“Futility, futility,” says the speaker, “all is futility.” Thus begins the biblical work, Ecclesiastes. As an essay on the meaning of life, it is pessimistic about our knowing the answer, dismissing such things as power and wealth. A similar, more contemporary view is the French philosopher Albert Camus’ notion of the absurd; namely, that there is no inherent meaning in an indifferent universe.
We are meaning seeking creatures. Birds, dogs and cats do not conduct seminars or offer Ted talks on this question, do not ask nor fret over it. They live, they die. But we cannot escape seeking answers to it. In normal times, though, we are usually so caught up in life’s flurry we don’t ponder over it either, but when a major disruption comes suddenly upon us, like this plague with its suffering and death, we are confronted with it.
What does life mean? Not a question I thought about as a kid in Detroit, busy with school work and playing sports with my neighborhood chums. But later as a young man, I learned that this question is at the heart of religion and philosophy. What this plague has taught me, though, is that rather than abstract doctrine or theory, life’s meaning is woven into our everyday lives and their activities, and that the plague has brought these vital sources of meaning to our attention because it has taken them from us, leaving us empty, frustrated, angry, even despairing.
Work: We often think of work as a source of income, a way of making ends meet. Yet work is more; it is a daily responsibility. From the grocery checkout person to the teacher, our work lets us know that we contribute to our communities, our society. And while the plague has eliminated so many jobs, putting people in danger of losing the place where they live and the means to provide food for themselves and their families, it has also destroyed a vital source of life’s meaning. I have friends who teach at Bakersfield College who deeply miss the in-person interaction with students. And while they still teach, Zoom doesn’t make up for this loss and it isn’t as meaningful. They have also lost the special face-to-face connections with colleagues. The plague has taken from so many this central source of life’s meaning.
Gatherings: One of the most frustrating things about the plague is our not being with friends, not only at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, but getting together to share common interests, such as book clubs, concerts, plays and worship services. For the past few years, I have met early every Sunday morning at Dagny’s for coffee and conversation with friends about the weekly Episcopal scripture readings and life’s sadness and joy. When we could no longer do this, it was as though a hole had opened in our lives, replacing this source of meaning with emptiness. We so deeply miss gatherings like these, and, of course, we miss the laughs and chats with people at dinners and parties. Unfortunately, the plague has replaced them with solitude and loneliness.
Family: My family lives in Boston. Usually, I visit them three or four times a year. This year, because of the plague, Christmas was canceled, and I don’t know when I will see them again. Even family members who live close to parents and grandparents have not been able to be with them for fear of giving them the dreaded, dangerous COVID-19. Another crucial source of our life’s meaning gone, one that Zoom cannot replace.
Living is meaning, meaning is living. That is all we know and need to know. This plague has taught us that life’s meaning is more than theological or philosophical beliefs, that it is the fabric of our daily lives, our everyday activities, that keep us from saying, “Futility, futility; all is futility.”
Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.