Life is like chasing the wind- it is all vanity. So says the person who is considered to be the wisest man who ever lived, the biblical Solomon. The most fundamental questions that human beings ask themselves in the span of their lifetimes revolve around who they are, what their purpose is, what is the meaning and purpose of their existence, what is the point in the anguish that usually marks human living?
These questions have been addressed by the great philosophers over the centuries, from Aristotle to Descartes and Neistche, from Bertrand Russell to Kant and even Seneca. The average mortal, though not equipped with developed critical thinking skills, cannot go through his whole life without once stopping to ponder on these questions even if it is just abstract.
Who defines what we are?
‘We are all prisoners of our own identity,’ so says one of the characters in a popular television show, ‘Prison Break’. We cannot run away from who and what we are. But who are we? What makes us what we are?
Self-awareness is the conscious knowledge that we are distinct and discreet individuals separate from others and also that others have their own self-awareness. Rene Descartes did a tremendous job in analyzing and defining what it means to be aware of oneself. For him, it came down to one sentence- I think therefore I am; meaning that our conscious self is very closely linked to our physical self. The physical is a manifestation of the consciousness; that we have to think of ourselves as being before we can actually be. From our self-awareness then arise the connections to our physical environment from where arises the question of right and wrong, good and bad (Salomon, 1986).
The societies we live in play a major role in determining how we view what is right and what is wrong. Morality is relative in that a social group uses its own special set of circumstances to lay down the guidelines for moral and immoral. In ‘Purity and Pollution, Nancy Fischer explains that morality is ‘arbitrary’ meaning that morality is not actually a question of the action, but the context in which the action is done. What one social group might define as being highly immoral can be found by another to be totally acceptable and even laudable. For example, while Christianity upholds having only one sexual partner in marriage, Islam allows a man to take up to four wives (Fischer, undated).
Within our given societies, there are given moral standards that one is expected to abide by. The members of a social group control each other’s behavior by using nonverbal and verbal censures. If someone is seen to drift from the set path they can be ostracized by being excluded from the group or by being given labels that have a negative connotation (Salomon, 1986).
Man has a dual nature that constantly struggles with the impulsive untamed side and the rational reasoning side of him. As illustrated by the character of Harry in Hesse’s enlightening book, sometimes man loses the struggle and the result is chaos. The balance between the wild untamed instinctive side and the rational thinking side determines the level of interaction and adaptability that a man has in society. Those who lean too heavily to the latter are termed as being antisocial and such leanings are discouraged (Hesse, 1961).
Does God exist?
For time immemorial, man has found consolation and comfort by looking beyond the human realm to the spiritual and the supernatural. Man has a limited understanding and when the questions the human race asks become too complicated, they turn to higher deities who are meant to be all-knowing. Organized religion has been around almost as long as man has and the purpose of religion has been to provide the ultimate answer which is…no answer.
A good illustration of what this means can be drawn from Dostoyevsky’s work ‘The Inquisitor’ which runs along the lines of a nonbeliever questioning Jesus Christ on the three temptations he underwent. Throughout the tale, the inquisitor asking all the questions strives to make him explain to him not only about religion but other aspects of life as well. Yet Jesus remains silent and his final answer is a kiss! The kiss, though it does not make the inquisitor a believer neither brings him closer to understanding anything, he feels a kind of peace (Dostoyevsky, 1993).
That is what religion is about; as a balm for consoling humankind even when there are no solid answers. It has to be taken by faith. But religion remains supremely important to humankind; not only does it act as a source of comfort and reassurance in a troubled world, but it is also a foundation on which the moral and ethical guidelines upon which numerous societies are built.
Why we suffer?
Religion tries to justify human suffering as some sort of punishment that man gets for succumbing to the baser side of his nature. There is a system of punishment and reward; when one strays, punishment is used as a way of reminding him/her that he/she has moved away from the true path. Suffering, as the consensus seems to be is self-inflicted; the human race did something wrong to deserve the pain and anguish that it goes through. They literally asked for it and only by recognizing their faults (sins) nada skin g for penance can they be lifted beyond suffering (Salomon, 1986).
Where are we going?
The span of our lifetimes is not enough to even begin the discovery of what life means. The years pass too swiftly; there is too much to learn yet too little time. Things pass before our eyes and before we have taken the time to study them before we have even begun to understand, they are gone and something new and just as exciting is laid before us and what we saw before is forgotten. What we are called upon to do, if we are to gain from this short life, is to learn to use economically the little time that we have got (Seneca, 2005).
Each man shapes his own destiny in a way; it is true that life will always throw into our way the most unexpected circumstances but in the end, it is up to us to choose how to react to what life gives us. we choose our interests, we choose our vocations. We choose whether to be optimistic and open to the experiences we go through, or we choose to be pessimistic and despair. Others choose to seek fame, power, and glory; others decide to seek knowledge and enlightenment. Others seek love and understanding. The translation of what life means has never been the same for two different people because it is not possible that two people can share exactly the same human experience (Seneca, 2005).
The knowledge of our mortality at times arouses in us an unquenchable thirst for more; because we are aware that in a not too distant time in the future, what we have will be gone, we reach out with greedy grasping hands and try to get hold of as much as we can in this short span of time. We want to pack into our short lifetimes as much of the human experience as we can. By living in a whirlwind of motion, we try to block out the notion of dying- pretending that it is not an eventuality that will catch up with us (Seneca, 2005).
Yet the human experience is interconnected -no man is an island. Our actions impact the action of others who at the same time influence how we are going to behave as well. Seneca (2005) concludes that we humans waste our lives away in pursuit of all the wrong things, looking for answers where we are least likely to find them. We value what is worthless and easily discard what is priceless, this is the human dilemma. In our blinded lust, reaching out for so many things at once, we lose even the little that was in our grasp. Since we cannot focus our energies on one undertaking, we end up learning little and perhaps in our whole lifetime, understanding nothing.
There are numerous questions about life that remain unanswered. People will always ponder about the purpose of our existence, why we are here at all. We are born, we live, and we go through human emotions and human trials. We love, we laugh, we cry, we fight wars, we put up great structures, and we dedicate our lives to great causes we believe in. In the end, we die and that brings us to the point of origin again. What is it all for?
Throughout the history of humanity, the things we do today have been done before; there is nothing new under the sun, said the wisest man. Everything is cyclical and repetitive. We do things, forget, encounter them again at some point in the future and get surprised by their seeming newness.
Our identities are defined not by what we are born, but by where we are born. The societies we live in shape us and mold us until we fit into the labels that are seen as good and right. Our moral and ethical identities are not originals that can be said to be found within the genes; they are very much the work of the society.
No one has all the answers about the nature of human life and even when these answers are found, they are not universal because the human circumstance is unique and thus cannot be content with a universal answer. When it comes to good living, one man’s truth remains one man’s truth; understanding of right and wrong, good and bad though shaped by society, is as varied as there are individuals under the sun. In the end, it remains up to the individual to grope through his/her existence as best as he/she can and create meaning out of their own experience.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Grand Inquisitor: with related chapters from The Brothers Karamazov. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Hackett Publishing, 1993
Fisher Nancy (undated). Purity and Pollution: Sex as a Moral Discourse. In Handbook of the New Sexuality Studies. Minneapolis, Augsburg College.
Hesse, Hermann. Steppenwolf. Austin Texas: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.
Seneca, Annaeus, L. On the Shortness of Life. London: Penguin Books, 2005.
Salomon Robert C. The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.