Part V: We Don’t Give Up and Quit–But Why? And How?
Forrest Gump sits under a tree beside his beloved Jenny’s grave mulling over one of the great philosophical questions: “Jenny, I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s bot
h. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” We understand the dilemma here, don’t we? Those who try so hard to shape their own destinies discover lady luck insists on playing her part. We are both dust in the wind and beings without end! Making sense of why we keep getting up and living our lives is the challenge here.
Enlightened moderns don’t like this both/and choice—either we’re immortal or we’re not they say. Only the weak-minded imagine there’s a heaven. We can make peace with our mortality if we just “imagine there’s no heaven”, no immortal soul, no ultimate destiny. I think this is why we lost the word “Jesus” in that old song. Today we sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Nobody knows my sorrow [instead of “but Jesus”]. Instead, the popular ethos is to just be your authentic self and have the courage to “roll with it.”
But, if the notion of human destiny is meaningless then so is human resilience. Bounce back to what, from what? If humans are cosmic accidents and resilience is merely evolutionary biology then why are anti-depressants the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world? In fact, why are people able to choose not to be resilient? The evolution of our DNA should have taken us far past such a modern predicament by now. Why do highly-evolved teenage brain cells “give up” these days so that they lose the will to live and suicide is soaring out of control among this age group? Aren’t we supposed to have evolved in psychic resilience by now? We humans are supposed to be at a place in our evolution where we don’t give up and quit for the simple reason that it is in our evolved genetic makeup not to give up.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish holocaust survivor and famous Austrian neurologist and psychologist. He is perhaps most famous for his aforementioned book, Man’s Search for Meaning and for his notions of existential analysis and logotherapy that he worked all of his life to explain. His experience in the concentration camps taught him that “[a] man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward another human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’[i]So, Frankl at least admits that humans need a ‘why’ in order to survive and thrive, but he apparently didn’t think the content of the ‘why’ or the purpose mattered much, just so you had one.
I disagree! At some point there comes a time when a ‘why’ must lead to something more than ‘just because’. Meaning must point to something beyond itself and hope must have its substance. One of the more fascinating (albeit tragic) causes of the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852), according to many astute historians, was less about the infamous potato blight as it was about the government’s “answer”. One well-known example was a public works road-building program that notoriously put men to work building “roads to nowhere”. When the workers learned this fact they lost interest in work and ultimately in living. They embraced a kind of fatalistic acceptance and returned disheartened to the tight quarters of their filthy government-provided workhouses and died mostly of disease.[ii]
You can see that we must address the question of why we don’t give up before we can talk about hownot to give up. For centuries philosophers and poets have recognized the need for some kind of plausible response to this question. Perhaps the oldest treatment is found in the Jewish Tanakh’s ancient wisdom book of Ecclesiastes. In 7:29, the wise teacher says, “See, this one thing I have found, that God made human beings ‘just right’[iii], but they have devised many schemes.” The idea here is expressed lyrically (perhaps accidentally) by Joni Mitchell in a song from the idealistic nineteen sixties. “I came upon a child of God / He was walking along the road / And I asked him, where are you going / And this he told me… / We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.” At least here is a popular vision for why we don’t give up. We are goingsomewhere—we’re trying to get ourselves back to the garden, never mind what you conceive that garden to be. At least, here’s a purpose, a telos for humanity, and therefore a clear reason not to give up.
The ultimate telos (Greek for “end” or “purpose) is only alluded to in the Old Testament. ‘Fear God and keep his commandments’ was the conclusion of the greatest wisdom book of Judaism. But again, why? Where is all this leading to? To God? “Yes,” says the rabbi. “But show me why I should do this? Why should I keep going? Where is all ‘this’ going?” asks the modern. Judaism clings to only half an answer: it is in the notion of a King returning that all ‘this’ makes sense. But, Christians believe that the King has come and shown us the way and will return again. That gives us all the ‘why’ we need for now.
Another of my teachers, Dr. Harold Hazelip, concluded a message on “The Destiny of Man” that aptly illustrates this enigmatic truth.
“The great value of the doctrine of the Second Coming is that it guarantees us that history is going somewhere. When the African natives saw the British construction crews building strips of concrete in the jungle, they were unable to understand this use of machinery, men and money. These engineers were building highways that did not start anywhere and did not end anywhere. But, when the Africans saw the first airplanes land and take off, they began to understand the meaning of the runway. Without Christ life appears to be a highway that does not begin anywhere or lead anywhere; but with Him life takes on a function of eternal importance.”[iv]
[i] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1963:127.
[ii] Mark Thornton, The Free Market, April 1998; Volume 16, Number 4. Available online: http://mises.org/freemarket_detail.aspx?control=88 ; Christine Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997); Austin Bourke, The Visitation of God?: The Potato and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993); Cormac O’Grada, The Great Irish Famine (Macmillan, 1989).
[iii] The word yāšār here means “right” or “correct.” That which is yāšār is straight and direct (Gk euthēs), not crooked and perverted (cf. Prov 8:6–9; Job 33:27; cf. Mic 3:9). If so, this conclusion harks back to v 13 [“Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?”] From C. L. Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary. New Haven; London : Yale University Press, 2008, S. 265
[iv] Harold Hazelip, “The Destiny of Man” in Discipleship: Vol. IX, Twentieth Century Sermons, Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press 1977: 43.