What justifies a life?
On Wednesday, October 18th, a local friend of mine passed away. A mere two nights prior I had spent some intimate time together with him — the only time the two of us had intentionally gotten together one-on-one just to hang out and chat — and had a really lovely evening with him sharing stories and struggles from the last few months of our lives. Very surreal to learn the news that he is no longer among the living only a few days later.
Episodes like these in life make me reflect, of course, on what exactly gives our lives value and worth. What ultimately justifies our existence? Amidst our mortality and the experiences of strife and grief that regularly punctuate life, in what sense can we say an ultimate and final “Yes” to all of this, exactly as it has been?
An immediate answer we often reach for is a person’s impact. At my friend’s funeral this past weekend, I heard many stories about how his artistry and character left a mark on this world — a truly valuable and beautiful testament to his life.
Yet such things will always be contingent and fleeting. I think of all the times in my own life where I have clearly failed to engender the kind of impact I would hope — failed in all these small ways to bring compassion or beauty or insight into the world. If we stake the value of life only on this, we immediately run up against the issue that it suggests some lives are intrinsically worth more than others — something that cuts sharply against my own intuitions in this domain and which can easily increase rather and lessen the intense sense of tragedy around death and finitude in many circumstances.
This framing of “impact” is stuck in a certain valuative mode which can perhaps be shed to rehabilitate and improve this concept. Often, we look at the “good things” a person has been able to do in their life, with their life. Yet there is something more basic and more fundamental behind these judgments. The sheer particularity of having existed as exactly the individual you were — this itself is an impact, and one much more holistic than considering any particular set of positive effects of a person’s life.
To have been at all is to have existed in innumerable relationships with other people, other beings, and the cosmos as a whole. There is, in fact, no way to genuinely exist without having an irreducible impact in all these relationships. The idea of the “Butterfly Effect” in chaos theory is grounded on this insight. The fact that my friend drank one particular cup of water, spoke these specific words to a stranger, or had his body in some exact position on April 24th, 2005 — all such things are likely necessary ingredients in some holistic causal chain leading to the realization of particular future possibilities which would not have arisen without his very basic contribution in this way.
The beauty of this perspective is that it returns us to a much more basic awareness of individuality and interconnectedness both. Any life at all is an irreducible, necessary ingredient in the relational web of existence at large. To be is to make a difference — full stop. Beyond any evaluation of “positive impact” — which is feeble and fleeting upon closer inspection — this more basic contribution is robust and eternal. Ripples of causation which include particular lives as necessary ingredients shall continue indefinitely into the future — a real difference will have been made in the grand scheme of things.
However, this perspective has the inverse problem as the frame of evaluating a person’s impact: it leaves no room to celebrate the particular qualities and contributions of a person since this is all holistically swept up in this grand causal web of the whole cosmos. Grounded only in this perspective, there is ultimately no way to distinguish the goodness and beauty brought into the world through my friend’s love of acting and music from the impact of someone whose primary legacy was one of abuse, destruction, and malice. Both will be an indispensable contribution to the holistic development of all of creation, yet we certainly want to be able to make these sorts of distinctions.
How do we balance and integrate these? Both have their own unique forms of nihilism that result — the former a nihilism which suggests some lives somehow matter less because their impact was lesser, and the latter a nihilism which gives us few resources to make basic distinctions grounded in fundamental moral intuitions.
One way to rehabilitate these notions is to take the path of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who proposed “objective immortality” as a solution to this existential impasse. With this idea, Whitehead was not suggesting continued experience following the death of the body (that would be “subjective immortality” — the traditional religious idea of life after death), but rather was gesturing at the fact that all the good that we contribute in this cosmos is retained everlastingly in the storehouse of history. The beauty we brought into the world did in fact happen — it was, and will forever be, an actualized possibility.
But I think there may be something even more fundamental than the sheer realness of our lives in this objective sense which ultimately justifies and makes worthy our existence. Yet what a difficult and subtle reality it is to access. Perhaps, though, this is because of its pervasiveness and ubiquity.
To properly orient towards this aspect of existence, I think it is helpful to dwell for some time on the heights of evil and tragedy — those situations which push our theodicies to their breaking points — and take such circumstances as the primary ground from which we proceed.
These past few weeks, thousands of Palestinian children have been killed. And killed in ways that are atrocious and unnecessary. The depth of tragedy here is not properly speakable.
What does it mean to die a child? So few of the potentialities of human life will have been achieved. A favorite book never discovered, a best friendship never kindled, a heartbreak never wept. These childrens’ lives, on paper, were minuscule when stacked up against the biographical richness and depth which may be exemplified by a person who dies naturally in old age. Yet in few places is my faith stronger than in affirming the immensity of value exemplified in these tender lives.
If our spirituality does not have resources for making this affirmation with profound existential depth, or if our religion is unable to provide a response to such tragedy other than resorting to tenuous metaphysical speculation or far-off spiritual realms, these have failed in their most basic functions. Where can we find these resources?
To be is also to experience, and the conscious experience of human life is something of both irreducible individuality and incomparable richness. In merely experiencing life as ourselves — in all its complexity and dynamism — we are adding something indelible, something of bottomless value to the whole of existence. In experience, the occultation of the world is overcome — the real existence of this whole beautiful creation shines forth. Real relationality is achieved, and the mute things of the world are unveiled as radiant, vibrant, yearning for their existentiation and transfiguration.
Beyond all achievement or impact or contribution, the inalienable beauty of our sheer experience justifies our lives on a fundamental level.
Rather than being something atomistic and solipsistic, our experience of life is the highest-order exemplification of the very basic cosmic urge towards unveiling, disclosure, and relation — and in human experience these things are all brought to their aesthetic heights through the unique ways that our perception is able to intensify, transfigure, and harmonize the things with which we are in relation.
This, too, is something kept everlastingly in the storehouse of history. It will have always been the case that in late 2020 I saw a young girl watching a group of herons by the park and in that moment I felt the whole weight of the absolute actuality of things envelop me. And such a relationship towards experience is perhaps our primordial state as well as our destiny. It is open and available in all moments, though it is often rare we are able to tune into it holistically.
Here, life is justified in its profound interconnection with all things and in its ability to exemplify at the highest octave the most basic features of the cosmos itself — and it is found not in something outside ourselves and contingent, but in the most immediate aspect of our very being: experience itself.
Of course, there are plenty of forms of experience which are deeply bad — but these are conditional perturbations of a substrate which itself, in its primordial essence, exemplifies goodness, beauty, and novelty.
One of the beautiful things about artists, is they are able to do alchemy with experience in order to re-attune us to this that is ever-present. In this sense, the impact of an artist such as my friend Liam is qualitatively different from what is able to be achieved through other modes of contribution. To return home to the beauty of our basic orientation towards life and the world — this is something of inexhaustible value which is achieved.
In memory of Liam McCarty, March 15, 1996 — October 18, 2023