I recently saw a character in a TV drama threaten another with the story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice the former attempted to make of the latter. That story is often told as a symbol of divine provision, but consider for a minute the absurdity of it all. A man who searched for a child for all of his adult life finally finds one and makes an idol of the boy—like any human would. Yet that action wasn’t enough for his God, so he was asked to give up the thing he’d been searching for. And up the mountain he goes, the boy in tow, ready to slay with his own hands the one thing that gives his life purpose.
Anyone who has attempted to pursue an elusive thing knows the joy that fills the heart when it is found. Perhaps the only reason we live is because of the potential of that joy. Take that away and life loses meaning quickly. I’ve been talking to a friend for the past few weeks about the last three years and there are things said that I’d almost never share in public. This much I can however share with you: to wake up each morning with something to strive for is a gift, one whose value is difficult to overrate. So what happens when we have to give that thing up or when it is taken away from us? I know I speak in vague terms now, which is a cardinal sin in writing, especially of the confessional type. Part of the promise of telling you about my life is that I’d strip naked, offering details I normally wouldn’t share, in hopes that you will connect emotionally with them.
But here’s a question I’ve been asking myself: what do I get in return? Beyond money and success and the supposed catharsis that comes with baring the heart on a page, what is there for me? There are people who believe they’re sharing these emotional stories so they can help other people, but that’s a bar too high for my ego. That you find strength in the story of my struggle is more credit to you than it is to me. Again, what is in it for me? Maybe an affirmation of life, a confirmation that there’s some utility to my mortal existence.
I’ve recently began a process of checking my thoughts against philosophy and, (surprise! surprise!) for almost every thought I have, there’s a philosopher who has thought about it. Take “affirmation of life.” I came to that phrase through the rambling of my mind, yet Friedrich Nietzsche has an entire body of work about it. To those who don’t know philosophy, I have said something profound. To the eggheads, I’ve refused to credit a source. To those sympathetic to the workings of the mind, I’ve simply suffered from cryptomnesia. Yet, until entering that phrase into the google machine, I’d never read it before. Matter of fact, all I know about Nietzsche is from podcasts and too much time spent reading about nihilism.
If, like me, all you knew about Nietzsche was from popular culture, you’ll think he’s this monster responsible for many evils in the world. But a cursory study of his work reveals something different. Or how else do you explain that the man so derided was also the one who said,
If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.
This isn’t a defence of Nietzsche. The man believed that nihilism, which his work was primarily opposed to, was caused by the death of god. I’m not well read enough or confident enough in the little I know to attempt an exegesis of all that his work entails. What is clear, however, is that the moment I think about something, with a little search, I can find someone who has expressed that same thought, often more eloquently than I can ever imagine.
Reading and studying philosophy provides some context for life, which I assume is what other people look for in stories too. Perhaps we all just want someone to make us feel like we’re alive, to make us think that moment we had yesterday on the way to the job we do not want, travelling with people we’d rather not see, isn’t just happenstance, but one that is suffused with meaning that we can hold on to for life.
There are people who do not need this kind of affirmation, who require no reminder that life isn’t a search for a nihilistic nirvana (I bet you thought nirvana was all good too). But for others, there’s a need to be reminded that you can clearly see human existence for what it is and instead of turning away face it all squarely with a zest for life still intact. So what happens when you find that reason to keep living and you’re asked to give it up? Abraham’s answer to that was to give it up. Brutal.
Now here’s a piece of me: sometimes last year, my folks sat me down in a hotel room and asked questions that essentially translated to “what happened to your zest for life.” I couldn’t offer good answers, but we all knew the unspoken ones.
Buddhists believe we suffer because we desire and that the way to true enlightenment is to want nothing. But Buddhists are such strange folks. Sometimes, the soul needs that suffering. For what is joy if suffering doesn’t exist? Is there pleasure without sadness?
There are people who think Abraham lost his child on that mountain, the boy surrender on the alter of his father’s show of loyalty. But I grew up among people who believed the most remarkable moment in that story did not happen when Isaac was saved, but when the child asked his father for the ram, and the man said, God will provide. This, really, is the luck of Christianity, and one of the reasons Abraham is credited as the father of all: you cannot underestimate the beauty in the ability to confront life situations for which you have no answers, and say without irony: The Lord will make a way.
So, this is why I’m here, writing on this blog again: even if I can’t see a purpose to it from my end, perhaps you’re sitting on the other end of the keyboard with a faith greater than mine, a belief that there’s a purpose to you reading this rambling text that goes everywhere and nowhere.
But there’s also something in it for me: the pursuit of joy. “In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy…,” wrote C. S. Lewis in his memoir Surprised by Joy. “Joy is never in our power,” said Lewis, and one of the gifts of writing like I’m doing right now is the pleasure is in letting the words decide their direction without the need for a purpose statement. Letting my mind lose, and watching it map its course is a pleasure akin to joy. And like I once heard a famous writer say, I never want to lose that joy.
I’ve played this Loyle Carner song on a loop today, and I hope it does for you what it has done for me. 🙂