While I was browsing through my daily Quora feed yesterday morning, I came across this question: “If we all end up dying, what’s the purpose of living?”
Good question, I thought. A bit heavy for a Friday morning, perhaps, but an important question, nonetheless. Actually, probably THE most important question of all. And after a bit of contemplation and a highly entertaining read-through of excellent answers from Quora users, I was inspired to pick up my pen and share some of my own thoughts.
This is such a great question because it is the most intensely personal question you could ever ask someone. A person’s answer to this question will immediately reveal a number of things: his/her religion, his/her thoughts about the present world and the future, and this strange little thing we call ‘spirituality,’ or as I like to define it, a personal belief and approach to living that reconciles the tricky concepts of life, death, and subjective experience.
I used to associate the word ‘spirituality’ exclusively with new age hippies who did tons of yoga and believed in healing crystals and astrology ( which I may kind of believe in, but I’ll save that for another day), but I also used to be a staunch anti-theist and Richard Dawkins worshipper who handed out postcards about not believing in God during college. Over the past year or two, my views on life, death, religion, whatnot have evolved significantly, and I’ve finally discovered my own personal ‘spirituality’, for lack of a better word, that continues to help me live my life in a way that makes me happy.
Around November of last year I began having trouble sleeping because I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about death. Even if I did fall asleep, I’d often wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because my mind would inevitably wander to the certainty of death and trying to imagine the subjective experience of death, which of course was a futile exercise. The unknown scared the crap out of me, and the fact that it was going to happen whether I liked it or not filled me with despair. Each night this incredible fear would engulf me as I imagined that never ending darkness edging closer and closer, until it eventually swallowed me whole, alone, helpless and flailing. And then the next night it would happen again, no matter how hard I tried to push the thought out of my mind. Rinse and repeat.
This period lasted for about three months. I have no idea what triggered it. It may have had something to do with the fact that I was turning 25 soon, and thus officially a not-so-young ‘adult’ who needed to start thinking about the rest of her life, and it could have had something to do with the fact that I had newly moved to Hong Kong, didn’t love it, didn’t know what my next step was, and was consumed by a constant uncertainty that unsettled me in general. Either way, it was terrifying and awful, but also necessary to trigger the intensely rewarding journey of personal discovery that followed it. This is starting to sound really cheesy, I know, but stay with me.
On a trip to Seattle in early 2014 I purchased “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Comte-Sponville at the Left Bank Bookstore next to Pike Place Market. The title intrigued me because I had been used to reading very strongly opinionated atheist texts like ‘The God Delusion’ by Dawkins and ‘God is Not Great’ by Hitchens, and this seemed like an interesting albeit slightly unconventional take on the subject of atheism. However, before moving to Hong Kong I’d only been able to get through the first two chapters, “Can We Do Without Religion’ and ‘Does God Exist,’ which were pretty much similar ( though arguably more eloquent) rehashes of subject matter I had encountered before. During my period of existential crises, however, I decided to crack the book open again and take a shot at the third chapter, “Can There Be An Atheist Spirituality?”
Trust me, I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this chapter of this book changed my life.
Before reading the book I had already begun juggling some ideas in my head about the ‘meaning of life’ and what happens to subjective experience after death. I knew I did not believe in God, in the sense that I did not believe in the very specific idea of an anthropomorphic all-knowing being who resides in the sky and has control over every movement and action of life on earth. However, I was beginning to open myself up to the idea of many different kinds of ‘truths’ and to really think about these as possibilities, rather than focus all my energies on the denial of God’s existence because I believed it improbable. My focus shifted from the one-track denial of a certain belief to the exploration of many beliefs of which maybe I could find a home. I was searching for something to sustain me and help me find ‘meaning’ in life despite knowing that human death was certain.
The idea of reincarnation has always fascinated me. Not necessarily the idea of a person dying and then becoming a frog or other animal in the next life per se, but the idea of cyclical life contained within itself. This has been explored by many philosophers, poets, village prophets alike, and something in it has always rung true to me. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There are so many observable cycles here on earth, and it didn’t seem entirely impossible that the end of life itself could coincide entirely with the beginning. Perhaps, I thought, life is contained entirely in itself. We live the same life over and over again infinitely, and perhaps there is no time, linear time is a human construct, so though we feel we are living life linearly from beginning to end, that is only our subjective experience and in reality we are just going from point A to point B, which is also point A, and going round and round and being at all points of our life at once. Is that confusing yet?
But that idea is also highly unsatisfying. It makes life seem like a trap that we can’t get out of. It also places such a huge emphasis on individual life, making each person one unit of life, only mattering to oneself. Why, as humans then, do we seek camaraderie, identify with people, feel love, wander the world, breathe the air and reap so much satisfaction from being with others and among the world? It didn’t make sense. And then I read Comte-Sponville.
Comte-Sponville speaks of a feeling of ‘oneness of the universe’ as the pinnacle of atheist spirituality. This spirituality does not need God or some other deity in the middle of it. The universe and the present, he says, is enough, in fact, it’s all there is. The universe is all we know, it contains us, we operate in it, and we interact with it every day. It is real to us, so far as our subjective experience dictates. And he gives an example of this feeling of oneness which he terms ‘the oceanic feeling’: walking in the woods with friends on a cool summer evening, stopping to gaze up at the stars and feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the night sky — Suddenly feeling like more than yourself, that the wind in your hair, the chirping of night birds, your friends cool arm in yours, is sublime and true and all that matters. His descriptions rang so true to me, because I’ve definitely felt like that before, many times. And I think many of you have as well. Remember that super cheesy scene in “The Parks of Being a Wallflower,” when Charlie and his friends race through the night in a convertible and declare that in that moment, they felt ‘infinite?’ Moments like those? Lucid moments of recognition that you are alive and part of this infinite world. As simple and as obvious as that.
And according to Comte-Sponville, it is exactly this “oneness of the universe’ that makes life ‘worth living,’ because it is complete, incredible, everything. We must accept it, because we are a part of it. And that very fact is marvelous and incredible. This is the probably the trickiest part to wrap your head around, so here’s a wonderfully eloquent except from Comte-Sponville that perfectly expresses this idea in a much better way than I can:
Love of fate, loving what is — not because it is good, but because it is the set of all things that occur ( the universe, reality), and because nothing else exists… This is a tragic wisdom: ‘The Dionysiac affirmation of the universe as it is, with no possibility of subtraction, exception, or choice.’ It means participating in the ‘innocence of becoming,’ the ‘eternal yes of being,’ which is the self affirmation of all… ‘Not what should be, but what is,’- neither hope nor regret. It is the only path: ‘There is no way out except acceptance.’ We must say yes to all that is and to all that occurs, but it is the yes of acceptance ( all is true, all is real), not the yes of approval ( all is well). It is the yes of wisdom, not of religion- or, more accurately, it is not a word, and neither wisdom nor religion exists. All that exists is the eternal necessity of becoming, which is true being.
In other words, life is everything. And I am irresistibly a part of that everything of life.
Gandhi once said, ‘all life is one.’ He might have been using the phrase to encourage people of all castes and colors to come together and end discrimination, but I subscribe to this phrase as a belief and I subscribe to it literally. As humans, our primary instinct and goal is to stay alive ourselves and help each other stay alive. We are naturally inclined to sustain life. So what if all life IS one? We are only identified as individuals because we have different bodies which carry different subjective experiences of life. But each individual is living ‘life’ itself. Perhaps as individuals, we are all just vehicles, really. Vehicles living out ‘life’ because life demands to be lived. A vehicle can grow old physically and wither and die, but after death of an individual vehicle, life itself continues, anew, and in others who are still living. So if all life is one, and you are a part of that one, you ARE that one, then why would you care about the death of the individual self, which is merely a vehicle? You are a part of the universe, of life. And life will continue, so so will you. What a beautiful thought.
Another beautiful interpretation of this concept is the Sanskrit mantra सोऽहम् ‘so-hum,’ which loosely translates to ‘I am that,’ but is more accurately an expression of the self being a part of the universal consciousness. Here’s a Wikipedia description of the origin of the mantra:
Some say that when a child is born it cries Koham-Koham which means Who am I? That is when the universe replies back Sohum. You are the same as I am.
Am I the only one who gets chills reading that?
Spirituality happens when the self is transcended and the ‘all’ of the universe is accepted. As articulated by Comte-Sponville:
We are separated from the all only by thought, only by ourselves. When the ego is relinquished, when thought ceases, the all remains.
I may have lost you already. And you may be thinking- what a load of bollocks, what a cop-out, what desperate grasping at straws to avoid confronting the certainty of death and that your loved ones will all die. You’re no better than those religious fanatics. And I’ve had all of these thoughts, trust me. I’ve turned this subject around in my head so many times, yet somehow the concept rings so true to me. The eternal yes of being, because being is all we have and is all there is. It’s not God, it’s not Buddha, it’s not heaven and prancing around on fluffy white clouds and 72 virgins after death, it’s just as simple as letting go of that rigid idea of the ‘self’ and taking joy in being a part of life and the universe and now.
I have never agreed with the idea that ‘atheism’ is the lack of belief. I prefer to think that as an atheist, I am a healthy skeptic. I gather information, I question everything, and I evaluate all options before I choose to ‘believe’ in something. My atheism is the lack of belief in the conventional tenets of organized religion, most of which worship a single deity and contain elaborate, comprehensive theorems about the origin of life. Yet it does not mean that I will not and do not ‘believe’ in anything, and that I cannot develop my own spirituality and understanding of life.
What is spirituality? Our finite relationship to infinity or immensity, our temporal experience of eternity, our relative access to the absolute. — Andre Comte-Sponville
Of course, that doesn’t answer the question- what happens to subjective experience after we die, if it’s not going to heaven or reincarnation? Because there is still no getting around the idea that at least the particular subjective experience you are living now is tied to the ‘self’ and the individual. But even that is a tricky subject that can be written and postulated endlessly about. I highly recommend a wait but why article on ‘what makes you you” that sheds more light ( or adds more confusion to, depending on which way you see it) the subject, and I have to admit, I still do not know and don’t know if I ever will know the answer. Yet that very question does not seem to matter so much when the importance of the self and subjective experiences ceases to be everything.
And I may be accused of not answering the question in the title “If we all end up dying, then what is the purpose of living?” head on. Fine, so you are a part of the everything, of life, which will continue on infinitely after the self “dies”. But how does that translate to finding meaning in individual life? To that, I say, if you truly understand and believe in the idea of oneness, then the question answers itself. There is no purpose of living. Living is the purpose. You contribute to life. And call me crazy, but I find happiness and satisfaction in that.
So there it is — Another long, rambling essay from me, but something I’ve wanted to put down in words for a while. Feel free to share your thoughts and rebuttals!