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Is Life Worth Living?

A William James Perspective

William James

When Professor William James took up today’s question over 100 years ago, he began with the following witty answer, “It depends on the liver.” He then quickly explained that the quip was not intended to be the serious answer the subject certainly deserves. He went on from there to say:

“Without further explanation or apology, then, I ask you to join me in turning an attention, commonly too unwilling, to the profounder bass-note of life. Let us search the lonely depths for an hour together, and see what answers in the last folds and recesses of things our question may find.” 

Today’s post leans heavily on James’s essay, which was first delivered as a lecture at Harvard’s YMCA, and later published in his book, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. It is well worth reading, all 30 pages, but blog readers typically enjoy something more compact. So, here’s my take on some of his main points.

James’s Introduction to Our Topic

The good professor first covers the fact that to most the question of whether or not life is worth living hardly ever comes up, so intent are they to live every moment that they have. Others, spend most of their lives questioning whether it would be better to enter into the peace of being consigned to the earth. And then there are those who drift back and forth. After a poetic discourse of these different types, James delves into what we might say if we meet someone who indeed is questioning whether it would be better just to end it all.

Those Who Never Raise the Question, “To Be, Or Not To Be?”

Professor James uses the poet, Walt Whitman, as example of this type of person. “The mere joy of living is so immense in Walt Whitman’s veins,” says James, “that it abolishes the possibility of any other kind of feeling.” He goes on from here to quote one of Whitman’s poems, which I shall reproduce in abbreviated form below:

“To breathe the air, how delicious!
To speak, to walk, to seize something by the hand!…
I sing the endless finales of things
I say Nature continues–glory continues.
I praise with electric voice,
For I do not see one imperfection in the universe,
And I do not see one cause or result lamentable at last.”

As you can plainly see, if such sentiments as this exists permanently in all of us, there would be no reason for today’s post.

Those Who Often Wonder If It Would Be Better For Them To Be Dead

Here James illustrates this attitude by quoting a poem titled, The City of Dreadful Night, by James Thomson.

James Thomson

“My wine of life is poison mixed with gall,
My noonday passes in a nightmare dream,
I worse than lose the years which are my all:
What can console me for the loss supreme?

Speak not of comfort where no comfort is,
Speak not at all: can words make foul things fair?
Our life’s a cheat, our death a black abyss:
Hush, and be mute, envisaging despair.”

For those who hold the sentiment of Walt Whitman, such dark and foul sentiments of James Thomson may seem hard to believe. But I recently came face to face with someone who struggled mightily with them. A very dear friend of mine was diagnosed a couple of years ago with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), and he passed away this past week. As he steadily, physically declined, he began to communicate more and more in terms that were eerily like those of Mr. Thomson’s. I began to wonder if there were any words that I could say that could somehow lift his spirit. I did my best, drawing upon the advice that William James offered in the next part of his essay.

William James’s Advice

Professor James begins this part of his essay with the following words:

“To come immediately to the heart of my theme, then, what I propose is to imagine ourselves reasoning with a fellow-mortal who is on such terms with life that the only comfort left him is to brood on the assurance, ‘You may end it when you will.’ What reasons can we plead that may render such a brother (or sister) willing to take up the burden again?”

Professor James notes that for religious minded people, one typical answer is to point out that God alone is master of life and death and it is a blasphemous act to anticipate his absolving hand. If this proves successful, James seems kind of okay with it, but for him, personally, it somehow seems a bit shallow. As he puts it, “But can we find nothing richer or more positive than this, no reflections to urge whereby the suicide may actually see, and in all sad seriousness feel, that in spite of adverse appearances even for him life is still worth living?”

At this point, Professor James hastens to confess that nothing he has to say will be able to prevent all suicides. If we make an effort to help and despite this, the person ends his or her life, “cases like these belong to the ultimate mystery of evil, concerning which I can only offer considerations tending toward religious patience at the end of this hour.”

That said, his appeal consists in the sweeping away of certain views that often keep the springs of life compressed, and holding up to the light of day certain considerations calculated to let loose these springs in a natural way. Today’s cognitive behavior therapist and humanistic psychologists use a somewhat similar approach, but James’s essay focused more then they typically do on a particular set of religious themes.

He tells us that certain people who have grown up with a religious background, find that as they get older what they were taught and came to sincerely believe is not meshing well with their personal experiences. They observe that their own actions don’t accord with every teaching of the scriptures, and guilt begins to mount. And they begin to learn in science based teachings that the world was not created a few thousand years ago in six days, the animal kingdom evolved in a manner very differently than their religious stories, and when some of this science stuff seems to make sense to them, they feel they are engaging in blasphemy. They feel confused and fearful. Thus, Professor James tells us,

“Too much questioning and too little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much sensualism does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism and the nightmare or suicide view of life.”

Fortunately, for many, “there are two stages of recovery…two different levels upon which one may emerge from the midnight view to the daylight view of things.”

Stage One

The first stage involves an act of rebellion against early religious teachings. To those thinking of suicide, we can encourage them to exult in their emancipation from belief in the authoritarian God that would have us cowering and trembling at our every mistake and every setback. Here, James quotes the philosopher, Thomas Carlyle:

Thomas Carlyle

“‘Hast not a heart; canst thou not suffer whatsoever it be; and as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Tophet itself under thy feet while it consumes you? Let it come then; I will meet it and defy it!’ And as I so thought, there rushed like a stream of fire over my whole soul; and I shook base Fear away from me forever…”

From here, some people, once emancipated, find a humaner God than their earlier authoritarian one that pressed their springs down so tightly they could hardly breathe freely. Others become converts from all theology, and report that having become free of the impossible idol they experienced a tremendous happiness within their soul. As Professor James describes this stage of mere emancipation:

“With evil simply taken as such, men can make short work, for their relations with it then are only practical. It looms up no longer so spectrally, it looses its haunting and perplexing significance, as soon as the mind attacks the instances singly, and ceases to worry about their derivation from the ‘one and only Power.'”

Once the springs of vitality are let loose in this way, without the burden of infinite responsibility, many experience an immense relief. Meanwhile, whatever is causing the suffering “can be tolerated for another twenty-four hours longer, if only to see what tomorrow’s newspaper will contain, or what the next postman will bring.”

Stage Two

Professor James believed that for some suicidal folks, once they have reached the first stage, it may be possible to incite a fighting spirit within. Identify one or more perceived evil from their perspective, and make appeals to help to overthrow it. Professor James explains,

It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest…. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.

From these words, James encourages us to use inspiring narratives of those who, through acts of courage, made a real and wonderful difference. In the essay, Professor James’s examples are very dated. Therefore, readers may prefer to turn to my coming of age trilogy for this purpose because modern readers will find it far easier to make personal connections with the characters.

In closing today’s post, permit me to say that I well understand that there is so much more that can be said on this most serious subject. I present these ideas of Professor James, not as dogmatic approaches, or the only reasonable approaches, but rather, as an effort to explore some options one highly respected individual believed worthwhile.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Are Science and Religion Incompatible?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

6 Comments

  1. These cognitive strategies are unavailable to many people dying with dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment.

    • Hi Jean Maria Arrigo.
      What you say is true, but once a person has lost a certain degree of cognitive functioning they don’t typically ask is life is worth living. I do know that when a person begins to become aware that they are loosing such functioning, at that point, when they still have a fairly high level, they may ask this difficult question. At that point, perhaps these strategies might be worth considering. In any case, thanks for taking the time to comment.
      Jeff

  2. “Is Life Worth Living?” Since I’m unable to compare life to something else (yet), I simply don’t know. Once I’m “at the other side”, I’ll let you know.

    • Hi Roald Michel,
      I await your decision, though I hope it doesn’t come any time soon. Wishing you a long, productive, and healthy life,
      Jeff

  3. Anybody who reads these words must be alive and find life worth living. Otherwise he/she would be dead from suicide or other causes. So those who write disparagingly about the stupidity of life have their tongue in cheek philosophy denied by implication of their own drivelings!

    • Hi David Harold Chester,
      Thanks for your comment. I think what you say may be somewhat true in some cases, and perhaps even most cases, but there are many people who begin to struggle with the “Is Life Worth Living” question who go on to kill themselves. Their words that they express while they struggle with the question don’t strike me as drivel, but as a reaching out as part of trying to sincerely answer this question for themselves and others that they may care about.

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