A Brief Argument Regarding Excellence, Existence, and Essence
(previously written as a monograph under the pseudonym J.L. Jordan)
In one memorable scene from The Simpsons, Homer admonishes his wife Marge with one of his classic pleonasms: "Marge, it takes two to lie, one to lie and one to listen." Homer's belief was that Marge was just as much at fault for believing Homer's fib as he was in telling it. His point, however flawed, is that deception is a two-way street. Those of us who are conned bear some responsibility for not fighting to maintain a clear-headed understanding of the truth. Since the issue at hand is not a long-running animated show on FOX but the sanctity of human life, the battle is all the more paramount. This is not an area where clear-thinking people can just lay down their brains and not engage.
How to begin any discussion of human life, of the commandment "You shall not murder" is critically important. To immediate execute an applicable nosedive into issues of murder, capital punishment, manslaughter, abortion, and the like is understandable and can be well-intentioned, but it is also a catastrophic adventure in missing the point. We have to ask "Why is life worth defending?", which still doesn't get at the heart of the matter. Perhaps "Why is life worth living?" is even better but still begs the question.
Answers to the latter question bubble up in places ranging from university philosophy seminars to a conversation between friends at a Starbucks in Nashville to the tears of a young girl in Indiana who has endured sexual assault at the hands of a family member. Far from an ivory-tower query, the common good of the human race hinges on how we answer it. Specifics may vary, but the broad contours of the meaning of life come down to three categories:
(1) Life has meaning because mine is a life of impact due to others noticing my achievements. (Excellence)
(2) Life has meaning because I am here on earth as a capable human being and I am exhilarated by life's possibilities, whether I am noticed or not. (Existence)
(3) Life has meaning because I--whether I make foreseeable impact or not, and whether I am viewed as capable or not--am a uniquely special part of a Design, an intentioned craft of a Designer.
The first argument--the one from excellence--is commendable because, after all, the idea of achievement is far superior to the concept of aiming low. The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Seunsert III declared that "Vigor is valiant, but cowardice is vile." The Christian Scripture implores its listeners that "Whatever you do, work heartily...knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward." (Colossians 3:23-24) Charles Kettering said that "high achievement always takes the place in the framework of high expectation."
However, there is a firm distinction between doing one's best and being known for greatness. First of all, greatness can be snagged by dubious methods. While the case may be rare, a high school valedictorian can cheat to get straight A's. Corporate accomplishments can be reached by practices devoid of any ethics. Or people may want recognition without wanting to sacrifice for the prize. Witness the increasing slew of high school students in our nation's schools--private and public--who believe that the reception of a degree is an automatic voucher to good fortune.
Regardless, your accomplishments aren't a good measuring stick of your self-worth or the meaning of life because of the twin simple reasons that (1) they vacillate and (2) they will be forgotten. And it begs the question, "What if I am never remembered? What then?" It does help to know that, as David McCullough, Jr., said so eloquently in his YouTube-viral graduation address, you should "climb the mountain, not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air, and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you."
One would then certainly believe the answer comes in drawing the circle more widely, to say Life has meaning because I am here on earth as a capable human being and I am exhilarated by life's possibilities, whether I am noticed or not. This argument from existence may ring the bell more deeply at the core of our beings because so much of what we do does fly under the radar. We may say in concert with Jean-Paul Sartre that "man is nothing else than that which he makes of himself" as long as we make our peace with the fact it may not be noticed. We are here, we exist, and we die, in our own capability and by our specific, unique talents. Erasmus was fond of saying, "It is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is."
But is this what makes us special, what makes us unique, what makes life worth living or worth protecting? The moment we define humans by the sum of what they seem to be, we still have to ask the question, "What about the less endowed, the less talented, the less mobile, the intellectually compromised?"
I received an email a few weeks back from a father whose infant son is stricken by a syndrome that affects his vision and his muscular development. In short, the neurologist has told this man and his wife that--while surgery is an option--they should likely expect their son to possibly be able to sit up, eat, look around, not have much cognitive interaction, and then die after a year or two of age.
What happens if this child is not able for recover, to do anything beyond sitting up, beyond a stare or a sweet smile? What if a treatment or cure is never found for this syndrome? Is it better that this child and others like him with his condition are never born?
To say that life is only worth living if the odds of suffering are greatly decreased and the odds of comfort and ability are significantly raised betrays an attitude that we can make the call on that. Not to mention, I am wary of "spectrum ethics" in which people argue for good based on degrees of quality. At what point is suffering "too much" or ability "just enough", and who makes the call on that anyway? The truth is that we are designed on purpose--however flawed and limited our bodily abilities may be--or we are not. Our essence is either that of people charged with and infused with dignity, or worthless piles of nothingness. There is no middle ground.
I'd argue (although I'd admit perhaps I haven't done so that sharply) that life is worth living and worth defending and worth protecting, enhancing, and promoting for the unambiguous reason that we--from the moment sperm and egg slam together to when the last breath leaves the body--are designed for purpose. Whether great or small, noticed or ignored, no life is unimportant. Everything we do, to paraphrase Martin Luther, honors the Designer, not just because what we do matters, but because who we are matters.
That's whether you live for eighty-four years, or eight years and four months, or eight months and four days, or eighty minutes and four seconds, or eighty-four seconds after conception. Whether you are an Olympic athlete, a garbage man, or a child with cystic fibrosis. Who you are matters, and you matter supremely, because you have been designed supremely to matter.
And how we answer the meaning-of-life question, bowing either to excellence, existence, or essence, will matter supremely. And before answering quickly or in blithe fashion, consider this: Might the human race's default mode of living, one of functioning and working toward desires and goals as if there is something worth shooting for...might this give evidence that who we are matters, from the warmth of the womb to the cold of the grave? It seems to be either that or total despair. How indeed could there be any middle ground?