The Paradox of Self Preservation and the Shadow of Life

The Will to Survive

I often like to sit on the train and observe those around me. I see people on their seats, people in their houses as the train passes by, people standing up looking at their phones and the unlucky person staring right back at me. There’s a woman on on a call reconciling for a better relationship with her spouse. Another girl flicks through Instagram as she imagines what life in Peru is like. And as lights flicker past the train, with flicker at each moment, every person on the train is pursuing and seeking for something…

Some call it happiness, others life, others peace or prosperity and still others, freedom. And there are various ways people pursue them. Some look for more possessions, others fulfilling relationships and some even to spiritual transcendence (all this time it’s been all those unnoticed people sitting with their eyes closed). Whatever the case, it can be captured in the word life according to each person’s vision of the ‘good life’. It’s what Darwin captures in his Evolution of the Species. That what every living being shares in common is the will to survive. It’s what Socrates earnestly questioned his fellow Athenians about: the good life. And it’s what John the apostle recorded of Jesus’ words: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came so that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

The Paradox of Self-Preservation

“John 12:24–25 (CSB): Truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Yet why is it that the harder we try to grasp at this life the more it slips out of our hands? Like channels of water running through our fingers, we squeeze and all of it is gone. We balance these grains of sand in our palms, desiring and hoping for it to stay but like time and chance it trickles through seams that we didn’t even know were there. No matter how many people we please or corporate musical chairs we play or how much wealth we store up, the questions of how much and how many and how long don’t cease. And rarely is it whispered, ‘too much’.

Chasing Shadows

I’m an unashamed Bruce Lee fan. And one of the ways he used to explain different martial arts techniques was, ‘It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.’ In other ways, all these techniques are different ways of skinning the cat. But what’s important is that you don’t mistake the cat for the dog.

There are so many things that demand to be important in my life. But all the noise makes it harder to know what’s truly meaningful. So one of my greatest fears is that I live my whole life unexamined and realize too late that I never advanced past the kindergarden of wisdom. Yes Socrates, the unexamined life isn’t worth living. But what do we need to examine? Why do so much of our strivings and pursuits seem so futile when we look back?

I think it’s because we’re often chasing the shadows of things rather the things in themselves; their essences. Paul the apostle describes even the Jewish law in this way:

‘Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the reality itself of those things, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. Otherwise, wouldn’t they have stopped being offered, since the worshipers, purified once and for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?’ Hebrews 10:1–2 (CSB).

What he’s saying is that sacrifices were only signs pointing to the day when one man would die for the guilt of everyone else. But once that day had occurred it would be absurd to go back to sacrifices again. So if getting your ‘forever home’ was really meant to satisfy your longing for security wouldn’t you have ceased to worry after buying it?

The Essence Of the Good Life

Each person sacrifices what’s necessary to grasp what they think is life. For Plato, these were the ideals of beauty, goodness and truth. They existed in an abstract world which we could transcend to if we gave up physical pleasures for the development of our reason. For us…I’m not sure. We seem to be in this weird place of history where our desires are caught between a life lived to maximize pleasure and one lived with responsibility, meaning and transcendence.

John 1:4–5 (CSB): In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.

It’s not the smartest who find life. A glance at the intellectual elite show that their lives are just as filled with misery and injustice. Instead I think Jesus expresses best, that the essence of life lies in a person. It is dwelling in the presence of the divine and having fellowship with him. If I think back to the times when I’ve been happiest in my short life it has always been a time when I’ve had the most fulfilling relationships around me.

In Plato’s Republic, he uses the analogy of ‘The Cave’ to illustrate how one awakes to truth. Our natural state is likened to a bunch of prisoners chained to a wall with a fire flickering behind us. Every time objects pass by behind us we see their shadows. But because we’ve only seen shadows our whole lives, we assume that the shadows on the wall are the real thing. Suppose one of these prisoners broke free. He is able to turn around and see the fire. And he sees that there is an exit to the real world outside. But exiting the cave he finds the light blinding at first and only gradually comes to see things aright.

John 1:18 (CSB): No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.

Plato thought this person was one who transcended reality through reason (I assume he included himself as he was now speaking as though he knew the real world). But Christians know the reverse happened. Someone who was born in the light entered the cave. And making himself a prisoner, he set his fellow ones free. By his knowledge they could walk and see and say, ‘we have come to believe that you are the perfect son of God’. And when they come out of that cave they find that all of what they had seen before were flickering shadows passing from one life to the next.

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.