I guess I’m an optimist.
When I look at the world and see the wonders around us, it simply takes my breath away. We live in a world of beauty, one of value and meaning. I have to believe our lives mean something. I feel little affinity with those who tell us we are just a random collection of atoms bumping into one another; that beauty and truth are things we made up in our heads, that creation is made only to be exploited.
We live in a world of value. Things matter. People matter, matter infinitely.
You Are Important
You’re really something. I mean that. Every single person has a story, has hopes, dreams and desires: and in our heart of hearts we believe our lives are significant. We feel it in our bones, and even when we suspect life is really futile something inside us rises up and says that it’s got to count for something.
When I look at old home movies or photographs of friends and events past, I feel a sense of history, of significance, of my passage through life. Even though I’m just one of billions that draw breath on this planet, I feel this personal history pressing down on me, telling me my life means something: and so then does every other person’s life. I sense the meaning of others as they move through time; everyone has a story to tell. We are all precious and valuable. Our lives and memories are somehow important.
Is this feeling, this intuitive understanding really just a chemical process going on in our heads, or does it speak of some other reality? What is it that actually makes us significant? For generations we’ve been told we are the result of random processes, that we are accidents of nature. They tell us we really amount to nothing; and against all our natural inclinations we have swallowed the lie.
Along that line of thought lie significant implications in our daily lives. If there is no such thing as real value (for therein lies any hope of defining right and wrong), then there is no sense blaming someone who acts wilfully against a fellow human. The torturer and the saint are equal in their nonvalue if both are the result of irrational processes, both merely the effects of blind cause. In fact, if we really believe in nothing but cause and effect, we have no choice in anything, because we are all merely and exclusively the results of chance. The murderer can pin everything on his poor upbringing, and is no more blameworthy than a rock crushing some unfortunate that happened to be walking by when it fell.
If there is no blame, then we are free to follow our impulses, because they carry no moral weight and are as senseless as any other random event. And herein lies a possible motive for supporting such a bleak theory: if there is no right or wrong, then there’s nothing wrong in indulging in hate, rage, lust, or greed – or love. It’s all the same, and we can reject the judgements of others because we have deemed ourselves free of any moral obligations. We can act entirely based on impulse without a care about the consequences beyond those immediately relevant to our own lives, because we answer to nobody besides ourselves. A child might, for instance, refrain from bullying someone smaller – not because it’s wrong, but because the intended victim has a big brother.
I’m not dismissing causes and how they may affect us. Certainly a child raised in a violent, unloving home will be more prone to antisocial behaviour than one raised with love; but he can choose to follow the impulse to anger, or to refuse it. He may have a tougher row to hoe, but once he admits moral responsibility he admits he has choices. In the final analysis, if we believe in free will, we must believe in moral behaviour and personal responsibility.
So we sense our significance. You are important; we must remember that everyone else is too. In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, one of the characters arrives on The Other Side and is initially pleased to learn that he will be as famous in heaven as he was on earth. Then he learns to his dismay that everyone else there is famous as well… and the shine’s off the penny. He lived for the comparison, for having pride of place amongst his fellows.
Again, what gives us value? We will examine this a little later, but it will suffice now to qualify the term, and to keep it in mind as we continue. What I’m getting at is what would be called intrinsic value; that is, something whose value is not a matter of opinion, and whose significance would still be intact even if there was nobody around to appreciate it.
In the world of investment, real estate has intrinsic value because it possesses value that goes beyond mere opinion: you can live on it, and if it’s big enough, you can grow food on it. It is a physical object that you can see and feel. That’s why it’s called real estate. It is a real, physical thing. Publicly owned stocks, on the other hand, are largely based on what people think they’re worth. During the dot-com boom of the late 1990’s, many stocks had their values artificially inflated as public speculation ran wild, with no basis in reality, no “bricks and mortar” behind them. In the bust that followed, many found their stocks virtually worthless. Another example would be a rare baseball card. It’s value is tied up exclusively in the fact that everyone who collects wants it; but all it is is a piece of card stock with a bit of ink on it. Its practical value is almost zero. You could perhaps kindle a fire with it, or use it to spread some butter on a piece of toast, but that’s about it.
This is really an apt metaphor for the two worldviews. The bill of goods that we’ve been sold for the last hundred years or so is that we are just the result of random causes. If that’s so, it follows our value as humans is just a matter of opinion, and that there is no real, self-contained value. Like the baseball card, our importance depends on purely others’ opinion of us, and of what use we are to them. But there will be no talking about being valuable just because you’re human.
One may disagree with this… but really, think about it. If we are only the result of random causes, the best we can do is say our sense of value is an evolved instinct, and that says nothing about actual value, but merely convenience. We’re told we “evolved” this instinct because it had promoted the survival of the species, and well it might; but is says nothing about our real worth or (for that matter) any moral truth. Why then the outrage at bigotry, at genocide, betrayal and child abuse?
Simple: because they are wrong. Fundamentally, intrinsically wrong, and these things would be wrong even if the world never existed.
If we believe in the intrinsic value of people, then we are more like real estate: our value isn’t just a matter of opinion. We have real significance that goes beyond anyone’s estimation of our worth. We are valuable. Every one of us.
And that is a great antidote for despair. Take heart: you are important. You are valuable. You matter. Instead of being captive to all that negativity, you can be hope’s prisoner.