Let Me Be Forward . . .

I’ve never successfully completed an entire book–although I’ve enthusiastically outlined and written introductions to at least five!  This, of course, fails to include the vast number of book ideas that seem to enter my head every week (sometimes every day).  With the coming of the new year I resolved to narrow this list down to three projects.  I then made the decision to focus all of my efforts on completing one of these projects by this summer.  It was extremely difficult but, after much deliberation, I settled on a little book I’ve tentatively entitled The Diary of A Despairing . . . I Mean, Aspiring Author.  

In the coming months as I slave away writing, and re-writing, I intend to share “snapshots” of my progress.  I would very much like your feedback.  To get things started, I’m pleased to share the forward of this unusual little book:


 

The Diary of A Despairing . . . I Mean, Aspiring Author

FORWARD

How does one find meaning in a world that is meaningless?  This question has lingered in my sub-consciousness for many years.  When I was a boy I didn’t understand the problem because I didn’t understand the words of the Preacher:  “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!” . . . I was naively optimistic.  It took time for me to recognize life’s futility; time and real encounters with gratuitous evil.  For in the midst of true anguish and despair it is impossible to avoid the hopelessness of our plight.  Outside of these experiences, however, it is all too easy to drown the nihilism out.  We’ve become experts at this in our culture.  At any given moment there are a plethora of vain distractions at our disposal.  Nevertheless, in times of intense suffering, though we are unwilling, the existential crisis is thrust upon us and we come face to face with the reality that our lives lack intrinsic value.

This book is about my encounter with meaninglessness.  It chronicles the defining moments in my life, when suffering was unwillingly thrust upon me, and the internal spiritual crisis these events caused.  Don’t get me wrong; compared to most, my experience of evil is more akin to a walk in the park.  In essence, my plight is not terribly different from that of the average middle class Westerner.  But this is precisely the problem I wish to highlight.  We accept nihilism with such ease in the West because the majority of us live a life of ease.

The wretched soul sleeping in the gutter in Calcutta will, therefore, have no use for this book; he understands, far better than I, the futility of life.  This book is for those of us who live in wealth, and comfort, and privilege (i.e., the majority of the West  . . . even the “poor”).  For those who are naively optimistic and or, simply, too frightened to face the void . . .

 

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Lost, Lonely, Confused, and Loving It: A Condemnation of Western Society’s Indifference

What Gives Life Meaning?

We are, all of us, searching for water in a dry and desolate land; stumbling in the dark; groping for something stable to support us and give us direction . . . and that’s the way we like it.   Deep down, hidden beneath a host of questions and doubts, we realize we are lost and don’t want to be found.  We are hedonist’s at heart, and lazy ones to boot: we’d much rather watch pornography than discover Truth.  We are too selfish and controlling to even want Truth; because Truth is outside of our direct control.  Truth is not something we can create, or tame, or manipulate; it’s too restrictive and limiting and, thus, untenable.  It works against our inner narcissist.  Hence, we rest, quite contently – with only the slightest and most obligatory hint of angst – in the void of cynicism and doubt.

Sure, we pay lip service to the notion of Truth . . . but do we really desire it?  Years ago I met with a group of teenagers who fancied themselves Atheists and Agnostics.  I led discussions on a variety of philosophical and theological problems at a local coffee shop.  I remember asking one of the students, who attended regularly, what she thought the goal of our discussions was?  Her response was revealing:  “well . . . mainly to have fun, you know, talking about different ideas.”  Like so many in our culture, she wasn’t thirsty for knowledge; she was indifferent; she just wanted to have fun.  As many of religion’s “cultured despisers” did in the time of St. Gregory of Nazianzus:

“Who should listen to discussions of theology?  Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex:  for there are people who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements.”

The majority of young people I talk to have this attitude.  They are like the Athenians who, “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17: 21).  Discussions about God, morality, meaning, or value are just “small-talk” – an amusing pastime, like baseball.  There’s no substance to their questions and no deep desire to find answers.  More often than not, their “intellectual” struggles – which prevent them from accepting objective truth – are merely a facade maintained to justify elicit sex and drug use.  For others, the questions are asked in an effort to appear sophisticated or edgy.  Very few young people thirst for knowledge and actually want to find an answer to the question of value.

Put bluntly, our culture has lost its desire for meaning and replaced it with an insatiable lust for “reality” TV and Starbucks Frappuccino’s.  This is why the New Atheists will acknowledge the universe is utterly meaningless, that life has no intrinsic value, and that morality is rooted in the blind, ruthless, unintentional, irrational, laws of evolution (which is really just another way of saying, there is no morality) . . . and then shrug.  “Well, I like my life” they say; or, “life has meaning when we give it meaning.”  And what, precisely, is the meaning we ascribe to life?  Ultimately, in the West (and especially in the United States), life’s meaning can generally be classified in one of the the following three categories: (1) our elation over the new Star Wars film directed by J. J Abrams, (2) our intense love for shopping, and (3) our constant and unbridled desire for orgasm.  This is why we look at people in third world countries and wonder, “how can they stand to live that way?”  It is also the reason we can’t understand why the majority of people in third world countries have a deep faith in God and a firm belief in the supernatural.

It’s only in the face of tragedy that we Westerners are forced out of our drunken stupor . . . and, even then, only for a little while.  In the face of intense evil and hardship the reality of our fate often begins to sink in; the reality that we are weak, fragile, finite, temporary, shifting shadows.  In the midst of pain and suffering we are reminded of the absurdity and futility of our existence.  When we realize that our fate is no different than that of the irrational beast or the unconscious rock, we then start to consider the question of meaning more seriously.  When our dignity has been violated and we are standing on the edge of a cliff, we then find ourselves asking the same haunting question that William Shakespeare posed in one of his most famous monologues:

“To be, or not to be — that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them / To die, to sleep no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

To exist or not to exist?  Have you actually considered this question?  Have you ever taken time to meditate on how utterly futile human existence is?  Or is Albert Camus just cool, hip and trendy?  Is it just fun to quote Nietzsche, to feel intellectual, and have a good laugh–or have you actually absorbed the implications of Nietzsche’s thought?  Have you, not just thought it, but felt it in your heart and soul?  It’s easy to shrug off the purposelessness of reality when you’re busy trying to look and sound cool . . . and trying to get laid.  It’s not so easy when your dignity and value has been utterly trampled on and life seems hopeless and unbearable.

Everything you think gives your life meaning becomes mere dust blowing in the wind when you have been violated or when life hangs in the balance.  Your cars, your computers, your video games, your films, your music, your beer, your pornography, your books, your drugs, your sexuality, your pets, your wealth, your sports, your technology, your scientific advancements, your successes, all fade into nothing when you are the girl who has been raped or you are the child sold into sex slavery, or you are the one lying in the hospital bed dying of cancer, or starving to death while living in a trash heap.  Suddenly, words like meaning, purpose, value, and eternity take on new life.  Suddenly trite answers like, “you give your life meaning” feel stupid and hopeless.  Especially when you understand that, if the nihilists are correct, there is no meaning, purpose, value, or eternity for the individual.

You’ll only want Truth when you realize that all of the things you think give your life meaning have no meaning at all apart from Him.  When you internalize the fact that we are completely helpless – slaves – in a world that is, at rock bottom, irrational, uncaring, and unintentional, you’ll finally be in a position to hunger and thirst for the Truth.  In that moment you will understand why Truth says,“I am the bread of life.  He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

One Old Lady and a Cabbage Patch Kid

In a culture which fosters individualism and materialism it becomes easy to ignore the pain, suffering, and misfortune of others. Most of us live blissfully unaware of the millions of desperate and lonely people living in poverty around us—people longing for love, purpose, and a better life. Most of us are almost entirely focused on our own needs and desires or constantly engulfed in some form of mind numbing entertainment. This egocentrism, whether mild or strong in its manifestation, is the natural outgrowth of the Western Culture in which we live.  It’s important for us to recognize this because everything we think, everything we feel, and everything we do is in some small way influenced by our unconscious absorption of our culture. This is true for the faithful Christian, the ardent Atheist, and everyone in between.

While there is much about our heritage which is noble and beautiful, like any culture, ours is ultimately the product of sinful, self-loving, self-absorbed, fallen human beings and is therefore prone to developing dysfunctional modes of thought and behavior. It just so happens that in the West, this looks like materialism and stark individualism. Those of us who have grown up within the framework and influence of the West, no matter how sensitive to the plight of others we may be, are tainted by these negative and overarching forms of thought.  Even the kindest, most well meaning, person will struggle to think outside of these cultural norms if he is not careful.

This is precisely the position I found myself in several years ago.  I was a nice person:  I treated most people with kindness, I often befriended social outcasts, and I cared (that is, I had an emotional response, something like intense empathy) for people who were in pain.  I was also very religious: I went to church, I prayed, I read my Bible; I truly desired to have a relationship with God.  Yet, in spite of all this, I ultimately lived (on a day to day basis) in my very own self-interested, self-absorbed, bubble.  I would read passages in the Bible like James 1:27 which states, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,” and nod my head in hearty approval . . . but that’s as far as it would go.  There were no works accompanying my faith.  I didn’t actually visit or care for orphans or widows in their affliction, I just thought it was a cool idea; and I was not keeping myself unstained from the world.  In fact, I was living very similar to the majority of people in my culture: self-obsessed and detached from reality.

I was completely wrapped up in my own little world—the Josh world—in which everything revolved around my goals, my desires, and my interests.  Overall, I lived completely unconcerned about the suffering of thousands of impoverished and homeless people living all around me.  I wasn’t totally unaware of their presence.  I was not like Siddhartha, completely sheltered from the realities of pain and suffering in the world.  It just wasn’t something I dwelt upon or did anything about.  The weak and suffering in society remained in my peripheral vision—slightly out of focus.  I never fixed my gaze upon them for any length of time.  That is, until the night I met the old lady with the baby doll . . .

At that time in my life I played the guitar in a local band which frequently performed in clubs in downtown Dallas.  Music was virtually all I thought about—much to the detriment of my marriage, my schooling, and my day job.  I viewed my music as a positive force in the world—I took great pride in crafting thought provoking lyrics which might encourage people to think about God.  In this sense, music was a ministry.  In another, more real, sense music was and idol.  It dominated every aspect of my life.  This was the state I found myself in after playing in one downtown club on a Friday night.

It was late, we had just finished our set, and I was standing outside of the club enjoying the cool nighttime breeze.  Suddenly I noticed something moving in my peripheral vision; someone was approaching me from out of the darkness of the ally which ran parallel to the club.  I turned to fix my gaze on this unwelcomed visitor only to discover that she was already standing uncomfortably by my side.

I stood in silence starring at the unusual figure standing before me.  She looked much older than she actually was—her skin wrinkled and worn from too much time in the sun.  She was small, fragile, and extremely skinny; you could see her bones through her skin.  Her clothing was tattered, grimy, and smelled of mildew.  The most distressing thing about her, however, was not her appearance or her smell; it was the small Cabbage Patch doll she gripped tightly against her chest.  There was something unsettling about seeing an adult in her condition clinging so tightly to a child’s toy.  I will forever remember that image.

To my great shame, my first reaction was one of disgust.  All I could think about was how uncomfortable and inconvenient her presence was.  Before I could say a word, however, she started begging me for money, “just six dollars,” she said, “all I need is six dollars so I can stay at the mission.”  As she begged, tears streamed down her weathered cheeks.  Before I could reply she began telling me about her beautiful baby daughter—the love of her life.  All the while she rocked back and forth, clutching the baby doll as If it were here only connection to reality.  Her eyes sparkled as she recounted her most cherished memories of her sweet little darling girl.

By this point the disgust I had felt when she first approached me began to fade away.  In spite of her startling appearance and quirky mannerisms, I began to feel something entirely different—compassion.  As she continued speaking about her daugher, however, something began to trouble me.  “Where was her daugher?” I asked myself, “Why was she holding a baby doll?  Afraid of what the answer might me, I finally built up the courage to ask her.  Her eyes glazed over and she starred off into the distance.  “She died . . . she was burned in the fire.”

These words pierced my heart.  It literally felt as if the entire world had come to an end.  My soul sunk into despair and agony: “Oh God, how could you have let this happen?” I thought.  With tears in my eyes I reached down and gave the empty shell of a woman who stood before me a huge hug.  She began to cry harder as I embraced her.  I held her hand, I prayed for her, I gave her the money she had requested, and she walked back into the darkness.  My life was forever changed.

The world which lay on the peripheral was now the only thing I could see.  When I closed my eyes I saw her face, her poor broken face, weeping over the loss of her child . . .