What is the meaning of your life?
By Sim Kwang Yang
I know that people expect me to comment on politics all the time, because of my experience in active full-time politics.
But let me make a little confession. Sometimes, I feel wary of political commentaries, especially when the Internet is so over-saturated with crude hysterical and partisan polemic and rhetoric. How I wish Malaysian net portals and blogs would discuss some intelligent subjects more seriously.
Fortunately, I still have Hornbill Unleashed, a blog still struggling to find its plural identity, a piece of virgin intellectual territory, waiting for literary exploration.
In a few days time, I will be 61 years of age. I will not celebrate my birthday, as I seldom do. It is just another day.
I will wake up that day, discover that I am still alive, and go for my simple breakfast of hot coffee and soft boiled eggs, remembering to take a whole bunch of pills for various ailments.
In my youth, I would not have envisaged how it would be like to be over 60 years of age, but here I am.
More frequently in recent years, my reflection turns to ageing and dying.
Physically, I am getting brittle, and the athletic prowess of my youth has deserted me decades ago. I now live a very sedentary sedate existence. My faculties are all intact, more or less, thank God.
As Sophocles was quoted in Plato’s Republic, the greatest advantage of ageing is that a man is no longer distracted by his sex hormones and so can concentrate on the pursuit of wisdom. I can attest to that!
There is no fool like an old fool. If I should still be chasing skirts, I will be an old damned fool indeed.
There is another advantage in ageing to the point of dying. Your existential angst may go out the window as well.
In my youth, I too – like many young men out there to-day – wondered about the meaning of my existence. After I had finished Form Six, my dream of studying to be a doctor was smashed to smithereens because I was refused a scholarship.
Faced with the absurdity of the world, the human will did feel ridiculous. What was the point of having any dream at all, I asked myself.
In simple unsophisticated Sarawak in the early 70s then, I had nobody to talk to really. Then I went to a university in Canada, and a French-Canadian schoolmate by the name of Michelle introduced me to the French existentialists, especially Sartre and Camus. Michelle also warned me to be careful not to go into their world too deep.
Then, I discovered the dark universe of the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky. He is well known for the words spoken by one of his anti-hero, ”God is dead and all things are possible.” I would read his novels for days on end, finishing them in one go, not sleeping or eating much. When I finished one book, I felt like my soul had been scoured empty!
Naturally, when I studied for a degree in philosophy, I made sure that I took a course on existentialism.
If death is the only certainty, is there then meaning to life?
Sartre was a great novelist but I found his attempt at phenomenology too dry for comfort.
Camus began his thesis by proclaiming that there is one question in life, and that is whether to commit suicide. If life has no meaning, then what is the point of living?
His title is apt. Sisyphus is that tragic figure in Greek mythology who was condemned to eternal toil in Hell.
He was tasked with pushing a huge rock up the slope, and as he reached the peak, the rock would roll down back to its position. Then the same toil repeats itself, for eternity.
If you think about it, Sisyphus’ fate is a little like our daily life.
We were born, protesting and crying, without the right to be consulted. Then we will all die, crying again at leaving our loved ones. In between, there is just a huge blank for us to fill in.
Every day, we go though the motion of living a life, a routine of going to work to cari makan, buy food for the table, and procreate.
We are bound by layers and layers of social norms and obligations that thwart our puny will to be ourselves.
We mortgage our freedom to our business, our family, our nation, and our tribe. We live through an entire life, without knowing who we are as individuals.
You know how modernity is.
It celebrates life, hope for to-morrow, and the greatness of the human spirit, those elements that make Hollywood movies so popular. Rambo and Rocky immediately come to mind. Nobody wants to talk about death and dying.
Yet, death is the only ultimate certainty in life. You can never get out of this life alive. The more you celebrate the human spirit, the joy of life, and the hope for to-morrow, the greater disappointment it will be when you face certain death.
This is the ultimate absurdity of human existence. This is the most fundamental alienation of our being!
The sick feeling in the realisation of this contraction has been variously described as angst or ennui, festering beneath the surface of every person’s façade of a normal life, coming back in the dark depth of night, when he is confronted with himself alone, or when he has just suffered a personal catastrophe.
Sartre used to say that we are all amateurs in this business of feeling lonely, and every man lives in quiet desperation.
For Camus, he provides the answer to his question of suicide in his book The Rebel. Life may or may not have meaning, but it is up to us to create our own meaning.
That is how existentialism got its slogan: existence before essence. For him, the act of rebellion against the absurdity of existence itself, especially through art, is the path for the absurd man to live.
“Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being,” he wrote.
I just wonder: how many Malaysians to-day are closet existentialists, especially among the younger generations. We are Asians, and we do not like to discuss such deeply sensitive subjects as the meaning of life with our friends. We do not want to be seen like freaks.
Camus’ question does not bother me any more. Do not ask me my formula, because I have lived a relatively long life to find my own answer, and my answer may not be suitable for you. You have to find your own answer.
So, what is the meaning of your life? Or is it not a relevant question for you?
[Sim Kwang Yang was the DAP assemblyman for Bandar Kuching from 1982 to 1999]