The Problem of Life


Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? ~ Paul Gauguin

The Problem of Life

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human conditionBlaise Pascal

When I consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, now rather than then.
Blaise Pascal

We are not at one. We have no instincts
like those of migratory birds. Useless, and late.
we force ourselves onto the wind,
and find no welcome from ponds where we alight.
We comprehend flowering and fading simultaneously.
~ Rainer Marie Rilke

A precipice in front of you, and wolves behind you, in your rear; that is life.
~ Latin Proverb

Insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are,
and now flourish and grow warm with life,
and feed on what the ground gives,
but then again fade away and are dead.
~ Homer

Life is hard. It includes physical pain, mental anguish, war, hatred, anxiety, disappointment, and death. Life’s problems are so significant that humans try desperately to alleviate and avoid them. But mere words cannot convey the depth and intensity of the suffering in human life. Consider that persons are starving, imprisoned, tortured, and suffering unimaginably as you read this; that our emotional, moral, physical, and intellectual lives are limited by our genes and environments; that our creative potential is wasted because of unfulfilling or degrading work, unjust incarceration, unimaginable poverty, and limited time; and that our loved ones suffer and die—as do we. Contemplate the horrors of history when life was often so insufferable that death was welcomed. What kind of life is this that nothingness is often preferable? There is, as Unamuno said, a “tragic sense of life.” This idea haunts the intellectually honest and emotionally sensitive individual. Life sometimes seems not worth the trouble.

Of course the above does not describe all of human life or history. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and a thousand other things that make life, at least sometimes, worthwhile, and at other times pure bliss. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are mountains, oceans, trees, sky, and flowers; there is art, science, literature, and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. Life sometimes seems too good for words.

Now assuming that we are lucky enough to be born without any of a thousand physical or mental maladies, or into bondage, famine, or war, the first problems we confront are how to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves. Initially, we have no choice but to rely on others to meet our basic needs, but as we mature we are increasingly forced to fulfill these needs on our own.  In fact most human effort, both historically and presently, expends itself attempting to meet these basic needs. The structure of a society may aid us in satisfying our needs to differing extents, but no society fulfills them completely, and many erect impediments that make living well nearly impossible. We often fail to meet our basic needs through no fault of our own.

But even if we are born healthy and into a relatively stable environment, even if all our basic needs are met, we still face difficulties. We seek health and vitality, friends and mates, pleasure and happiness. Our desires appear unlimited. And presuming that we fulfill these desires, we still face pressing philosophical concerns: What is real? What can we know? What should we do? What can we hope for? And, most importantly, what is the meaning of life in a world that contains so much suffering and death? This is the central philosophical question of human life. Fortune may shine upon us but we ultimately suffer and perish, raising the question of the point of it all. If all our hopes, plans, longings, and loves ultimately vanish, then what does it all mean? And the question is not just academic; it penetrates to the core of the human existence.

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4 thoughts on “The Problem of Life

  1. Here’s a question that I’m sure has been asked many times: why do we need to assign a meaning to life? Is the need for meaning an abdication of personal responsibility?

    I hold in some contempt those who take their morals from a book, especially one that is a translation of a copy of a copy of a copy of a translation of a copy… a book whose ethical teachings have been interpreted in a hundred different ways. I don’t passively take my life’s marching orders from any silly book. I set my own course, decide upon my own morals.

    Some people think that such an approach gives one license to justify whatever crimes one desires to commit. To which I respond, did the Bible ever stop anybody from committing a crime? If your heart is moral, you don’t need no stinkin’ Bible; if it is not moral, then no Bible will save you.

    So why should I read books, query wise men, and look under rocks for purpose and meaning? If there is no purpose and meaning in my heart, no external agent can provide them to me. I must look inward to find purpose and meaning, not outwards.

    I’m sure that I am merely rehearsing ideas that have long since been more eloquently enunciated by wiser men than myself.

  2. Your view has been espoused by the existentialists, especially Sartre and Camus. It is a large part of the answer and in the next few months I will explore these questions in great depth as a rehearsal for making a final statement about meaning for my kids and grandkids. JGM

  3. Thanks Ed. Having someone look forward to something I’m working on gives me inspiration. I hope I don’t arrive at the anti-life position too, but I’m committed to following the truth wherever it leads. Thanks again and I’ll look at your article. Also, I have a few new posts on evolution and ethics coming out in the next few weeks. JGM

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