At the heart of “Rick and Morty” is a choice:
Will you crumple in despair knowing the terrifying truth that life is totally meaningless or will you saddle up the universe and strike out for a life of fun and adventure?
It’s a classic question at the root of all great stories throughout all time.
If you’re a fan of the brilliant maestro of myth Joseph Campbell you know the question as “the call to adventure” which comes from his classic masterpiece “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”.
Devotees of “The Matrix” will know it as the “red pill/blue pill” question.
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
— Morpheus, the Matrix
And it’s not just a single question. It’s the distillation of hundreds of interrelated and interdependent existential questions:
- Who am I?
- What am I supposed to do?
- What does it all mean?
- Why does evil exist?
- Is there a God?
- What happens after I die?
It’s something every single one of us must face at some point in our lives, if not multiple times. It usually comes out of nowhere, when we’re at our lowest and most vulnerable, when our house is burning and we’ve lost everything.
Or sometimes it just hits us when we’re drunk.
Watch the question strike Rick and Morty co-creator, Justin Roiland, in the middle of a recording session:
“Christ, what happens when we die? What happens when we all die? You guys worry about that shit at night?”
Nobody is safe from the existential crisis.
In the ancient Indian classic, the “Bhagavad Gita”, the most powerful warrior in the world, Arjuna, faces a horrifying civil war. On the eve of the war’s first battle, Arjuna looks across the field and when he sees his friends and family arrayed against him, he throws down his sword, crumples to his knees and refuses to fight.
The rest of the story is about why Arjuna picks the sword back up.
But it’s not just great warriors and heroes who face the crisis. It mows down the great and the small alike.
Watch as it hits Rick’s daughter Beth right after her marriage fails.
Everything she believed seems totally wrong and pointless. She doesn’t know who she is or what she’s supposed to do next so she asks her father, the demi-God of the “Rick and Morty” universe, alcoholic super-genius Rick Sanchez:
“Dad, I’m out of excuses to not be who I am, so who am I? What do I do?”
Rick suggests she get out there and do something. Saddle up and take the universe for a ride.
Beth refuses the call.
That’s what most of us do. When we’re offered an adventure we say no fucking way. Just like Beth we mumble excuses about family, obligations, work and “as much as I hate to admit it ABC’s ‘The Bachelor’” and go right back to pretending everything is fine.
We don’t ask questions, accept whatever “meaning” is passed down to us from our family, culture, society, school, religion and work. We choke it down and go right back to worrying about whatever trivial distraction has us tangled up at the moment like this famous skit from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”
Notice how the movie manages to slip in one of the great answers to the question of the meaning of life and everyone immediately ignores it. It’s as if they can’t hear the answer at all and so they go back to worrying about the mundane. That’s because we’re literally wired to believe delusions. We hear the truth and it comes across our mental feed like white noise.
“What was that about hats again?”
But some of us can’t let the question go.
This is particularly true of artists, scientists, great leaders and Rick-level super-geniuses.
Maybe the only people who don’t bother with self-exploration are the lowest form of human, politicians and TV talking heads.
But why? Where does it all lead? What’s the point of even asking?
There is none. It’s just that some of us can’t not do it. When someone asked George Mallory why he climbed Mount Everest he quipped:
“Because it was there.”
So just for fun let’s take the red pill for once. Let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
It can’t be that bad right? We’ll take a quick tour of the universal mysteries of life and forget all about it in the morning, OK? We’ll check out the world through Rick’s eyes and see what he sees.
“Let’s go. In and out. 20 minute adventure.” I promise.
Oh, if you have a flask of whiskey in your back pocket you might want to pour yourself a few shots, so you can pretend you never read the next section, all right?
Or you can stop reading now and go back to watching ABC’s “The Bachelor”.
And if you do stick around and somehow make it through the next section, don’t despair, because there’s hope on the other side.
We’ll take a look at why Arjuna got back up.
But first we have to see why he falls.
There’s no light without darkness.
Why Arjuna Fell and Why Rick Drinks so Much
What’s the worst that could happen if we go mucking around in spiritual no-man’s land and probing the limits of reality?
Nothing much. Just total nervous break down, death and dismemberment and an inability to go outside ever again or enjoy anything you loved in the past.
Nothing to worry about.
Actually that’s pretty bad.
No scene captures the existential dilemma and its awful answers better than this scene with the little butter robot who realizes he’s only alive to serve one stupid purpose. He is not destined for great things or changing the world. He is just — ordinary, a bitter pill to swallow, like learning you’re an extra in a B movie forever.
“What is my purpose?” asks the little robot to his God, Rick.
“You pass butter,” says Rick.
“Oh my God,” says the bot, his shoulders falling in defeat.
“Welcome to the club, pal.”
Turns out the truth is a long, strange trip into the nightmare that lays at the dark heart of reality.
Good. Let’s go exploring!
Perhaps no book ever written captures the absolute meltdown that comes from digging too deep into the mysteries of life better than the Enlightenment trilogy by Jed McKenna, starting with the first book, “Spiritual Enlightenment the Damndest Thing”.
It’s not a fun book to read and I don’t recommend you read it unless you really can’t stop yourself from doing the stupidest thing possible and poking around the limits of your reality cage. Do you like swimming with giant electric eels? Good. It’s just like that.
There’s only one reason to start seeking answers to the ultimate questions of life.
Because you have to and that’s it.
That’s why Rick did it and that’s why “Rick and Morty’s” creators, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland did it. How do I know they did it? Because someone who’s been through the mental minefield recognizes everyone else who has too. The signs of it saturate their work and nobody bothers to write about the existential journey unless they went through the darkness and found the portal on the other side.
There’s a portal on the other side?
But first we go through the black hole to get there. So let’s do it.
Nobody really wants enlightenment, at least not when they actually find it. You’re more likely to be a victim of enlightenment than the beneficiary, since enlightenment is not what we’re sold (beatific smile, no fear, happy all the time, blah blah) but rather it means “truth realization.” In other words, figuring it all out and shedding all illusions and bullshit beliefs for good.
That’s sounds great, right?
Except the experience of reading McKenna’s books is more like falling out of an airplane with no parachute.
It’s also a bit like this scene where Jerry tries to fold himself twelve times.
Truth is a fucking hard bitch.
One of the first things you discover in the journey of self is that the Universe can be a fucked up, crazy place.
Like this quote from the Gita that Jed highlights in the very first chapter:
“I am come as Time, the ultimate waster of people, ready for the hour that ripens to their doom. The warriors, arrayed in hostile armies facing each other, shall not live, whether you strike or stay your hand.”
If you really stop to think about it that is a completely fucked up passage. Basically God, Krishna/Time in this case, is telling Arjuna to get up and kill those motherfuckers because they’re already dead in the future.
Um, what the fuck?
Yeah. Best not to think about it.
You may recognize the first line in the Gita as the one Oppenheimer quoted after seeing the first atomic bomb explode:
And that’s exactly what spiritual exploration is like: Dancing with nukes. The stakes cannot be higher and it’s easy to blow yourself up along with everything you ever loved or believed.
“Wubba Lubba Dub Dub!”
The search for ultimate meaning is not about meditation and doing nothing and staying right where you were all along. It’s about going somewhere, exploring everything and going through profound and painful self-exploration, where you strip away what’s not real layer by layer, like eating yourself alive.
McKenna calls it “spiritual autolysis”.
Autolysis is a fun word. It means “self-digestion” and it’s the process by which a cell destroys itself through its own enzymes.
Sound good? Great.
The next thing you figure out in the great Campbellian Hero with a Thousand Faces journey is that you’re going to die, just like Morty does in epic fashion after burying his alternate universe self.
“Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody is going to die. Come watch TV,” says Morty to his sister when she wants to run away after a petty fight with her mother.
That’s what happened to my friend Nadia Aly, who was working a highly paid job at a major tech company when her friend passed away. In my interview with her in 2013, before she become a famous globe trotting scuba diver and world renowned photographer, she had this to say about it:
“A big part of why I [took off exploring the world] was because a friend had passed away hours before his 28th birthday. It was my first experience with knowing someone close that had died. This really woke me up. “Wow we really die! I will never see David again… Ever!” I thought about that ALL THE TIME.
Life is short, you can go at any moment and what will your life have been like?”
Here’s Morty’s reaction after he buries himself.
It gets worse.
Every genius in history, from Marcus Aurelius and his Stoic Philosophy, to the Buddha and his quest for ultimate meaning, to diabolical super-scientist Rick Sanchez ends up tearing reality apart (in Rick’s case literally) looking for the ultimate meaning in the face of death.
If we’re going to die then surely there’s some grander purpose behind it all?
I mean we have whole industries dedicated to providing answers to these big questions. They most know something, right?
Turns out those institutions are just there to put you right back to sleep. They specialize in platitudes and spiritual Ambien. Oh you’re worried it’s all a pointless dream? Take three of these and call me in the morning.
We believe we want to wake up. But the real truth is we’ll give anything to go back to sleep, to return to the dream that is our life.
And of course, the ready made answers never satisfy the artist, the scientist, the great leader, or the super-brain.
So they keep digging.
Still with me? Want to know what they find?
The Wormhole at the Center of You
What they find is some major or minor variation on the following:
I recommend reading the following really, really, really fast, like an announcer from the disclaimer section of a drug commercial:
At the root of everything is a black hole of nothingness.
Eventually you won’t exist and despite millions of years of comforting beliefs there’s probably nothing after the grave, meaning we’re just gone as if we never existed. We have as much substance as dream dust.
Beyond that nothingness, consciousness is the only thing that actually exists. If you probe the nature of what you can actually know for sure, the only thing you can come up with is “I am” aka solipsism, the third rail of philosophy. Beyond that everything gets very, very hazy.
However, from there we can kind of, sort of figure out the rest of this crazy ass shit I’m about to drop on you if we stretch ourselves and just say fuck it, let’s run with this whole bullshit premise for now and see where it leads.
Where it leads is that if consciousness is all that exists beyond nothing, it’s really a singular consciousness, meaning we’re all the same stuff underneath, looking out on the universe with a trillion set of eyes, aka God/the Universe is a solipsist and/or an atheistic clockwork machine.
That essentially means that perception/perceived and perceiver are the same thing.
The “logical” implications of that are absolutely horrifying. It’s a bit like a bad conspiracy horror novel.
As horror master and existential philosopher Thomas Ligotti points out in his book “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”, we’re not aware of our basic interconnectedness, so we spend eternity in a pointless “festival of massacres”, killing, maiming and torturing other versions of ourselves because we can’t see we’re all the same stuff, which is by design. In other words, our awful ignorance is built into the very fabric of the system and we are quite literally insane because we are blind to our true nature.
No wonder the agoraphobic Liggotti doesn’t leave his house anymore and Rick drinks.
And of course, since everything around you appears to be separate but is actually not, that means everything you see and feel is a grand illusion, like a dream (as the Brahmans/Buddhists call reality) or a simulation (like the tech nerds call it, aka the Singularity but it already happened) which is really saying the same thing using the language available at the time.
In other words, you imagine you’re a separate entity with free will in a physical universe and yet there’s really no evidence either way that you are or not.
Now, going a little further we find that the singular consciousness underneath it all is really perfect, which means that it creates/codes/dreams a perfect universe, a clockwork universe, an amoeba or animal like universe and/or a multiverse, where everything that can happen does happen (another theme of the show — the multiverse).
Perfection is very comforting until you keep digging and realize imperfection is freaking everywhere from random killings, to genocide and inequality which begs the question is it really perfect, aka the “if God is good then why does Hitler exist?” question.
The answer is yes it is perfect, even with evil, which means that the Universe does not have our morality at all. It has its own fucked up morality because it allows evil to exist. In biological reality death is bad and life is good. Hunger is bad and eating is good. But once you step outside of biological reality, morality ceases to exist and that’s where God/the Universe/quantum physics’ morality lives. Uh oh.
That means you’re in an impersonal Universe that doesn’t give a fuck about you and me, kind of like when the giant heads show up in Season Two.
An impersonal God is, in the words of Dan Harmon, “terrifying”.
Because it kills people and puppies, the good and the bad, the innocent and the guilty, with total abandon and keeps making more of us to slaughter. It blows up stars and entire planets for fun killing everything on them with no remorse whatsoever. “God” is essentially really fucked up computer code. Does the computer code care about the non-player characters that the kid playing the game gleefully mows down? Nope. When the river drowns everyone under it, it’s just part of the plan.
And it also means you have to rectify both imperfection and perfection existing at the same time. How is that freaking possible? How is the Universe/everything/God/reality perfect but imperfect at the same time?
Simple. By faking it.
Something perfect cannot be imperfect by its very nature (aka “God can’t make a stone he/she/it can’t lift”), which means that the only way for that universal consciousness to experience “imperfection” is to create endless copies of itself, with limited awareness, like fracturing itself into a bazillion pieces, in order to feel what it’s like to not know everything and to not be able to lift that stone, bypassing the paradox all together.
In other words, it made you and me and infinite versions of you and me just so it could be ignorant and limited.
Of course, if every fractured version of the universal consciousness, aka you, me and other peeps, all woke up at the same time and realized it was all nonsense/a dream/a drama/a game, the whole merry go round stops and that can’t be permitted. So the Universe actively keeps the vast majority of people in the dark, numbing them out with addictions/religion/TV/the Internet/every day thoughts/distractions/trivia/dramas/drugs/alcohol/war and by putting a sheen of absolutely impenetrable ignorance and willful blindness over the minds of everyone in the world, aka Maya. Maya rules unopposed over 99.99999999% of us so that the powerful play goes on and we can all play our part over and over and over again in the festival.
Got all that?
You may be feeling like the girl in this little clip:
I skipped a lot of the math here so don’t feel bad if you’re confused or think I missed something and/or I’m crazy/stupid/both/talking out of my ass.
I am. These are just words. Don’t worry about them at all. They don’t mean anything.
You don’t have to believe any of it. Just take a deep breath.
You’re free to disagree with any or all of it.
And it’s not my philosophy, so please don’t make that mistake and get mad at me for saying it. I’m just summarizing. OK? All good? Great.
Man, the comments are going to be fucked up on this one aren’t they? So let me just say this:
Everything I said is wrong. Don’t believe any of it. There is nothing to believe. Just having fun here. It’s a simple thought experiment. Nothing to be afraid of and nothing to worry about at all. It was all just a dream.
It’s a free universe, believe whatever you want (which is what you are wired to do anyway).
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.”
All I’m saying is that the average workaday geniuses of history tend to come to some variation of the above philosophy and so does our boy Rick Sanchez. Here’s Rick’s summary of the above in succinct, rapid-fire brilliance after Beth asks him whether she’s evil?
“Worse, you’re smart. When you know nothing matters the Universe is yours and I’ve never met a Universe that was into it. The Universe is basically an animal. It grazes on the ordinary. It creates infinite idiots just to eat them…You know smart people get a chance to climb on top, take reality for a ride, but it will never stop trying to throw you, and eventually it will. There’s no other way off.”
Essentially it means that even when you can understand the fundamental nature of reality you’re still subject to it.
The Universe will feast on you too.
“There’s no other way off.”
In other words:
The only way out is through.
Through the Wormhole and Why Arjuna Got His Groove Back
Still here? Awesome. Now comes the good part.
But first take a deep breath. We’re cool, right?
Did you have that drink? Good. Have another.
Life is a little absurd, right? Am I right or am I right?
But the story doesn’t end there. We’re through the wormhole and there is something on the other side.
There’s an old Zen proverb:
“Before enlightenment there is the mountain. During enlightenment there is no mountain. After enlightenment there is the mountain again.”
What the fuck does that mean?
It means that while you’re in the worm hole, nothing matters, there is no morality, everything is relative and nothing really exists. It’s all an illusion.
And then you get over it.
You took a big trip but you didn’t get anywhere. You wake up again and you’re right back in the dream/video game/simulation/reality. You’re still playing. There’s no way out.
So now what?
Now we have figure out what the fuck to do with all that horrifying knowledge.
And really, the answer goes right to the very essence of the show. How the fuck do you keep going once you know all that?
Krishna’s answer to Arjuna was pretty simple. The story happens with or without you, so pick up your sword and fight! Everyone is dead anyway, so take up your role in the play gladly and lead the battle. Oh and you can’t really escape, since we are all here for eternity.
But not all of us are warriors. Some of us are just regular, every day folk. So how the hell do the great stories apply to us? What do we do? Is there any hope?
There is hope!
Ready for it?
There are only three true answers to the ultimate absurdity of life.
The first is never leave your house again. OK, just kidding. Don’t do that. Please don’t do that. There’s a whole (imaginary) world out here, man!
The second answer is to develop a fantastic sense of humor. If you watch “Rick and Morty” you’ve already got that box checked.
The third answer is what the show is all about:
Get the fuck out there and have an amazing adventure!
In other words:
- Do amazingly cool shit.
- Have fun!
- Embrace the illusion.
Life is a blank canvas. Paint whatever you want.
Live the life of your dreams.
Saddle up the universe and get out there and enjoy it in all its multi-resplendent glory.
That is the paradox of meaninglessness. It can mean whatever the hell you want it to mean.
Meaning is quantum. Meaning is contextual.
The skyscraper exists for no reason. So does the ant. But as soon as the ant decides to climb that skyscraper they both have a purpose that’s instantly created through their intersection point. The ant wants to climb and so it now has meaning, and the skyscraper is there so the ant can climb it, so it has meaning too.
All meaning comes from your decisions. You must make a choice. And then your purpose is set to iron rails. Meaning does not exist a priori, but it springs into reality when you make your choice. (See the “Monty Python” sketch for further explanation.)
Actually, the real answer is even simpler.
The problem is that you were asking the wrong question. What is the meaning of life is not the question you should ask.
The proper question is:
What does it mean to you?
Only you can answer that.
For Rick it’s finding Mulan’s Szechuan sauce.
You should probably pick a better reason than Rick for sticking around the cosmic fun house.
Everyone finds the answer for themselves. That’s the only way.
And that’s exactly the answer Dan Harmon gives in this brilliant little four minute video called “The Search for Meaning” that explores everything we went through here in all its terrifying glory:
I can’t say it any better actually, so I’ll just quote the master story teller and genius himself because it’s worth repeating:
“Do I agree with Rick that nothing means anything? No I do not because the knowledge that nothing matters, while accurate, gets you nowhere. The planet is dying. The sun is exploding. The universe is cooling. Nothing is going to matter. The further back you pull the more that truth will endure. But when you zoom in on Earth, when you zoom in a family, when you zoom into a human brain and a childhood and human experience, you see all these things that matter. We have this fleeting chance to participate in an illusion called I love my girlfriend and I love my dog. How is that not better?”
How is that not better indeed?
So you live in an illusion. So what? Who cares?
Use your illusion.
And get a pet. Pets are awesome.
Just don’t give them the “gift” of intelligence so they have to figure out all this heavy shit or you might end up in a shitty parody of “Lawnmower Man.”
Anyway. That’s it.
We’re all basically fucked.
The only sane response is humor and to get out there and have fun. Actually, Harmon is much smarter than me or I would have created “Rick and Morty” myself, so I’ll let him have the last word and deliver the meaning of life to you with this little glowing green gem:
“Knowing the truth, that nothing matters, can actually save you in those moments. Once you get through the terrifying threshold of accepting that, then every place is the center of the universe and every moment is most important moment and everything is the meaning of life.”
If you read this whole damn thing you might consider visiting my Patreon page because nothing really matters and so you might as well give me five bucks so I can live the life of my dreams.
A bit about me: I’m a walking human mess just like everyone else, as well as an author, engineer, part time comedian (not really) and friend to animals.
You can check out my latest novel,an epic Chinese sci-fi civil war saga where China throws off the chains of communism and becomes the world’s first direct democracy, running a highly advanced, artificially intelligent decentralized app platform with no leaders.
You can get a FREE copy of my first novel, The Scorpion Game (which is not funny and not meant to be, motherfucker — It’s dark and brooding and filled with rain soaked mean streets), when you join my Readers Group. Readers have called it “the first serious competition to Neuromancer” and “Detective noir meets Johnny Mnemonic.”
You can also check out the Cicada open source project based on ideas from the book that outlines how to make that tech a reality right now because I like saving imaginary dream characters in my imaginary universe.
Lastly, you can join my private Facebook group, the Nanopunk Posthuman Assassins, where we discuss all things tech, sci-fi, fantasy and the absurdity of life, the universe and everything.
By the way the answer to the meaning of life is and always was “42.”