Saturday, 13 June 2015

Love and the Meaning of Life

                                             An essay for Philo 10 - Approaches to Philosophy under Prof. Bernard Caslib

Discerning the meaning of life

Life is indeed meaningful, in all the imaginable senses of the word. Whether there is an innate meaning to our lives or none, we create meaning throughout their course while we move through our lives. We are possessed with the faculty of doing this by virtue of our being rational creatures—the pursuit and finding of meaning is brought to light by means of our ability to use reason. This claim of being rational should and must be established and taken for truth, because otherwise nothing can be trusted and believed; reason cannot be undermined because the very argument that succeeds to do so is itself invalidated by the undermining of reason—how could anyone come to any such conclusion if rational thought is not something that we can claim to be doing?

This is actually the very line of defense that C.S. Lewis adopted in a different inquiry, but one that is nevertheless similar in its defense of reason. In his book Miracles, Lewis provides a compelling argument for the existence of miracles and the supernatural, by claiming that reason is in fact something that stands outside of ‘nature’—supernatural—and that reasoning that tries to invalidate the supernatural in that sense is also rendered void.

As for meaning, coming to an understanding of it leads us to a perception of its many facets—meaning is composite by nature. Meaning is birthed to us by the coming together of our reasoning faculty and the reality outside of it, reality that lends itself to perception and interpretation. This character of reality is attested to by Kant’s formulation of his terms ‘phenomenal’ reality and ‘noumenal’ reality—the former referring to “the world as we experience it” and the latter pertaining to “reality as it is independent of our perceptions”, or what we commonly call “objective reality”. Reality is not something we can always readily access; as humans we have our limits of perceiving it. And putting meaning to things gives us a way to bridge that gap between reality and our understanding.

It follows that there is always more to life than meets the eye. It is not merely the flowing of days from one to the other, nor simply just the time period bridging birth and death. It is more than that—more than just anything our relationships, work and achievements may flesh out about it. But of course, something that is as broad and diverse as life is difficult to deal with. There has to be an approach that would best fit this endeavor, one that could enlighten us most fully as to the meaning we seek. And this is where I believe love comes in.

Love and the meaning of life

Love can be likened to a lens which allows us to see the thing we are contemplating in more detail and with more clarity. This is because love bridges distance. Man is social by nature, and we must bear this in mind if we are to look at the dynamics of love. In order for us to enjoy a fully human life, we must open ourselves up to the associations and complexities of social life—we must open ourselves up to love.

In Wagas, Joseph Guillermo describes love in his essay Love Happens: Some Thoughts on Loss and Moving on, as something that comes hand in hand with existence, amo ergo sum, or in his own words, “We could then read love as without-death, and understand it as an act of defying darkness, of creating warmth despite the coldness, of bravely telling the night that I exist because I mean to someone.” This is a very Aristotelian thought; in fact, it has been Aristotle’s claim that association with other people—making friendships—is a very crucial step towards the reward of happiness. According to him, being in the company of friends reinforces our ability to act and think. The friend provides an ‘other’, a basis of comparison for the self, and this leads to a more fruitful understanding of a person’s nature, of his life. For instance, it is often said that “birds of the same feather stick together” or else, “tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.” The character of a person is defined, accentuated and made more apparent by virtue of the friends that he has. In another essay in Wagas, titled Constructs as ‘Deontological’: Love and Democracy by Alvin Jason Camba, it has been said that, “The process called loving, roughly speaking, pertains to the process people attempt to move away from a state of anonymity into a form of emotional attachment.” This further proves that loving, or involving ourselves in another, makes us more aware of ourselves.

Even in literature, the characters are often in the company of friends who are their “foil”—this proceeding brings the reader to a better appreciation of both the character and the foil; one reinforces understanding of the other.

To make a more concrete example, and one that I can readily elaborate, we can take a look at my own group of friends. There are four of us in the group, and the close-knit quality of our friendship sometimes surprises others—we have radically different characters from one another. We have Eric, loud and cheerful and flamboyant at times; we have Gienel, the studious, timid person who always shocks everyone with her excellent reading voice; we have James, the born leader, at turns delightfully frank and outright sarcastic; and then there’s me, the socially awkward sentimental writer. Our differences are as clear as day. But far from breeding discord in our midst, these very differences allow us to love each other more fully. These differences have always made me more aware of who they are, and more also of who I am. This understanding between us helps to foster the love between us and allows us to wish the good for everyone.

In her book Break Open a Stone, Dr. Liza Ruth Ocampo says of loving, “The sweetest fruit of knowing is to love.” To this, I also wish to add: sometimes knowing also yields the sweet fruit of love. The two—loving and knowing—are very closely intertwined, and it is very easy to attribute one to the other. I believe that indeed a sort of acknowledgement stands as a prerequisite to love, as in, “I see you, I know you, and so I love you.”

The complexities of the contemporary understanding of love

Nowadays, we live in an increasingly fast-paced and increasingly digitalized world. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are now here—and here to stay. It is the age of instant communication—a click of a button bridges hundreds and thousands of miles of geographical distance. Given this, we’d think it would be easier for us to welcome love in our more convenient, easier lives.

But the very setting of our contemporary consciousness breeds intricacies in our understanding of love. In Dr. Ocampo’s description in Break Open a Stone, this is a world of changing surfaces. We are moving about a new kind of reality—and we may not have caught up with its pace. It is either that, or that we are forcibly tailoring something constant like love to fit the new expectations set by the advancing times.

‘Mixed signals’ A story in Wagas, titled Leave Zach Alone by Javierose Ramirez, says it nicely, “Sure he walks you home every day and he is always around you but being around is different from wanting to be with you.” It seems that nowadays we have a surplus of gestures to which we can no longer ascribe significant meaning. We may have lost the sense of employing and appreciating subtlety in our social interactions.

But why should this be? I believe the answer is quite clear. We now live in a world overpopulated with signals and signs, and that has caused us to grow desensitized to them. Gestures that may have been special before are now robbed meaning by overuse.

The term ‘manhid’ is very much appropriate for this, applicable even to the general mood of our times. And this is very problematic. We must make a conscious effort not to grow desensitized to meaning—because something that means everything also effectually means nothing at all. And we cannot and should not move around the world and around people thinking our actions are of no consequence.

‘Knight in shining armor’

In the same story by Ramirez given as an example above, the persona expostulates with another character in the text pertained to as a second person, saying, “He is not your knight in shining armor.” The persona then explains that the iconic phrase ‘knight in shining armor’ only pertains to a function delineated by the other person, that this person is not in love with another person but only with an idea, a shell, a role—which could be filled in by nearly anyone.

This is another complexity caused by the preceding one. Because of our new desensitized and dehumanized brand of affection, we begin to yearn for something probably more ‘real’—we create the function of a perfect partner in our heads. We start thinking we need the ‘strong, silent type’ or the ‘girl-next-door’—we don’t usually think we’re yearning for our very own John or Camille or Martha.  

As Ramirez explains in her story, it is a disservice both for us and the object of our affections if we think in this way, because we effectually dehumanize them by so doing. We construct a version of them that may be far from who they really are—we are making them compete with an absurdly modified version of themselves. Competing in that way is very frustrating—I had the experience myself when I got involved with someone a few months back. We were going on a relationship kept alive by communicating on social media and the occasional meet-up, and I could really feel as if each spell of absence gives him more time and room to think up a version of me that I cannot compete with. It came to a point when I found it hard to identify whether it was me he liked, or simply the girl of his imagination—with the lack of concrete experiences to back it up, I wondered whether it was me that he thought was pretty or intelligent.

‘Plenty of fish in the sea’

This problem was very amusingly tackled by Liway Czarina Ruizo in an essay in Wagas. She perfectly explains the metaphor of fishing in dating and how appropriate it is when it comes to love: in her own words, “This illustrates the lopsidedness of proportions, number-wise.” As she elaborates, it seems to imply that the men “are greatly outnumbered by the women”, which is clearly not the case.

This proportion, as I see it, is also not just number-wise, but also power-wise.  Assigning the role of fish to women and the role of fishers to men, we see the power dynamic disproportionately tipped to the side of the men—as we can well see, only the fishers can pick and choose. Additionally, the essay claims, “The fish in the analogy are mere spectators, and they are expected to just swim right along, with not so much as an opportunity for exploring options.” The event of getting fished out of the water is considered a privilege, and the dating scene is seen as a ‘waiting game’ for the fish. The fishers on the other hand, can even “choose not to fish”.

This is a problematic formulation. Among the many beautiful things that love fosters between people is a sense of equality, of being both players and active movers in the game—exactly the aspect that this complication of our understanding produces.As the essay concludes, “Love is bigger than that. It has to be. Dating has to be bigger than predictions on it by experts of things ranging from human behavior to the science of statistics.”

Using philosophy in understanding love and life

Philosophy proves itself to be a ready and suitable tool to use in our pursuit of meaning of love and life. It is a field of study that brings us closer to the truth of things—and in this endeavor, there are no artificial demarcations of ‘common man’ and ‘intellectual’; anyone and everyone can participate in such an undertaking. As such, we must make the best of this and use our rational faculties and freedom to engage in philosophy.

In addition, philosophy is a science of knowing. It seeks to establish the bounds of knowledge and to constantly question everything. This characteristic of its method readily lends itself to application to the contemplation of love and life—it is far more satisfying to always be discovering something about these two ideas, as only the process of constant questioning can give. And the ideas which we desire to know about in this case are not static ones—they live, they breathe, they change. It is only proper to keep up with their changing pace by means of looking at them with an ever-questioning perspective.

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