On Existentialism, Disability, and Purpose

At the end of junior year my AP Stats teacher Mr. Lau decided to teach us a life lesson. He talked about how one should strive to be in a whatever part of the socioeconomic pyramid they would like to be in, but to note that it gets lonelier as you go higher. But whatever career we choose, we should make sure society benefits.

Which didn’t sit all too well with me. The idea that a career should be judged on its significance to the applied world bothered me, but at the time I couldn’t formulate a coherent argument against it.

About a year ago in senior year, my good friend Lullien asked me why disabled people exist, what use they are for society. I’m not a particularly philosophical person so I had never really thought about why anyone exists. I only knew that we do. So I thought for quite a long time and I told her how they were made happy by simpler things that us and how we can learn from them.

But no, that wasn’t really right. How was it that I had worked with special needs children for so long and it never occurred to me what purpose they had in society? Before fully answering that question I had to figure out, really, why do any of us exist?

And life went on for a while. I went to school, volunteered, played piano, wrote college essays, did homework. And one day my French teacher decided to introduce Albert Camus to us.

Camus, like so many other philosophers (or just people in general) at the time, was disillusioned by the horrors of World War One and questioned the purpose and meaning of life. If man is capable of such cruelty, if life is so short and miserable what is the point of it? The philosophers who tried to answer this question were known as existentialists.

Camus compared life to a play. (Not the first one, but he meant it in a different sense.) The perfect actor puts his heart into a performance–at that moment, he doesn’t care about what happens after curtains come down. In the same way, Camus argued that we should live life without worrying about what happens after death. What happens then is not of any concern to us, for we can never really know for sure. Life is what we know, and we should love life because it is only in life that we can be sure of our pleasure. So we should do whatever makes us happy and fulfilled.

My French teacher then asked us what the purpose of our lives was. My classmates looked at each other and shrugged. Someone suggested that everyone had different talents and we could all use our talents to make society better.

Which sounded a lot like Lau. Make contributions to society, whatever they are. Which, again, bothered me. Mademoiselle then asked, “What about the people without talents?”

Et voilà! How many people have I met who ultimately could not make real contributions to society? Yes, some of them work at Safeway and others can do physical labor of some sort, but how about Tony, who has ataxia and who can’t guarantee anyone not to walk without falling?

“Quel est le danger de justifier le valeur de la vie?” What’s the danger of justifying the value of life? Because just because Tony can’t work doesn’t make his life any less valuable. Because if we do, some human lives would be more valuable than others, which sounds familiar because … “Hitler.” Hitler made such a society, and we should take care not to do the same.

So what, truly, is our purpose? That is for each of us to decide, and there is no better or worse answer. Well, unless it involves killing people. In the end, it is none of our business what the purpose of disabled people in the world is, because to try to justify their existence is pointless and dangerous. And what about my purpose? To discover and immerse myself in the magic of the beautiful people, places, math, music, and literature of the world and perhaps to show this magic to a few others as well. A little Hogwarts, if you will, in the Muggle world.


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