By: Joe Pettit
My poker-buddy Adam, the guru of this site, says that he is having a mid-life crisis, characterized, in part, by a fear of his mortality. I am sixteen years older than Adam, have never had a mid-life crisis, nor have I found myself worrying too much about my eventual death. After reading Adam’s short essay, I began to wonder why.
I suppose the basic reason I have not had a mid-life crisis is that I have become quite comfortable not knowing who I am. To be sure, I have lots partial identities – husband, father, son, brother, teacher, neighbor, bad poker player – but this plurality of identities only exemplifies how difficult it is to find any solid self in the first place.
My identity is further complicated by the obvious fact that I am a group effort. Whether I consider my body, the human and natural environment, my past, or even reality itself, I conclude that I am just a node on a massive web. What it means to refer to me and what I have done is, therefore, not clear, for I do not know exactly where I begin.
I am lucky to have been woven thoroughly into this web and to be able to continue that weaving. While this complicates my notion of self, it enables that which I call “me” to do so much more than many others are able to do. I think human misery is in large measure the result of being cut off from this web, or at least having one’s connections to it rendered less secure. Therefore, I am grateful that I remain defined so thoroughly by the presence and actions of others.
The web of my life extends into reality itself. Please pardon these metaphysical moments. I am a religious studies and philosophy professor, and I just can’t help myself when I get on this subject.
I see two possible ways to think about the world. Either reality is fundamentally lifeless and ultimately changeless, composed only of dead aggregates rearranging for no reason other than to tumble along the ways of physical law, or reality is fundamentally alive, change is real, and the world is always about something genuinely new. In the first view, life as we know it is an illusion because only the aggregates change, not the components of the aggregates. Think Legos. This illusion requires a tremendous amount of work to maintain, but only the work of Sisyphus. In the second view, biological life emerges from and mirrors the fundamentally alive nature of things. In the first view, life does indeed signify nothing, for it is fundamentally unreal. In the second view, life is drama, comedy, and adventure.
It is astonishing to me how many intelligent people think the first view of life is more plausible. But the second view has its own problem when it comes to identity. If life is about change, then my identity must change, as well. Ask me who I am today, and, by the very nature of things, I must be someone other than I was yesterday.
Which brings me to the one constant I find in this world – the source and heart of all that is. Many people call this constant God, and I do, too. However, the word is so historically loaded that I wonder what it really communicates. I continue to use the word because I need this constant to make sense of who I am.
I call God the source of all that is because I do not think anything that has been or ever will be can exist without being “held” in God’s hands. This conclusion is more than a hunch. There is pretty good philosophical argument for why this is so, but this is not the place for it. If reality as such is not created, then it is likely eternal, changeless, and Lego-like, which brings us back to dead and meaningless aggregates. If the world is created, then one can easily think of it along with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as charged with the grandeur of God.
I do not think the divine hands that make everything possible also determine the course of events in the world. Based on the course that events have actually taken, such a god would be a most evil being. But being held in divine hands means that I am always “in touch” with God whether I know it or not. These hands reveal my true origins.
God is also the heart of reality and so defines what it means for anything to be good in the world. Without God, I am the only one left to define what is good. That is too narcissistic a road for me to travel. To be sure, figuring out what God thinks is good is perhaps the most contentious question in all of human history. One should certainly be humble when trying to discern the Infinite.
But answer we must, discern we must, if only to get a sense of self that we can call true. My current, hopefully humble, take on the nature of goodness, the nature of God’s “plan” for us, is simply that we are to enjoy the world and, in so doing, help others enjoy it. That’s it. If we do not enjoy the world, we show a profound lack of gratitude to those who made it possible, including to the one who makes everything possible.
Why, then, must so much of life be so unenjoyable? If life is supposed to be enjoyed, why is it so hard? No doubt, it is much harder for some than it is for me. Human life is hard in part because it is biological. Biological systems are open, which means they are vulnerable and require energy to maintain. Energy requires work. We work in service to life so that life may be enjoyed. We work at least to keep our bodies going and to keep them secure. We work to help others do the same, and so we work to change the world when it prevents enjoyment. We work to support the life that we are related to and the life to which we are connected. We work because much that exists to be enjoyed requires growth of mind, character, and ability. If we are lucky, and if we have the right perspective, our work can itself become a form of enjoyment, but it should at least make enjoyment possible.
Human life is also hard because it is social. Because we are woven into so many around us, we are vulnerable to how they can influence our lives. Rather than bringing enjoyment to others, we find ways to take it from them. Sometimes this is unintended, but often, we mean to do it. Kindness opens up the enjoyment of the world, and meanness closes it off. Justice enables enjoyment. I really do wonder if there should be more to religion than supporting each other in the effort to be kind to one another and to create justice.
If life is enjoyment, what, then, is death? Given the many ways we are woven into each other, death is always a painful loss. But death is not a challenge to the meaning of life. Life continues. I am grateful for the moments I have to enjoy life. In fact, I am not nearly as grateful as I should be. I do not deserve either more or less life, but I should enjoy what I have. The death of my body may, indeed, be the end of me. If so, I am grateful for the life I have so far and will have enjoyed. But that dimension of my life that always has been more than the sum total of my body – call it my freedom – floats on a divine ocean. I really have no idea what will happen to it.