Given the complete lack of control that one has over one’s life, what then is the meaning of life? I could delude myself with notion of control: of the apparent freedoms that I exercise in my academic/professional pursuits, the discernment I fancy in my consumption, the passion with which I guard my recreation, the number of people whose life I control. But all of these are afforded to me by birth, a function of family, citizenship and local zeitgeist. The trajectory is defined by birth; individual effort merely determines which end of the range is reached. Even if one overlooks the “default by birth” theory, a fatal blow to the delusion is dealt when one attempts to change the system/framework.
Maybe then life’s meaning is not defined by individual control, but by living itself. Every single act that defines humanity has been done before, the attendant feelings felt, the thoughts thought. Joy, sorrow, anger, pain, fear, love, running, eating, thinking, working, dancing, etc. So the value of the experience must reside not in its novelty for humankind, but for each person. In fact it is in the commonality of the experiences that we feel connected. And sometimes it feels great just to be alive – steeped in the experience, liquid in the moment. However, most experiences fall prey to diminishing returns with repetition and there is need to broaden/deepen the experience base either through novelty or complexity. Moreover, innate in human race is the need/ability to assert individuality, and seek long-ranging pursuits which connect our past, present and future. Longer the pursuit, more limited the range of options at any point of time. Coupled with the highly centralized society that we live in, the past becomes an even greater determinant of present and future possibilities.
Given the longitudinal nature of pursuits, and the increasingly constrained choices along the continuum, is it acceptable for each person to maximize only one’s own experiences and pleasure? Maybe. The underlying tenet of all societies, its social contract, is the expectation that each individual gives up small personal liberties to maximize freedom/opportunity for everyone in the society. Hence within the periphery of minimal socially acceptable behavior, self-interest is justification enough for any action since in a functional (tending to equilibrium) society, my pursuits wouldn’t impinge on someone else’s pursuits, and to the extent they do, it would lead to competition, innovation, and “creative destruction”.
But this answer doesn’t satisfy. Implicit in the “self-interest” theory is the determination of equal benefit, that the gain of one is comparable in importance to the loss of another. We need only to look around to *know* that this is not true. The marginal gain of each added luxury is laughable against the minimal bar of a human-being able to exercise the faculties of her humanness. In a country like India, one is assaulted daily, hourly with people reduced to bestiality. Having once seen and understood this inequity, how can one overlook it? Is it okay to ignore hardship because it’s not mine? While instinctively inaction seems wrong, often good intentions have little meaning beyond personal gratification. Each act terminates in itself, maybe even causing harm. On my way back from work one day, a street kid was at my window peddling some cheap “made in china” toy. Loathe to turn him away or give him money, I gave him my pack of gum. Another kid was at window the same instant. I didn’t have any more gum to give him, and as we drove away, I turned around to see the second child trailing the first. My act was cruel in its randomness, and had the unintended effect of depriving the second child. Considered judiciousness too does not permeate the system, remaining instead like a little oasis amid a desert, necessitating either detachment or frustration in engagement outside.
What is the balance between self and surroundings? Should one optimize for the former or attempt to change the latter?