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We can benefit from acting with intention on an individual level. This is true even if it turns out that there is a God who predetermined everything. It’s also still true even if it turns out that all of life is arbitrary chaos.

Sometimes we feel discouraged when we think of the vastness of existence. It can feel fruitless to continue taking determined actions in the face of this behemoth of uncertainty.

We can start to question whether there’s a point to do anything. This line of questioning can quickly lead us to nihilism. If everything is either uncertain or predetermined, why bother?

Marcus Aurelius grappled with this question. In his journal to himself, Meditations, he contemplates the cycles and flux of the world. Does God determine what happens? Or is it all arbitrary? There’s no way we can know. The conclusion he reaches, about how to respond to our uncertainty about the nature of reality, is, “If it’s God, all is well. If it’s arbitrary, don’t imitate it.”

Marcus Aurelius presents a positive and pragmatic approach, that works in either scenario. It’s possible that life is actually arbitrary. Maybe it’s planned, maybe it’s chaos. But either way, he implores us not to imitate the (potentially) arbitrary nature of being.

But what does that mean?

I think that he’s implying that we must continue to act in line with our intentions, despite the possibility of randomness.

Intention is the opposite of the arbitrary.

What is the alternative to acting with intention?

If we throw up our hands and say that nothing we do matters, life feels pointless.

The pragmatic response is to act with intention — which is, to act in line with our values — despite the uncertainty. We will never objectively know whether or not life is arbitrary, but if we choose to act like it’s not arbitrary we can make the experience of being alive better for all involved. 

With intentional action, we can make the world better for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities. 

If enough people continue to do that over time, then life will be as good as it can be.

It won’t matter whether or not the true nature of being was random all along.

What matters is what we do with what we’ve got. What matters is whether or not we are living in line with our intentions.