Book Reviews, Existentialism, and the Meaning of Life

I got a book at the library this week and it’s kind of gotten under my skin. I finished it yesterday and it’s one of the few times where I felt like writing to the author, not to praise him, but to say, Hey, Mister, You forgot to write the ending to your book, would you mind finishing this??? 

The book is The Tourist by Robert Dickinson. I just randomly grabbed it off the library shelf and read the little blurb about the storyline. It was very tame. Tourist group goes out, they come back and one of the tourists is missing. I’m thinking, some kind of mystery. But at the very bottom of the blurb, in smaller print, it says, “…orignal conspiracy thriller…” and that sounded intriguing. So I took the book home, started reading and immediately got annoyed because the book is written in First Person, Present Tense. And was thinking, there is no way this entire novel can be written in this style. It’s going to drive me crazy. But then as I read more I realized this is a time travel book, and if you’re writing time travel, you really have to write Present Tense. And the First Person thing just seemed to be this author’s Pet Quirk. 

By the last chapter I was flying through the pages, could not wait to see how he was going to solve the mystery and tie all these loose ends together. I was pretty excited. The story was interesting, complicated, and I had all kinds of ideas in my mind of how he might end it. And then, the book just kind of dribbled to a stop. Mystery was left unsolved. I was left, still not sure how all these pieces fit together, and very upset. I think at the very end he was trying to be artistic or something and I guess I was supposed to be moved. But I wasn’t. I was annoyed. 

I have read a lot of bad books. I have stopped in the middle of a lot of bad books and just walked away. I have plowed through mediocre books. And then I have been gripped and awed by masterpieces. I think what is so aggravating was that this book had potential to be Good. Not a masterpiece, but definitely a page turner where you walked away satisfied and ready to recommend it to everyone you know. And it felt like he got lost in his story, didn’t know what to do, so he just hastily wrote a couple more paragraphs and then pasted on THE END. (Ok, I’m being harsh, maybe with more thought and analysis, I might understand how his ending is good, just not seeing it right now.)

I’m going to dive a bit into the story though, because it’s got me thinking. On the front of the cover it says “The Future is Already Written”. And that’s really a key point to the story. All these people live in a dystopian society where time travel is a regular part of life. And they have records of their own lives from the future so there are no surprises. They know when they’re going to die. They know all the major events that will happen. If something goes wrong, people already know about it and have made provisions to fix the mistakes or at least deal with the outcomes. And then at the very end (SPOILER ALERT) everything goes off script. Near death experiences, failed rescues. And it’s at this point that one of the main characters feels alive for the first time. When he’s no longer walking out his predestined life and suddenly everything is up in the air and anything could happen. 

The book has a depressing ending. But it seems to me that it’s because the story plays out perfectly the worldview that we are simply organic beings crawling around on the surface of the planet and then one day we die. The end. That is a depressing world view. I’ve read a couple other novels lately and they all seem to hold that same perspective. Our lives have no real meaning. Get as much pleasure as you can while you still exist and then die and cease to exist. (Except of couse, for the euphemism that says, you live on your loved ones’ hearts. Which I guess means, when no one remembers you anymore, then you are truly dead.) 

Interestingly enough, yesterday, my second grader was telling me this inspirational chant they do every morning to start off the day at school. One of the lines was “I have a reason for being here!” My mind instantly went existential. The meaning of life. I asked her what she thought that meant. What’s your meaning for being here? She’s very literal and said it meant that she was at school to learn things. Ah yes. Ok. And then I told her (just in case she didn’t know) that our reason for being alive (here!) was because God created us and he loves us. 

Unlike the poor characters in The Tourist, our lives do have purpose and meaning. Love God. And obey his command to Love your Neighbor.

“What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Westminster Catechism

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10

And unlike the characters in the book who just faded away to nothing, we are eternal beings. 

 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

Our death here on earth is simply the next birth that ushers us into an eternity with Jesus. 

While I didn’t expect the book to have a Christian theme, I was hoping that the character’s story arc would lead them to discover at least one or two of the important themes. Like the value of human life. The richness of serving other people. The goodness of the earth. The absolute complexity and awesomeness of the universe that we live in. But instead the book was a window to how meaningless life is when you remove God from everything. 

In the end I have a sense of relief. Thank you Lord that my life has meaning. And sadness. Lord, what about all those people who truly believe their life is meaningless and death is the end? And I feel an urgency to tell people, there’s more. Dig deeper. Search for the truth. Life lived the way it’s meant to be, following Jesus, is exciting, purposeful, full of love and joy. 

The Perfect Day

Today has been one of those “Perfect” days. The kind where nothing overly impressive happens, you just feel connected with the goodness around you. 

We slept in this morning. Eight o’clock! Amazing! If you have a house full of small children, eight in the morning is late! 

We lazed around in our pajamas, reading books, kids playing busily. And then, sometime around eleven the kids gave me a list of things they wanted to do: go to the library, go to the park. 

Not till we get our chores done. 

So, we divided everything up and the house got clean pretty quickly. I put on my new cover for my futon couch and pulled a couple chairs from other parts of the house so I could have a living room with furniture again. (Got rid of the couches a while back, and haven’t been in a rush to put things back together again.)

I made a menu for the week and then went shopping and stayed within my budget. (Not sure why, but that is always So Satisfying!) And I bought some flowers to put on my mantel in the living room. 

The weather today is about ten degrees cooler than it has been the past month and suddenly my kids are willing to play outside again. And other neighborhood kids have emerged from their air conditioning as well and so I have a yard full of children all happily playing together. 

This coming Monday is a holiday so I don’t feel as pressured to get everything done immediately. 

My washing machine is busily doing it’s job. By Monday I will have a big mountain of clean clothes to fold and sort and put away.

One of the neighborhood kids was talking to me earlier, he’s new, never been in my house before. He looked around. 

You know, this place kind of reminds me of a mansion. 

I was startled and then laughed.

Well, it’s big, but it isn’t very fancy like a mansion. 

And I sit in my old, faded worn chair in my living room. The walls need painting, the trim has never been painted or finished in any way, still showing the marks of over a hundred years of use. My bookshelves are over-run with books. The floors have also not been finished in the past one hundred years, and my kids skating and scootering and shoving furniture all over the place has done nothing to improve their appearance. 

But things are tidy. There are bright flowers, the soothing sound of water bubbling in the fish tank, the hum of a fan. Silence. And then thunder as a horde of children run down the stairs and out the door. The sun is shining in through the windows. My fridge and pantry are full. I’ve run all my errands. We have plans to play at the park after supper. Tomorrow we get to go to church. 

Yes. It is one of those “Perfect” days. 

And it occurs to me, that most days have the potential to be perfect. It just takes an eye to see, and a heart to be thankful.

Switched Off

Today marks one month of no tv for the family and no devices for the younger kids. Supposedly the teens and I have reduced our phone usage to two hours. But I haven’t got a good handle on how that’s going yet. 

 

I decided that I had a tv/device habit that needed to be kicked. So, the tv has been removed to my husband’s shop and the devices are put away in a drawer. 

 

Things I have learned since turning everything off…

 

I have been seriously dependent on the tv to calm my kids down, entertain them, give myself quiet time, babysit them when I’m gone, and just basically fill any gap that pops up in our day. 

 

It has definitely helped me to be lazy in my parenting. 

 

Let me just state for the record, there have been seasons where tv has saved my life. Even the last season we just came out of, I don’t know how I would have done it without being able to turn the tv on. Our devices have been a motivational tool during this pandemic that have gotten us through a lot of school work and chores with minimal pain. Tv and devices are good tools. As long as you are controlling the tools and the tools aren’t controlling you.

 

I think what has mainly been the deciding factor for turning everything off this time (cause, yes, I’ve done this before), is that I want to change the culture of our home. I want us to have a reading culture. I want my kids to know how to get creative when they’re bored instead of just whining to watch a show. I want us to have family time in the evenings where we have devotions and read books and poetry out loud and do music together. And somehow, I had let the tv take over the house and we had lost those things. So, we’ve turned everything off. 

 

Mentally, it’s been a big adjustment. I am having to learn that instead of just sending everyone off to watch a show when they’re driving me crazy, I can send everyone to their rooms, or send everyone outside. In the evenings, instead of retreating to my room, I am learning to settle on the couch with a giant pile of books that we read out loud. During the day I am offering piano lessons to bored children, crafts, learning games, trips to the library. I am also trying to turn a blind eye to random forts and clubhouses that are popping up all over the house, toys littering my bedroom floor, kids digging around in my drawers cause they need paper to write a book or a play. 

 

Honestly, I think turning the tv off has hurt me the most, not the kids. I have to be more engaged. Put up with more chaos. Deal with more messes. 

 

But, overall, we’ve had good results. 

 

My five and seven year olds have been keeping a list of all the books they’ve either read themselves or had read to them, and they are close to 100. The older kids have significantly increased the number of books they’re reading. My older boys have gotten very creative with their legos. My nine year old wrote a play. The three year old is sitting with books, pretending that he is reading, pointing at the words, making up the story as he goes. And, best of all, all the kids are desperately anxious for school to start. Me too. 

 

I told the kids we would do this for four months. We’ll see how it goes.