Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Such are the fundamental questions that keep me awake at night from time to time. However, to claim that I would be the first of my kind to raise such questions could not be any more arrogant and myopic. Many great philosophers, like Descartes, Hume, and Nietzsche, have offered profound ontological insights surrounding the meaning, purpose, or value of our lives.
In fact, everyone, without having to be a world renowned philosopher, would have had at least one moment in their lives where they contemplated about the nature of their own existence and death. Surprisingly, what triggered my morbid introspection as a coping mechanism against my heightened sense of mortality was something so trivial as the mundaneness and monotony of everyday university life. I was living day to day, drowning in assignments from classes, individual research, and writing and editing for the Herald. Amidst the chaos of the semester, I felt helpless and dumbfounded when I haphazardly posed the question to myself: “Exactly what am I working so hard towards?”
The easiest, though not most satisfying, response is to not think about it. We can always occupy ourselves with tasks or ideas to keep our minds distracted from the anticipation of death. According to anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, humans constantly engage in rituals, which “[allay] anxiety by simulating human control over that which ultimately cannot be controlled.” These rituals do not refer exclusively to ancient ceremonies that invoke fertility, rain, a successful harvest, etc. Even modern scientific endeavors, under the façade of complexity and rationality, are not completely independent from our primal instincts. Our individual and collective efforts to produce new knowledge and increase our understanding of the universe may be, in the grand scheme of things, nothing but illusions that comfort us into believing that we are in control.
If I were to confront the problem, I would say that Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that “existence precedes essence” resonates with me the most. The implications of Sartre’s existentialism entail that we do not possess any innate identity or value; our consciousness and actions create our own values and meanings. Pessimistically speaking, as one of my favorite characters from Rick and Morty has said, “nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die.” Such a notion that we are not special snowflakes renders the thought of ceasing to exist and eventually being forgotten terrifying.
So will we ever be able to answer, with concrete proof, the ontological questions pertaining to our existence? At least in the foreseeable future, I don’t think so. But it is this uncertainty about our life that makes it truly beautiful. Optimistically put, the least we can do is strive to achieve immortality through our deeds; even after our deaths, we may live on through other people’s memories and in the annals of history. We will all die someday, and I have no idea what lies beyond. However, through writing, I hope to impart my thoughts, feelings, and ideas — parts of myself that make me human. Through writing, I intend to immortalize parts of myself that I can.
Young Jip Kim