What Makes Life Worth Living?

What’s the question again?


Terrible question. The kind of question that turns the day into a cold and rainy afternoon. This morning, scrolling through my Google news feed, I read that Steve Jobs would look into the mirror each morning and remind himself to treat the day as if it were his last day on earth. Pressure. When I retired from teaching 2 years ago, I felt that same kind of pressure. Free to start really living! Time was running out! I was desperate and frantic for months to pack every plan and every minute with some kind of transcendent meaning. The fever and the panic subsided slowly as the question drifted down below the surface as I settled into a new routine. Still, the question needs to be asked.

But the question itself is flawed. Does “worthwhile” mean a bucket list of accomplishments? Climbing that mountain, sailing that ocean, writing that great American novel, starting that charity or running for public office. Somehow one must leave one’s mark upon the earth, doing something that will live on in the minds of people. Filling up your Facebook timeline. Pressuring one’s children to be greater then we never were. When writing about slavery in the ancient world, and how it was preserved by the lawyers (!), Alfred North Whitehead, in his Adventure of Ideas, offers us this provocative word image:

But they preserved the institution [slavery]. Civilization, Hellenic and Roman, was preserved intact for more than seven centuries after the death of Plato. The slaves were martyrs whose toil made progress possible. There is a famous statue of a Scythian slave sharpening a knife. His body is bent, but his glance is upward. That figure has survived the ages, a message to us of what we owe to the suffering millions in the dim past.

Alfred North Whitehead, “The Human Soul”, Adventures of Ideas, p. 21

Most people who have lived on the earth have lived obscure lives full of suffering and toil. Do we need to remind ourselves that in the United States, slavery existed legally until the middle of the 19th century? After that we had factories, mass production wage slavery. And now Amazon warehouses. What, then, makes life worth living?

What sustains, and nourishes, and gives meaning to the lives of these countless, nameless millions? In the face of grinding toil and relentless oppression, who wouldn’t come to the conclusion that it’s all a cosmic joke that’s been played on them? I don’t have the audacity of Spartacus, but I might have had enough courage join him. But even Spartacus couldn’t end slavery. And no one can end meaningless work.

In every life, whether you are in the 1%, or doing time in Soledad, choices can be made. One can decide to live for more truth, more forgiveness, and more open-heartedness. Or, we can give in to the forces of greed, revenge, petty ambition, and the raging adrenaline rush of hatred. All grant immediate satisfaction, but all are enemies of the worthwhile life. To be sure, we are all a mixed bag. We struggle. 

It is that struggle that makes the drama of living on earth worthwhile.  May we choose wisely.

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