood in front of the crowd as elaborate cinematography flashed on the walls of the temple, creating an ethereal atmosphere of pleasing landscapes. Joanna’s inner artist looked with awe at the genuineness of the scenery. “We all know, my good people, that sex is a wonderful thing if it is used in a righteous manner,” the apostle spoke to the followers. Reluctance clamored in his voice, almost in a tone of embarrassment. Joanna felt the tension of the congregation grow. The apostle paced as he went on, “I know that many of you have felt great sexual temptation. But this seems to go against our God’s beneficence!” The apostle smiled in his new found security, resting assured that the audience was waiting for a perfectly conceivable explanation as to why God would allow such a thing. Joanna saw Mike in her peripheral, nodding in anticipation. “You see, my friends, God allows us all to have free will. We alone choose to act in harmful ways; it is our decision alone. Things like adultery, homosexuality, masturbation, lust – this is the choice of fallen people.” The apostle stopped and, as if it were a play, strolled back to the pulpit to give the final profound conclusion of the topic. “Isn’t our God great?” Joanna, once again, felt her seclusion and kept her doubt to herself. The music began again, and people started crying.
            Driving home from the temple, Mike kept quiet to himself, content with his spiritual experience. Joanna’s thoughts wondered through the steep valley of alienation as she glanced out the window. She felt something inside her change, something that was once before certainty turn into nothingness under her feet; and there she squirmed, trying to find a firm footing.
             
Ignatius Household, later that day

            Nausea and a deep sense of isolation befell Joanna, as she sat on her bed, waiting for Mike to come to sleep. She decided, in great nervousness and anxiety, to talk to her husband about her feelings. The kettle whistled in the kitchen down the hall, and Joanna smelled a hint of chamomile trickle silently into the bedroom. Mike’s footsteps became audible, and Joanna sat rehearsing over her lines.
            Mike walked into the room, carefully balancing two overfilled mugs. “Thank you master,” Joanna said solemnly, while inwardly noting her abhorrence of her husband’s title. Mike smiled, ignorant of his wife’s inner struggle. “Chamomile is a great favorite of our Leader, you know,” he said cheerfully. Joanna, upon hearing this, stopped herself while lifting the mug to her lips, and placed it down on the table. She threw back the sheets, and snuggled into the secure confines of the covers. Hastily throwing off his shoes, and ready for his wife’s dutiful favors, Mike threw off his shirt and pulled down his pants, along with his boxers. Joanna simply ignored the familiar scene, still lost in her inward dialogues.
            Excitedly, Mike threw his naked body onto the bed, the covers depressing under his weight. Joanna, momentarily distracted from her intense thoughts by the movement, looked at her husband’s face, the face she once revered and adored but now saw as lifeless and controlling. Joanna’s breasts felt the caress of his hands as he leaned over. He kissed her soft, rosy cheeks with great passion and she remained motionless, counting the tiles on the ceiling. “Mike, I have something I need to tell you,” Joanna finally exclaimed, ceasing Mike’s vain attempts to woo her. His eyebrows furrowed, and he shifted away from her peculiar behavior. Joanna, never before, interrupted his sessions.
 Joanna, putting aside his apparent confusion, continued, “My whole life, I have struggled to find common ground with other people. Everyone else talks happily of their duties to the Leader, and gives his apostles money without hesitation.” She saw the rising suspicion in Mike’s eyes. Joanna, feeling her need to discuss her turmoil, went on. “I used to feel like I belonged, sincerely taking part in everything that the Leader wished. Mike, my master, I am now beginning to realize that my past actions were not my own, but those of societal influence upon me.” Mike could not believe what he heard. “I think I will finally pursue my dream of becoming an artist. The life of a housewife, I have recently discovered, does not hold any meaning for me.”
After he listened to the last sentence, Mike got out of bed, and hastily threw on his boxers. He was not well accustomed to the couch in the living room, but tonight he would have to manage; tonight, it served as his altar. There he prayed, diligently seeking out what to do with his heretical wife. “In the end, I will remain righteous,” he thought, bowing his head.
           
The Headquarters of the Final Prophet, the next morning

            The past two days, Joanna’s spirit of individuality matured and blossomed into her own delicate identity. She finally decided to live free from the superstition that plagued the world around her. Unfortunately, her kind and gentle demeanor led her to confide in her husband the feelings that she felt. That’s the last thing Joanna remembered, before awaking in a dark chamber. Metal lined all four of the walls and ceiling. There was no furniture, save for a single chair and a wooden table that rested in the center of the cell. Joanna, frightened and confused, occupied that lone chair. Although, from the deep pit of her intelligence, Joanna knew why she was there. She imagined, with great lucidity, Mike’s initial reaction to her their conversation last night.
            Ropes were tied strategically around her torso, hands, and ankles, assuring that the prisoner could not escape. A video camera stood on a tripod at her side, vigilantly watching her, and an enormous television screen hung on the wall a few feet in front of her, displaying the maddening lines and blips of static. The screen suddenly shifted, and the image of an elaborate office with numerous bookshelves focused on the screen. A brass throne sat toward the back of the study. Joanna sat in her lonely chamber, imprisoned in the seat, awaiting her fate.
             A solemn man appeared on the screen, wearing a fine, purple cloak. The figure, with his back turned, walked over to throne and meagerly sat down, as if it were a well-accustomed formality. Joanna could see his balding head, surrounded by little hedges of graying hair. She knew this figure all too well; it was the Leader. The somber tone of his voice confirmed his identity.
The Leader, looking straight into the camera, as if he was looking right into Joanna’s eyes, said, “Woman, you are brought before me because your husband, Michael Ignatius, has accused you of heresy against my name and the God who sent me.” Joanna sat in her seat with great indifference. She knew that this could happen when she opened her mouth that one night. Mike was not a person who takes such blasphemy lightly. Making sure that the accusations were accurate, the Leader reviewed the official documents. Joanna saw, once again, an attribute of humanity within the leader: forgetfulness. Placing the documents aside, the Leader looked into the camera once again. “Joanna Ignatius, are these claims true? Have you dishonored my name in such ways?” Upon hearing her name, Joanna peered unapologetically into the camera at her side and whispered, “Yes.”
A look of seriousness came across the Leader’s face. He stood up from his throne and walked over to the office window, which remained free from Joanna’s view. The sun shone brightly on that particular day, and no clouds blocked its heavy rays. The leader thought to himself, “I have a responsibility to act in pure righteousness. My people depend on me to rule in a perfect, just manner; this is obvious. But why is it so difficult? Why is it so hard?” There, he knelt at the window, asking his heavenly father to bestow him with wisdom. After a few moments passed, the Leader returned to his throne and made his signal of justice. Just then, the executioner appeared outside Joanna’s cell.

-

The noose hung tightly around Joanna’s neck as she stood at the gallows. She knew that no one would understand her heretical claims; they were imprisoned inside their own minds – what else should she expect of them? So, she planned to meet death proudly, regretting nothing that was said. Joanna knew that the others could never achieve salvation from their own demise.
As if taking part in a role of great righteousness, the executioner pulled the lever, and the plank underneath Joanna’s feet dropped, opening the empty abyss beneath. Her feet never reached - they simply hung there, limp and inactive. In her last moment, Joanna thought, “I found my solid ground.”