It would be far too easy to see this life as merely a vale of tears—a time of trial we must experience and through which we must suffer with such virtue as we can muster, so as to reach a higher reward in the next life. What then could possibly make this life, on its own rather than as a prelude and test for the next life, worth living?…
One benefit of losing things is the opportunity it provides to judge the importance of what has been lost. We who are growing old have many such opportunities, as can anyone who stops to reflect on our society’s March of Progress and the destruction left in its wake. The midlife crisis, I think, is the result of a man (I speak not for women, here) recognizing his mortality, the limits of his worldly achievements, and the prospect of life after his children have left him behind. Various literary movements spring up as eras end and thoughtful observers consider what has ended.
As men come to grips with their limitations and find meaning in their continuing relationships, or else destroy their lives, so civilizations focus and renew, or crumble. In either case, the crucial task is finding what about one’s existence is worthwhile. In our culture of death, one hears only of “quality of life,” meaning a sterile calculus of pleasure and pain. Such calculations lead, of course, to death by suicide or euthanasia because a life broken down into such units is not worth living—the calculation by nature destroys higher meaning, leaving despair and death. Indeed, a society that wields such a calculus against its people is itself not worth the noble name of civilization; it already has lost those habits of thought and action that ennoble persons and call them to virtue.
Then again, to focus too much on the fate of one’s culture is to lose track of what is most important. People have lived in corrupt, barbaric, and even cruel times. Were their lives not worth living? It not only sounds but genuinely is facile to simply reply that people of faith always have something to live for. Many people, with more wisdom and perseverance that I, have observed that it takes very little suffering to make most of us question God’s benevolence and the worth of our being.
Part of the answer lies in what any decent civilization may do, namely instantiate and make accessible the goodness of God’s creation. A beautiful piece of music or sculpture is not itself beauty, just as the Rocky Mountains are not beauty itself. But Michelangelo’s Pieta brings to our attention, and allows us to be lost within, the order of being in a manner not unlike some grand natural vista, or some babbling brook one has taken the time to observe. The sculpture may be lost to us, as may any specific natural wonder. But we have it in our power to find beauty if we look hard enough.
But is aesthetic experience enough? Surely not, for the eyesight and the hearing fade, just as other physical sensations do—for both good and ill (anyone thinking there is no good in this might consider the torments of the infant, so fully alive and sensitive to his surroundings). Moreover, few of us have the opportunity to spend very much of our time experiencing beauty, and, alas, most of us would become bored if we tried.
Love surely counts as a great good of life. Some of us think it the greatest good, even identifying God himself as love. But most love dies, either in itself or as our beloved is taken from us. Parents, spouses, and even children are taken from us by death or circumstance, leaving loneliness and longing, if not regret.
Then there are the passing pleasures of the flesh, including those of our current activity-obsessed culture, where sports and hobbies from rock climbing to sex become that for which one lives. One can lose oneself in these activities as mere experiences unconnected with beloved persons and higher purposes for only so long before one realizes they are simply substitutes for professional vocation and warfare. These acts are occasions of pleasure and/or conquest; through them, we may experience meaning in any sustained manner only by joining fully with others in seeking God and His order.
As to vocation itself, the work itself, whatever it is, often must be boring. Whatever the calling, one spends most of one’s time training, studying, or practicing for those moments of accomplishment when one completes a worthy task. And too often we fail in the attempt or see it torn down before our eyes.
It would be far too easy, then, to see this life as merely a vale of tears—a time of trial we must experience and through which we must suffer with such virtue as we can muster, so as to reach a higher reward in the next life. There is truth in this to the extent that too much focus on the goods of this life inevitably leads to disappointment and, worse, a kind of spiritual enervation as one realizes the futility of any attempt to “win” a game that ends in increasing weakness, followed by death. Most of modern life may be summed up as the attempt to block out the simple, unavoidable fact that all of us (including our children!) suffer and die.
What then could possibly make this life, on its own rather than as a prelude and test for the next life, worth living? Is it not the conditional good of working to fit into a higher, more coherent plan of being than we can create on our own? Is it not acting in such a way that we know that we are genuinely attempting to make real in our lives the virtues of faith, hope, and love, through which we participate in others’ pursuit of real goods, make real God’s desire for us, and show gratitude for the life He has given to us? Is it not the pursuit of joy through doing right? Is not “rightness” present in appreciation of beauty, work toward common goods, and the sheer joy of running—all attempts to experience God’s ordered creation?
Most philosophies make do without God. They may posit a divine Being, but those other than the Christian fail to see our lives as part of the plan of a living, personal God who seeks our salvation so that we might be with Him in eternity. This is not to say that non-Christian philosophies are bereft of meaning. But the emphasis of most ethical thought is on restraint, withdrawal, and submission. While important (and too often ignored in our age of self-involved pleasures) such philosophies of restraint lack that element I, at least, deem essential to a worthwhile life. The Golden Rule is an affirmation of virtue—its command is to do unto others as you would have done unto you. It encapsulates, I am convinced, the essence of a moral, an ethical, and the only thing that might be called a happy life, namely a life of thought and action aimed at the good.
If this all seems rather abstract I think the reason is that a life worth living is bound up more with habits than formulae. It is more a matter of virtues instilled in our character than of casuistry. This is why our children are so important—both because we must instill right character in them through personal interaction and because the work of instilling such virtue makes us better people. I know that I am neither the happiest nor the most virtuous person on the block. But I also know that many of my very happiest moments have involved seeing my children experience innocent joy in acting rightly, whether crafting something beautiful, being kind, or simply running. The glory of such acts belongs much less to me than to my God and my wife. But it is a glory, and I take joy in having participated therein. The same goes for my teaching and my writing. The results are far less than perfect, but I take joy in them to the extent I can see them as contributing to the formation of good character or the furthering of conversations about important ideas and events. Even work around the house brings joy when it takes something broken or simply “off” and brings it back into coherent order. These all are small things—as we all are small—but if made well and with the proper intention, our acts are worth far more, including to our happiness, than the success enjoyed by those who dominate through power, money, or ideology.
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