Life or death

The first philosophical question is suicide? Albert Camus.

This bold, outrageous statement startles us. What does he mean? Doesn’t some other question, any other question seem like a more comfortable, more reasonable starting point for our philosophizing? But Camus will not let us off the hook. He lived through World War II in France during the German occupation. He was a member of the French resistance, and fought the Germans in every way he could. He lived constantly on the edge of discovery and death. That deeply challenging experience sharpened his philosophical acumen.

What he is telling us is that if we are here, alive and living out our lives, in that very living we have assumed that life makes sense to us. We have assumed that being here and going on with our life is a meaningful pursuit. By our living we implicitly affirm that our lives make sense.

Camus is pointing out that such an uncritical and unquestioned way of living does not guarantee meaning. All it does is testify to the fact that we are alive. If we do not question that living, we are taking for granted what is actually most questionable. Why are we here? What are we doing? Does it matter? Do things make sense? Is my life worthwhile? Does my life have meaning?  Asking all these questions are crucial to a life that makes sense and has meaning.  He is pressing us to realize that if we don’t ask those questions, we have not taken responsibility for our living.

If we are here living our lives,  that very living means we are assuming life is worthwhile.  But is it? There is no warrant for this assumption. Our living our lives does not validate that living. Thus, if you are here, why are you here? We find our selves unavoidably facing Camus’ question.

Some 22 years ago, my 28 year old son committed suicide. In whatever convoluted, problematic, troubled way he said in his death that life was not worth living. I remember amidst the pain and sorrow of his loss writing in my journal, that he had, however complexly, made a choice to end his life, and in that choice challenged me to look at my own life. His death said to me: It’s not worth it. And in saying that, he was saying to me: Is it worth it to you? His dying challenged my continued living. I could feel the pull of his death on me. It would end the pain. It would end the sorrow. It would end all the hardships of continuing to live. Join me.

I wrote in my journal that I could not, would not join him. It would certainly have ended my pain as he ended his, but I wrote that I chose life, however troubled and difficult, still I chose it. I have continued to choose it these past 22 years. I choose it not with some final answer to things, not with some explanation to the mysteries of life. I choose it, and in that choice, I recognize that I must day after day create the meaning that validates my choice. It is an endless task.

That is Camus’ point. If we are living, we are choosing life. For that choice to have value, it must be conscious and deliberate. and we must choose it over and over again in the face of all kinds of reasons to not make the choice. The choice must be carried in our lives in the face of that ever present alternative, the choice to end our life.

What do you choose?


About The Practical Philosopher

I am a retired Philosophy professor. I taught philosophy for 43 years, and I would like to share some of what I have found pursuing the fascinating journey of philosophy.
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3 Responses to Life or death

  1. Sally Miller says:

    Dear Bill,

    This blog is truly inspiring and insightful. Thank you for sharing. I am grateful for hearing Camus’ point, and yours. I choose life. And I look forward to reading more of your posts as part of my choice to live.


  2. Linda says:

    I wake up every morning asking what is my purpose in life and have concluded it is the pursut of happiness and to help others to feel happiness too. What else is there? While my work is an immense value to others and me, I dont like to think that counseling is my “purpose”. I dont believe we have a purpose in life. We just are here and we need to live good lives. I would rather say I have no choice to help others. I don’t like seeing people suffereing having grown up in a very unhappy home. My brothers committed suicide as well. I am still trying to figure it all out but life is always better. Bill, you made me cry. I am sorry for your loss. You have always, since I’ve known you, been so honest.

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