What Matters

I wonder sometimes about why drinking is such a popular human pastime. We live in Wisconsin, a state known for it’s college drinking sprees. I’m not a big drinker. In fact, an 80 lb woman can probably drink me under the table. I have a glass of wine every evening with dinner, occasionally I’ll have a cocktail or a shot of brandy, but that’s about it. I don’t go to bars. And after getting drunk twice in my life — and hating the feeling — I pretty much don’t allow myself to do that any more.

I have often wondered why so many people the world over seem to need to forget about their day-to-day existence — and do so often by getting drunk. The rational part of me — and there is my downfall — says that surely all those people cannot be unhappy with their lives. But maybe they are? Maybe the only way to get through life is to be able to escape from it?

“I think that people come to the conclusion that life is meaningless because that’s a better conclusion to come to than the reverse. Because if life is meaningless, well then, who cares what you do. But if life is meaningful, if what you do really matters, everything you do matters. And that puts a terrible responsibility on people. And I think that people are generally unwilling to bear that.”

— Jordan Peterson on The Necessity of Virtue

The other day whilst reading a source I have never come across before I read a terrifying comment. It was an anonymous comment, but still, it was displayed in a very public place. The person said in pretty plain language that the reason they loved the drinking culture is that it made it easier to take advantage of women — both for himself, and for the poor woman being taken advantage of.

That attitude turned my stomach. And it frightened me in a way I have rarely felt. Have we gotten to that state where our worst urges are acceptable enough to be spoken of so plainly?

The advent 40 or more years ago of what was then called “situational ethics” lead the way to the decline of church population in the U.S.. The idea that ethics, morality, values were determined not by any set of “absolutes” (though who decided what the absolute might be has always been up for grabs) but by the immediate circumstances. Once it was wrong to lie; suddenly it became acceptable to lie if doing so saved your personal bacon, or the bacon of someone you liked/loved/trusted. Obeying rules was fine for other people but if you had a good reason to break them then it was OK for you to do so; just try not to get caught. No longer was being “good” the goal. Now the goal became getting away with it.

I don’t think that this Jordan Peterson quote is definitive but I do think it’s worth thinking about. For those who have no true religious faith, or no set of actual moral values, then life is pretty much meaningless. There are those whose religion is sincere and whose value system are strong. For them they can look beyond the events of the day to see some overriding reasons for behavior and for the course of action they pursue. But lacking some overriding value system it’s possible behaving in a meaningless way is their only solution to life!

I’m not thinking about how to judge people. But I do wonder why people do some of the things they do. No one needs justify themselves to me. Yet how I live my life is in part determined by how others behave around and towards me — and towards the globe on which we live — and towards the society in which I live.

In this morning’s news feed was a feature about the Department of Justice issuing it’s first ever alert for domestically sourced terrorism threats. Surely, whether or not you see some meaning in the way this world works has a lot to do with whether or not you would participate in violence against your own neighbors and families. Yet, here we are.

Back 20 or 30 years ago when when we started seeing more global terrorism I was reminded of the Old Testament verses that talk about the weak thinking they are strong and it helped me put terror into perspective. If you are helpless, and you know you are helpless, you acknowledge it — there comes a time when the only thing left for you to do if you have any hope of changing your situation it is through violence. In fact, there can come a time when you are so desperate that you are willing to figuratively cut off your own nose to spite your face — where you are willing to do harm to yourself in order to make your point.

Desperation is terrible. Hopelessness is paralyzing. And even the most frightened animal will lash out when pushed to their extreme.

The thing is, life needn’t be meaningless!

That is one of the heartening things about the new administration. For all the attempts to make candidate Joe Biden look old and decrepit the President Joe Biden has acted with resolve, determination, and foresight. He is obviously a man who has ideals and he’s not afraid to act upon them. For those who are willing to listen and perhaps even to follow his lead the next four years can be a time of enlightenment and inspiration. Not since JFK have we had a leader who has spoken as eloquently. Not to take away from Jimmy Carter, but he was calm and in spite of his personal passions his public persona didn’t match what we are seeing from Biden thus far. It’s encouraging to look at the nation and think that perhaps, just perhaps, we can remember what our better angels looked and sounded like long, long ago.

That does nothing to change the drinking culture. That does nothing to change the millions of people who live to lose themselves in unconsciousness. But maybe some will wake up some morning with a horrible hangover and say, enough is enough; life is worth more than this; I’m turning over a new leaf.