What’s the point?
I’ve got cancer. It started out small. I thought it was just in one breast, but then after biopsies, it was found in both and a lymph node. I was reconciling myself to having a bi-lateral full mastectomy; not a small task for a newly remarried woman who believed the Western female narrative and paid too much attention to the importance of her body in creating her worth, her femaleness. (More on that problem at a later time). Then a PetScan revealed multiple white spots of cancer cells metabolizing in various parts of my body, most importantly my liver. So it seemed that what I was learning to have to accept had now become even a bigger fact to handle.
When you are faced with losing your breasts, it seems like the only decision left to ponder is “will I get reconstruction or not?” When you are faced with losing your life, the decision to ponder harkens back to the great quote from the Lord of the Rings, spoken by Gandalf, “All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Of course, this is a decision that exists at all moments in life, not just when one is actually lucky enough to have the consciousness to consider it. I say lucky enough because that is the truth of this moment. I am quite fortunate to have the weight of this moment point me more clearly towards the absolute fact of my own impermanence, my own mortality. Many do not have the option to reflect on this reality as they die instantly in a car crash, succumb to a sudden heart attack, or worse, die as a child just barely aware of life’s joys and abundance.
So what is the point of living? What do we humans do with this brief time we’ve been given? I have been a psychotherapist all of my adult life. I have been in the presence of suffering far worse than anything my protected and privileged childhood ever offered me. I have witnessed the fear and anxiety of humans expressed in reckless behaviour, mean-spirited attitudes, addiction, demandingness, and all forms of abuse. I have seen attempts to love and be loved distorted into possessiveness, control, criticism and blame Life is full of missteps, hurt, disappointment, flailing about and yes, thankfully there is also profound kindness, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation.
Human existence is so contradictory. We numb ourselves out but we want to feel something. We seek happiness but nothing allows us an absolute escape from the suffering we see or feel. We buy and hoard things though unlike the ancient Egyptians we know we can’t take it with us. We know everyone we cling to and love are going to leave us and die. We work hard at perfecting and performing all the while knowing whatever we do will be only temporary. We know time is short but we waste it. We strive for significance but we know we will only be a small voice in the larger cacophony of voices in the world. And yet, we are compelled to love as we are compelled to breathe. We have a will to become that puts us through stats courses and job interviews, exhausting exercise regimes and food limitations, fears of personal embarrassment and rejection. We have a desire to be, to become our best selves, to make a contribution, to be somebody, to matter.
Philosophers, psychologists and religious thinkers all grapple with this topic of what is the point of our existence. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, coined the term angst or anxiety to describe our experience as limited beings overwhelmed by the infinite. Paul Tillich a Christian theologian talked about the “courage to be” in the face of our existential predicaments of insignificance and mortality. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber talked about the importance of holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery that we encounter in every sphere of our lives. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of knowing that life has ultimate meaning though we can never fully comprehend that meaning, only sense it. Each of these philosophers and theologians with their own histories of loss and suffering could give a harsh but true summary of human experience that life is dark, and human agony is excruciating. And yet, each of them in the face of suffering pointed to the virtues courage, to finding meaning, to persisting in the face of complexity or uncertainty.
Looking at another frame of thought, some psychological and self-help literature has identified obtaining happiness as the dominant pathway to dealing with the existential dilemmas of being human. Happiness itself as a goal, and as a personality attribute is identified variously as “an advantage” in creativity, financial success, being healthy and finding love. Indeed, in pop-psychology books generally riffing on “the law of attraction” we are often subtly berated that our unhappiness is of our own making because we have willfully manifested it in our lives by how we think and what we habitually do. While some of this has a level of self-evident truth, there are also psychologists of a different school of thought. Martin Seligman, one of the father’s of positive psychology points out that being happy has the thinnest rewards, whereas making a meaningful contribution to the lives of others is the most optimal way to thrive. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian Psychologist and author of the book Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief addresses these existential questions thru his study of neuropsychology, religion and philosophy. He describes an essential human need to address these questions with what he frames as “the religious impulse.” It is the desire for an experience bigger than ourselves, bigger than time and provides us with “the absolute within to deal with the absolute without.” Our sense of a divine, and eternal being gives us hope to keep on keeping on, and not give up in absolute despair. Something Kierkegaard defined as “the sickness unto death.” Further, the idea that God created us in his image, gives an immense dignity to our existence. A dignity which simultaneously gives our life meaning and defines our purpose to be the evidence of God on earth. Combine this idea with that of Viktor Frankl, the psychoanalyst, who wrote in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, that “what can give light must endure burning.” And, “if there is meaning in life at all there must be meaning in suffering.”
From another spiritual viewpoint, one of the dominant forces in Eastern religious thinking was the Buddha. The first of his four noble truths: all of life is suffering. The essence of the human experience is to suffer. Suffering is not some unfortunate thing that disrupts some otherwise perfect existence. The Buddha’s teaching is that suffering is at the heart of being a human. Recognizing this is not to dwell in a self-pitying way on our own suffering, but to deeply accept that it is an experience we share with all humans, in all times, and all levels of privilege. The ultimate purpose of this recognition is to get us out of our own heads, so we can offer compassion to whomever we meet. Individual happiness as a goal then, is such a shallow concept in Buddhist spirituality that it is not even considered a part of enlightenment.
It would seem to me that purpose of life is to identify and follow a mode of being that makes life justifiable even in the face of the fact that life is suffering, it is short, and we are (at least most of us) insignificant in the larger catalogue of history. Life and it’s suffering when clearly known gives us depth, gives us an escape from our own small-mindedness, and gives us a will to do for others rather than accumulate for ourselves. If our philosophy is shallow and meaningless, we’ll become petty and hostile, hoarding and easily bored. In relation to yourself you’ll become self-critical and forever locked in your own narrow definitions of suffering, which often means dwelling in being offended by others. In relation to others, if you are only seeking your own superficial comfort and happiness, you’ll likely become cruel and destructive. Therefore, pragmatically speaking to avoid these pitfalls in answering the existential questions, the suffering that we experience must be something that we can use. It is like the grain of sand that finds its way into the shell of the oyster, and out of that discomfort the oyster fashions a pearl. For the angst that existential thinkers identified as a uniquely human dilemma each of them had a stance that invited people to consider purposeful living in spite of its apparent meaninglessness, suffering and overwhelming fragility. Or as another somewhat controversial Christian philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr said life has no meaning except for us taking responsibility for it.
The image of God in this world is humanity. Our goal in life can be (should be?) to be in this world what we would want God to be in this world. To manifest not just our own destiny, or our own fleeting happiness, but to manifest God in the world. To be radically discontent with the things that exist in this world, the social evils, the human suffering, and to do what we can to right them, because we are God’s own self in this world.
And so writing this has given me some peace. I do not have long to live in this world whether or not cancer eventually gets me. But I do still have a purpose. There still are things I can do, and I still can continue becoming. Each day still gives me opportunities if I will just take them. And so I end this with an inspirational quote from Niebuhr which you may recognize:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
And not knowing when to quit I also add this poem from William Blake:
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.