Thursday, January 11, 2007


It matters what I do in this world - But I have trouble seeing why.

My three year old son is standing behind me, singing a ditty to himself. It goes like this:

I’m going out in the snow,

I’m going out in the snow,

I’m going out in the snow,

It’s sledding time

He’s putting on his snow boots while he sings. He doesn’t stop to ask, “But why does it matter that I’m going out in the snow?”

Some of you may think it doesn’t. After all, what real change will come about because of my son’s small footprints in two inches of Michigan snow, or the sled-marks etched into the snow-dusted hill, as he inches his way down it? Perhaps as soon as this afternoon, his marks will have melted away.

The Israelite King Solomon, known for his profound wisdom, put it this way:

Generations come and generations go
but the earth remains forever...
There is no remembrance of men of old
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered by those who follow

The earth will not remember me; even my progeny will forget me when I have gone. When I dwell on this, I begin to wonder why it matters if I wash the dishes today, or just sit here and let them pile up. Other than making my life stressful when it comes time for dinner, does it really matter?

I wrote the following, over a year ago:

I'm forever trying to get at the thing behind everything we do: I get up in the morning so I can fix and eat breakfast, so that I have enough energy to clean up after it; and I wash up after breakfast so I have clean dishes for lunch, which I prepare and eat so that I have energy to clean up again. I launder my family's clothes so we have clean ones to dirty again. I go to sleep so I can get up again. I'm spending my life—all of it—raising my children, so that they can grow into adults who spend their lives raising their children, who in turn, will spend their lives raising children of their own.

Arguably, I was in a pretty bad place. I don’t think everyone winds up in this type of existential quandary. It has never occurred to my mother that someone might ask the question which I find on my tongue many mornings, as I roll out of bed: “Why does it matter what I do, anyway?” I am small. I am one person. And sometimes, even when I intend good, evil results; people get hurt.

Those of us who ask this question probably have in common the experience of faded dreams, broken hearts and repeated failure, with a history of disproportionate romanticism (though we will gloomily deny it). A box in my garage holds the evidence: impassioned, yellowed pages covered hastily in ink; the landscape of a heart bursting with energy and naiveté. In those days, I believed in positive change and imagined it could be set into motion, like dominoes, just by doing the right thing. These letters sit in my garage, year after year, and yellow further.

I did not lose faith, overnight; it was a long process. I could tell you battle stories. And you could tell me yours. But somewhere along the way, we chose to believe in a world that mocks our thirst for meaning and offers no justification for perseverance in doing good. And so, we throw up our hands and say, “I can’t see why it matters what I do”.

This is an existential conundrum, and here is why. To be human is to act. If I question the meaning of human action, I am questioning the meaning of existence; yet, it is I—an existing, acting being—who question. The questioning itself is action and by engaging in it, I am assuming it matters whether or not I ask the question. To be consistent I should go further and ask, “Why does it matter if I ask why it matters what I do?” And, “Why does it matter if I ask why it matters if I ask why it matters what I do?” As you can see, this quickly dissolves into absurdity.

With this in mind, the answer to the question, “why does it matter what I do?” may be simply, “Because I am human and I exist”. As an entity, I act upon other entities. As a human entity, I act within the context of human values. At this point, we can talk about human morality; where it is derived from, if it transcends time and culture, and what a moral conscience is, and we will likely have varying opinions.

But let’s keep it simple for a moment. Why does it matter that my son is prancing around the yard in his snow clothes? Listen: It matters because it is beautiful. It matters because it is pure action born of will, without pretension; and it is exactly what he was made to do. As adults, we are more complex versions of our child selves. Our reasoning powers should be stronger and our moral compasses more precise. Part of honing these skills is asking the existential questions and, as we explored in the previous post, this can lead to a fuller understanding of ourselves and the nature of life on earth. But we can come up short or with the wrong conclusion if we begin with wrong expectations or assumptions. One of these assumptions is that a gesture must be grand and its results measurable, for it to matter.

In the film, “Blood Diamond”, an African priest who has devoted his life to saving child-soldiers from the violence of war, has a pivotal conversation with the film’s main character, diamond smuggler Danny Archer, who is having an existential crisis of his own. It plays out something like this (my paraphrase):

Priest: I used to think that people were basically good, but some of them did bad things. Now it isn’t that clear. What about you, Danny, do you think people are basically good or bad?

Danny: I think they are just people. It’s what they do that makes them good or bad.

Priest: I agree. A moment of love, even in a bad man, gives his life meaning.

Predictably, the movie’s end finds the self-interested Danny embracing such a “moment of love”, at great cost to himself. It is a good story. It’s beautiful, redemptive. I cried.

I believe strongly in what the priest said. But it struck me, as I glowered around my house lamenting my inability to do something that really matters—like moving to Africa and helping the Poor—that I am still nursing an unrealistic, overly-dramatic idea of what it means to do something that matters. What if speaking gently to my child when I am angry gives my life as much meaning as would throwing myself in front of traffic for him? Late-hour redemption stories are a very small portion of the whole. They make for great movies. But most noble hearts are built one moment at a time, stretched out across the years.

We have just begun a new year, which sets us thinking about what we do and why it matters. Some of us have made resolutions; some of us are too jaded to make them. I have made a few, and I do hope this next year will see me become a more gracious human being. That probably won't happen dramatically or all at once. But it will happen if I keep choosing "moments of love" and, as difficult as it is, persevere in doing good—because I can and because it is what I was made to do.

Tomorrow won’t serve up the same soup du jour that sits in front of me today. So for now, I'm going to clasp a cold, tiny hand and head out to lay some boot tracks in the snow.

6 comments:

Peter Downton said...

Rachael, it seems that we need to have restored to us a vision of the ordinary, of the meaning of the everyday. Perhaps it is our media-saturated culture, which compresses time to pack the drama into 90 minutes? The beguiling glow of the computer screen that draws me in to its brighter, more colourful, more exciting 'virtual' world? The travel and holiday section of the Sunday supplements (which I've just finished leafing through!) that beckons us to experience a different world far from the mundane realities of our own?
It's so easy, and so tempting, to think that because our lives and gestures are not heroic, they count for nothing. When I was a young romantic I always said I'd never work 9-5, and I pitied those who were tied down in the commitments of marriage and family, and suburban life - but I've come to see that what appears to be the 'safest' route through life can also be the path that takes the most courage to tread. This was certainly the case for me anyway. It took risk and faith for me to be married and it has taken courage I never knew, and strength, perseverence, to raise my family. Again, I've just made an heroic effort at my son's birthday party - to make a day for him and his little friends to remember - but more important will be breakfast on Monday morning, and being both tender and firm, patient and kind with him and his brother as they fight the inevitabe beginning of the school week.
To return to my opening reflection, we have lost, almost entirey in some quarters it seems to me, the redemptive and character-forming value of these 'moments of love', and with it our vision of why what I do, in my small way, in this backwater, matters. That leaves us not only the poorer, but also the more vulnerable - because I find that when I start thinking this way, I excuse myself the more readily . . .

Rachael King said...

Peter: Good thoughts. In an article appearing in "First Things" in August of 2005, Frederica Mathewes-Green talks about this romanticism which prevents us from being content with an "ordinary life". She says:

"Picture for a moment that Christmastime favorite, "It’s a Wonderful Life." ... George Bailey has dreams of being an explorer and traveling the world, but he keeps nobly setting these aside in order to care for his family. Nobody would make this movie today. In today’s version, George Bailey has a big screaming fight with his father, storms out of the house, hops on a steamer, circles the world, has dangerous and exciting adventures, and returns home to a big celebration. His dad tells him with tears in his eyes, "You were right all along, son."

Mathewes-Green blames this on the Baby Boomers, who picked up on the gloom and doom of their depression-era parents and made up for it by coddling their own children and refusing to grow up. I am suspicious of arguments that pine away for the "good old days" and blame modern culture entirely for an undesirable human condition, probably because I tend to it, myself. There are likely many contributing factors, including the things you mentioned and other social/cultural events, mixed up with the age-old human yearning for grandiose acts and events. I'm coming to think this yearning is at least in part a sign of immaturity. One of the great lessons we can learn with age is faithfulness in the menial things; contentment in steadfastness; joy in the small acts.

de Silentio said...

Why does it matter what I do in life? Because of Cause and Effect. As with physics, ever cause in life has a subsequent effect (or effects), and thus every effect in life must have a preceding cause (or causes).

So, you may ask yourself how this applies to life, the quality of life, or finding meaning in life. If I define a person’s life as the sum total of the events, feelings, and thoughts that occurred to their life, I believe I can say that their life is the sum total of the causes and effects that occurred in their life, since each event, feeling and thought has a cause (or causes) that produced the event, feeling, or thought (the event, feeling or thought becomes the effect of the cause, and then the cause of other effects).

Now we have units of measure by which we can determine quality or meaning: the causes and effects that occurred in one’s life. We can take these causes and effects in our life and measure them against what we define as meaningful, good, productive and so forth (personally I think we should use abstract philosophical systems such as the categorical imperative, principle of utility, or any theological determination of what is good). Once you find the quality or meaning, you can determine if the quality or meaning mattered in your or another person’s life.

So, to answer a few of the questions posed in your post. To the person who states: “I know it matters what I do in life, but I have trouble seeing why” you can ask him to examine the effects of his actions and see if they have meaning according to what he defines as meaningful. He (or she of course) may have trouble seeing why because they do not have any mode of comparison (either missing what to use as an evaluation, or missing what to evaluate). This is when we need to become existential and really look into ourselves and examine our lives accordingly. Once meaning is evaluated, one will have an easier time seeing why it matters what they did/do.

To answer why it matters that your son is going out in the snow. It matters because the effects of going out in the snow can add meaning to his life (or even your life).

I have some other thoughts, but this is a good starting point.
By the way, I enjoy reading your posts. You are an excellent writer and eloquently express your thoughts.

Rachael King said...

D.S.: Thank you for your comment and kind words. I’m glad you’re enjoying the read.

I agree with much of what you say, but I think cause and effect, while a powerful motivator, is an insufficient explanation of why what I do matters. Cause and effect is an impersonal system, and as such, cannot be applied to meaning, which persons alone of all living things, seek.

I also can’t make the leap from the events, feelings, thoughts of a person’s life to the conclusion that her life is the sum total of the causes and effects in her life. This precludes the possibility of free will. To some degree you can say I decide to wash my dinner plate because I think, “I really should wash that” and the thought, in turn, was prompted by my seeing the dirty plate and remembering how much I hate waking up in the morning to food-crusted dishes in the sink. And you could say that, in the same situation the next evening, my decision not to wash the plate is made because “but I’m really tired and want to watch TV” follows the thought, “I really should wash that”. But to say that this chain of thoughts, feelings and events causes my final act is, I think, a stretch. It prompts me, it carries me to a jumping off point, but the real cause of my act is my will. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, my thumb does not have any option but to swell up, bruise, ache. I, however, can opt to endure the pain in silence or to cast off a long string of expletives.

The two moral systems you mention (Kant’s Categorical Imperative and the Consequentialist “Principle of Utility”) contradict one another and while a man who holds to one or the other philosophy may use it as a decision-making guide or to help him feel good about his life and actions in retrospect, these also cannot make his actions “matter” outside of his preferred system. As I understand it—and I am admittedly largely ignorant of philosophy—Kant said it matters what we do because we say it matters (moral autonomy) and Utilitarianism says the effect of an action makes that action matter. Of course, I am greatly simplifying, here. But mightn’t there be situations where the right thing has disastrous consequences, e.g., giving one’s life to save another? And because human autonomy is self-referential, doesn’t it sometimes need something outside itself to measure its rightness by? I’d like to see a more holistic argument which links the phenomenal and noumenal world, showing how they interact; how they shape, give meaning to, provide clues to each other, rather than declaring the noumenal realm unknowable or the phenomenal realm complete. (Does anyone know of a system of thought which attempts this?)

“To the person who states: ‘I know it matters what I do in life, but I have trouble seeing why’ you can ask him to examine the effects of his actions and see if they have meaning according to what he defines as meaningful. He (or she of course) may have trouble seeing why because they do not have any mode of comparison (either missing what to use as an evaluation, or missing what to evaluate). This is when we need to become existential and really look into ourselves and examine our lives accordingly. Once meaning is evaluated, one will have an easier time seeing why it matters what they did/do.”

I find this very helpful as a practical evaluation process.

To answer why it matters that your son is going out in the snow. It matters because the effects of going out in the snow can add meaning to his life (or even your life).

I think the act of going out in the snow gives meaning to his life; the effects inform his person, cause him to grow, expand, become more; so that in his next act he will be better, more whole; a more finely-tuned moral instrument.

de Silentio said...

Cause and effect by itself is impersonal, and I agree that it isn’t sufficient to determine why it matters what I do. However, when you look at your life and the causes and effects that occurred in it, cause and effect is no longer impersonal (since you apply it to your personal life). I think it’s only impersonal when you look at cause and effect abstractly, once you take the abstract and make it subjective (by applying it to your life) you remove the impersonal by implanting actual occurrences (the personal), since you cannot have both impersonal and personal. It’s sort of like taking an abstract idea and making it practical, it is no longer abstract once has been applied to the corporeal realm. An example would be replacing cause and effect with catching your spouse cheating and getting divorced. This event matters in that it changes each person’s life.

Pertaining to the second paragraph in your response: I would argue that something caused your will to act in a certain way. It may be that your will is the absolute final cause, but that does not mean there were not any other cause involved in making you wash your dishes. I suppose we could argue over what a “cause” is, but it seems futile. Although, I do agree with you, the will is the final cause in our actions.

I think that cause and effect does limit free will, but free will is always limited. Your hammer example fits perfect. It may be your will to endure the pain, but without the pain there is no way for you to will against submitting to it and crying out. I can only will what I know, for if I don’t know something how would I know to will it?

The two moral systems I included do contradict each other, that’s why we need to choose a moral system to live by and stick with it. And we should make this choice rationally. If we do not choose and sometimes call things good according to this system, and other times call things good according to that system, all we are doing is subjectively changing what is good to fit our needs. Personally I have chosen to follow the categorical imperative as closely as I can, and if I stray from it, I recognize my actions as not being good or right.

Now, I do have to correct myself, after reading your post I realized the mistake I made. I do agree with you that philosophical moral systems cannot be the sole determinate of meaning in someone’s life. My child provides a lot of meaning in my life, and he has nothing to do with philosophical systems. However, I do think that choosing one philosophical system and faithfully abiding by it can make you feel that your actions are the right actions, no matter the consequences, and this can bring meaning into your life. I suppose since I had units of measure (cause and effect) I needed something to measure by, but again, it is not solely the measurement that gives you meaning, it is how you feel about your actions. I equated good with meaningful, whereas meaningful is more than what is abstractly good.

You claim to be ignorant in philosophy, but you use noumenal and phenomenal in a very practical way. I wish I could respond to your comments on the realms of reality, but I do not have the necessary knowledge. (give me a few months!) You don’t need my patronage, but there is a big difference between knowing philosophy and thinking philosophically, and from what I have read, you have the more important ability… thinking philosophically.

Rachael King said...

De Silentio: Thanks for the reply.

Yes, specific causes and effects matter in individual lives, in a very personal way. And you are right in pointing out that human will is "limited" by cause and effect. Today, where I live, we got about 8 inches of snow. Before I went to pick up my kids from school, I brushed the snow off my windshield. The snow defined, limited, prompted my act. I don't have a problem saying that our lives consist solely of causes and effects, if you include will as a cause and if we can agree that a cause does not stipulate a particular effect. I wiped the snow from my windshield, but the snow didn't demand it. I made a decision, based on my common sense and desire to remain alive—but I didn't have to. Nothing forced my hand. I willed it, and I acted. My will is the final cause.

I have been in more than one situation where I thought my will was bound, but I see in retrospect that, even though I was unhappy about the decisions I made, I made them because I found some reasons more compelling than others; one good higher than another. I gave my options a moral assignment and chose the one I could live with. Owning up to my choice(when I could have chosen otherwise) helps me see what's important to me, and that, in turn, hopefully guides my future behavior.

Taking Peter’s comment about the character-forming nature of small acts and your suggestion that we measure our acts by a coherent moral system, perhaps we can formulate another answer to the question, "why does it matter what I do?". It matters because our actions become our own interpretive dance set to the music of our beliefs about the world, God and human life; and dancing it shapes us, the way physical dance shapes the body.

The position that nothing we do matters is essentially nihilistic. It implies that no act is better than another and there is no objective basis for good or evil. Here, your distinction between "meaningful" and "good" is helpful. I may be mistaken in my belief—and that is a different conversation altogether—but if I claim to believe anything at all, I assume my belief corresponds to reality. So, it always matters what I do, in that it affects my personal ability to feel my life as meaningful.