“Life,” my friend sobbed through the phone, “committed suicide last week.”
But my friend had loved Life. Life was all he’d lived for. How could he live without Life?
I wanted to protest strongly: “Oh God, not that! Goddammit, not that! Please, anything but that!” But I was afraid to reveal the horror I felt. So I protested weakly instead:
“No,” I said.
A long silence full of dark thoughts threatened, so I promised my friend I’d pray for him. And then I imagined him wondering how I could pray to a God who had let Life die. And then I wondered the same thing myself. And then he said goodbye.
As you may know, dear readers, the previous installment of this serial column constituted one half of Dr. X’s wildly embellished and therefore mildly entertaining account of meeting me, Dr. Why, for the first time. Dr. X and I were supposed to complete that account together in this installment; but I don’t feel much like entertaining right now. So we decided to publish this instead: my own Introduction to Getting to Know Why, inspired by Life’s death. We’ll finish what Dr. X started in #13 next time: in #15.
As anyone could guess from a glance at our header, Getting to Know Why is about me and my quest after the so-called meaning of life—especially as interpreted by Dr. X. But I didn’t always need to quest for meaning; I grew up simply assuming it. And it would have been hard to do otherwise. When I was a child, everyone important to me consistently and frequently asserted matter-of-factly that the omnicompetent and omnibenevolent Reason for absolutely everything has made us and loves us with a plan to redeem us, as His Scripture informs us, so that we can spend heaven getting to know Him if only we will now just-believe Him. I wasn’t always sure how all of that could be true or fair or even if it all makes sense; but insofar as I lacked interest in such questions and made no attempt to answer them, I could easily, if naively, believe.
But when the trials typical of adolescence, the loss of someone I loved dearly, “higher” education, and my natural need to know conspired to make me face my ignorance and incomprehension, I started to question and then to doubt. My doubt terrified me, so when I found that I couldn’t kill, expel, or flee it, I tried to contain it. But I couldn’t do that either. The risk was too great: I’d been raised to believe that we’re required to believe rightly if we’d like to be saved from the default afterlife of eternal flaming torment; and though the believe part of that requirement made me afraid to take my doubts seriously lest they grow, the rightly part made me afraid to dismiss them lest I needed to grow.
Eventually, however, I overcame inner turmoil far enough to reject as faithless, in any worthy sense of faith, my attempt to merely rid myself of doubt. And I began to embrace and even nurture my doubt, so that, if possible, I could grow from it by getting to know and understand. But no matter how I prayed and struggled, I couldn’t outgrow doubt. I merely grew confused, and I struggled all the more I grew confused. And so it went, until one night confusion reacted with fear and burst into pain and exploded in red-faced rage that hurled white fists and rolled black curses into an otherwise soundless and cloudless, starlit sky.
The world had started to expose herself to me, and I was appalled to find her obese from ceaseless cannibal feasting, clogged and bloated with waste, haggard from deep time, calculating and cruel from ever struggling to survive yet otherwise dumb as dirt. I had lost my ability to imagine the purported perfection from which she’d allegedly fallen and to which she’d supposedly return. And then the joy ran out of life like blood and friends ran from my face, my loneliness bred loneliness, my sufferings seemed pointless, and I came to hate living.
So I thought I’d fill an empty journal with lies—with dozens of carefully smudged pages full of misdated, premeditated, unrepented lies—about the bubbling joy in my heart and the bright glow of my future and the growing strength of my pure faith in the immeasurably great goodness of God. I thought I’d pack those lies beside a tattered and well-marked Bible and accelerate them together over the rim of Grand Canyon, under cover of darkness, helmet in hand, optimistic yet praying that the mile-long arcing plunge wouldn’t merely maim me. Then no matter what forensics found, I thought, my family would find reason enough in my backpack of lies to conclude that I’d flown to a better place on a misguided Kawasaki missile—just as God in His infinite wisdom surely intended.
I was much too afraid of what my crashing motorbike might ignite to go through with it, however. It isn’t that I really believed in an afterlife; I was too confused to really believe much of anything back then. I survived because I half-believed that I would never ever stop burning to death if I died a mere half-believer.
But to spend endless days and dreams consumed with fear of boundless suffering isn’t really living, so I had little choice but to turn to hope. Thus began my hell-defying flying leap into the deepest of the figurative deep: the dark unknown. For all I know, I thought, life might be worth living; and for all I know, I might find its value if I seek it. And I desperately needed to find it. But I didn’t know how to look for it. I didn’t even know if there’s anything to find.
I lacked mystical insight despite several years of earnest Pentecostalism; so I started by seeking room to rationally believe, if I could—in the face of death, pedophiles, fossil records, holocausts, and the flooding stream of earnest bullshit all around me—that, for all we know, it’s a wonderful life after all. I didn’t realize it then, but what I really wanted is a theory that plausibly affirms life undefiantly while strongly condemning yet making positive sense of evils of all kinds.
Hopeful pondering turned gradually into a longing for perfection, however, so when I left off merely despairing I started hoping for impossible things. I cycled around like this for over a decade: up mere hope and down despair, into grand depressions, ever farther from even serenity’s peak.
And then, a lightning flash of insight! I’d been searching as if everything depended on my skill and good fortune alone; but in mid-December of 2009, lost and roving map-less through the thick-forested mountain chain of facts and fictions on my mind, I realized that my hunt couldn’t possibly succeed unless my quarry was also out there hunting me. So I plunged back through the densest thicket into the deepest canyon I’ve ever been lost in, where I’d never once glimpsed my prey and hardly any sign of it. It’s hiding here if anywhere, I thought.
And my God, there it was! Standing broadside, drinking from the earnest, flooding stream! Stamping down the nadir of my ravine! My bugging eyes were glazed from wind and strong emotion, but I saw it! I did! I know it. My mouth fell open to exult; but only brainless babble tumbled from it. Yet echoing through that gross material scene, my childish gibberish and the noise from all around acquired the sense and stunning sound of profound lyrical music!
A mystical vision? No, just the grand hypothesis I spent fifteen years chasing instead of giving in to hopelessness. I’ve pursued it from that ravine with growing energy since that day—December 19, 2009—and, for the most part, I find it ever more compelling.
But if I’m discovering the meaning of life, even if merely in theory, then what about the question that inspired this essay? What can I say about Life’s decision to leave us?
Life’s ends are for each of us to come to terms with, and I don’t know what it means to lose a close friend or family member to suicide. But I do know what it is to feel so overwhelmed by despair that a violent death seems welcome, and I know what it is to drag on despite that feeling for long enough to outlive and even transcend it. So whether or not my findings should—whether or not the sort of redemption I’ve glimpsed is as universally available as my hypothesis suggests—my searchings fully persuade me that it is never rational to give in to despair. Rationality is vastly overrated, of course, because to live is unavoidably to leap with your whole self into mystery. But just there is my point: though you can’t tell from the top of the cliff whether hope’s hypotheses are truer, they’re clearly the only ones worth testing all the way down. So since you must leap, my friend, please…
… leap in hope.