Against Cynicism: My Case For Living Life To The Fullest
To my partner’s annoyance, I have a running joke I make at social gatherings about wanting to have ten kids one day — enough to play a five-on-five basketball game. I tell myself the reason behind the joke is for some engaging befuddling humour to lighten up the mood in a room, even though it mostly leaves me having to explain the joke awkwardly, and even then, most people do not find it funny. Yet, the more I think about it, I feel as if this is something my heart truly desires. To have many kids (probably not ten) and become a father someday; hopefully, a good one. As the adage goes, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke.”
But then I think, why would I want to do something that absurdly impractical? When evidence suggests that as people get more educated, they tend to have fewer children, why would I want to go against the tide?
Leaving aside the ridiculous number of kids, why even bring a child into this godforsaken world scourged by climate change, pandemics, a lamentable economy and alarming social unrest?
How selfish and cruel of us to inflict such inevitable misery onto another human being by bringing them into this world?
And even worse, what if my posterity becomes totalitarian and deceitful tyrants who end up exacerbating the agony of people?
I’ve heard people say that loving a child is sacrificial, and such selfless love is the highest of all virtues. Utter nonsense, one could argue, as it looks to me that most people willingly have children (leaving aside the accidents) only to overcome the soul-sucking banality of their life.
And don’t get me started on love. Sheer boredom drives us to find love. It is a self-centred facade of intimacy. Even the unconditional love of God is conditional as he necessitates for our repentance prior to our salvation. If God truly loved his children, why couldn’t he just forgive us instead of sacrificing his own son for atonement?
Most people deceive themselves of being in love only when it’s passion and their absolute inability to live with themselves that trepidatiously hold together their relationship. It’s what Jean-Baptiste Clamence recognized in Albert Camus, The Fall,
“Of course, true love is exceptional — two or three times a century, more or less. The rest of the time there is vanity or boredom.”
Even if, let’s say, love doesn’t have to entail a higher virtue over mere passion and all love necessitates is just that, passion alone. Isn’t passion itself a selfish pursuit? Suppose a man or woman audaciously follows their dreams and aspirations. In that case, it seems like an awfully privileged position handed to them by society when most people in the world wouldn’t have that fortune. Some may even say aspiration is for the spoiled and ungrateful, desiring something more than being satisfied with the life they’re given.
As I’ve demonstrated above, being cynical towards life isn’t difficult, but the only question really worth asking is what to do after we’ve rationalized our cynicism?
That’s what I try to deal with in this essay.
Questioning the unanswerable can leave us in a grim place. The angst it brings makes us bitter, misanthropic and implacable. Hence, it’s not surprising that we intentionally repress these gratuitous thoughts and cling to what the rest of society does with their lives. The societal zeitgeist protects us from insanity; it’s more comforting to distract ourselves with a political or celebrity scandal rather than looking into the festering wounds in our own lives ― and reality itself.
At least for myself, hitherto, I have been rather fortunate in my life. A lot of unearned good has come my way, mostly through those I love. And yet, these existential questions haunt me. Despite my good luck, I have spent countless nights trying to integrate my serendipity with the world’s unjust cruelty. How dare I benefit from unmerited happiness. It’s not gratitude I feel but a peculiar type of consternation at life.
“I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky
Even while I’m writing this piece, I question my privileged impertinence in asking such nonsensical questions about love, marriage and passion. A part of myself is still yelling at me, “go do some work, hippie! These aren’t questions one should bother asking.” Last year a friend of mine unexpectedly passed away. She was a beautiful soul. Her funeral was in Sri Lanka, and I couldn’t attend it because I live in Australia, but I saw her wailing parents through the funeral live-stream. How cruel is the caprice of life, I thought… and how arbitrary is the nature of suffering. I particularly remember her mom when I was growing up in Sri Lanka. She was a loving and kind lady. What has she done to deserve such soul-crushing sorrow of losing a child? How could nature be so malignant? My friend’s death was a clear rebuttal of how life ought to be as I was told parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, but it ought to be the other way around.
I sit here in my comfortable apartment typing and philosophizing away on my nifty computer, wondering if I dug myself into a hole too deep. How privileged am I to dig this hole of my own free will when my friend’s parents were pushed into it by the fated tragedy of life.
However, privilege or misfortune, angst or gratitude aren’t justifiable reasons to evade and hide from such questions. We shouldn’t give way to the pretence and, at times, distractions of mundane life that we all use to cushion ourselves from the existential blows of living. Nor should we nihilistically succumb to fatalistic resentment. Both these forms of living are utter cowardice. Once a question is asked, not as a mere utterance but as an authentic form of being itself — in how we live, through our actions, emotions, words, desires or whatever constitutes an individual — no reason we use to hide from such questions are adequate. Unless we confront truth regardless of the consequences, these questions will enduringly haunt us forever.
Every objection I brought up against children or procreation, marriage, love, passion and even God’s salvation can be rebuked through cogent arguments inferred from numerous intellectual propositions and syllogisms.
A few ad hoc examples:
Environmental activist Mike Shellenberger makes a systematic case in his book Apocalypse Never as to why we should be more optimistic about climate change and not capitulate to anti-human sentiments such as not having children because of the environment. He emphasizes we should focus on humanitarian development and elevating people from poverty as this has proven to be one of the best remedies for imminent environmental problems.
The following Tweet thread succinctly highlights his worry about young people not wanting to have children due to climate change.
*I should stipulate that my intention behind using Shellenberger’s ideas as an example wasn’t me taking a political stance on the matter of climate change. I stand neutral on the complicated subject as I’m grossly uninformed about it’s nuances.
A big lie that has pathologized society since the 1960s with the publication of books such as The Population Bomb is the myth of dangerous overpopulation that’ll lead to global famine and environmental catastrophe.
Up till now, these radical claims seem unsubstantiated. For instance, Lyman Stone from Vox states in his article, Why you shouldn’t obsess about “overpopulation,”
“Lowering US carbon intensity by about a third, to around the level of manufacturing-superpower Germany today, has a bigger effect than preventing 100 million Americans from existing.
There is only one way to effectively prevent, alleviate, or reverse dangerous climate change: technological, geographic, and social advancement. Population has little to do with it — especially not in the US.”
Despite the terrible consequences of COVID-19, we also made unprecedented progress in epidemiology and vaccination development. While I am not reducing the suffering people went through due to the pandemic, modern medicine’s expedition is a scientific miracle we’ve seen in the last few months.
UCLA health reports,
“In a remarkable achievement of medical science, we’ve gone from identifying a new pathogen to discovering an immune response against it to developing and testing a safe and effective vaccine for it in less than 12 months.
Previously, the fastest vaccine to go from development to deployment was the mumps vaccine in the 1960s, which took about four years.”
All of these developments were, obviously, done by human beings. Therefore, using the pandemic as an example, we could extrapolate the remedy to every other problem we face, including social unrest, unfavourable economic conditions, environmental issues, etc. The answers lie in people; the more talented people who come to live, the more solutions we will find through their skills. Looking through a pure utilitarian ethical lens, we need a bigger talent pool (provided they have an equal opportunity) to create more value in this world. Or crassly stating, we need more people to exploit more good from humanity for the world. However, pure talent alone isn’t what makes an individual remarkable; it’s a combination of exceptional character and innate ability in their respective aptitudes. Therefore, such excellence is rare, and the only way to increase our plain of serendipity is to increase the number of human beings.
The individual being a central part of creation is an unbelievably ancient ideal. It runs deep into the mythology and stories that hold our cultures, specifically the western world, together. The individual is the correct level of analysis as there is a fundamental truth that speaks to a human being’s sacredness and sublimity. It speaks so deeply that we couldn’t even dare to question its validity for the longest time in human history. It would be considered sinful. The Book of Genesis explicitly stating Imago Dei, “God created man in his own image”, is a proclamation of humanity being endowed by the divine to bring forth a new reality into being. The proposition of Imago Dei is a metaphysical problem that philosophers are still trying to comprehend fully. Yet, most modern societies are undergirded by the concept of human rights, which we invariably cannot violate.
*If you’re interested in the subject, Dr Craig recently wrote a whole book on the necessity for the death of Christ for humanities sins called Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration.
Additionally, I could recommend books like Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker or The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, where both authors argue that humanity has made unprecedented progress in the last few centuries. They’re confident we’re on the right track in almost every available measure for social and environmental progress in the past two centuries providing ample evidence to ascertain their findings from various research domains. Books such as these delineate that we don’t have to look any further for the miracle of human progress and advancement than our own history, notwithstanding the conspicuous malevolence we see in humanity.
Nevertheless, none of these intellectual arguments will satisfy the burdens of our souls―at least it didn’t do so for mine. I could find an infinite amount of philosophies from every domain of thought known to human epistemology but still leave a persisting void of despair in our hearts. I know this to be certain, as however much science and philosophy intellectually stimulated me, it was nothing compared to the most intimate fulfilment that beauty, valour, and love brought to my soul.
Life isn’t another trite philosophical model; instead, the models are created in trying to understand life itself. We do not lead our lives by making a priori decisions weighing the pros and cons, similar to a machine learning model that runs on a supervised set of rules. For starters, this would undeniably drive us insane. And more saliently, at the least, we do not even have a proper phenomenological framework to deal with being. We patently exist, but this existence isn’t the end itself; the question lies in what this existence for human beings entails―the telos. Could life be a set of propositional deductions masqueraded as choices, or is that too simplistic? Disregarding copious amounts of modern scientific research and ancient wisdom found across cultures for a moment, a simple observation of regular life will show that seldom do we let pure empiricism, logic and cold rationalism guide our lives. Nor am I sure if we should necessarily make rationalism the highest of human virtues.
Contrary to what the Enlightenment thinkers proclaimed, life can be more accurately portrayed through inspiration, romance, intuition, serendipity, synchronicity and all those bewildering elements of reality that would be dismissed as superfluous occultism by a modernist. None of these metaphysical or spiritual phenomena that still are meaningful occurrences can be explained through the modern scientific method and rationalism. To make sense of those transcendent realities, we need the Arts, and we need to revivify our fading appreciation for aesthetics. As Oscar Wilde wrote,
“Paradox though it may seem — and paradoxes are always dangerous things — it is nonetheless true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.”
For example, to elucidate my point, I could use a grim philosophy called Antinatalism utilising the work of its leading advocate in contemporary times, David Benatar. The Antinatalist position is that humans should abstain from procreation because it’s morally wrong to bring more children to this world, and it would’ve been better for us never to have been born in the first place.
Professor Bentar asserts the following presuppositional asymmetry between pleasure and pain, which the whole philosophy rests on:
- The presence of pain is bad.
- The presence of pleasure is good.
- The absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.
- The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.
Therefore, if human beings cease to exist, it’ll still fulfil (3) and (4) theoretically.
Viscerally, David Benatar may seem like an evil person. His evidently anti-human ideas could be the same worldviews that motivated nihilistic school shooters and ruthless tyrants publicly unveiling the human heart’s innate malevolence. I remember my emotional reaction to coming across his work: how in the world could Oxford University Press even publish such a reprehensible book?
Yet, as I delved into his work and the individual behind those ideas, I discovered a person who isn’t much worse than the rest of us fools. He did not have an irrational hatred for humanity, and he certainly wasn’t stating that the people currently living should be wiped off the face of the planet. In farcical irony, he dedicated his book “Better Never to Have Been” to his progenitors, stating, “to my parents, even though they brought me into existence.”
Bentar is simply an academic philosopher putting forward a set of ideas similar to what Socrates or the Stoics have done historically. His assertion isn’t particularly novel either; it’s something human beings always wondered through a discussion that goes all the way to the Book of Ecclesiastes c. 450–200 BCE, in the Old Testament:
“And I declared that the dead,
who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
But better than both
is the one who has never been born,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun.”
I am not a philosopher, nor do I care for the sort of generative philosophy that acts only in the plane of abstractions. There is nothing more convenient than creating asymmetries and inferring conclusions within a finite set of ad hoc rules where we define the axioms; I’ve lazily done that even in parts of this essay. It’s what Albert Camus understood in The Myth of Sisyphus, which, in my opinion, makes him a true and rare philosopher,
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.”
Or as Mike Tyson crassly said,
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Nevertheless, despite my objections to conceptualizing life as a philosophical model and prescribing eschatological judgements on living, I will engage in Bentars example for expediency’s sake.
But I will not engage as a philosopher, as I don’t think the age-old question that was asked in Hamlet’s soliloquy is a philosophical one:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
The fundamental axiom in the asymmetry between pain and pleasure presupposes, (1) the presence of pain is bad, and (2) the presence of pleasure is good. I disagree with this presupposition. It isn’t clear that life can be good only if its pain is entirely eliminated from being and all humans had was infinite bliss and pleasure. Nor does it seem like, as Dostoevsky understood, human beings will desire such a mode of living.
One of my childhood heroes was Lakshman Kadirgamar (LK), a Sri Lankan statesman and lawyer. During his time as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he was a key figure in Sri Lanka’s civil war against the LTTE, a separatist terrorist organisation. For example, the Independent reported on his vitality for global politics,
“Kadirgama was not just any senior minister. He was the highest-ranking ethnic Tamil in the government… More than that, he was the man who was responsible more than anyone for drying up international support for the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). It was his international campaigning that has the Tigers named as a banned ‘terrorist’ organisation in the US, the UK and other countries.”
Similar to civil wars in any other country, Sri Lanka’s conflict has a nuanced and complicated history. And yet most Sri Lankans would unequivocally agree LK was a national hero — he was posthumously awarded the highest national honour Sri Lankabhimanya, a title shared by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. In hindsight, I believe my father giving me LKs biography to read was the impetus behind my interest in studying politics, ethics and philosophy.
Notwithstanding his profuse security and protection, on August 12, 2005, LK was assassinated by an LTTE sniper. In LK’s biography, his son Ragi, states,
“When he was assassinated it was of course not a complete surprise. Part of me had been expecting it for years.”
His daughter Ajita concludes,
“Perhaps fate intervened on the night of August 12. Perchance he allowed it to in the knowledge that his every move was being watched. In the final analysis, it is possible that Lakshman Kadirgamar chose to meet his death that night as the sniper sat there trigger ready, target in sight.”
Lakshman Kadirgamar’s life was a quintessential hero’s journey. In a way, he plays an archetypal role in my mind. A true patriot that lived a life of nobility, who wrote in a friend’s autograph book at the age of fourteen, “How sweet and honourable is it to die for one’s country” (Horace, Ode III.2.13). And still, his biography doesn’t depict a life of bliss and pleasure without any pain. Instead, a life of angst, grief, strife and the tremendous weight of carrying the burden of a bloody and ruthless ethnic conflict. According to David Benatar’s hypothesis, LK’s life would be a bad one due to its inherent pain. But most people would agree that he lived a good life. It’ll be philosophically laborious (or probably impossible) to reason and delineate this good, but the purpose Lakshman Kagirgamar lived for transcended all of his pain. Furthermore, his noble being created more overall good for the world.
Stories like LK’s remind me that hypothetical philosophical models will never explain life and reality. We cannot create arbitrary axioms of good and bad to justify living. It’s impossible ever to know all the consequences of living, both good and bad, intended or unintended. Besides, how dare I adjudicate if a potential future person wants to be born?
After a 30 year war that took over 100,000 lives, what would’ve been Sri Lanka’s fate if Lakshman Kadirgamar never came into being? An unanswerable yet deeply moving question.
It’s this impenetrable enigma and sublime inexplicability of life that mandates us to live, as we’ll never know if life’s worth living until we have altogether and entirely lived it. As one of Søren Kierkegaard’s journals say,
“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”
Often shortened to ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’”
I’m a software engineer, and a few weeks ago I was having dinner at a steakhouse with one of my collegial engineers. We had a fascinating conversation that led us all the way from discussing Roger Penrose’s hypothesis on consciousness to me asking him, “mate, if I may ask, what does love mean to you?” He unhesitantly replied, “love gives me a reason for eternity.” I thought deeply about this response. Only love has the metamorphosing ability to turn an engineer, who typically works in the technical realm of logic and cold abstractions, into a poet and produce such a beautiful statement.
My fortune to fall in love with Shannon, the most remarkable woman who, if my luck prevails, I hope to marry someday, has convinced me that love is the most irrational, chaotic and incomprehensible force of being that captivates our life like no other. Many have tried, but no poet or philosopher ever could accurately portray what love means to a human being. I think this may be why the phrase goes, “I fell in love”, not “I willed my way into love”. None of us plan to fall in love; it just happens. Love is unplanned yet timeless, unbidden yet yearned for, abstruse yet tangible, surreal yet meaningful, and ultimately we find a reason to live because of love alone. This is why I think even Fitzwilliam Darcy had to go against societal standards and his own prejudiced judgement as love drove him to profess his feeling towards Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice:
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
However, even if love alone gives a reason to live, is life still worth living to the fullest? Even if the emotions evoked in us by love are good and absolutely real, does love justify doing anything that benefits oneself, like following one’s passion, marriage or having children?
Firstly, unless someone can prove otherwise, doing things that are beneficial and good for ourselves isn’t inherently selfish, immoral or unjustifiable. Due to eastern philosophy’s influence with ideas like impermanence or “non-self”, accentuated by rampant materialism, secularism and growing radical self-criticism within western culture, westerners have begun to feel guilty for their own being. With the loss of religion and, consequently, spirituality being jettisoned from the cultural ethos, westerners feel their individual lives are a waste of space on this planet — or maybe, even a pest, brutally exploiting Gaia, benevolent mother nature. Dr Carl Jung, in all his brilliance and wisdom, understood the death of spirituality in 1957 and prophetically warned us of the ominous signs in his essay The Undiscovered Self,
“Just as man, as a social being, cannot in the long run exist without a tie to the community, so the individual will never find the real justification for his existence, and his own spiritual and moral autonomy, anywhere except in an extramundane principle capable of relativizing the overpowering influence of external factors. The individual who is not anchored in God can offer no resistance on his own resources to the physical and moral blandishments of the world. For this he needs the evidence of inner, transcendent experience which alone can protect him from the otherwise inevitable submersion in the mass.”
Therefore with such negation of the individual self, any act not serving the “greater good” but oneself is looked down upon by contemporary culture. But we must ignore scornful societal condescension and judgement, as such nihilistic pessimism is futile and serves no purpose but only breeds resentment. Suppose something we find meaningful is good for us and does minimal harm (nothing is entirely innocuous) to society. In that case, there is no good reason not to do that thing — undertaking such responsibility may even be a divine duty, notwithstanding our consciousness of our own shortcomings and unworthiness.
Secondly, a bizarre realization we eventually come to have about life is that doing things, not for ostensible virtue but genuine goodness that gives us a real sense of meaning, mutually benefits both society and ourselves. Getting married to a person we love begins a family, one of society’s most foundational and imperative units for it to function. Even if it were for entirely selfish reasons, we decide to have a child, let’s say, as a remedy for tricenarian boredom. This act results in bringing forth a new life. And every human being is the epicentre of untapped potential and creation. Embarking on an entrepreneurial, artistic or sporting venture merely to live out one’s passion creates unforeseeable value in society, and hopefully, if done thoughtfully, even benefits the planet symbiotically. Not just in the cliché capitalist tenor of transactional “value-creation” but even through those heavenly aspects of life that cannot be commoditized, i.e. inspiration, beauty, elegance, awe and wonder.
All of this goodness comes into being despite the inherent suffering and malevolence inexorably present in life. However, if we cannot see the divine ethos in this paradoxical miracle of being alive, then nothing could stand up to our nihilistic and cruel judgement.
But what if we peel the onion one more layer. Why be good? Why not wreak havoc in society and burn it all to the ground? It certainly creates circular reasoning to assert one must be good for the sake of goodness. Fortunately, for reasons I cannot fathom, Abrahamic religions have a straightforward answer to this dilemma. And I’m yet to find a better explanation or a more truthful narrative than this ancient story as it’s an ultimate divine calling from God, beginning with the old testament we’re told, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27), straddling to the cumulative commandment by Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:39)
As many philosophers and writers like Satre and Dostoevsky understood,
“If there’s no God, all is permitted.”
The central stipulation of this viewpoint is without a tangible moral absolute, God, specifically, the monotheistic God, humanity is left in a moral miasma of ethical oblivion and a volatile values framework. It would be like trying to do theoretical physics without mathematics.
William Lane Craig reasons accordingly in his apologetics book On Guard,
“To say that the holocaust was objectively wrong, is to say that the holocaust was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right, and it would still have been wrong, even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everybody who disagreed with them, so that everyone in the world thought that the holocaust was right and good. To say that the holocaust was objectively wrong, means that it’s wrong regardless of the outcome of World War II. The premise is that if there is no God, then moral values or duties are not objective in that sense.”
And yet, my unreasonable and rebellious heart is still unfulfilled. I don’t think human divinity can be reduced to a sentence, catchphrase, proposition, philosophical stipulation, commandment or law. Tenets could be extrapolated from our understanding of divinity for pragmatic or applicative sake, i.e. Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc. But instances of divinity don’t encompass all of its truth; they only allude to its actuality. Our limited cognition, knowledge and language negate God and human divinity the moment it’s instantiated for our comprehension, the ultimate catch-22, a celestial provocation that’s making our predicament rather comical.
It’s this absurdity of living that makes life both a tragedy and comedy.
I see this quandary unfold in my life every day. From the moment I wake up in the morning, sometimes I’m an atheistic relativist, and other times, I’m a spiritual being, piously carrying out my divine duty. It’s not that I don’t see the logical contradiction in this way of living. I perfectly understand my folly, but it’s the most accurate way I can portray my dilemma, and I know I’m not the only one. Maybe human beings created philosophy to deal with this spontaneous morality, driven mainly by our emotions, that emerge in life. We need coherent providence for our cosmic forlornness from a cold and indifferent universe. Nevertheless, our salvation does not lie in a simple postulation, i.e. I’m a Christian, Muslim or Jew, I’m a Buddhist or Hindu, I’m an Atheist or Skeptic, etc. We are too mercurial to be heralded by a mere label. I’ve observed myself being bizarre by ruining a perfectly good week by doing something that I hate, which makes me miserable and self-loathing; the label I use to define my identity is unavailing and meaningless during these times. So I ask, knowing exactly what or what not to do, why does my id, defying my conscience, do otherwise? It is naive to think we base our lives on a philosophical proposition or some arbitrary religious/non-religious label. Ask yourself, how often do you do things you hate? Contemporary psychology may call this self-destructive behaviour but identifying it’s reality doesn’t answer the fundamental question, why do human beings act out in this peculiar and nonsensical way?
When we observe our lives in retrospect, it seems clear that rationality explains very little about our condition. I am yet to find a quintessential rationalist; even in my highly technical field of computer science, where people mainly deal with logical abstractions, people remain true to their human nature.
*I think this is why it’s poignant to see modern society reduce the human experience to pragmatic utilitarianism and carelessly disregard any sense of the sublime.
Therefore, given that life resembles more a symphony or story over an a priori casuistic mechanism, how do we deal with this existential volatility?
At least for now, I’ve concluded what’s ultimately left for us to do is to take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
“For Kierkegaard Christian faith is not a matter of regurgitating church dogma. It is a matter of individual subjective passion, which cannot be mediated by the clergy or by human artefacts. Faith is the most important task to be achieved by a human being, because only on the basis of faith does an individual have a chance to become a true self. This self is the life-work which God judges for eternity.”
It has taken me years to understand what faith meant to human beings. Reading Kierkegaard at least shed some light on the matter. He uses Abraham from the Book of Genesis and the motifical Knight of faith in Fear and Trembling to expound how he viewed faith,
“People unable to bear the martyrdom unintelligently jump off the path, and choose instead, conveniently enough, the world’s admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which is honoured under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity.
The true knight of faith is always absolute isolation, the false knight is sectarian. This sectarianism is an attempt to leap away from the narrow path of the paradox and become a tragic hero at a cheap price. The tragic hero expresses the universal and sacrifices himself for it. The sectarian punchinello, instead of that, has a private theatre, i.e. several good friends and comrades who represent the universal just about as well as the beadles in The Golden Snuff Box represent justice. The knight of faith, on the contrary, is the paradox, is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections or pretensions. This is the terrible thing which the sectarian manikin cannot endure. For instead of learning from this terror that he is not capable of performing the great deed and then plainly admitting it (an act which I cannot but approve, because it is what I do) the manikin thinks that by uniting with several other manikins he will be able to do it. But that is quite out of the question. In the world of spirit no swindling is tolerated.”
The narrow passage to God is a lonely journey. It has to be, or else, our faith is marred. We can only have faith in our individual pilgrimage and God.
When I first came across this philosophy, I became depressed (I only use the term dramatically). As an extrovert that likes community and enjoys a good conversation, preferably over a fine steak and some whiskey, I remember thinking, “Why does, arguably, the most important journey of our lives, the one to God, have to be a lonely endeavour?”
But then I understood living in faith is a state of being we embody regardless of our public proclamations. It is the only real identity we incarnate that’s unconditionally of our own will because every other identity, i.e. gender, race, sexuality, class etc., is inescapably fettered by society, culture, biology and the objective world. It’s only our subjective spiritual journey that transcends every other material identity given to us by simply being alive.
Therefore, refusing to accept our divine adventure’s loneliness and trying to find it through social institutions or the predominant cultural zeitgeist of our times will only corrupt its essence and exacerbate our understandable nihilistic cynicism.
However, we must not misunderstand this journey to be a despondent one. Around the end of 2017, I experienced a somewhat miracle in life. Despite all my inadequacies and flaws, I made a conscious choice to embody faith. I started not to see the transcendent as a distant, deistic reality but rather to see divinity in mundane life. Or, in the Christian parlance, treat everyone as God’s children and everything as God’s creation. I learned that living on faith took courage. Most people think it takes courage to face death; it doesn’t. Death is inevitable. What requires true courage is the will to live. I still face the same trials and tribulations of life I did in 2017 (albeit I found love in 2018, and that’s redemptive to one’s soul) but my choice; my lonely leap of faith miraculously rid me of nihilistic cynicism, notwithstanding, the malevolence and suffering in being I recognize every day.
I doubt I can argue against antinatalism. David Benatar has the verbal virtuosity and intellectual prowess that I don’t even remotely possess. And yet, I know the best case I can make against antinatalism is by how I live. The faith I choose to embody is the antidote to cynicism — it’s at least the best I can do.
Cynicism is the worst form of existence. It doesn’t help anybody, nor is it a remedy to anything. It’s neither pragmatic, nor does it answer the deepest grievances in the human heart. A cynic doesn’t want to live nor die but only be in a state of resentful non-existence — a supercilious refusal to partake in life. Being cynical is just cowardly — a pusillanimous and unheroic reaction to life.
Yes! A lot can and probably will go wrong. Our passions could be fruitless and lame. Every venture we start could end up in failure and possible ruin. Friends will disappoint us unapologetically. Marriage could end in a bitter divorce. Our children might hate us for our pathetic ineptness as parents. Love could break our heart. We will witness unjust suffering, and we may even be partly responsible for its subsistence. During these lamentable moments, helplessness will haunt our souls. Culture will tyrannize us, and society will negate our individuality. Nature will try to wipe us out of existence. And there will be times where we feel abandoned and alienated from a cold and dark universe, apathetic and indifferent to our feelings.
But somehow, in spite of everything stated above, living by faith vindicates all the ghastly, anxiety evoking horrors of being. I can only extrapolate from my journey in the last few years as that’s the only worthy story I can tell. I found that faith allows the objective and subjective to touch by revealing a phenomenological coherence to the faithful. It shows symphony in life and the drama that unfolds as we paradoxically take part in it, as both an audience and cast member. Faith shows how every instance of being is meaningful, both subjectively and objectively. Faith is the handmaiden of love.
So we’re left with no recourse but to embody faith undergirded by relentless courage in every moment of life. We should not think of it as another distant and anachronistic religious ritual. Being faithful is an act of bravery. For what it’s worth, I can sincerely say that I try to consciously exercise faith in every aspect of my life, i.e. career, relationships, family, how I treat strangers and even software engineering. I’ve learned it’s paramount nature has to be the reason religion is primarily revealed to us through faith as it amalgamates reality like no other. I’ve humbled myself to this truth. It’s what Kierkegaard understood about the Crucifixion of Jesus, as he writes in The Sickness Unto Death,
“The opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.”
Thank you to Shannon Van Twuyver for proofreading this essay.