I’ve been in a philosophical mood recently, at times contemplating the meaning of life, and therefore have supplemented my usual reading of fiction with two books atypical for me: David Benatar’s THE HUMAN PREDICAMENT and Victor E. Frankl’s MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING.
Both books operate from the premise that life is inherently meaningless, that there is no cosmic purpose to our lives, and the universe is indifferent to our existence. The question becomes what, if anything, do we do about that?
The predicament that Benatar refers to is this: “Life is bad, but so is death.”
He writes, “Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vice—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.”
Sooner or later, we’re all going to face tragedy, some of us more than others (the role of luck), but death isn’t necessarily preferable to life and we can still cobble together meaning on a personal basis, which gives us reason to stay alive. Benatar writes:
One should not desist from loving one’s family, caring for the sick, educating the young, bringing criminals to justice, or cleaning the kitchen merely because these undertakings do not matter from the perspective of the universe. They matter to particular people now. Without such undertakings, lives now and in the near future will be much worse than they would otherwise be.
In other words, being decent people, loving others, and doing the right thing are all worthwhile endeavors.
Benatar suggests two approaches to managing the human predicament: pragmatic optimism and pragmatic pessimism.
Pragmatic optimism accepts the human predicament but uses optimism to cope: might as well look on the bright side. The concern is whether this compartmentalization can be maintained or will it backfire on us. Thus, pragmatic pessimism, which Benatar prefers. Life sucks, yes, admit it, but you don’t have to dwell on it. Find ways to distract yourself. Create your own meaning and reasons for living.
Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived internment at Auschwitz during World War II. His basic premise is that we may not have freedom from the conditions in our lives (an enslaved laborer teetering daily on the precipice of death, for example), but we are free to take a stand toward the conditions. In this case, attitude is everything. He noted the marked difference in survival rates in the concentration camps between those who gave up hope and those who formulated a reason to try to stay alive.
Frankl writes: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl believes we are responsible for creating meaning in our lives and we can do so in one of three ways: by creating a work or performing a deed (write novels, or grow a business), by engaging in experiences (loving someone, helping others, for example), and most of all by rising above our conditions by responding in a way that fosters personal growth and change.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.
Both of these books are fascinating inquiries into the human condition and the unrelenting quest for meaning. It’s a shame we don’t talk about this more, but no one appreciates a pessimist these days. Such a person is considered a grump and party pooper and unappreciative of life. It’s sad that few people admit what a tragedy life can be—that those thoughts should be pushed aside. Instead, everyone’s goal is to be happy.
Woe to the unhappy person who only feels more unhappy when they are told they should be happy. To the person who is told to smile more because “Life is good.” That’s an incomplete, naive thought if I’ve ever heard one. Isn’t it more authentic to admit: “Life is good, and life is bad.” You can’t have one without the other. The challenge is how to deal with it.