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The Significance of a Questioning Life - Lessons from My Father’s Passing

May 14, 2017

A man dies as he has lived, and the significance of his life is reflected in the character of his death. 

A man is both questioned by and questions life, and the measure of his existence is determined by the quality of the answers he has provided and the questions he has asked. The value of a man’s legacy lies not in the material wealth he bequeaths but, as David Epstein recently put it, in the “bedrock principles and values you … pass on to your descendants.” Principles and values that are the consequence of a questioning life.

I use the masculine pronoun here intentionally, for I have had the opportunity to reflect on one particular man’s life as I concluded the vigil of watching my father die from metastatic colon cancer. The noble man asks noble questions and gives humble, thoughtful, answers. But what does it say about a man who neither asked nor answered? What legacy can such a man leave?

The defining feature of our humanity is our self-consciousness. As far as we can tell, human beings are the only creatures on this planet who are conscious of their own consciousness. In self-consciousness, human beings have the capacity, the opportunity, and I would say the obligation, to transcend our lives, to ask questions of it, of each other, and of life itself. We are the only species that is able to see life’s trials and hardships as questions that demand answers, which yield insight into why we are here, where we belong, and what we are to do with this life.

Our greatest heritage is not our biology, for even the “brutes” pass on their genes (1). Rather it is our spirit, which has the capacity to grow in wisdom and in knowledge and, in so doing, create a cumulative consciousness that transcends our biology. My father was what those who reflect on the disagreeable euphemistically refer to as a “complex” man. He was a broken being with a broken beginning, which ultimately lead him, as far as I could tell, to ask no questions of life, and not to risk offering any answers to its questions. He died as he lived, empty, with neither question nor answer to bequeath because he had consciously denied his transcendent heritage somewhere along the way. 

The terrible poverty of my father’s life was that he squandered the greatest gift any self-conscious creature could receive—the ability to know that we are part of a larger whole with the capacity to question why we are here, how we fit in, and to what end we should live our lives. And then, to take that accumulated wisdom of a lifetime, and pass it on, so that the next generation might rise above the last, climb the next mountain in our ethical journey as a species and, because each peak is also a point of meeting, expand the bonds of fellowship as we come closer to understanding why we exist at all.

My father’s greatest legacy was that he left me … empty. Perhaps this is why comprehending the nature of meaning has been such a driving force in my life and in my clinical practice. The nature of meaning, what meaning means, I am convinced is universal even as its expression in an individual life is intensely and uniquely personal. Yet, no matter the nuances of its expression, meaning acknowledges the defining characteristic of the human experience—a self-consciousness that can question the nature of its relations to others. Will we serve others, loving them as we love ourself? Or will we use them to serve ourself? This dichotomy, and this alone, constitutes the divide between the meaningful and the meaningless life. 

The self-objectivity that accompanies self-consciousness carries with it the ability to understand the emotions that attend the care of our spirit and our body. The health of the spirit is secured by meaning, the sense of a consequential and worthy existence—of well-being—that comes from meeting another’s needs. The health of the body is secured by happiness—the sense of being well that arises from meeting our biological needs for nutrition, rest, exercise, and safety. 

Those who, like my father, deny our spiritual nature abandon their meaning and can live only on the plane of happiness, finding fulfillment—and frustration—in an emotion that is designed to fade. Yes, happiness is designed to fade for if pleasure satisfied forever we would soon die of self-neglect—the link to and underpinnings of addiction are here frighteningly clear. The tragedy of the hedonist, the one who sees the good as nothing more than pleasure, is that he has an itch he cannot scratch—the itch of meaning cannot be satisfied by happiness for the simple reason that happiness is the answer to a question other than meaning. 

I used to think that selfishness, and all that derives from it, was the greatest evil on this earth. When my father passed I realized I was wrong. I now believe that it is the refusal to be fully human. The refusal to question and be questioned by life. To abdicate one’s human spirit, the self-awareness in which love transcends hedonism, bringing with it both the responsibility and the vulnerability to empathize and sympathize with others, to see others as we do ourself, to treat them as we would ourself be treated, to stand up for those who cannot protect themselves or are unfairly treated, to give out of our abundance so that others may meet their needs— and to ask and answer the query as to how we left the spirit of humanity better off for having been a part of it. This is the question with which we will end our lives, so it is the one we should bear in mind throughout our journey. We should begin with the end in view and, in our journey, never lose site of the destination.

The selfish man simply starves his meaning. The man who denies the responsibility of self-transcendence abandons the possibility of meaning. He dies as he has lived, alone and unsatisfied. 

I loved my father even in his lovelessness. In showing me a life devoid of meaning he did, on further reflection, leave a legacy after all.

1. I use the term here not in a derogatory manner but simply to make a distinction between species that possess consciousness without self-consciousness and those that do.


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