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Eusebius McKaiser: A way to find meaning in a strange world

This year is turning out to be monumentally strange. We are, nominally at least, halfway through it and yet, in some ways it feels as if the year has not yet started. It feels as if the pause button has been hit by Covid-19.

I have wanted to write about meaning for several months but feared slipping into pseudo-profound sentimentality which, for someone who enjoys constructing arguments, would be embarrassing. But the question of meaning is a serious philosophical question that has been tackled analytically by intellectuals over many centuries. Meaning seeking and argument construction aren’t mutually exclusive.

When you are at university and debating questions such as “Why are we here?”, “Who should I be(come)?” or “What, morally, should I do?” with classmates, you are often motivated by pure theoretical joy. 

This year is turning out to be strange because much of what we often slice off as self-contained intellectual life suddenly takes on far greater significance.

But, whether you have the philosophical training or not, how can you not be grappling with meaning in the face of such existential threats? One of my friends has a parent gasping for air because of breathing difficulties brought on by Covid-19. Another friend, still grappling bodily with the virus, is dealing with news of a grandparent now also being infected with Covid-19. How can you not be rudely reminded of your own mortality, of your mother’s mortality, of grandmother’s mortality?

I seldom drink coffee but this morning I felt like a hot cup because of this cold winter weather. When my colleague brought me a cup of coffee at work, I immediately wondered aloud about which part of the cup’s rim to sip from to minimise the possibility of being infected because I do not know who else had used the cup and whether it had been thoroughly cleaned with nice hot soapy water before the coffee was made. 

Thoughts about infection, illness and death are around every corner this year and with that comes the haunting and enduring question of meaning.

So, what thoughts on the meaning of Covid-19 have been plaguing me? First, the question must be properly formulated. I have always thought the question “What is the meaning of life?” a rather strange one. I am not sure I know what kind of answer someone is looking for when they ask that question. Maybe I am not sure I entirely understand what is being asked. How can life have meaning? Is life as such being referred to? A specific person’s life? All people, as a collective, perhaps? What about life forms that are not of the human kind? Philosophers disagree beautifully and in complex ways about how to understand the question itself.

I want to bypass those philosophical complexities to pick out one way to understand the question of meaning that connects us to the existential angst of 2020. 

What we — what I — want to understand during this strange year is really an answer to the questions: “Given that I will die and just do not know when, what is the best way to live my limited life so as to confer on it some sense of purpose that explains why it is not a pointless existence but one filled with … meaning? How should I live?”’

There is complexity here. Some people would intend this to be a set of moral questions. For some, “How should I live?” implies “How should I live, morally?”. But some philosophers distinguish a moral life from a meaningful life. A meaningful life need not be co-extensive with a moral life. Some thinkers think a life can have meaning if it has integrity, and they define integrity in terms of a set of goals and purposes to which a person has, in a deeply reflective way, reconciled themselves. 

This leaves open the possibility that someone could lead a meaningful life that is thoroughly vicious or, on some occasions, one that results in immoral consequences for the world. Hitler, in this amoral sense, had integrity — he certainly had a clearly defined set of goals and purposes to which he had reconciled himself — but he was obviously also evil. The point is that even my attempt to translate the search for meaning into a set of clearer further questions quickly takes us into complex sub-questions about the relationship between morality and meaning, among many sub-questions that can be mapped out. Resolving these complexities must await another occasion.

I simply want to sketch a description of how, as this bleak year continues to unfold, I have started to live a response to my questions without thinking too hard about the underlying normative framework I am inadvertently signing up for. It seems to me that connection is crucial to a meaningful life — for me anyway. There is something trite and not-so-trite here that needs to be distinguished from one another.

In one obvious sense, unless you are a hermit, you have relationships with people of various kinds. These include relationships with lovers, friends, family, colleagues and even strangers. In that sense, as social beings, we connect and bond, and therefore are connected. That is trite.

But the existential nastiness of the Covid-19 pandemic is making me yearn for, and try to achieve, a degree of presence within these social connections that I do not think I have previously sought or even valued. Here we have room to search for something genuinely more meaningful than mere transactional relationships.

In a casual way, I might say that I am now, more than ever before, trying to make every moment count. Or I desire to at any rate. It requires new habits to be formed. I do not imply being so overburdened by the awareness of one’s mortality that you try too hard and all zest for life is gone. We will still do a lot of unconscious stuff, waste time, hurt each other, half listen instead of being fully present, et cetera. These too are constituent elements of a recognisably human life, and I do not think a pandemic is going to obliterate that which is deeply familiar to us.

But there is a shift in consciousness that we can opt into, and thereby live differently to how we normally do. How best to cash this out in a serious theory about meaning I am not yet sure. But I am sure that, on a practical level, we can begin that process simply by appreciating our social relations more, and that in turn can be done by consciously choosing to value friendship, familial bonds, relationships with colleagues, strangers and even with digital friends. 

This is not a consequentialist view in the classic sense. Sure, one might experience deep joy when bonding better with each other. But there is something here that I cannot yet fully articulate, that feels like an intrinsic appreciation of social relations. 

Just being present, genuinely present, when connecting with one another, is making life more meaningful than before. It requires listening actively, showing through your body language and linguistic and other responses that you are present, when you are engaging someone, whether on Zoom, WhatsApp, the phone or in person. It is about truly recognising the other. The rude existential crisis of 2020 is a gift not be taken lightly.

Maybe it is ultimately about taking the communitarian philosophers more seriously than my liberal biases had allowed me to do until now.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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