This question may seem like something only a madman would ask, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in the last few years it’s that “madmen” often have the most interesting things to say. My interest in philosophy started when I read Albert Camus’s The Stranger as a sophomore in high school, and since then existentialism has been tied with metaphysics for my favorite subject to learn about. This isn’t so much a discussion of Camus’s philosophy, or that of anyone else. I wanted to jot down some of my own thoughts on the question “What reasons are there to live?” as a way of recording part of my progression from newborn fool, in a symbolic sense, to enlightened individual.
I suppose I should explain why I’m even asking the question. It seems that people often don’t ask enough questions, and the claims from philosophers ranging from Socrates to Nietzsche, stating that almost entire societies of people are content to live in ignorance and mediocrity are true. There’s enough evidence to support these claims that I wouldn’t dare disagree or argue against it, and it doesn’t even seem unreasonable that on a planet inhabited by over seven billion people, so very many of them would be lost in and to the growing global societies. We’re so far removed from our place as intelligent animals that people don’t even understand the natural world anymore. Many people don’t see the dangers, blessings, and truths around them, and live as they are guided to, believing in the world view that they are socialized into rather than trying to figure things out for themselves. Personally, I was never satisfied with ignorance. I used to hate the idea that there were things, usually which I thought were important, that I did not know. Even worse was knowing there was valuable information which I wasn’t being given. Whether it was essential to my existential freedom or just a practical life-hack, I wanted to know as much as I could about the world around me. I didn’t like the idea of living outside of truth.
So why would I eventually be asking “What reasons are there to live”? I wanted to know if there was a valid reason as to why I should be alive. There’s certainly an explanation to my existence, and so there’s a practical reason as to why I am alive, but not as to why I should be alive. After learning about determinism, the necessity of cause and effect, and the lack of objective meaning, I was faced with what I would consider the first absolute truth I had come to learn: the only meaning is relative meaning. Rocks are only hard to things softer than rocks. Fire is only hot to things colder than fire. The easiest way to figure out what the significance of something is is to figure out the significance of what it is not. Needless to say, I am alive. If I wanted a clue as to why, I would have to contemplate my death. Not only what would I lose, because I wanted more than just a personally relevant reason, but also what would be lost to the world if I were to not be. The people who know me would never again share their time with me, everything I’m involved in would lose a participant, and I would lose the opportunity to live. What kept me alive is almost solely this last point, having the chance for something so great I didn’t yet understand it. Not just being alive, but actually living well. I’m not someone who is satisfied with merely progressing through life, never learning or changing. There are things I want to do, experiences I want to have, a life I want to live, and I don’t care if it’s not guaranteed that I’ll get them all. Not everything so far has been to my liking, and there’s a lot of loss, pain, and suffering that seemed to dominate my mind like a trap for many years, but I want something worth all of this, and I don’t plan on giving up because of some pain.
It’s not that I am unaffected by suffering. Rather, I understand its necessity. Not everything can be good. Once in school, we were asked to write a short essay on our imagination of a world without hate. Being a cynical, moderately depressed, but witty 17 year old kid, I wrote about a world in which no one knew of the value of love, because no one had the audacity to hate. No one cared about anything enough to be provoked to some emotional response. Everyone was content accepting everything that happened and never feeling resentment. The world was “paradise” made real, and nothing ever changed. The dull neutrality of experiences permeated people’s emotions as no one was ever dissatisfied or satisfied by anything. There was never a fight to win, a slump to come back from, or a loss to overcome, so there was never any greatness, any progress, or any passion in the lives of people. I was also taking my third year of Latin at this time, and among all the vocabulary that we were given, the word “patior” caught my attention. It meant to suffer, allow, or endure, but the most interesting thing to me was that this was the root of the english word “passion”. Passion is often associated with things people love, artistic pursuits or vocational callings that people commit their lives to, so what does it have to do with suffering? Back then I thought it was an interesting irony, and it may still just be that, but the notion seems more profound to me now that I’ve studied Zen philosophy, existentialism, morality, and psychology. In life there is suffering, but there is also passion. The two are reciprocal sides of the same coin. You endure the hardships of freedom and individuality, to enjoy the fruits of labor and constant death-of-self. This never-ending change of the person you are coming to an end so the person you are becoming can exist freely in this experience we call life is the point of the whole ordeal. I hadn’t realized this yet when I found my reasons to live, but I was already well on the path. We suffer for the sake of happiness, and we go through pain for the sake of joy. However, there is one question left to ask: Is it all worth the pain?
This is up to the individual. You can play the game of life, and do your best to create something you can be pleased with, or you can not. Death is always an option, but quitting a game that can be won in the moment with a single decision is entirely a bad idea. If there’s no point in being alive just to die, then don’t just die. Go at it until you win something, and then keep going until your time is up. Get better and better not to make things easier, but to become stronger and more capable of crafting your own way. Define your own values, and grow into something worth becoming. There aren’t reasons to live until you give yourself some. You may not find heaven on earth, but you may end up making a little corner of heaven somewhere for yourself. If you don’t have a passion for something you consider great, you may be dead before you die. Live for the sake of living, and enjoy your time here. You only get one chance at being you, so be great at it.