Philosophy | Stoicism

How Shall I Live?

“When a person tries to apply his intellect to the question “Why do I exist in this world?” he becomes dizzy. The human intellect cannot find the answers to such questions. What does this mean? This means that our intellect is not given to us to find a solution for this question. Our intellect can only answer the question: “How shall I live?” And the answer is simple: “We should live so as to bring good to all people.” – Leo Tolstoy

There was a moment in college many years ago when I thought I’d like to major in Philosophy, but couldn’t possible justify it to my peers and parents.  But no matter: I’ve majored in Philosophy off and on ever since.  And it seems from my reading lately that I’m back on.  Perhaps there is something in the air.  Or perhaps there’s something in the changing light as the earth pivots and the days persistently grow shorter.  But I find myself drawn back into the great minds of history lately.  Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Tolstoy, Campbell, Jung, Nietzsche, Frankl, Thoreau…  and on.

The root of philosophy are these two questions posed by Tolstoy: Why are we here? and so, How shall I live?   As Leo points out, the first question is one most people don’t dwell on.  Existential questions about why we’re here make you pause a beat too long.  It’s easier to just get right to the second question.

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” – Joseph Campbell

Most people just go about living whatever identity they choose for themselves.  For the most part you can march along most of your life just living your chosen identity, until something like 2020 comes along to disrupt that illusion.  The easy path becomes harder, doors that were always open are closed, and the people we’ve come to rely on to reinforce our identity have their own problems.  But there’s nothing unique in history about the challenges we’re dealing with in 2020 – the only thing unique about it is that its happening to us this time.  And in a year as disruptive to identities as this one, what better question to ask of ourselves than how shall I live?

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” – Carl Jung

Kindling light is lovely, but sometimes your battery is running low and you’re a long way from the dawn.  So where do we go from here?  I hear people despair at lost semesters, lost seasons in sports, lost jobs, lost mobility to cross borders, lost time with loved ones…  and what I hear most is despair of lost identity.  We all had plans for these days, and those plans were turned upside down.  But here in the darkness of 2020 philosophy gently taps you on the shoulder and offers direction from those who came before us, and in many ways suffered in ways that we can’t imagine in our current life of relative comfort:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”  – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

So how shall I live?  Responsibly; in this moment and the next one too, bringing good to all people and bringing light to the darkest corners.  Offering a shoulder to cry on and an ear for those who need it.  To keep climbing the hill and giving a hand to those who need it.  To be patient with those who lose their way but firm with those who would pull you towards the darkness.  To be a steady presence in an unsteady world.  And when the bucket empties, draw from the wisdom of those who came before for strength and sustenance to keep going.

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