For French Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, the only important philosophical question was: Why should I not kill myself? Talk about getting to the point.
Most of us choose to go on living. But why?
As we struggle to answer this question we’re forced to give voice to difficult, elusive truths – the pervasive sense of the value and beauty of our lives, the simple, unadulterated joy of experience, and the tantalizing possibility that, despite our frequent moments of malaise and ennui, there just might be something amazing waiting for us in this next moment. We wouldn’t want to miss that, right?
So we go on.
Despite the pain and loss everyone inevitably endures, there is an unfolding treasure at the heart of every moment, a treasure we often overlook in our haste to rush forward into whatever’s next. The art of living well requires the ability to hold still, grow quiet, and allow the hush of the sacred to slowly rise up through the gaps between our thoughts. And when we do, five key reasons to go on living come into view. These are the five ties that bind us to this brief and beautiful life.
It’s not as if we’re going to live forever. No matter what, we only have a little more time. No need to end it prematurely. We might as well see what’s next. The brevity of life drives us toward reluctant decisiveness. We wish we had forever, time for a thousand wrong turns. But we don’t. Sure, there’s time for a few mistakes here and there, but as the years fly by it hits you – this matters, you have to choose, and your choices define you. There’s freedom in mortality. Knowing that we don’t have forever frees us from the tyranny of infinity. There simply isn’t time to dawdle or equivocate. This is it. Strike while the iron’s hot. Risk everything. Don’t let fear rob you of your joyful authenticity. Have the guts to be who you really are. You owe it to yourself, to the world, and to the creative energy that birthed you.
Sure, you need money to survive. But life itself is free. In our overly commodified world where everything gets bought and sold, it’s easy to overlook the fact that life’s richest moments come unbidden not from what we’ve purchased or possess, but from what moves fleetingly through our grasp – a child’s laughter, a passage of music, the flight of an owl through the pines at twilight. The feeling of belonging in a family, whether a birth-family or a family-of-choice. The joy of knowing you did the right thing. The satisfaction of a job well done. You can’t buy any of this – because it doesn’t belong to anyone. It just is. And so are you. These joys are born from the countless intersections of experience that constitute a life. We participate in them, but we do not possess them.
This is the heart of the matter: we are awash in beauty. Awakening to the wonder of it all is the business of every man and woman. When the scales fall from our eyes even the most ordinary things shimmer with significance. We ache with recognition when we open our hearts and souls to the limitless grace of the infinite array around us – every stone an altar, every tree a tabernacle, every shaft of light a prophecy. Even in the grittiest places, the so-called ugly places, there is a grandeur hidden just beneath the surface of things. These broken down ruins tell a story, a story of aspiration and creativity and the undaunted heroism of those long gone who toiled and triumphed for a moment in the sun, before the inevitable impermanence that haunts all things came to reclaim what they had built. Even in dissolution and decay there is an elegance and beauty we often overlook.
As much as we like to think that we are the center of the universe, that much egotism is actually quite exhausting. It’s a relief when we finally realize that we don’t matter more than anyone else – that no one is worse than us and no one is better than us – and we take our place right-sized in the family of things. We know that this world was not made for us – that we are not apart from it – we know that we are it, that the earth is our mother and father, and the very elements that constitute our bodies are earth-elements. We are not visitors from afar. We are this. We have the home field advantage. When we understand all of this, not intellectually, but in our bones – when we embody this awareness – we begin to move through life purposefully, humbly, and powerfully, because we know now that our life is not our own – we are a manifestation of the creative impulse of the universe, what some personify as God, and as such, everything we think, say, and do matters. It is through our actions that the mandate of heaven manifests itself. We are the hands, hearts, thoughts, and voice of eternal God-consciousness here in the temporal realm. We are the formless taking form. When we surrender to this realization, we are liberated from the tyranny of egotism and the loneliness of nihilism. Because all of this matters, we matter. Even in the depths of our sadness we know a quiet, ineffable joy. It is through us that God returns to himself. As Carl Sagan said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Everyone comes to this realization in their own time, in their own way. I came to know it most pointedly when my mom died. Lying there in the bed we’d set up for her in the living room of her home, surrounded by her own art and her father’s hand-carved furniture, the light from her beautiful summer garden streaming in through the open windows, she slipped in and out of consciousness. She’d lost her husband, our father, two years earlier. She’d lived a long, wonderful life. And she was surrounded by family. Holding her hand, whispering the last words a son tells his mother, kissing her forehead, I realized as she slipped away that none of these beautiful things – her art, her home, her garden – will last. Objects don’t matter. The only thing that bears the heft of eternity is love – it’s the only thing that’s real enough, big enough, and true enough to bear the weight of ultimacy. In the weeks, months, and years since my mother and father died I’ve felt their presence more acutely than at any time during their lives – it’s as if they never left. I can’t explain it. I certainly don’t mean their ghosts are hovering here in the room – that’s a crude way of conveying this ineffable truth: consciousness returns to consciousness, and as we participate in that one consciousness, all mediation and distortion burns away in the light of awareness – we know in our bones the unimpeachable truth of our oneness and timelessness. This cannot be put into words. Well, maybe one word: love.