I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life.
This line struck me like the unexpected blow with the cane Zen teachers use to spark fire in the souls of acolytes on the edge of Nirvana. I thought: who am I? Where have I been? Where am I going? Has my own life been full and worthy, or unlived, empty, meaningless?
To go back to the beginning, the words are from False Prophet on the Rough and Rowdy Ways album. Dylan sets the tone with the first verse:
Another day that don’t end / Another ship goin’ out / Another day of anger, bitterness, and doubt / I know how it happened / I saw it begin / I opened my heart to the world and the world came in
Dylan is looking back on his life – as one does at a certain age. We all do. We all will. And when we do, we will ask the same questions. Have I lived a good life? Have I added more than I have subtracted from the sum total of the important things? There are many paths up the mountain to the veiled summit in its halo of mist. Have I avoided the lure of the obvious, the mundane, the unlived meaningless life?
Through the subtle agency of poetry, Dylan has brought to popular music philosophy, politics, mystery, humour and intellect. That’s why he received the Nobel Prize. He is not a false prophet, more an Old Testament prophet, a wise man who has never claimed to be a wise man.
Those whom Dylan sees as living the unlived and meaningless life are the narcissists and egoists, the sociopaths who have solely pursued their own self-interest: most politicians, many businessmen, heads of banks, the corporate bosses, the space age billionaires who believe shareholder profit trumps care and fair wages for the people who labour to make those profits. Any man or woman who has fed their bank account at the expense of others has lived a meaningless life.
False Prophet holds up a mirror to the fake news liars and phonies selling false promises from church pulpits and political rallies that things will only get better when things are getting worse across a planet ravaged by greed, hunger, poverty, fire and floods, dust bowls and hurricanes. You’re blowing down the shaky street. You’re hearing my heart beat. In the record breaking heat. Where we were born in time.
Who among us has lived a worthy and meaningful life?
Every teacher and tutor, every carer and nurse and doctor. As Dylan in a moment of doubt grumbles in Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight –
I wish that I’d been a doctor / Maybe I’d have saved some life that had been lost / Maybe I’d have done some good in the world / ‘Stead of burning every bridge I crossed
It is a fleeting thought. Dylan never burned bridges. He built them in our heads just as the architects and construction crews built them across rivers and roads. Those workmen live meaningful lives. Same as the musicians, the artists and writers, the poets and painters bringing their vision to a world in search of meaning.
The same as the bus drivers and delivery drivers who make sure their passengers get home and goods get to their destination. The woman at the supermarket checkout who has a smile and a spare moment, the man heaving garbage, the postman with the mail, the plumber, the electrician, the internet kid who fixes broken apps and all – as Dylan reminds us – the countless, confused, accused, misused, strung out ones and worse, as well as the deaf and blind, the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute working the streets to feed her babies at home.
Well I’m the enemy of treason / Enemy of strife / I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life / I ain’t no false prophet / I just know what I know / I go where only the lonely can go
Go listen: False Prophet on YouTube
Go read: Bob Dylan Forever Young
Go down to the comments box below and share your thoughts …
Passing over a couple of comments from the Philosophy group:
My meaning of death, to pass everything on, is at odds with the final hope/sentiment of being born again.
Those most worthy, then, are the humble, simple ones who are supporting the species. Even the artists are doing so in throwing a light on our condition and providing steering. But the egoists would be taking advantage of them, in relegating them and maintaining their subordinate positions. Their contribution will be superior because they are and represent the highest order of capability and stature. Nothing is going to convince them of any error in their ways or will stop them from chasing their goals of directing others. It is probable that we can only continue in responding when we are able, and to make the world a better place when we are able, rather than attaining a utopia as some would hope for.
Perhaps, it is the true artist’s job to pass on and befriend the question of what it really means to lead a meaningful life – and to make that very point – lest you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being at death’s door and having ‘to die wondering’ but by then it will be too late, as fate stares you in the face with an unflinching eye asking, ‘could you have led a more meaningful life…’
This isn’t a question that requires a complex reply. It’s a question most of humanity asks itself at some point; have I given back, in the measure that I was given when I was young and helpless? Have I swallowed anger, disappointment, loss and pain? Or have I passed on my own pain to others, making them as miserable as myself. My feeling is that people who use their suffering as a whip to torment the souls around them will finally be completelyenclosed in their self-made cell, where they can at last confront the only enemy left; themselves.
Freedom to me also means the freedom to craft what I – me and myself – define as meaningful. I’ve worked for many highly paid execs, some earning over £1 million, and observed their anxiety and pomposity in equal measure. And how frightened they are to connect with ordinary, regular employees/people.
My meaningful life comes from being a Third Culture Kid, always moving with our dad’s jobs: all over the UK, Ethiopia and apartheid era SA. It meant treating everyone as a human being, and going against the (usually righteous white) grain. I’ve enjoyed many conversations with ‘haters’ to try to get to the bottom of their fear. That’s meaning; and meaning is checking up on homeless people, buying them food and occasionally helping them get accommodation. It’s stopping countless fights while remaining peaceful. It’s ignoring all the doubters who’ve said: “you’ll never do that” and “that’s impossible.” And doing it anyway.
Being a TCK has been brilliant for connecting with people, rather than judging. And travelling 80,000 miles since 2002, mostly solo. A meaningful life can be an adventurous life too and helping out in small, practical ways. It’s definitely not about stuff, nor status!