Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What is life for?


I sometimes mention a few talks I gave once at some Ontario high schools about the "life issues". In all that I read and write about, it is easy to forget what the overall point of all this is.

But look at the expression "life issues" for a moment. It would, upon a moment's reflection, seem all-encompassing. The "Life Issues" should be about everything in life. And it kind of is. It is about all the goods that can only be found in life. Mercy. Friendship. Self-sacrifice. Loyalty. Generosity. Kindness. Fun.

When I talked to the kids, sometimes it would be obvious that they had already inculcated, but never examined, the abortion slogans. You know the ones, all about "rights" but never about whose rights exactly. Rights.

I used to ask them if they could define "rights" for me, but the answers were usually pretty muddled. I would sometimes ask them if they could explain some of the slogans about abortion rights, and often these answers were merely circular: a woman has a right to an abortion because she has a right to choose.

It didn't matter, really, what angle I took because the destination was always the same. The kids may have soaked up the slogans but could not defend them reasonably. No one could.

But sometimes I would go into the class and ask an even more awkward question: "What is life for?"

"Does anyone know the meaning and purpose of life?"

Is life for the avoidance of suffering?

What word do we have in the English language, and you all know it, for someone whose every effort in life is oriented toward avoiding suffering?

Is it possible that there is some value in life that would make suffering worth enduring?

Is it possible that suffering itself, dealt with correctly, could have some value?

These were Catholic schools.

I asked them what things in life were the most valuable. I asked them if the most valuable things were available only in certain circumstances, like in health or wealth or only when the weather is good, or if they are available all the time to everyone.

What is life for? In what circumstances is it sometimes useful to put up with suffering?

But often they were too scared to try to think about these thigns. Of losing what they thought they had; too scared to trade their already established and enjoyed license for a possible, theoretical happiness that no one knows anything about. A happiness that our culture has refused to discuss.