We rarely ask this question seriously, afraid there won’t be a satisfying answer. But when faced with a crisis, when life seems bleak and pointless, dealing with this question authentically is of crucial importance.
Albert Camus called the question of suicide the central issue of philosophy:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide]
While we all believe that life in general is valuable, and even precious, that doesn’t mean that we believe that ours (or anyone else’s) life is really worth living. So how should we start thinking about this problem, and what could serve as a basis for an authentic conviction that it’s all worth it?
Most people would point out that the basis for our will to live lies in the biological instinct, common to all living creatures. And that’s certainly true – when faced with danger our limbic system takes control, and makes us run faster to avoid it. But how relevant is it for our question?
Viktor Frankl, a renowned psychotherapist that survived encampment in Auschwitz, in his powerful “Man’s Search for Meaning” talks about people in the camp that concentrated solely on surviving. Reduced to animal state, they were driven by instinctual will to live, and did anything to prolong their life, including stealing and betraying their fellow inmates. Paradoxically, these people were usually the first to give up and die. The reason lies in the fact that our instinctual drive to live is good in helping us avoid danger, but evolutionary, it’s not suited to help us endure prolonged suffering. In some point, it’s just easier to give up than to fight on. People lacking a deep, conscious motivation, a personal meaning which would justify the struggle were the first to go. So while our self-preservational nature suffices to make us go through our normal life, it may fail to sustain us through suffering or crisis.
Hedonists might say that “having fun” is a good enough reason to live. And this certainly may ring true to some people, especially teenagers. But our lives are finite, and as we become older it becomes increasingly difficult for us to justify a life preoccupied with a meaningless diversion. This is because with age it becomes important for us to make sense of our life, of it’s purpose, direction and legacy. And unfortunately, abundance of video-games, parties, sexual partners and alcohol don’t seem to help with that at all.
So what can sustain us through our life, even when faced with pain, suffering and the prospect of imminent death?
Meaning is about having a strong connection to an object or an idea outside of ourselves. This may be a worthy cause, a work we enjoy, a love to a person or a religious faith. Meaning is the decisive answer to the question of life. When two of Viktor Frankl’s inmates told him they don’t see the point in struggling anymore, he asked them what they would have done if they were freed. One said he would reunite with his loved wife and the second mentioned a project he left unfinished and very much wishes to complete. Each of them had something in the outside world that waited for them, that depended on them. Helping them see this, he unveiled meaning to their suffering, and helped them find powers to keep on struggling.
Finding some life configuration which produces meaning is not easy, but even when it’s achieved, it’s endurance is fragile. Meaning isn’t a holy grail, which once found can be hold unto. It’s a blast of wind that one minute carries us and the next blows in our face. Our kids grow (and don’t depend on us anymore), our projects fail (or complete), our loved ones leave us. And when that happens, when meaning dissolves and life loses it’s previous purpose, the dreaded question surfaces: what’s now?
When we are lonely, lost, and naked before the universe in our pain and misery, there is one belief that may redeem us: that sometime, somewhere, for somebody we may still be needed, be significant, be crucial.
Amidst despair and depression it’s hard to believe that life will be happy or easy ever again, and indeed we may never regain our older, happier selves. But seeing ourselves beyond the current crisis, beyond the transformations that we are about to undergo, it’s crucial that we realize that we are more than our past projects, past performances, past relationships. Despite our failures, disappointments and regrets, we are still unique human beings capable of loving, of acting with compassion, of creating meaning.
No one has ever lived a life similar to ours. Our parents, our childhood, our friends, our illnesses, our relationships, our achievements – they formed us into a unique mixture of perspectives, knowledge, experience. And after all, stripped of all our regalia, that’s all we have. But isn’t that enough? Isn’t that enough to be able to find a a renewed application for ourselves, a renewed meaning, a renewed life?
Living through changes is always difficult, and nothing is more difficult than changes to our perception of ourselves. If you thought of yourself as a a successful TV presenter, than being fired from your job might feel like it’s the end. If you regarded yourself as a dutiful parent, than failing your children is catastrophic for your self-image. If you are a good person, how can you live with the wrong that you did?
But are we just that? Must our successes limit our life’s scope? Must our failures define our heart’s reach? Must our wrongdoings prevent us from doing good? In the void of the lost meaning, what we need is sustaining the belief in our ability to broaden the definition of who we are and what we can do.
The question whether life is worth living is ultimately a personal one. Sometimes the suffering may be so unbearable that putting an end to it may be the only sensible choice (and consciously realizing that this as an option may not be such a bad thing, after all it reaffirms our ultimate freedom). But nothing worthy is ever gained without a struggle. And that includes life.