The long dark teatime of the soul

Posted on July 10, 2016

I have been meaning to write about the meaning of life for a long time. But is there one? If there is one, why do we all disagree so much on such a basic thing. The use or meaning of a muffin’s life is to fill empty stomachs. The point of a flower is to please you and to help its plant reproduce. The purposes of a paper might be many but they all are agreed upon. No one doubts what they are. You won’t find anyone fighting wars over it. Mulling over the meaning of life, one enters what Douglas Adams calls the long, dark teatime of the soul or the listless limbo of the working man. He qualifies the term while describing one of his characters in the following words: “In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2.55, when you know that you’ve had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.”

That restlessness is a mortal’s biggest challenge for what is man without a purpose. But don’t think for a second that we are any less self-involved. For eons man has seen himself at the centre of the universe. This anthropocentrism has continued even in modern times when science has already revealed how insignificant our existence is. Microbes crawling on a tiny speck of dust in the infinite reaches of the universe. And so powerful are we, so in control of our own existence that microscopic organisms within our body can defeat us. And then this pretense that the entire universe revolves around us. That, nature in its infinite wisdom cares even two hoots about what we think. So technologically advanced are we that we have so far not set foot on our closest planet and have been back-patting ourselves for visiting our own moon decades ago. Nor are we in control of our habitat. We have not found a way to close the continent-sized hole that has appeared in the ozone layer around our planet that protects us from ultraviolet radiations.

Ask yourself what purpose there can be of such an existence. Of course no one among us can dismiss any idea or ideology based on whims or mere conjecture. Nor should we. That is why faiths exist, various philosophies exist and a number of self-assigned purposes too. The problem arises when appreciation of the relative nature of truth clashes with the unexplainable desire to believe in absolutes. When blind men start fighting over their experience and subjective view of an elephant. This has gone on for millennia and is primarily responsible for our technological primitiveness.

And then there are those who find their purpose in the matters of race and language. Both are human constructs. The constructs that began for simple identification and convenience and eventually transformed into prejudices. It goes without saying that in the ultimate melting pot called evolution, genetic influences from all over the world came together to make you what you are. So how can you claim to be part of a single strand? We all are one race. The human race. So if we fail to find a common purpose in life should the enlightened among us pretend to live without rules? Should the fact that we are so helpless convince us that the only law operative is the law of the jungle? Should the powerful be allowed to swallow the weak? Is it not the lesson nature around us has taught us? Absolutely not. Perhaps we are never going to agree on how we ended up here, why we exist and what it is to exist. We live in a hostile universe. We should make do with what we have. That we are here. That we have evolved so far. Hence civilisation itself becomes a purpose. Our love for ourselves and for fellow humans should be reason enough for us to believe in it.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2016.