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. 

Attitude Adjustment

I had a little argument yesterday over whether my stressed-out state was a direct result of my circumstances or rather a reflection of how I was approaching life. I was, of course, arguing that this is my circumstances!! I’m stressed because my life is stressful!! And since I like to win any kind of argument, I took a long dramatic stance that said, Yes, Esther is right. 

Of course, a little while later, after I had calmed down I thought about it. And quickly concluded that, No, I think the other person was right. My stressed-out state has a lot to do with my attitude and how I’m approaching life, rather than my circumstances. 

The first time I ever did therapy for anxiety, I told the therapist that I felt like I was standing right on the edge of a cliff, about to fall off. He suggested that I change the picture in my mind and view myself at a far distance from the cliff. No imminent danger. No falling. And while I have always remembered him saying that, I don’t know if I’ve focused a lot of thought on it. But, I think these past few weeks, in my mind, I have been right back on the edge of that cliff. 

Every day I have woken up with this question of, Can I survive today? And I’m not super confident in the answer. I’m not sure. I’ll at least try really hard to make it. Maybe that will be enough. Maybe. In my defense, the last couple weeks have been hard circumstantially. Lots of new things (new things stress me out), having to talk to lots of strangers (talking to strangers stresses me out), worrying about my sick parents, having to be in and out of the house all day (constantly leaving the house stresses me out). 

I took a long walk yesterday and I thought about my attitude. What if I woke up every day with a sense of adventure? I wonder what amazing, exciting things will happen today? Hmm. Maybe. But, I don’t think that train of thought is going to help me out in the long run. There is not much excitement about folding laundry and washing dishes. But this morning I remembered what I had written about last week, about the purpose of man being to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Now that is something that would be worth waking up for every day. What if my first thought every morning was, How can I glorify God today and how can I enjoy Him today? I think that would be a game changer. 

How can I glorify God today? I can treat the people around me with love and compassion. I can take care of this planet that he has given me. I can obey his words. How can I enjoy him forever? I can look for him in all the small moments of my day. I can be aware of his presence. I can be thankful. I can be observant of all that he has created and take pleasure in it. I can read his Word and wonder at his wisdom. I can think on all that he has done for me and wonder at his love. 

Back to that mental image of me on the edge of the cliff. The real image I need to keep in my mind is me held safe in the hands of God. No cliffs. 

So. This is my goal this week. To work on my attitude. To keep my main purpose in mind every morning as I start my day. And to hopefully stop being a stressed-out wreck.