Is An Insignificant Life Worth Living?

It has been a busy year so far for my family and I. At the beginning of the year I decided to begin studying my Master of Divinity degree at Christ College because I thought it was a better path to developing what abilities God had given me and how I would best help others. The semester was a hard one. Besides learning a completely new and dead language (Koine Greek) I also began a new role as clinical educator at work and the constant juggling between the 2 responsibilities meant that by June my body was worn out and my mind was absent. I needed a holiday. By July I was in Sabah, Malaysia enjoying the tropical weather and seeing my grandmother whom I had not seen in 13 years. But while the weather was sunny and the waves were calm, a storm in my heart still raged. I experienced a gnawing restlessness that grew each day and fully manifested itself only once I had returned to Sydney and prepared to return to ‘normal life’.

This restlessness of mine which I am prone to experiencing was crippling. Around the same time, I had struggled to know how I ought to rest and what to prioritize in the upcoming semester. Was I even studying the right course? Why was it so hard? How else should I be using my time? From the moment I entered my last clinical note, I think my mind had already begun to consider the alternatives I could be doing with my time and my life despite my constraints. Being open to new possibilities was exhausting, like never ending research for a product you want to buy. In the end, it came down to what I perceived as the absurdity of my life. What was the point of my labors if none of my work will be remembered? This is something that has become increasingly obvious to me. After all, Jean Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion at 26 while Nietzsche only became the youngest professor at the University of Basel at 24. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ Accompanying this feeling of insignificance is a feeling of missing out, that there is a life out there where I might be happy, leading everyday that I haven’t realized it to be filled with constant regret and envy at those to appear to have found it (though I haven’t actually met anyone who has yet). It wasn’t until the first day of returning to work at my clinic that I read this an article on restlessness in the Art of Manliness.1

One of the most valuable lessons for the young to learn is that it takes a great man to accomplish a great undertaking, and that both are necessarily few in one generation. If this lesson were learned and heeded half the heartache of our mature years might be avoided. Effort, and high resolve, and noble purpose are excellent qualities of character; but they can never enable a man to lift himself by the boot-straps nor accomplish the unattainable. It is at once the weakness and greatness of some to conceive what they attempt to do of so high a degree of excellence that no human power can reach it. The natural effect of this is a restless desire to accomplish something far beyond what is ordinarily attained even by surpassing talent. When such a desire has taken possession of the heart, the usual achievements of men seem poor indeed. With their broad views and far-sighted stretch of thought, it seems trivial to come down to the common affairs of every-day life. It is to them a small thing to do good and get good in the plain old common-sense way. J. Clinton Ransom, The Successful Man, 1886

Thanks to the technological developments of the last 2 centuries, the accumulation of wealth in the West and the emphasis on self autonomy, we are served a buffet of endless possibilities and enticed by endless temptations and expectations. How can one live in such a world? The solution I think seems to be by a good dose of humility. Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that there is nothing better for man than to fear God and keep his commandments, so Kierkegaard reminds us that there is little way of knowing if the life we have chosen for ourselves is the best. Often the responsibility of this immense choice can crush us from ever making a decision. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Humility and faith are the keys to enjoying the present and leaving the future to the One who sees all that is under the sun. Complement this with TGC’s article “How Do I Discern If My Ambition is Godly?” 2

Though we shouldn’t be overly introspective—exhaustively questioning the motives of everything we do—it’s helpful to keep a pulse on our ambition. I’ve found one basic principle helpful: Godly ambition requires both hustle and humility.

  1. ## How to Cure Neurasthenia (Restlessness) | The Art of Manliness
    Link
  2. Link

Understanding Millenials Through The Eyes of Kierkegaard

Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash
Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash

I write as one untimely born. I write as a millenial to millenials, whom by the end of this sentence may already be bored of the writing of this millenial. How wearisome it is to read something that doesn’t immediately capture one’s attention! Is it because one’s heart is searching for something else? Are you still reading this? Then I am surprised. And I trust you will then read on. This seems to be the paradox of the millenial — a person stuck hoping for an experience they remember and when such an experience finds them, they are remembering what they had hoped for. It is no wonder that the travel industry much profit from the wanderings of 20 year olds. Once a person has tasted the novelty of another country, they have engaged all their senses towards its sights and its sounds. The senses then dwell and eat away at the person while he or she works. Slowly but surely, its memories float to the surface and before they know it, they are off again in search of what they had remembered. But once there, what they had hoped for vanishes and is replaced by what they had remembered. And the chase goes on.

One of the ways reading Kierkegaard has helped me is to understand my own generation from the eyes of someone who lived 200 years ago. While we each have one life to live there are a few ways we can live. Kierkegaard captured this in his 3 stages: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthete lives for their immediate pleasures, the ethical for their responsibility to others and the religious by their faith in God (which transcends responsibility). But these 3 ways of living are not equally valid, as Kierkegaard hints at in his use of stages. Instead each one builds on the other until the highest mode of living is found in the religious.

From my own reflection, it seems that the typical millenial is characterized most by their search for the aesthetic. This is unsurprising given that global youth culture is marked by secularism. In secularism the lost of the religious mode of being gives way to the mode of responsibility (the ethical) but what millenials are subconsciously realizing is that without the religious there is no ethical. After all, who are other people to tell you how to live? Instead one is left with the individual including their tastes and what strikes their conscience. Do what makes you happy – as long as it doesn’t harm anyone (that you care about). The reduction of life to the immediate are present in many ways: in the preoccupation with lifestyles, in boredom and in the anxiety that comes with having to make decisions that ultimately have little meaning. These are problems that haven’t gone unnoticed. But their solutions seem far from simple and I hope to be able to start to pry them out little by little as I read further.

Further Reading

https://www.iep.utm.edu/kierkega/#SH1c

https://www.amazon.com/Either-Fragment-Life-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140445773

https://www.amazon.com/Stages-Lifes-Way-Kierkegaards-Writings/dp/0691020493

https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2019-03/connecting-with-the-new-global-youth-culture?fbclid=IwAR0CFxrebbnK5LTGIu3K9_Ro4ovyBslQcE5V6QRGv2OjNgj6WIASgL1X414

Gillette’s Ad Reveals Our Cultural Confusion About Man’s 2 States

What is a man? Over the last 2 weeks, I’ve been challenged to think more about this. It wasn’t a challenge because the concept of masculinity was previously unknown but because such a clear idea was being undermined. Recently, Gillette released a type of ad that I’ve been seeing more and more of. Rather than featuring a product, the ads center around who the company is rather than what they do. As a men’s razor company, the ad was addressed to all males but it clearly expressed a narrative that Gillette wanted to identify with and would cause controversy — toxic masculinity. Within 2 minutes I was treated to ‘manly’ behaviors from cat calls and mansplaining (someone still has to explain what this is to me) to kids wrestling and dads barbecuing. The message was that this isn’t ‘the best men can get.’ Instead, Gillette called on men to hold one another accountable to behaviors that have long been justified as ‘boys being boys.’ This was obviously a good ad right?

While some applauded Gillette and saw it as an encouragement towards male accountability, many more could do little but roll their eyes. ‘There goes another attempt to demonize men.’ As for me, I had 2 initial impressions of the ad. I didn’t have any idea what the ad had to do with their actual product nor did I feel the urge to buy more of it. So it simply seemed a bad ad from a marketing standpoint. But I’m not a marketer nor a critic so writing about this aspect of the ad wasn’t going to help anyone. My second reaction is what I wanted to write about and it was directed towards a deeper problem — the message of the ad. I was concerned because it reflected the confusion around sex and identity that has engulfed so much of the society I live and breathe in. In life there are certain things that you just have to live and let live. Toothpaste squeezed from the top rather than the bottom? You just have to grin and bear it. But the confusion around sex isn’t one of them. Being confused about sex doesn’t just hurt women but the men Gillette claims to help. Not knowing how to relate one’s self as a man or a woman means not knowing how to relate to each other. It means people without differences, unity without diversity and existence without meaning. Categories are how we understand being and male and female have always been a part of it. As a Christian, being unable to understand my design means being unable to relate my self not just to others but to God. So gender confusion hurts people because it doesn’t just affect lifestyles but existence and meaning itself.

The 2 Natures

In the book of Genesis, the first two human beings are created by God in his image. As his image, their responsibility would be of mediating between God and being, ordering the chaos of creation into the paradisical garden of Eden. But the first two human beings disobeyed God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The reward of having their eyes opened is for themselves a curse. One of the curses for Eve the first female, is ‘your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.’ One result of that curse was the splitting of humanity into 2 natures – good and evil. So while Adam the first male was designed to order creation, the goodness of that order would now be twisted and perverted. The loving order and stability of Adam would now become the iron fisted ruling of a tyrant and it has continued in this way. In me there exists the wise king. Yet behind him lays the dark tyrant. They both look similar and at times it can be hard to tell who’s who. The courage, strength and aggression of our fighting men have often been the turning tide of wars. Yet these very same traits have caused the rape, pillaging and destruction of whole cities.

It seems to me that men are capable of heroic displays of virtue but are at the same time, history’s most destructive force. But I don’t think such a design was accidental. I have often looked up at the night sky to observe the beauty of the stars. But it was only when the sky was darkest that their light shone the brightest. Augustine himself recognized this when he observed that God would often use prosperity to remind us of his goodness and great calamities to remind us of our need. What we needed was something stable and unchanging. It was a reminder that what we needed was God himself. What men need therefore is true masculinity and the very God who restores them to it. I do not think the present threat in our society is excessive masculinity but rather a lack of it. When men protect those under their care the world is a safer place. When men create meaning rather meaninglessness the world is a truer place. And when men live as men the world is a more beautiful place.

With further reflection, I’ve become more sympathetic towards Gillette’s attempt to address this social problem. Let me be clear – I don’t endorse it. But I think it was their way of saying that there were wrong behaviors that males had justified as being intrinsic to who they were. This was badly expressed through the phrase ‘boys will be boys’. When I think about the encouragement to ‘suck it up’ as though stoicism saved anyone, I can see Gillette’s point. But harmful behaviors that are usually expressed by males does not mean that males usually express these behaviors. And I think this is what confused people and caused the controversy. Sexual harassment is no more a product of masculinity than lying is to femininity. Unless Gillette and those under the sway of toxic masculinity understand man’s two natures, they will only be able to address it by eradicating maleness itself. When you realize that men die on the job more than females, that they are the most frequent victims of homicide and that they account for 97% of war casualties, that’s not a great idea.

The Biggest Reason Why Most Resolutions Fail

Why do most resolutions fail? These days it seems people hesitate to make any resolutions. Others do it half-heartedly expecting that they will fail past March. The good thing is that I think this betrays the reality that we know how impossible change is. Having seen the countless attempts we’ve tried to improve our lives and failed we are a little bit wiser. Change is hard because I think what we do isn’t separated from who we are. I think the reason they fail is because people for the most part remain themselves at the end of the year.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

To understand how resolutions connect with the change we want to see, it is helpful to ask what resolutions are. At its most basic level, I think resolutions for most people are expressions about what they would like to achieve. It is a show of will. By gritting one’s teeth, one attempts to stand up to one’s self to stop doing one thing and start doing another. And then we fail. And fail again. And make resolutions for the next year. While this is annoying, when you’ve lived long enough it can become just another fact of life and something you apathetically accept. But I think it does raise the question of whether there was something wrong with the original resolutions that people make. Is it because the will wasn’t strong enough or because it wasn’t genuine?

I don’t think that’s the case. I think when people make resolutions they genuinely desire, hope and believe that they can change. Resolutions are done when the will is most firm and the vision is most clear. With the destination in mind, the heart goes along and charts the route. But the problem may be the direction of one’s will. In life, few things are done well by aiming directly at the object as an end in itself. It seems that to operate a business well, one must seek to serve rather than to profit. To lead well, one must seek to embolden the people they lead. On the other hand, leading to obtain power leads to the manipulation and usage of people like tools in a shed. So in order to change what we do, we must first change who we are. Because a large part of our accomplishments proceed from our habits and then our character, changing who we are involves changing our virtues. We must have an image of who we ought to be and strive to embody it. Like Narcissus whose continual reflection of himself turned him into a flower of vanity, we become what we behold for long enough.

For me and countless others, change is something I’ve struggled with. From my childhood till now, I have often realized that I am not who I ought to be. And trying to figure out whom I ought to be has been like looking for fish through muddy waters. But what I discovered at 17 remains true even now — that there is none who so embodies what it means to live the good life and to be fully human as the man the Bible calls Jesus. Yet he was more than a man. He was the embodiment of the divine and because of that change hasn’t just been possible but it has occurred simply by beholding and believing him. For me, change has come from a change in spirit and the spirit through faith. While I’m sure 2019 will continue to challenge who I am and who I ought to be, I know like the apostle John that it isn’t in vain.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. – 1 John 3:2

I hope that you too would see and experience true change in 2019 and that you would become the person you were called to be.

When Good Ends and Evil Begins

What makes evil, evil? Is it evil to hate a person in my mind? Or if I pretend to love them while secretly hating them? What if I openly hate them? What if I pretend to love them and then hate them by working against them without their knowledge? What if I murder them? You might say, ‘that’s enough. Of course you shouldn’t murder them!’ So abstractly labeling the latter as evil is easy. But if you’re required to retrace your steps backwards then it’s not so clear when good ends and evil begins. I think the default is to pass over every stage until the last one. In the age of the trite and trivial, it’s easy to pass over the early behaviors because they have less obvious consequences.

In truth, they’re all evil though varying in degrees. That seems overblown until you realize these behaviors or thoughts aren’t isolated incidences but states of being lived in the presence of an infinite person. Like my mother used to say, ‘it’s your attitude.’ When we pass over these small ‘bad’ actions without recognizing its evil, it’s akin to severing our vessels from our heart. These little behaviors are symptoms of our inner condition and who we are. Imagine the physician who points out to the patient that he has peripheral vascular disease. The patient retorts, ‘nice try doctor but these aren’t my vessels.’ Yet the madness of severing our behaviors from our self is seen everywhere. The malady becomes terminal when blinded by our spiritual sickness we can no longer recognize the good and evil we attempt to define. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not to know good and evil. No, the food poisoning sets in before that.

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard described the severity of sin (the Christian conception of evil) as terrible precisely because it occurred before God –

”…there was much truth in the idea, even though it has occasionally been misused, that what made sin so terrible was its being before God. From this people proved the eternity of hell’s punishment and then later became cleverer and said: ‘sin is sin; it is none the worse for being against or before God.’ Strange! Even lawyers talk of aggravated crimes; even lawyers distinguish between crimes committed against public officials and private citizens, prescribe different punishments for patricide and ordinary murder.

Wronging God infinitely heightens the severity of sin because God is not someone external, who exists outside ourselves like a police constable. Instead, he is a constant relation relating to our self. And the magnitude of our crime is judged based on the self’s standard and the person its been committed against. And it has always been this way. What would one think if a child murdered his father? Would such a child have committed the same crime by murdering his dog?

Kierkegaard wrote that the self has a conception of God yet does not do what God wants and is disobedient. Thus God is never sinned against occasionally but always as long as one was in such a state. Now the higher the consciousness of one’s self, the more intensely the awareness of the self’s standard of measurement – God. The more conception of self, the more God and the more conception of God, the more self.

Calvin, the Swiss theologian recognized the link between the knowledge of one’s self and of God:

“For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty”

The state of evil therefore lies in the will. And its severity lies in its relating of the self to its foundation, God. Evil is evil because it says “this is good for me!” and defies God for good is not ‘for you’ but rather ‘for God’. He is the person of infinite goodness. After all, Nietzsche remarked that good and evil were simply expressions of the will to power. A person who sins is a daughter who slaps her father whilst sitting on his lap. “I would rather sit on my own lap than yours, thank you very much!” Her crime lay in slapping not an inconsequential person but her father who gave her life and of using the elevation of his lap to do the very deed. Little girl, don’t you realize that you can’t slap your father without sitting on his lap?

Complement this article with:

  1. The Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard.
  2. Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin.

How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.

The Tyranny of Freedom

In the beginning, God existed absolutely free. He was free to do as he desired, and constrained only by his own character. He made Adam and Eve male and female, giving them their very own radical freedom to live as his image. This meant that they too were constrained only by his character – goodness. They had the freedom to choose where and what they did except for one thing – to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Attempting to eat from such a tree however meant attempting to transcend God’s own character and know good and evil for themselves. They would use their very own freedom to determine good and evil outside of God, wrecking reality in the process. Sadly, the story has continued till today.

Today, we feel free to decide what makes us happy whether that’s the choice of our career or spouse. Yet these choices often makes us just as miserable, with a common outcome of anxiety over our decisions, discontentment with our current situation and a sense of meaninglessness. Our freedom to choose what makes us happy often seems more like slavery to whatever our current impulses are. Freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom.

Yet the key reason why is because freedom was not given in order to determine what makes us happy. Instead, true freedom is choosing what will ultimately make us happy. But how can we know what makes truly makes happy without it being revealed to us? Humans were made free, in order that we might use our freedom to transcend ourselves and live for another. But we were never made free to transcend God himself and live as though we were him. God’s freedom is to determine what is, while the freedom of man is simply to choose. The hope of the Christian is that in the dimly lit cave of humanity, God shone the light of his Son and entered it himself to lead us out, by pointing us back to where we belong – in the freedom of living for him. And he is continuing to do so today.