Is Life Worth Living?

Here’s a story of an apparently successful and affluent person killing herself. No details are provided, but this person didn’t obviously suffer from the things we might think would cause self-destruction- loss of a future, unconquerable addiction, terminal illness.

But maybe she did. Losing things is worse than not having them in the first place, even if the thing lost is only hope. She was counting on something to create the pleasure of life greater than the pain, and she either lost it or despaired of obtaining it.

The idea of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is a very old one, but has been applicable to a large number of people only quite recently. For most of human existence, for almost all people, simple survival has been the issue. The idea of living for pleasure was introduced by the Hedonists of ancient Greece. This would have been a departure from the traditional way of living for an agricultural Iron Age people, which would have centered around family life, the cycle of the seasons and the festivals and religious observances associated with it. City people with money were in a position to question this, and this is the answer they came up with. It’s pretty simple and straightforward, and it’s the way a large number, maybe a bare majority of First World people live today.

Epicurus advanced on this, and the Epicureans were not simply devotees of fine living. Epicurus said people should seek pleasure, but avoid pain. For example, you might enjoy eating and drinking, but if you ate and drank too much you would get sick and the pain would cancel out the pleasure. He though people should avoid sexual relationships because they caused more pain than pleasure. He thought having friends was the best kind of pleasure.

The Stoics then came up with the idea that happiness came from living virtuously and thinking correctly. The modern phrase “nothing is bad but thinking makes it so” is very Stoic in nature. Outside circumstances should not make you unhappy because they are an unavoidable fact of life.

All these pagan philosophies have serious limits. People become immune to pleasure, what once was novel and exciting becomes routine and boring. We can avoid pain as well, which is certainly wise, but pleasure is difficult to come by and fleeting and pain a common constant. And the act of avoiding pain can lead to avoiding pleasure as well, in the case of Epicurus avoiding sexual and romantic attachments. The idea that we can simply think ourselves out of our problems is appealing to a certain type of cerebral person, and is the basis of cognitive-behavioral and rational-emotive psychotherapies. This however discounts our nature as emotional and physical creatures.

Here’s a study I just read about on what leads to happiness. It does not surprise me that a stable, happy childhood is the best predictor of happiness. Childhood is the beginning, and everything later is based on it. It’s not that it’s hard to leave behind, it’s impossible. I had a pretty bad childhood and adolescence, largely because of the rigid religiosity of my parents, and I have never recovered from it.

So- is the pagan life, that ends with death, worth living? For some people, yes, for others, many, no. As Solon said, “Call no man happy until he is dead.” Life has its ups and downs, and if things are great now, likely they will get worse. If things are awful they may get better, if only by chance.

The Grant study does not talk about religion at all. This surprises me, and puts the value of it into some question, because even atheists must appreciate the importance of determining some answers to existential questions. The New England, Transcendentalist answer may be that the meaning of life is found within life itself, so the question does not need to be asked.

But, hell- these guys are Harvard graduates. They came of age just in time for the post-World War II boom. If they didn’t make a big success of life, pretty much all of them, who can?

So, to answer the question- is life worth living? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think the meaning of life, or the value of life, can be found within life itself, or it would have no value for most.

On the other hand, I don’t think you can answer the existential questions of life with a few Bible quotes. I don’t think the response of the pastor in the first article was terribly helpful. The Bible isn’t a collection of pithy quotes and it’s definitely not a self-help manual. It has to be considered holistically to have real meaning.

The real idea, to me it seems at least, of the Bible is the recreation of a broken world- something that occurs partially various times in it, and a complete recreation promised in the future. This is what we wait for, and what the Bible seems to ask most of us is not obedience, or belief, or even love, but hope.

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One response to “Is Life Worth Living?

  1. I don’t know if I could feel any hope or pleasure if I believed that life after death was not only possible, but inescapable. It’s not so much whether or not you’ll go to a “good place,” there’s just something so hopeless about existing forever. I’d rather it just be over when it’s over.

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