Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once called anxiety the “dizziness of freedom.” We can become lost in our choices, uncertain how to proceed, like the millipede that becomes paralyzed as soon as it tries to figure out how to move its legs. We can run from this openness and freedom: We can hide in some justification or rationale that would “answer” the question of what to do with this moment. We can turn to authority and tradition, to teachers, to scientists, or to philosophers for answers. We can ask “What would Jesus (or Socrates, or Buddha) do?” We can emulate our heroes. We can try to be someone else. All of these answers ultimately fail, however, because they all require that we lie to ourselves in order to make them work.
We might, for example, try to tell ourselves that all of the answers are in the Bible (or the Koran, Torah, Vedas, or Sutras). We then tell ourselves that the Bible has all the answers because it is the word of God and God is infallible. But this just begs the epistemological question of how do we know that the Bible is, in fact, the word of God, or that God is, in fact, infallible. If we examine how some texts were included in the Bible and others were excluded, or if we examine when certain Biblical texts were written, by whom, and in what context, or if we examine the vagaries of the process of translation, we are anything but reassured that the Bible is the precise word of God. It takes a certain willful ignorance to believe that. Most often such a belief is based, not on the basis of a careful examination of historical facts, but on the basis of what one’s parents or teachers have told one, or on the basis of a personal conversion experience. These are very weak reeds on which to hang one’s faith. If, as the result of analysis, however, one concludes that the Bible is not the word of God, but instead a wisdom book composed by men, then on what basis does one prefer it to other wisdom books drawn from other traditions? In the past, Westerners grew up steeped in the culture of the Bible and only the Bible, but now we live in a global village with the wisdom of all the world’s cultures at our fingertips. As a result, it has become psychologically harder to imbue a particular text with exclusive authority. It has become harder for a text to eclipse and silence all competing texts and thereby answer the existential question of what to do with this moment. We can do so only if we pretend we don’t know everything that we already do know. We can only do so dishonestly.
Scientifically-oriented thinkers sometimes hope that the science can provide answers to existential questions that possess a higher order of validity than religious answers. The scientific method has proved to be superior to any other method as a means of predicting events and establishing truth. Scientifically inspired philosophies, from nineteenth century Utilitarianism and Social Darwinism through twentieth century Consilience, are equally flawed because science is the study of what is, and can never make the leap from is to ought. Science can tell us how the world works, but it can never tell us how it should be.
Neither science nor religion, neither reason nor faith, can extricate us from our quandary. One cannot, in truth, turn to any external source for guidance because every external source presents us with the same problem: We cannot be certain how this external source derived his or her knowledge, nor can we be certain of its validity. Thus we are still thrown back on our own judgment and resources.
If we accept that we cannot rely on an external source of authority to provide us with answers, we are left to depend on either our own limited powers of reason, and our own desires to set our course. This seems no better, however, than relying on external authority. There is no reason why we should, a priori, depend on our own emotional life to make life choices. For one thing, we can observe how others who live by impulse or who follow their feelings often end up in ruin. We are also aware of the limitations of our own reason. We are aware that there are others who are more intelligent than we are, and we are aware that even great geniuses do not always conduct their lives very well. We are also aware of how easily reason is mislead by rationalization, delusion, wishful thinking, overgeneralization, and the failure to consider all the information available. In addition, there seem to be questions of value, meaning, and preference that cannot be settled by reason at all, and these questions include the questions we most want answered.
It is best if we admit at the outset that there is no ultimate arbiter, that there are no definitive answers to these questions. The best we can do is arrive at provisional answers that we cobble together through the interplay of reason and feeling and our readings of the wisdom traditions available to us. This is an open questioning and exploration without anticipated end in which we use head, heart, and the collective wisdom of our ancestors to check and balance each other. The answers we arrive at through this process are, at best, loosely held. They guide our actions for now, but we are ready to cede them when we encounter a better argument or new information. Over time, however, as we approach these questions again and again, our answers develop a center of gravity so that they are less likely to veer off dramatically in new directions through simple encounters with new evidence.
If we accept this interactive process as a method to arrive at provisional answers to questions about how we should conduct our lives, we need to find a simple starting point to frame our questions. If we cannot accept tradition or religious or scientific authority as a given, that frame needs to emerge from our own shared lived experience of the ground on which we find ourselves.
Like the sparsely set stage in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, this frame only requires the bare existential reality of how we find and experience ourselves in the world. That reality is that we find ourselves here in existence in a world and with others for a brief time without any ultimate understanding of why we are here or what we are to do while we are here. We have no direct experience of what happened before we became conscious in the world, nor do we know what happens to beings when they cease being animated. Our own knowledge of our own minds is limited, and our knowledge by inference about other minds seems even more limited. We do not know whether or how the world was created, and if it was created, by whom. We tend to trust our own immediate experience of the world as veridical, but we are also aware of our own capacity for delusion, hallucination, and self-deception. We live embodied. We taste, touch, smell, hear and see. We hurt and ache. We run and crawl. We eat and defecate. We glory in our bodies, we hate our bodies. We are beings in time. We tend to trust our memories about the past, but we are aware that memories blur and fade and sometimes mix with fantasy and wish. We project hopes and anxieties into the future, but we exist in the present living at the point when past becomes future. As we move through time we experience both development from childhood to maturity, and then decline into sickness, old age, and death. We have a desire to be happy, but happiness seems fleeting and we are often unclear about what it would be that would really make us happy. We find that people, places, and things evoke a wide array of feelings in us, and we find ourselves liking and disliking, drawn to and repelled by phenomena as we encounter them. As we relate to other humans, we find ourselves concerned with whether we are accepted and belong, whether we are approved of, and what our relative status within the community is. We find ourselves within a story: our own biography, and the story of a family, a tribe, a people, a social order, a natural order, a world, a universe. Part of the that narrative is the narrative of identity and we live in stories about who we are: we are kind, we are tough, we are complex, we are divided, we are crippled, we are sick, we are heroic, we are cool, we are normal, we are men, we are heterosexual, we are Christian, we are conservative, we are empiricists, we are Americans, and so on. This is the human existential reality: embodied beings in time here in the world with others and embedded in stories about it. We find ourselves thrown into the midst of this reality in our own concrete particularities with little choice in the matter. We did not choose our parents, our genes, our community of birth, our height, our blood type, our intelligence, and large aspects of our personalities. We are, first things first, here as we are, as we find ourselves. As such, we face the fundamental problem: What are we do about all of this? What do we do next?
This is the problem of being human. The only authentic resolution is not to resolve it, but to embrace the problem and live it out, accepting the accompanying anxiety and uncertainty. To do this well requires a certain openness of being, a willingness to listen to life as it speaks to us in our own immediate experience, a degree of courage and steadfastness, and an unwavering commitment to honesty. In doing so, one discovers provisional answers that exist only in this lived moment. Living in this way brings a genuine sense of aliveness and a deep sense of peace.