In recent weeks, I’ve been reading voraciously, particularly books from the twentieth and twenty-first century. From Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” each book I’ve read has placed characters in wildly different scenarios, yet all are faced with similar conditions. Atticus Finch searches for justice, arbitrating with unshakable morality in the face of rigid, horrific, seemingly unbreakable cultural shackles of racism in Maycomb County, Alabama. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, searches for meaning in a concentration camp that threatens to strip him of his humanity, either through death or dehumanization. And Paul Kalanithi, neurosurgeon and author of “When Breath Becomes Air,” comes to grips with his diagnosis of stage IV cancer months before completing his residency at Stanford.
These three characters live in different worlds, with different occupations and families. Atticus is a fictional lawyer from the 1930s, Frankl an Austrian psychiatrist from the 1940s and Kalanithi a neurosurgeon from our time. However, all three of these writers face the same questions: at the edge of life and death, they confront their mortality head on and actively search for meaning in their existence.
Recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what brings humans together and what we can learn from it. It’s becoming easier and easier to find what’s different between us. A free flow of information in a globalized world allows us to see our differences, warts and all, and the silos that we occupy make it easy to judge and stand in opposition to each other. Thanks to TV and social media, the poor can see and slander the rich, the Arab can see and slander the Jew and vice-versa. As shown by the election, polarization continues to grow. The promise of a diverse, multicultural, globalized world singing kumbaya together appears to have come across a hiccup.
Yet there are few things we share, simple human facts. One, we were all born. Two, we will all die. And three, we were born into a mystery. We were born without knowing our purpose. There’s a unique democratization, a unique egalitarianism in these simple facts. The richest of men come into this world and they will leave it just like the poorest of men, and each person is free to search and find their meaning and purpose, independent of the world around them. As far as we know, there is no crystal ball. As humans, we haven’t been able to agree on one god or one way of thinking: neither science nor religion alone have answered our questions completely. Both rely on some degree of faith and that may leave our search for meaning perpetual.
Thus, in a world that has competing, not singular, visions of a good life, we are left with two options. We can adopt our own morals and deny all others. Or we can instead determine own meaning and morals for our existence, but understand that we do not know the full mystery of our existence and leave ourselves open to others. I recommend we choose the second.
As Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Thinking is good, empathy is good, reflection is good. A society that does not ponder these existential questions is susceptible to vapidity, ignorance and closed-mindedness.
We all do not know the full reason for our existence, and we may never know. However, the desire to search for the answer to that unsolvable mystery, to seek it out and to fulfill it together is truly heroic and may very well become our reason for our existence after all.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu