In such a rational world, it can be disconcerting (to say the least) to think about what it is that makes our lives “worthwhile.” This is a question/issue/thought-experiment that has consumed much thinking, and sometimes deliberating, throughout my life—at some times more than at others.
Just this morning, I read an article on Brain Pickings that summarizes Leo Tolstoy’s historical experiences and thought processes on the matter: “Leo Tolstoy on Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World.” I found that Tolstoy provides a useful, rational, and irrational answer to this question.
Furthermore, I think that his findings have an important implication for the many in our society with negative feelings toward religion, spirituality, faith, etc. These negative feelings arise within a very large scale, ranging from indifferent to adamantly anti-religion/-anything. After reading this article, it appears to me that we must all have some element of faith, merely insofar as we still choose to live, whether it be easy for us to choose so or extremely challenging. I have personally experienced this wide spectrum of desire for life, which I think is one reason Tolstoy’s arguments struck me so intensely.
While I intend to respond more fully to some of the thoughts and issues inherent in the Tolstoy article, I’d like to leave you with a short(er) summary of Tolstoy’s thought process on the matter (emphasis is my own).
“I asked: ‘What is the meaning of my life, beyond time, cause, and space?’ And I replied to quite another question: ‘What is the meaning of my life within time, cause, and space?’ With the result that, after long efforts of thought, the answer I reached was: ‘None.’….
“Having understood this, I understood that it was not possible to seek in rational knowledge for a reply to my question, and that the reply given by rational knowledge is a mere indication that a reply can only be obtained by a different statement of the question and only when the relation of the finite to the infinite is included in the question. And I understood that, however irrational and distorted might be the replies given by faith, they have this advantage, that they introduce into every answer a relation between the finite and the infinite, without which there can be no solution.
“So that besides rational knowledge, which had seemed to me the only knowledge, I was inevitably brought to acknowledge that all live humanity has another irrational knowledge — faith which makes it possible to live. Faith still remained to me as irrational as it was before, but I could not but admit that it alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life, and that consequently it makes life possible.”
See the linked article by Maria Popova for a longer exposition and opportunities to find his full work.
Photo of sidewalk graffiti in New Orleans, artist unknown; photo by Maggie in June, 2013.