Fears & Existential Crises: Meaning

Hello. And greetings from a sketchy Air BNB in what can only loosely be described as the criminal underbelly of the San Antonio suburbs. In my attempt to be spontaneous, I inadvertently signed up to live for a week in a rundown alley adjacent to a liquor store, a strip club, and a Chipotle. Or as I’ve begun to lovingly refer to them as – The *Essentials*.

But hey, it’s not all bad. Yes, it may be 36 degrees as I write this. And *yes* there may have been a sign on the toilet when I walked in saying to throw any used toilet paper in the trash vs. flushing them down the toilet. But I’m choosing to just think of those as the little quirks that life throws at us sometimes. And in the meantime, there are plenty of raccoons I’ve noticed digging in the dumpster, a cat that sometimes comes to visit me in the backyard (I’ve named him Susan), and access to a stranger’s Netflix account that I’ve been sabotaging ruthlessly. I don’t even like anime, but soon Gregory’s search history will say otherwise.

Now to be fair, that last part is only partially true. As an already skinny, nerdy, white guy with glasses and an unusual penchant for fantasy literature, I spent a good portion of my life actively avoiding anime. Since I was already an easy target for the ridicule of all things geeky, I ultimately did not think it was in my best interest to add one more bullseye to my pale, spindly back. However, there is one exception to this. When I was a sophomore in college, I inadvertently came across an anime called “Angel Beats!”.

And I fell in love with it.

For background: The show takes place in a sort of purgatory, represented by a high school campus in Japan. At this campus are a number of adolescents whose souls had become lost upon dying, and wandered into this dimension instead of passing on. These kids all had a major theme in common: The lives they led before dying were painful, traumatic, and *unfair*; and following this suffering, each life was cut tragically short by an untimely death. Because of this, each of these souls harbored a deep resentment for the God or universe that could have allowed this to happen to them, and as such, all were incapable of moving on peacefully.

The intent of the high school purgatory these souls found themselves in was to combat this. Namely, it was to give these young souls a place to rest and experience a “normal” teenage life for a while, the sort they never got to experience in their real lives; it was to give them the means to find peace with the lives they lived, and to enable them to move on accordingly.

When we join this story, however, this ideal scenario was not playing out. Instead, the teens had coalesced into a rebellious combat group whose mission was to fight against an unseen God and spite him for the fate that he bestowed upon them. This group was led by a girl named Yuri, who in life had to watch each of her younger siblings get executed by a pair of burglars, as she struggled to find them the valuables her parents kept hidden in their house. There is also Hinata, a baseball player who developed a drug addiction after blowing the championship game for his team; Iwasawa, a musician from a troubled home who had finally found a purpose in music, before a domestic violence incident gave her a terminal brain injury; Yui, who was hit by a car and paralyzed as a child, and spent her life regretting all the things she couldn’t do in life because of it.

But of particular note to this blog post is our main protagonist, Otonashi, a teen with amnesia who wakes up in the purgatory having no recollection of how he got there. While alive, Otonashi was a depressed burnout whose only motivation in life was to work just enough to feed himself and give him a place to sleep each night. He also had a hospitalized younger sister that he would visit each day, purchasing her magazines with some of the spare money he had left over. When his sister ultimately passed away, he realized for the first time that she truly was his reason for living, and that he had never fully appreciated her for this. He realized that he *did* have a reason to be happy, and had just never acknowledged it. However, instead of breaking down, his personality changes for the better. He decides to repurpose his energy towards going to medical school to ultimately learn to help other people like his sister.

And while initially successful, this was unfortunately not to be. While on a train to his medical school entrance exams, there was an accident and the train crashed, trapping everyone on board in a caved-in tunnel. However, even in tragedy, Otonashi’s new outlook on life shone through. At the expense of his own health, he worked tirelessly to tend to the needs and wounds of the other passengers. In the final minutes of his life, after having been trapped in the tunnel for over a week, and questioning once more what meaning there had been to any of this, he remembers how desperately his sister had wished she had an organ donor, so she could recover from her illness. As such, he pulls out his life insurance card, marking himself as an organ donor, giving himself one last purpose for living, and inspiring all the survivors to do the same. Immediately afterwards, Otonashi dies, right as the rescue team arrives to free the other survivors he had kept alive.

The main difference between Otonashi and the rest of the lost souls? He didn’t die feeling bitter and unfulfilled. He had found his purpose in helping others, down to his last breath. He had only wandered his way into this purgatory due to the traumatic nature of his death, and the amnesia that kept him from remembering the circumstances leading up to it. And throughout the course of the anime, he helps each of these troubled souls come to grips with the unfair nature of their own lives, and enables them to see the meaning and purpose in each life lived, despite the unfairness of it all.

All in all, I think there are a few reasons why this anime hits me so hard to this day. The first is the simple beauty to it. There is something inherently magnetic about stories that teach us to find the good in the miasmic maw of malevolence and despair that can grow to occupy our hearts and souls. In those darkest hours, we desperately want to believe that there’s a higher meaning to it all, that there is a light worth pursing and a reason to make us want to push through the darkness to something better, something grander.

The second is the character of Otonashi. Similar to how we all gravitate towards stories that teach us to find a life-vest in a tempest, I think most people enjoy seeing the moral ideals we idealize manifest themselves in a hero you can root for. Otonashi is a character who had every reason to be bitter and hateful. He had known nothing but pain and tragedy throughout most of his life, and the *moment* he discovers something better, it’s snatched from him. Yet despite this, he remains “good”, he remains the moral personification of everything we wish were true about the world. He inspires us to do better, even when we have every reason and justification to *just give up*.

However, the third and most impactful reason? I just don’t fully believe any of it. As desperately as I want to fully buy in to the morals and optimistic promise that the story spells out, I can’t bring myself to do so. At the end of the day, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe that the universe has any intrinsic meaning to it. I believe it’s a random, chaotic force and the best any of us can do is hold on tight and hope for the best. Bad deeds *will* go unpunished, and good deeds *will* go unrewarded. And the fact that we all desperately wish the opposite were true, doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore the reality of the world in which we find ourselves.

My difficulty with stating this, however, is that I can’t help but think it’s at least partially insincere. I try really hard to do the “Right Thing”. Like the protagonist from our story, I too believe deep down in a purpose of helping others, and of trying to make the world a slightly less miserable place. My initial reaction towards the unfairness and cruelty of life isn’t jadedness and despondence, it’s anger and an urge to *make it right*.

So then how can both of these notions coexist with one another? How does one find meaning in the face of an inherently meaningless universe? Why keep going at all if there’s no higher purpose to it all?

I think in the end it’s about attitude. It’s about scrapping and clawing for every shred of control you can gain in a world that tries desperately to take it away from you at every turn. It’s about acknowledging the importance of doing the right thing *because it’s right* and not because you expect a cosmic reward for your benevolence. To do the opposite would be like refusing to answer any of the questions on a test that’s graded on a curve, just because you know you’re not quite smart enough relative to the rest of your class to get an “A”. Because in the end, a “B” is infinitely preferable to an “F”, right? This doesn’t make the universe any less unfair, nor does it dampen the pain it will inflict on you. But what it will do is at least give you the power and confidence to spit in that F*cker’s mouth instead of lying down and accepting it.

In a previous post, I talked about the topic of “Control” and the difficulty of letting go of things that you hold no sway over. I believe this is the ultimate culmination of that concept. The universe could decide tomorrow to throw me into a fatal car accident, or drown me in Lake Michigan. But it can’t stop me from helping my friends, or from trying to make some positive impact on the lives that I touch. I control these, and they have meaning to me and the people I care about, even if they’re irrelevant in the grand scheme of the universe.

I know this doesn’t make the universe any less unfair. Nor does it magically make the repercussions of that fact magically disappear. I struggle with this every day, which is why I’m writing this. And to be fair, this is just the rambling of a seasonally depressed, curly-haired idiot to be taken at your own peril.

But in the end, I think the world needs more people to unapologetically do good in the world.

And it seems a shame to let the things you can’t control get in the way of that.

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