Surely, If We Believed Life Was Worth Living …

French-Algerian writer, philosopher and 1957 Nobel Prize Laureate Albert Camus once suggested that the most important question philosophy had to answer is whether or not we should kill ourselves.

It’s a stupendous claim that’s easy to dismiss, especially without careful consideration.

It’s controversial. It’s spiritually and biologically blasphemous. It cuts to the metaphysical quick.

It’s such an abrupt statement that it seems like an attack; but it’s not. It’s simply the ultimate reality check.

In the grand scheme of things, we may be specks of dust gravitationally attached to a spinning pebble that’s flying thru the universe at approximately 16,000 mph, surrounded by billions of other speeding, spinning pebbles powdered with trillions of other specks of space dust. Cosmically speaking, everything we do may be futile.

Making matters worse, our smallish, brief existences are regimented by petty, slavish vocational requirements, ludicrous societal expectations and frivolous material wants. Instead of living, we are preoccupied with “making” a living. Instead of making sure we have what we need, we obsess over getting what we want. Instead of being ourselves, we resign ourselves to being who we’re expected to be.

Clearly, ours is what Socrates condemned as the unexamined life—and our political, religious and economic institutions are ill-fatedly designed to ensure that things stay that way. Camus simply pointed out the obvious.

Much of our existence is absurd. Too much of it runs contrariwise to our own innate wisdom and natural integrity. We are asked to accept and resign ourselves to travesties and incongruities that every cell of our being cries out against, but we ignore our internal unrest and assume our ignorance is simply a fundamental step towards growing up, gaining maturity and mustering prudence. The utter inanity of our surrender is what makes things absurd, and this absurdity is what begs Camus’ heretical question. It doesn’t matter if we despise his claim or resent the resultant query. Once the proposition of life or death is boiled down to a simple value judgment, we are compelled to weigh in.

Obviously, most of us weigh in affirmatively, quickly finding ways to justify our lives. Many rationales may be shallow or contrived, but they’re safe and sustainable, and they allow us to function as conventionally productive individuals.

On an individual level then, our answer to Camus’ question is a resounding “Yes.” Life is worth living. We teach it, we preach it and we cling to it. We live our lives as if there’s more to us than meets the eye, as if there’s a reason we’re here, as if we have something to contribute. We affirm our lives every day, from the minute we get out of bed to the moment we fall asleep.

Unfortunately, even as we individually clamor to proclaim that life is worth living, we collectively indicate the opposite.

Collectively, we live self-destructively as if life is not worth living, much less preserving. We poison and pollute our natural habitat for the sake of mass production and steeper profit margins. We squander our natural resources to maintain cultures of indulgence and material extravagance. We base our politics on greed and brutishness. We base our economics on carbon-based fuels and war-mongering. We mortgage our future well-being for instant gratifications, short-term gains, and perpetual modes of entertainment, leisure and general escapism.

Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we’d be interested in conserving and protecting our natural resources for future generations. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we wouldn’t allow our political representatives to obstruct progress on climate talks, emissions reductions and renewable energy. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we’d be more committed to getting to the bottom of extraordinary renditions, outed CIA agents, destroyed interrogation tapes, nonexistent WMDs, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Blackwater, etc.

Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, the ruling economic elite wouldn’t be permitted to reduce the middle and lower classes to Capitalist-sanctioned wage slaves. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we wouldn’t have a healthcare system based on exclusion instead of inclusion. Surely, if we believed life was worth living, purchasing power wouldn’t be prized over conscience and the dollar wouldn’t be mightier than the pen. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we wouldn’t live as though we were specks of dust with no hope of making a difference.

Surely, if we believed life was worth living, we’d live more deliberately, more accountably, more responsibly.

Surely, if we believed life was worth living, we’d live more worthwhilely instead of selfishly, cynically and fatalistically.

Born in Fort Worth and raised in Aledo, E. R. Bills is an award-winning writer and journalist. He is the author of several books, including The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas (2014) Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious (2013), Black Holocaust: The Paris Horror and a Legacy of Texas Terror (2015) and Texas Far and Wide: The Tornado with Eyes, Gettysburg's Last Casualty, the Celestial Skipping Stone and Other Tales (2017). He currently resides in North Texas. Read other articles by E.R..

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on December 22nd, 2007 at 6:47am #

    For some of us in the sixties, Camus’s “Myth of Sysiphus” took on an almost sacred iconic status.

    When one answers that life is worth living, the next question is; “What do you want to do with it?”

    I unabashedly answer; “To try to get as close as possible to the objective truth of the world.”

    “And hope that all other humans toil for the same objective goal.”

  2. Donald Hawkins said on December 22nd, 2007 at 8:47am #

    Gerald good one. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

  3. Pierre said on December 22nd, 2007 at 11:07am #

    Insanity in individuals is rare, but in nations, societies and epochs it is the general rule. Nietzsche.

  4. sk said on December 22nd, 2007 at 1:09pm #

    Albert Camus reminds one of this line from Samuel Johnson: “Be not too hasty to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men.” At the height of Algeria’s war of independence in 1958 Camus wrote:

    An Algeria formed of federated peoples and linked to France, seems to me, from the point of view of simple justice, incomparably preferable to an Algeria linked to an Islamic Empire which would only mean further misery and suffering for the Arab peoples while depriving the French people of Algeria of their natural homeland.

    Or as Jim Holstun put it in his introduction to an interview of a “liberal” scholar in a very similar conflict who also:

    …abandoned humanist ethical universalism, invoking the pied-noir Camus to do so: “He was considered a left-winger and a person of high morals, but when he referred to the Algerian problem he placed his mother ahead of morality. Preserving my people is more important than universal moral concepts.”

    When momma makes it into a political analogy, somebody’s about to bleed: never get between a colon and his motherland, particularly if his motherland used to be your motherland. Here, Morris leaves Enlightenment universalism for a volkische ethics of blood and bone that has haunted world history from Herder to Milosevic. But another French-Algerian, Jules Roy, answered Camus (and Benny Morris): “It is not a matter of choosing one’s mother over justice. It is a matter of loving justice as much as one’s mother.”

  5. Ron Horn said on December 22nd, 2007 at 1:15pm #

    Excellent article, E. R. Bills!

    Clearly the capitalist system, and the capitalists it benefits in the short run, is not sustainable given the constraints of our natural habitat. Mother Nature, who rules over this habitat, has probably already decided to rid the earth of this destructive pest. Meanwhile the capitalist class will continue on it merry way fouling the air, sea, and earth with its carbon, pesticides, and other toxic wastes in its maniacal quest for ever greater wealth. It’s a real tragedy because the human race held so much promise among all the other creatures. With its unique brain it appeared to be smart enough to control many of the constraints of nature to create a special human world that was somewhat insulated from the blind, brute forces of nature. Unfortunately the capitalist members of the human race invented modern advertising, public relations, and psyops to render the brains of the rest of us useless beyond serving the interests of capital.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain said on December 22nd, 2007 at 3:23pm #

    I think Ron Horn has it precisely. Our destructiveness is the expression of the psychology and class consciousness of a tiny, insatiably greedy, ruling elite. Over the millenia they have consolidated their power, obliterating any individual or society that got in the way, or viewed the world as other than useless substance only fit to be turned into money. Here in Australia, the Right still prosecutes a relentless Crusade against the indigenous people, aimed always at Aboriginal culture, particularly the notion of collective ownership of the land. In fact the Aborigines feel that it is they who belong to the land, and not vice versa, which is anathema to Rightists who see the land, like everything else, as a commodity to be exploited ruthlessly. The Right is hell-bent on coercing Aboriginal assimilation into the mainstream, a form of cultural genocide. Worldwide the forces of Rightwing, capitalist destruction and avarice are led by the US and ‘the West’. Their cruelty and destructiveness are unlimited, fuelled by an ignorant, credulous, patriarchal and intolerant religiosity, and the process of world destruction that has inevitably resulted from their endless machinations, is reaching its final crescendo.

  7. HR said on December 22nd, 2007 at 4:11pm #

    Good article. There’s no “meaning”, only explanations based on observations, and the explanations are used only to expand the wealth of the few, through exploitation of the many. The only reason I’ve hung around so long is because I’m too cowardly to end it all. That, and a decades-old desire to see the looks on the faces of the superstitious when it all comes crashing down and no magic being flies down to save them … for me, that would make it all worthwhile.

  8. rosemarie jackowski said on December 22nd, 2007 at 5:24pm #

    E.R. Bills did a good job with this one – very thought provoking. I guess for most in the U$A it comes down to placing a high value on one’s own life, and little value on the lives of others. We don’t even count the bodies of those we slaughter.

  9. Donald Hawkins said on December 22nd, 2007 at 6:01pm #

    This administration has done all it can do to stop any progress on climate change. Following scientists from NASA to make sure they didn’t say anything wrong. Changing reports. Making sure there people were in the right places to slow any progress. Games at Bali. The energy bill a joke. It’s not just this administration the Democrats helped pass that bill. This ethanol game, I think we all know the answer on that one. I keep asked myself watching this what is the vision? Wait don’t tell me to blindly go where know one has gone before.

  10. George Thompson said on December 24th, 2007 at 2:06pm #

    Have hope. People are waking up slowly to the impending disaster brought forth by rabid capitalism. Mother Nature’s self-corrective abilities may yet save the planet. First, however, we must save ourselves from ourselves. All it takes is a few million people in Washington DC demanding regime change. All it takes is informed consumers refusing to buy goods and services from companies that buy our government with bribes.

    We have to stop calling the Illuminati a conspiracy and we have to stop saying 9/11 truthers are crazy conspiracy theorists. We have to engage the real reality and not the media created one. There are a group of elite bankers that run the world and want a global police state run under the UN after a 90% depopulation of the planet. Even the elite realize that this supercapitalism is unsustainable and nobody cares about the elite more than the elite do. We are 6.6 billion. They are a few thousand.

    We have to disband groups like the Council of Foreign Relations, the Carlyle Group, the Freemasons, etc. These people are Satanic megalomaniacs. We have to stop believing that government is good. Government is only as good as the people force it to be. Why do our elected officials need law, medical and business degrees from Ivy League schools. We deserve better. We have made a kakistocracy out of democracy. The whole word sees our lies and hypocrisy and realize that we are just another falling Rome. Pack your bags and head to Washington DC to save the country or pack your bags and leave the country.

  11. siamdave said on December 25th, 2007 at 10:16am #

    Some good thoughts, but based on the false premise that you are dealing with freely thinking people. Indoctrinated people do not get to the level of thought you posit here. Get Socrates notion about ‘the unexamined life… etc’ in here and you might get closer to some answers – it’s hard to examine your own life, or much else, when you spend 4.5 hours per day in front of the tv.
    They’re Building a Box – and You’re In It – http://www.rudemacedon.ca/dlp/box/box-intro.html

  12. Mike McNiven said on December 25th, 2007 at 7:21pm #

    Mr.Bills,

    May be one solution is identifying and eradicating the problems of the US by applying a Gandhian approach! I think life becomes more “delicious” after that.
    He considered the following traits to be the most spiritually harmful to humanity:

    Wealth without Work
    Pleasure without Conscience
    Science without Humanity
    Knowledge without Character
    Politics without Principle
    Commerce without Morality
    Worship without Sacrifice

  13. cris d'angelo said on January 1st, 2008 at 3:44pm #

    It’s been said that “somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot.”
    On the other hand, somewhere in Texas this writer cuts straight to the Truth, missing nothing.

  14. Seven said on January 13th, 2008 at 9:36pm #

    I like this. It avoided the pitfall nearly all articles of its likeness fall into – citing “facts” and conspiracy theories that cannot be proven either true or false as its foundation.

    Keep writing – I’ll keep reading.

  15. Hifi said on December 5th, 2008 at 3:21pm #

    Humans live, like other social animals, in a tension between individual and collective, self-interest and group cohesiveness. With material prosperity, the less an individual needs the group, the more he/she is free of conformity and the more time there is to “think” about things like this. No doubt it is an indulgence and perhaps incurs a responsibility to others as well.

    But in the long view, it’s all about survival and reproduction. That’s why we humans do what we do. That’s why we don’t kill ourselves (because the gene in the suicidal didn’t survive). There’s nothing rationale about it. There’s no grand scheme.