One of my best students was looking for help with the big questions of life. As this is the last class I will probably ever teach—I am giving up college teaching after nearly 30 years to write full-time—I thought I might try to briefly answer.
We Are All Beggars When It Comes to Truth
William James taught me long ago that no one should claim intellectual superiority regarding questions about the mystery of existence. As James put it: “All of us are beggars here.” I like the humility of that statement, although I always thought it should be amended slightly to: All of us are beggars here, but some beg a bit better than others. In other words, while none of us know the answers to the big questions, some probably do know a bit more than others.
Truth is Ineffable
Unsurprisingly the more knowledgeable often aren’t the most vocal. Perhaps that’s because of their awareness of the complexity of reality and the humility that awareness engenders. Or perhaps that’s because truth, whatever it is, is ineffable. This is the basic idea of the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, in one of its many translations:
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name…
Arrogance about Truth
Another curious thing is those who pretend to own the truth and speak confidently about it seem the least likely to actually possess it. This is probably due to vanity, hubris, or insecurity. (Think TV evangelist, cable news host, or ignorant politician.) Bertrand Russell thought this attitude consequential: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
You Must Find Truth for Yourself
If we are beggars when it comes to the biggest questions, because deep truths are ineffable or incomprehensible, then what do we do when asked about them? We could pretend to have answers like the priests, politicians, imams, and assorted gurus. Or we could reply humbly as did the Buddha on his deathbed when his students sought guidance: “Therefore … be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself.” This is a most beautiful answer, as the only real answers to existential questions are the ones we find for ourselves. All others are hand-me-down or second-hand answers. Comrades may help us, but in the end we must find our own reasons to the mystery of being. This echoes what Walt Whitman taught me more than 40 years ago.
I tramp a perpetual journey—(come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods;
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair;
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy;
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, or exchange;
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
Not I—not any one else, can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far—it is within reach;
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know;
Perhaps it is every where on water and on land.
Shoulder your duds, dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me;
For after we start, we never lie by again.
This day before dawn I ascended a hill, and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my Spirit, When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?
And my Spirit said, No, we but level that life, to pass and continue beyond.
You are also asking me questions, and I hear you;
I answer that I cannot answer—you must find out for yourself.
Sit a while, dear son;
Here are biscuits to eat, and here is milk to drink;
But as soon as you sleep, and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I kiss you with a good-bye kiss, and open the gate for your egress hence.
Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams;
Now I wash the gum from your eyes;
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light, and of every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore;
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.
Stanza 46 from “Song of Myself.”