Under frequent lockdowns, like its 195 million new subscribers, we turned to Netflix for some entertainment. Being an admirer of Liam Neeson, The Grey (2011), was an obvious choice for that evening. But against expectations, The Grey turned out to be not a Neeson-beats-the-bad-guys type movie, rather churned out some philosophical consternations that would occupy my mind for days to come.
The Grey is a story of John Ottway (played by Neeson) whose job is to guard the oil workers from predatory wolves in the extreme climate of Northern hemisphere. Ottway has three demons to fight: loss of wife, revengeful wolves and merciless nature. With loss of his wife and no one else to live for, he has begun to wonder if he should be alive at all. As if this is not enough, Ottway finds himself in a flight-accident that leaves him in-charge of the safe passage of six co-passengers. This is where the other two demons—the wolves and the nature—begin to chase him in the literally grey weather of Alaska, where the movie is shot.
For a moment, he seems to have found his purpose in life as a saviour of those under his care. However, soon he begins to witness all of them falling prey either to the hungry pack of relentless wolves, or to the unforgiving nature. While he survives, he once again is lonely and without purpose. Soon he finds himself in the den of the alpha-male wolf, his nemesis. But didn’t he want this all along—to end his life in the absence of purpose? But contrary to his earlier wish and finding encouragement from his wife’s last words not to be afraid, he decides to fight the wolf tooth and nail. Unlike Neeson’s other action-packed movies, The Grey ends without Neeson flinging a single punch into the wolf’s face. Whether he survives or not has by now become irrelevant, perhaps the story-teller has already conveyed his point—human life is tragic and the experiences of tragedies and grief often push humans to live life in ‘the grey.’
The movie raised many philosophical questions, but one that has stormed the internet most is: If life is nothing but a series of tragic events, pain and suffering, is there anything that gives it meaning or is it meaningless? This is a question that has fuelled the philosophical debates for centuries. While this short piece is not aimed at tracing the history of the concept of ‘meaning of life’ from Aristotle to Alvin Plantinga, placing two figures side by side can help us understand what two different camps have to offer.
First is Albert Camus, an early 20th-century French existentialist, a Nobel laureate, who concluded that a question of meaning was absurd, and humans are to live with this absurdity rather than solve it. In this, he was critiquing, on one hand, earlier philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoevsky who had sought refuge in Christian faith to counter the hopelessness resulting from grief and a sense of meaninglessness, and, on the other, nihilists and those who would fantasise suicide as a means to end the meaninglessness. For Camus, one does not need to choose any of the two, rather live with the absurdity of human life. To drive his point home, he evokes Sisyphus, a Greek mythological figure who was cursed by the gods to roll a stone up the hill with a narrow peak, so that when Sisyphus tries to settle the rock on top, it rolls down the other side of the hill. Sisyphus is endlessly caught up in this torturous cycle of rolling it up and see it roll down. Considering the tragedies, grief and diseases, to Camus, our life seemed similar to that of Sisyphus—cursed to endless drudgery. Sisyphus, however, did have moments of joy—when he walks down the hill burden-free to pick up the stone once again, said Camus. It is in this moment of joy that we, like Sisyphus, can find life meaningful.
John Ottway of The Grey seems to be Camusian in this sense. Battered by the grief of losing his wife and nothing to live for, Ottway attempts suicide by placing a barrel gun in his mouth in the beginning of the movie. Around midway, the survivors of the plane-crash share a brisk conversation about religion. Ottway confesses that he doesn’t have problems with religion or God, but wishes he had more faith. As more grief and loss come his way, he is left alone again. This is where, in a Job-like situation, he yells at God to ‘show up’. One evidence, and he would become a believer. In the face of a disturbing silence, he quickly admits that he would rather do it himself. In a very Camusian fashion, he now neither chooses suicide nor faith, but accepts the absurdity of life and chooses a purpose that would be apt at the given moment for him—to fight the alpha.
It may be interesting to invoke another existentialist writer whom Camus criticised for coming to a different conclusion. It is Fyodor Dostoevsky, a 19th-century Russian philosopher-novelist.
Camus and Dostoevsky are on the same page here at least on one insight, which is that the meaning of life cannot be found by the act of ‘rationalising’ the search. Whether life has a meaning is not a logical query that needs to be resolved by cold and disembodied rationalism of the Enlightenment, but an existential question whose answer is to be unearthed in the very act of living. In chapter 3 of Dostoevsky’s magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, an atheist rationalist, struggles to understand his love for nature, for people, ‘regardless of logic’, and that is when Alyosha, his pious brother, tells him, “I think everyone should love life above everything else in the world.” At this Ivan asks, “Love life more than the meaning of it?” Alyosha replies, “Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.” For Alyosha, then, life has to be valued, lived and loved, despite its apparent absurdity.
What sets Camus and Dostoevsky apart, however, is that while Camus is happy to live with the conclusion of absurdity of life, Dostoevsky goes a step further, and looks to God as a refuge in the face of meaninglessness of life. For Dostoevsky, the reality of pain and drudgery brings God closer rather than eclipse Him. In his own words, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God.” For Camus, Dostoevsky’s effort mitigates the fact of absurdity, because invoking God means revoking absurdity. For Dostoevsky denying God raises more problems than it solves. In the absence of a meaning-giver, humans would assume the position of God by becoming their own meaning-givers. To Dostoevsky, since “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”, this would ensue moral chaos and would break all hell loose. After all, if there is no God, and therefore no giver of morality, why should one act heroically to save others, like Ottway, at the risk of their own lives, all the more when the easy choice is to prosper at the risk of others?
The question of meaning of life has become hauntingly relevant to us this year. Cornered by the pandemic, with excessive constrains on our social life under lockdown, or perhaps even facing the loss of our loved ones, we are forced to ponder on the question: is there a meaning to life? Our own experience of the pandemic has made us see, like Camus and Dostoevsky would say, that finding meaning in life is not a mere rational or logical exercise. And yet, both Camus and Dostoevsky offer very different visions of a meaningful life.
In addition to what Dostoevsky says, for a Christian, the question of the meaning of life is also contingent upon her conception of God as one who ascribes value to the universe and to human life. Both human life and universe have meaning precisely because they are made by a personal God. In this sense, theirs is a ‘borrowed meaning’. The very question of finding meaning during pain and suffering becomes irrelevant and insignificant not just without the existence of a God, but without a personal God, who can relate to us, just as we relate with Ottway of The Grey. Thinking of God as a being who dispenses our struggles as illusory or as His sport, however exuberant, pushes the question of the meaning of life one step further away, but hardly resolves it. As we welcome the new year, ironically, we will once again get busy planning for the coming year, while perhaps also convincing ourselves that life has no meaning. It may not be a matter of chance that we celebrate Christmas just a week before New Year, thereby reminding ourselves that life has been given its meaning by a personal God who has chosen not to distance himself from our grief, but by being born as a fellow human, confronted the absurdity of life with the promise of abundant life.