"Sometimes I feel that all these efforts will be futile because our existence is futile... Humans have no choice, and therefore must make the best of it."
Date: Sun, 9 Nov 1997 02:55:48 -0500 (EST)
To: Richard Geib (email@example.com)
Subject: Hi, it's me. Barbara....
This is Barbara. The high-schooler who bothered you about Tolstoy and his theory of history. I guess not much has been going on lately, so I didn't e-mail you with my juvinile and trite problems.
I'm writing this letter to ask for your opinion on life and fate. I'm not sure if I love or hate my petty existence on this Earth. On one hand, I am glad that I can enjoy the company of friends and witness the technical advancments of mankind. But on the other hand, I see innocent people starving to death and middle aged men luring impressionable teenagers into cyber sex. Should I actively repress these incidents? Or how can one individual change anything? Is this destitution worth changing, if all good and evil will end up as dust? No matter what, man will continue in self destruction.
All the theories of the great philosophers make generalizations. How am I to apply that knowledge. how am I to live? I'd like to follow Rlaph Waldo Emerson's views. "To leave the world a bit better..... to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." But sometimes I feel that all these efforts will be futile because our existence is futile. Quoting my best friend, the human existence is "a soap opera directed by God" made to entertain Him.
Yet there is a third view, comprimising the opposing ones stated above. Humans have no choice, and therefore must make the best of it. Should I indulge in self-dilusion? Amuse myself with optimistic smiles while shunning the darker, more depressing aspect of life?
Sorry if this bores you. As I know you have probably encountered these inquisitions before. I write this letter after watching a movie about two lovers doomed by the tragedy of fate. They are seperated because of unfortunate circumstances. Although certain characters trigger the circumstances, these characters are also a victim of fate. Therefore, one finds it hard to put the blame on an individual.
Once again, thanks for listening
Of course I remember your e-mails to me and recall being impressed by the precociousness of the questions you asked - it was a pleasure to help you as best I could. This latest e-mail I feel less sure in answering, as I hardly consider myself an "expert" qualified to advise on the weighty questions you bring up. But I will try to honestly give you my opinion in the same serious tone in which you have written me. You make some very important comments on happiness, evil, and the free will of the individual. Your e-mail makes me think.
How is one to live? What is the good life? What does it matter? The answering of such questions represents an "education" in the broadest sense of the word and is the work of a lifetime. I have personally ruminated these questions in my mind for decades and have only found partial answers at best; but I have had the good luck to find teachers in a thousand different places and guises. You quote from Emerson: "To leave the world a bit better..... to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." If you can do this, you will have not lived in vain. As someone a few years older than yourself, trust me on this one.
You speak of the "unfortunate circumstances" and the tragic winds of fate which victimize us. It is true that this world - through fate or otherwise - breaks most people; but there are those heroic few who are not broken, and they are the ones for whom the rest of us live. This is how the individual - you and I - can change the world, in my opinion; this is where everyone of us is vested with enormous potential power. This is where a select few of our ancestors have been immortalized in the memories of our race (it takes, after all, thousands of years and the cumulative experience of countless millions of persons to create a Bible, Bhagavad-Gita, Torah, Koran). Maybe it is true that many people live "futile" existences as burdens to the earth. But never forget even in the worst moments and most destitute places there are those who work nobly for worthy ends. Undoubtedly there exist "middle aged men luring impressionable teenagers into cyber sex." But that hardly describes all people one might meet online - or even a large percentage of them.
I have seen a bit of the darker side of life to which you allude. I paid for part of my college education through working in an emergency room where I was fed a daily diet of suffering and death. I worked briefly as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff where I learned the stink of a jail where men live and die like animals in cages. There was a time then when I nearly came to see all men as thieves and women whores. This is a policeman's disease of the soul, and all too often the result is suicide. I then volunteered to teach in the most violent neighborhood I could find where helplessly I watched people throw their lives away for nothing in penury and misery, struggling predictably to keep my sanity in such a place. Most recently, I watched my beloved mother slowly macerate and die in front of my eyes from cancer; I watched her deteriorate from a vibrant woman in the summer of her life to a childlike invalid with tumors rapaciously devouring her brain. There is evil and pain in this world as to break one's heart - relative to some others, I consider myself lucky in the hand that life has dealt me.
But I do not say that it is wise to look away and pretend the dark does not exist. I would only advise you to try and understand and rise above it. As John Milton said in his "Aeropagitica":
"Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary... They are not skillful considerers of human things who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin... Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably... It was from out if the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into this world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is, of knowing good by evil."In my opinion, only in knowing evil can we truly choose between it and good; in suffering and experiencing pain, we appreciate what it means to be happy. I think those who stick their heads in the ground and never examine the dark will always be susceptible to it; when they refer to the "darkness," they know not of what they speak. It is true that knowledge brings sadness, and nowhere is this more true than with respect to the knowledge of good and evil. Yet I think it wise to drink fully from the drought of life, both good and bad - those who have never fallen have always seemed to me shallow and narrow; life has not shown them its infinite beauty, their virtue seems lifeless and without vigor.
Milton writes that Adam's tasting of the forbidden fruit is vital for "what wisdom can there be to choose... without the knowledge of evil?" It is "he that can apprehend and consider vice with all the baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian." Those who have been tempted yet chosen the good are the ones who are truly strong in their faith. With such a knowledge of good and evil, you might walk surrounded by temptation yet be entirely free of danger.
In today's superficial consumer society of fast food and free lunches, people have come to see "happiness" and "goodness" as normal while pain and suffering are abnormal - "amusing ourselves" with "optimistic smiles," as you put it. I think rather, like good and evil, the happiness and unhappiness are intimately enmeshed and dependent on each other in adult life. Too often, in my opinion, people find themselves unhappy and then blame it on society in the boogeymen of poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, and a million other scapegoats Yet we can read about the rich and famous unecumbered by any such difficulties who are miserable and unhappy as anyone else. I would argue that unhappiness comes primarily from within and not from of us. (As Abraham Lincoln put it in his simple yet powerful way: "I think most people are about as happy or unhappy as they want to be.") The mind being a place of its own, I believe all of us have the power to make ourselves happy or not; but we futilely compare ourselves with others, believe that success, wealth and fun equal happiness, harbor unrealistic expectations, desire what we lack rather than appreciate that which we have, look upon ourselves as victims, and view life as the avoidance of pain rather than the meeting of challenges.
Barbara, I think any elusive "happiness" we enjoy is the result of sacrifice, discipline and hard work. I do not think it a divine right or entitlement which God gives to cowards. Psychology has led us to think about happiness as a momentary state of mind. I think more valuable the idea of contentment we might earn through striving, hard work and the inevitable trials and sufferings life presents a person. This contentment which comes from within and can be encountered by anyone. Some of the most impressive (and happy!, despite their often bitterly hard lives) people I have ever met were former gangmembers who become Christians while in prison. Their faith is so strong!... they are of the dust and from the dust... they "see and know, and yet abstain." Having led extremely depraved and violent lives has not precluded them from choosing a different path later in life; they know evil intimately, yet are no longer victim of it. As Goethe put it so well, "Where the light is brightest the shadows are deepest." Suffering brings us, in my opinion, wisdom and knowledge, and wisdom allows us a deeper understanding of the breathtaking beauty and ecstasy of life in all the good, bad, and ugly.
Barbara, it is not true that we humans have no choice. Over many things we have no power, but each of us has the free will to control our attitudes and faith in choosing to live a life worth living. Even in the most untoward circumstances, we can do that much. This, in my opinion, is what makes life worth living.
Since we started our communication around Russian literature, I would challenge you to read Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" - if you are truly interested in all this. Let me know if you think Yuri Zhivago's life was futile and meaningless - even as his life was buffeted by a hostile world and cruel fate which so often separated him from those he loved. How many have done so much worse than him with so much more luck? I have learned so much from Zhivago!
Your e-mail does not bore me and neither do I view it as trite or puerile. On the contrary, these are questions which still greatly preoccupy me. I am still trying to work them out. But I would urge you to eschew pessimistic paths and the sirens' song of the cynics. Shun self-delusion, and look evil and suffering squarely in the face... and then choose to live for the good! Again, I would urge you to look at Emerson's quote and examine how you can use your uniqueness to serve others and make yourself worthy of happiness and, luck allowing, actually be happy.
I apologize for the length of this e-mail, but it was either a full explanation or none on this subject for which I feel so passionately. I hope you find something useful and of value in these very personal comments. And I congratulate you on working out in your mind and soul such important metaphysical questions rather than simply living life indifferently and shallowly.
Very Truly Yours,
"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
At 02:55 PM 2/28/00 -0800, you wrote:
You seem to know what is up and down. Has there ever been a time in your life when there really wasn't much of a point to it? Have you ever REALLY thought about the point of life? We can't be here simply to amuse ourselves, I won't accept that. I've grown up in the Christian church, and would like to believe in this theology, but God has never really responded to my efforts at prayer. So I'm just curious, what do you believe in? I've tried to not believe in anything, but find this unbearable. The idea of nothing being out there is rather scary.
Do You Yahoo!?
Talk to your friends online with Yahoo! Messenger.
Sure, there have been plenty of times when I have been very down and out. For example, about a two year period a bit back after my mother died I did not particularly care what happened to me good or bad. However, you suffer, work through it, and then life takes a happier turn sooner or later.
Life is often hard, and it is almost always a struggle to work through the issues that confront you at every turn. But you trudge on, learn from your mistakes, live with as much dignity and meaning as you can muster; you set your alarm clock, wake up every morning, and get out of bed ready to do your best. I try to keep learning, and I never lose hope for myself or our species. That, in a very abbreviated way, is what keeps me going.
What is out there? Is there meaning in life? These are not questions I can answer for you. You have to search long and hard and dig deep for hidden gold in that question. But there is so much richness in life and meaning in the world that awaits your discovery, if only you are patient and diligent in your search. It is never easy, but then few worthy ends in life are ever easy.
I wish you luck in your soul's journey.
A Fellow Flawed Traveler on This Earth,
Very Truly Yours,