42 is More Important than That
September 30, 2019
42 is More Important than That
When I mention to people that my favorite number is 42, I am generally met with some sort of Hitchhiker reference, and that’s…fine. Tribes need their cultural touchstones, and I am a Hitchhiker fan, so it would be churlish of me to take offense at that recognition.
And yet, for me, 42 is much more important than a mere cultural touchstone.
The Absurdity of Human Conduct
One of the hallmarks of Douglas Adams’ work is commentary on the absurdity of human action.
To illustrate that point, I’ll merely point out that immediately before the destruction of Earth, Arthur Dent was lying in the mud in front of a bulldozer trying to protect his house from destruction. He was talked out of it by a friend who wanted to go for a pint, and who talked the demolition manager into lying in the mud instead.
What followed was the destruction of the planet, the escape of Dent and his friend by dint of an electronic thumb and with the cooperation of some cooks who liked to piss off their bosses.
And remember, the entire narrative thread resulting in 42 involves humankind building an enormous computer, pouring data into it, and letting it cook for millions of years without ever giving it a proper question.
The Question is Absurd
It should be no surprise, then, that when we do, ultimately, learn the question, it’s from Scrabble tiles pulled out of a bag by a chimpanzee on prehistoric earth—and that it’s utterly absurd.
It’s barely a question. It’s an elementary school math problem posed in the form of a question. “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”
It has nothing to do with the human condition. It has nothing to do with happiness, a higher purpose to the universe, or anything of any existential import whatsoever.
It’s a trivial, utterly banal mat question that modern man doesn’t even need to ask because we’re all carrying phones that have calculators on them.
(I am convinced, by the way, that cellular phones are the cultural descendants of digital watches.)
The Answer is Wrong
I’ve always thought the significance of the entire storyline is that the question was absurd and that the answer was wrong. What you get when you multiply six by nine is—as Siri just told me—54.
I think the ultimate question to life the universe and everything had to be absurd and that the answer had to be wrong because there are no ultimate answers to anything as singular and varied as the meaning of life.
We are a remarkably diverse species, holding it within our hearts not merely the capacity to perform the most horrific acts of cruelty, but the capacity to fight them, and perhaps most remarkably, the capacity to survive them.
We hold millions of contradictory beliefs, many of them crucial, most of them irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
It is the height of absurdity to think that there is a single answer to the question of what life means, and there is no way the answer to an absurd question is anything but wrong.
The Meaning of Life is Everyday
Life is what we’re doing while we’re making other plans. It’s not a special event that we look forward to; it’s the special events, the time in between, and the time we sit in dentist’s offices wishing we were still young enough to get a kick out of Highlights.
For something to be the meaning of life, it can’t apply solely to crucial moments. It has to apply to those simple moments as well. There aren’t enough critical moments in most lives to make doing the right things in those situations to be the meaning of your life.
Taking care of your family can be the thing that gives your life meaning. I rather suspect it’s the thing that gives most people’s lives their meaning. It applies every day and in those crucial moments. It colors everything from making doctors appointments to grocery shopping. It applies to the most critical health-care decisions and whether to go to soccer practice.
The Meaning of Life is Extraordinary
Life isn’t trivial, and the meaning of our lives cannot be discarded in life’s most dire moments.
If we live long enough, we’ll experience the death of people we love. We’ll probably experience a car accident that puts our lives or the lives of those we care about at risk.
If the actions we take in those situations fly in the face of the supposed meaning of life, are we serious about it?
It’s easy to be for something when the going is easy. It’s much harder to be for something when under extreme duress or when the consequences are harsh.
If life is supposed to mean anything at all—in this world where life itself is proven over and over again to be remarkably fragile—it has to apply in both the everyday and the extraordinary.
Does your life have meaning? Does it apply to everything?
The Lesson is Clear
In the end, I think the lesson of 42 is clear. There is no single answer to what life, the universe, and everything mean because there is no question that can encompass the diversity of human life.
It is up to all of us to make whatever meaning of our lives we can. For many of us, the only thing that brings our lives meaning is the family we take care of. That’s wonderful. Many of us don’t have that. Many of us won’t give the question much thought at all, and that’s a shame.
We only get one life. We should make it mean something.