Love, romance, and meaning are ideas made possible by language, but language can describe things that don’t exist, and ask questions that don’t have answers.
I’m nibbling away at Peter Pouncey’s “Rules for Old Men Waiting,” which Eve gave me just before she left for Canada, a little over a week ago. She said that, even though it’s more of a man’s than a woman’s book, she had greatly enjoyed it because of the writing.
The few pages I read this morning were about how the main character met the woman who was to become his wife, and there was a greatly understated attraction to her that tugged at my emotions a bit. I may have been projecting, of course, but I read into it a kind of very human yearning: hope for a relationship that might transform one’s life into something beyond the ordinary; a magical transcending of humdrum reality.
Perhaps I was inclined toward such an interpretation because of a recent conversation with a well-meaning but very conventional friend from earlier days—the wife of a cousin. It was one of those newsy conversations that never touches on anything profound, but when I mentioned that Eve was in Canada traveling with a friend she had met last summer—a man—this woman asked if I was OK with that. I explained that Eve and I are legally married, and we’re best friends, but our relationship is not sexual or romantic. That did not quite compute, and she said that she was concerned about me. I told her that I wasn’t at all lonely, and that I was in no way interested in another relationship: I have told Eve that she is my last girlfriend. I could tell that what I’d said was beyond her comprehension, and that there was no way to explain to her how anyone could prefer a solitary life, so we went back to the kind of casual conversation that she was comfortable with.
So my reaction to Pouncey may have been brought on by that conversation and the thoughts it engendered about love and romance: the human/cultural tendency toward romantic thinking, and my own evolved lack of any such tendency.
It may be that romance is a particular variety of a more general desire for something that might take one’s life somewhere beyond the mundane existence of an animal on a planet. We humans, given the capacity for abstract thinking provided by language, can imagine worlds of magic where dreams and fairy tales come true, and where we transcend the reality of struggling through life like an ordinary organism.
I’m reminded of a TED talk by Wade Davis, an anthropologist, who said that the 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, half of which are not being taught to children any more, offer 6,000 answers to the question, “What does it mean to be human and alive?” No doubt if there were 12,000 languages, or 100,000, there would be that many answers. Which one would be “right”?
The answer, of course, is that each one is right within the context of it’s culture, and that there is no universally right answer to the question, which brings us to one inescapable conclusion: The fact that we can ask a question doesn’t mean that it has an ultimate answer, of which there are innumerable examples. Zen offers a famous one: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There is no conventional answer, and the point of asking it is to bring the Zen student to the realization that language is a useful tool, but has its limitations.
In another Zen story, an artist paints a picture of terrible monsters, then looks at it and recoils in fear. That is our situation when we ask such questions as, “What does it mean to be human and alive?” Just because we can imagine the question, we think it’s connected to reality and must have an answer, but our disturbing concern with finding an answer is like the artist’s fear: it’s brought on by asking the question (painting the picture), and if we simply stop asking it (stop looking at the picture), the concern goes away.
So how do you live a life without meaning? For the most part, it is convenient to live within the rules of whatever culture you find yourself, but realizing that there are 6,000 alternatives engenders a certain flexibility. Some rules are almost universally convenient: don’t kill, don’t steal, keep clean, pay your bills, and life will be passably smooth. Cultural values on personal decoration, fashion, etc. can be ignored with impunity for the most part, and borrowing from other cultures can lead you to what’s comfortable for you, given your history.
In a life without meaning, it can be profoundly valuable to learn the skill of turning off the language modules in your brain completely, at least for short periods. (It’s hard to buy groceries without them.) A little respite from language reveals the world in all its undifferentiated beauty, and shows how much we gave up in acquiring that ability. Language, indispensable as it is for everyday life, constricts reality in the same way a map does: it shows the useful parts, but not all the stuff in between.
Without language, we see the world as non-linguistic animals do—allowing for differences in perceptual apparatus. Wade Davis presents the idea of paleolithic art, cave paintings, as a 20,000-year nostalgia for what we lost in becoming human, distinct from our animal kin. Whether that’s true or not, the world without language has a magical beauty that makes life wholly worthwhile and awe-inspiring, even without meaning.
Returning to the idea of romantic love, there’s an ancient Chinese saying (You may correctly guess that I’ve found many useful things in that culture.): “If you can’t do it for yourself, who can do it for you?” If you can’t find magic in your life on your own, how can another person give it to you? Other people turn out to be human, after all, with the usual frailties and limitations of the species. Making another person responsible for your happiness imposes a terrible burden, and most will find a way to wriggle out from under it, in one way or another, sooner or later.
As the Buddha supposedly said on his deathbed, (many useful things there, too): “Be a light unto yourself, betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone but yourselves.”
Ultimately, it’s all we’ve got.
With Language and Without
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