ABOUT THE BOOK
Finding Meaning and Beauty
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wei-Ching Chang is an author, researcher, and philosopher. He studied philosophy at the National Taiwan University (BA) and the University of Minnesota (MA). He later attained an MA and PhD in mathematics and statistics, at the University of Oregon and the University of Toronto, respectively. He has led a diverse and rich professional life, working in the government of Alberta’s tourism and health departments, and in hospitals as a researcher and quality assurance professional. He also immersed himself in the world of academics, teaching biostatistics and heart disease research at the University of Alberta and authoring papers on statistical modelling to assess factors influencing health outcomes. His learning continued when he retired, as he studied acupuncture, philosophy, politics, gender studies, literature, and art history. He has also explored creative pursuits, such as poetry, drawing, and painting. Driven by a longing to inspire change and create a better, more sustainable world, he composed a paper on the paradigm shift from competition to cooperation. He currently resides in Edmonton, where he enjoys outdoor activities and visiting with his children and grandchildren.
Chapter I of Finding Meaning and Beauty in an Idiotic World:
The Meaning of Life
“I realize that mortals are only tiny drops lost in an ocean of time.” (Helen Keller, 1936; as quoted in Belck 1967, p. 55)
There is no question that our lives are just minute specks in the vast universe of space and time if viewed from the “point of view of the universe,” to use the English philosopher Henry Sidgwick’s phrase. That much is certain, and also humbling. Do our lives of less than 100 years (for most of us) matter much when considering the billions of years since the existence of our universe, with trillions of stars in our universe? We all like to think, or wish, our lives have some meaning—not only to ourselves, but also to others. The worst thing that could happen to any of us is the feeling of total insignificance and worthlessness, that our lives do not count and that they mean nothing. I’d like to start, therefore, by addressing this crucial issue, to affirm and justify life’s meaning.
Many prominent thinkers have denied that life has any meaning. Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, didn’t see any meaning to be had in this or any other life, and he viewed Christianity, which claimed true meaning to be found only in a supernatural world, as a big mistake. Sigmund Freud also thought meaning to be an illusion, a product of the vicissitudes of early childhood. Both thought that only a small group of “strong” or “mature” elites could transcend such nihilism or illusion, while others couldn’t live peacefully and productively in a state of life’s meaningfulness. Albert Camus, of course, is famous for expressing a nihilistic view, denying the possibility of meaning due to the lack of after life and of a rational, divinely ordered universe. Viktor Frankl (1963), in his fascinating book Man’s Search for Meaning, advises us:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is
questioned by life and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. ( p. 172)
All we can and should do, according to Frankl, is to live responsibly. True—we have to live in the present as best as we can. The question of meaning, I maintain, emerges only when we reflect, interpret, and pass judgement on our lives. Hence, it’s a second-order reflection after we have lived, responsibly or not. We can’t change the past, but we can assess and learn from it. We could ask: are we condemned to performing an endless and senseless work all our lives, as depicted in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus? If we find our lives in the past have been somewhat meaningless, can we do something to make them more meaningful in the future?
I firmly believe that it’s not pointless to ask the question of life’s meaning. Jean-Paul Sartre (2007/1945) famously states, however, that “life has no meaning a priori. Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning that we give it.” (p. 51) It’s true that we can and should do our best to make it more meaningful, but I don’t think his existential view that life has no meaning a priori is correct. In response to Dawkins’ and other neo-Darwinists’ view of nature as having “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” the British philosopher Mary Midgley (2012) states:
It is an objective fact that all living things behave purposively: that is, they all strive and struggle to live in the way that their particular nature
requires. They do not, of course, need to be conscious to do this. (p. 110)
Thus, there is no question that life behaves purposively. It is in our genes and DNA. The meaning of life is already embedded in the mysterious process of evolution of the world, from the inanimate to the animate; and in the case of living beings, to acquire “knowledge,” consciously or unconsciously, for survival and flourishing in whatever environments they happen to be in. For humans, in particular, life also developed through what Dawkins called “memes” (units of culture), and life is individually as well as culturally diverse and conflicting at times. The meaning of life also evolves over time in response to the changing natural and cultural environment. However, the overriding purpose of all creatures is “survival and flourishing,” to have “the good life.” The meaning of life, therefore, is in the natural (conscious or unconscious) drive to achieve the idealized good and healthy life. When we say our lives aren’t meaningful (enough), what we are saying is that we aren’t satisfied with our lives, which aren’t as good as they could be. It’s a reality check relative to the ideal of what the particular lives could be. Such an Aristotelian ideal has also been enunciated, for example, in Confucius’ image of an ideal gentleman who understands and does what’s right, unwavering in the face of hardships—in contrast to the “small” or “inferior” man who understands what’s profitable and sees what’s right, but does not do it. Taoism, which is more egalitarian, propounds the spontaneous ways of being, working with the natural flow of energy—in harmony with nature and with our true selves. These ways of thinking help us elucidate the meaning of our lives.
A meaningful life, however, is not the same as a happy life, although they may overlap considerably. Many great artists and writers—such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernest Hemingway, John Keats, Akira Kurosawa, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath, for example—suffered severe depression in their lives and some of them even committed suicide, and yet few would question the meaningfulness of their lives. Happiness, though, cannot be pursued; it must ensue—as proffered by Frankl. The same advice may apply to meaningfulness, although it can be pursued to some extent by reflecting and renewing one’s self and environment, so as to actualize one’s dreams. In my case, I was not totally satisfied with my life after over thirty years of research in tourism, health care, hospital care, and clinical medicine. Although I’ve authored many papers in peer-reviewed academic journals and attained some degree of satisfaction and meaningfulness of life, a sense of emptiness surfaced in my consciousness when I approached retirement age: I haven’t accomplished my youthful dream of becoming a writer! And I have not explored the mystery of life to my satisfaction! I was truly blessed because I was able to consciously pursue my writer’s dreams after retirement in hopes that a more meaningful life would ensue. It’s never too late in life to try! Even if nothing is going to come out of it, at least I have the satisfaction that I have tried.
So I embarked on intellectual expeditions, studied acupuncture at MacEwan University, followed by auditing courses in literature, philosophy, cultural and political theories, art histories, and fine art, etc. at the University of Alberta. Retirement turned out to be a tremendous blessing, giving me all the freedom to consciously seek meaning in life, to cultivate self-discovery and self-renewal. For most of my adult life, I have been developing and utilizing the left side of my brain, and under-developing the right side. So it was time to seek a rebalancing in me, and in the world, the Tao or the Way of nature: to harmonize the left and the right, the reason/rationality and the emotion/intuition, the quantitative and the qualitative, the masculine and the feminine, and the yang and the yin. This transformation is the theme of my following poems:
Awakening / Aubade / 2012
It’s a long time coming and yet it has to come
I wonder what happens to my writer’s dream
I feel queasy and ponder what I’ve become
A mundane researcher with an altered scheme
I resolve to lift myself out of the ho-hum
I want to change course but see only darkness
There must be a ray of hope if I keep researching
Thirty-five years is a long time to suppress
My passion and yearning for creative writing
I make amend to prevent my dream’s regress
A Cuban conference on health equity
Finally brings light and illuminates my way
I jump on this golden opportunity
I write and present a paper far away
To enact my renaissance without delay
That’s the dawning of my awakening
There’s no turning back, I can no longer await
Fulfilling my destiny as a writer in waiting
I’ve exerted my will, and the rest is fate
To carry on my life’s most sacred mandate
I Have A Dream World / Haiku / 2015
I have a dream world
Where truth, beauty, goodness reign
And harmony rules
Since we are social creatures, we also crave for connecting with others in various ways for mutual support—to love and be loved. So I’ll turn to the topic of love, which I consider to be the most fundamental and essential ingredient of a meaningful life.
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