Did Monty Python get it right?
October 1, 2011 11:02 AM   Subscribe

In the grand scheme of things, why keep on living?

Some background: My boyfriend is having a rough year - death and illness in the family, plans for fun things falling through, stressful job, car problems, which in turn caused money problems, and to top it off, sports equipment failure (not easily fixable or replaceable, at least not on our budget), which means he can't practice his hobbies for several months.

He's become quite depressed after the latest series of life's punches, doesn't find anything fun anymore and seriously questions the meaning of life. At least the standard definition of life for the working class: go to work to get paid so you can pay the bills which enable you to live so you can go to work (oh, and maybe try to cram a little fun into your remaining free time if life lets you). So why keep on living?

I would like to give him an answer, but I don't have it. Neither of us has any special talents or passions, any connections to the rich&powerful or any chances at winning the lottery, but I've made my peace with my future. I'm ok with having a "small life" and doing nothing extraordinary except having a laugh with my friends and family and reading a good book every now and then. He obviously doesn't find this a good enough reason. I'm hoping you'll help me come up with something better.

So, the short version: Why keep on going through the daily grind for the rest of your life?
posted by gakiko to Religion & Philosophy (77 answers total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
For some of us it's just inertia.

But others of us need more. Maybe your boyfriend doesn't want a "small life." Maybe he should try building something bigger. Really, one doesn't need a passion, only passion itself.

Start a business or start a family.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:06 AM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Because its unfair to abandon the people that care about you.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:06 AM on October 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow. If I don't stick around, I won't find out. I hate cliffhangers.
posted by rtha at 11:08 AM on October 1, 2011 [27 favorites]

I don't have a short answer to the problem but American Splendor is primarily concerned with the question you've outlined.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:09 AM on October 1, 2011

Have you ever seen the movie "Manhattan?" At the end Woody Allen's character makes a list of things that make life worth living. They're all very simple and personal to him. I think everyone has a list of things like this if you think hard enough. Here's the clip.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:10 AM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Because we have the power and resources to make the world a better place than we found it, (especially as first worlders- we have a voice that lots of people don't have.)
posted by small_ruminant at 11:10 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

(You don't have to create your own cause out of whole cloth. Find one you admire and lend your back to it for a little while.)
posted by small_ruminant at 11:12 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

You never know whose lives you touch. You could give a smile to a total stranger and change that person's mood, day, life. A kind word to a barista, a sales clerk, a colleague--we have greater impact than we know. He's got you--that's a reason right there.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:14 AM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I know there will be major resistance to this from your boyfriend, but I highly recommend making a gratitude journal. Get a handsome blank notebook and have him try to write down 100 things he's grateful for. This is simple but one of the hardest things in the world to do when one is going through a rough patch. So start with basics: breathable air, shelter, his favorite t-shirt, etc.

Then practice every day writing down 5 things you're grateful for that day. Every. Day. ESPECIALLY shitty days.

His brain has just created these neural pathways that feel negative and it's not helping him do the clearest thinking of his life. Refocusing the brain on things that are going well (and they are there!) helps the wires not get crossed in a way that fucks with you. Seriously. Try it.

Hope he feels better soon.
posted by pupstocks at 11:17 AM on October 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I deal with this a lot myself, and have an enormous amount of sympathy for your boyfriend.

Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus is a work I'm finding kind of darkly inspirational.

There's also the reasoning that if everything is meaningless, suicide is likewise a meaningless gesture; all things being equal, one may as well just go ahead and live. The answer to the question "Why live?" being quite simply, "Because you're already alive, so why not?"

Practically speaking, getting out of one's own head and doing something else, literally anything else, is generally just a best practice for being human. On any kind of significant time-scale and context, human life is meaningless; the best way to get around that is to not spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling on it. The best way to avoid dwelling on that rather upsetting truth is by doing more and thinking less.
posted by pts at 11:18 AM on October 1, 2011 [28 favorites]

I'd also recommend the book "A Long Way Down" by Nick Hornby for this purpose. It's a little dark, as it deals with people contemplating suicide, but it does a great job of answering exactly this question. It's also his best book by far.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:20 AM on October 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

I too deal with this and I also have an enormous amount of empathy with your boyfriend. If you think it's bad now, just wait until you are on the declining half of life. But here is the deal: point out to him the scope of this universe. Then you can follow with how extremely rare it is to have your elements land on this rare planet that can sustain life. Then go all the way and think about how extremely rare life is in this universe. Your friend by chance was biologically assembled on the rarest planet and formed even rarer life.

So being that it is so rare, one should stick around and observe as long as possible, knowing the many downfalls are waiting ahead. Explore opportunities and seize them.

It's all just very rare and therefore precious while it lasts.
posted by nogero at 11:32 AM on October 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

Because our singular gift as humans is to be able to create meaning for ourselves, and we do that through our actions for others and through our ability to appreciate simple pleasures.

Pupstocks' suggestion to write down five things to be grateful for each day is excellent and in my opinion, a game-changer in how I feel when I'm down. Looking back that I really enjoyed a just-right soft boiled egg, or spending time mucking about with my son, reminds me that those two slightly platitudinous suggestions I've just made are, in my limited experience, correct.

So: simple pleasures + nice things for someone else.

It can be hard work, but it works. Help him go for it and stick to it.
posted by dowcrag at 11:34 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is not all that there is. It's prologue.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:42 AM on October 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

His problems are not life-long problems. He will eventually stop grieving the loss of family. Plans for fun things will eventually not fall through. He may switch jobs. He will not always have car problems, and eventually will have a different car. His sports equipment will be fixed or replaced.

If he checks out now, he won't be around when these problems resolve themselves.
posted by Houstonian at 11:45 AM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

Because some things I haven't seen yet and I want to see them. Some of them, in far away & expensive places I may not afford to get to for decades. But the pyramids have been around for a few thousand years, they will wait for me.
posted by pointystick at 11:45 AM on October 1, 2011

Life is short. Death is forever and inevitable.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:47 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Might as well hang out and have some hobbies and do some living now, is where I was going with that.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:49 AM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I had a roommate who was one of the most positive people I know. He was so genuinely decent he shamed me into being a better person because he walked the walk. Anyway, he used to ask me, when I got home, "What's the best thing that's happened to you today?" At first I resented the he'll out of it (because I am pretty critical and gloomy), then I would answer with jokes, but, eventually, I discovered that I could almost always find something genuinely good to report. These days I am much more likely to notice small moments of goodness, joy, and/or beauty, even when I am having a bad day or week.

Maybe that would help.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:57 AM on October 1, 2011 [15 favorites]

Neither of us has any special talents or passions

I know we are supposed to accept the premise of the question as-is, but I bet this statement is not true.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:00 PM on October 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, I notice that most of the list of problems focus on money. Some money is necessary, but it is not the meaning of life. You can have a meaningful life without many material items. It seems that you get that, and he doesn't. I'm not sure how you can retool the mind to reject the messages that you must buy things to be happy, but he could start by becoming more aware that these are marketing messages.
posted by Houstonian at 12:00 PM on October 1, 2011

"He's become quite depressed after the latest series of life's punches, doesn't find anything fun anymore and seriously questions the meaning of life. At least the standard definition of life for the working class: go to work to get paid so you can pay the bills which enable you to live so you can go to work (oh, and maybe try to cram a little fun into your remaining free time if life lets you)."

Those are good questions to ask, and if one cannot find a suitable answer their only honest recourse is to find and define their own meaning and fashion of living.

Suicide is the only dishonest and illegitimate "solution" because it is not a solution within the parameters of life and living it is a refusal to try -- the often times cruel, absurd, hard and senseless world wins by default when you take your own life or refuse to "live" despite the alive state of your organism.

"So why keep on living?"

For me, to learn to be joyous without being dependent on external influences, to lose and rediscover again and again the experience of holyness and beauty in the world and myself.

Of course, he could probably do with some therapy or medication 'til he learns and understands well that when one is depressed all that came before looks like shit and all that will come later looks like shit and that this viewpoint is some trickery on memory conducted by his prefrontal cortex.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:08 PM on October 1, 2011

Because the alternative is even more boring.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:14 PM on October 1, 2011 [11 favorites]

I'm ok with having a "small life" and doing nothing extraordinary except having a laugh with my friends and family and reading a good book every now and then. He obviously doesn't find this a good enough reason.

It doesn't look to me like this is how happiness really works, even though we all get really habituated to seeing it like that. If you're cold, you want a jacket. You put it on, you're warm. You don't get cold again when you get "used to" the jacket. But when you are unhappy, and you can think of something that makes you happy, like "not having to go to my shitty job" or "being able to buy a new X", you think it will work the same way. It makes sense, it's just that it's not true. You get free from the job, it's great for a minute, then you get used to it. You buy the new thing, its awesome, then it's background. Look at your example, "reading a good book." It is, in your schema, part of a "small life". But not that long ago it would have been extraordinary for someone in the working class, right? They would scrimp and save and struggle and hope to someday get access to the sort of education that would let them learn to read, and then furthermore, to get access to books.

Plenty of things in your ordinary, "small life", would be inconceivably extravagant to your ancestors. It seems like humanity as a whole is on some sort of hedonic treadmill. I don't think any of us, for instance, take any pleasure in the fact that we can freely shave ourselves or kick safes or go out in the rain without dying of an incurable infection, which is insane. All of human history minus the last hundred or so years people lived with this reality, and it was probably a great comfort to people to escape it, for about five seconds. Now we're back to taking it for granted. It's like that Louis CK bit, "Everything is amazing, but nobody is happy.

This is not to say that thinking about the miracle of Wi-Fi or antiobiotics should make your boyfriend happy. That's silly. The point I am trying to make is that your circumstances, whether you have a small life or do extraordinary things, doesn't seem to have a huge bearing on your well-being, and moreover, whether things are part of a small life or part of an extraordinary life is not intrinsic to the things at all. Whatever material circumstance your boyfriend desperately wants will almost surely be taken for granted by someone of comparable circumstances in the future, someone who is just as discontented with his lot in life as your boyfriend is.

All the time you hear about rich people tossing themselves out of windows, and there seem to be plenty of smiling people that barely have a pot to piss in. Even people with extraordinary gifts or access to incredible experiences don't seem to be really better off than the lot of us. Who would ever want to trade places with Michael Jackson, for instance?

Once you get past absolute physical suffering: not enough food, death of your children, etc. It doesn't seem like all that other "small" vs. "extraordinary" stuff has a whole lot to do with whether or not life is "worth it."

It seems to me like its mostly internally generated. To make a really crude analogy, it's kind of like body weight: some people's metabolism just keeps them at a weight that they are happy with. They eat when they feel hungry, move around when they have energy, rest when they don't, and they stay the same weight. Some people don't. They have to try. They have to be careful about what they eat, or drag themselves off the couch when they are tired to go for a run. That sucks, but that's the breaks.

Some people just get up in the morning and go to work and smile and enjoy a laugh with their friends. Others are prone to crushing episodes of existential dread. Your boyfriend seems to be Group 2. This is the real deprivation: not being born with a sunny disposition, or whatever combination of traits it is that makes it possible for neolithic brazilian tribespeople to laugh their days away while living a lifestyle that certainly violates the Geneva Conventions on prisoner-of-war treatment. There are really only a few choices that I can see:
  • Grind through your shitty life until you die (this is a very popular option).
  • Kill yourself. (The big negative with this option is you can't change your mind later and try a different choice. Also really rough on the people around you.)
  • Live your life in a drug-induced haze (The Johnson strategy: "he who makes a beast himself rids himself of the pain of being a man" or however it goes. If you include alcohol, benzos, etc. this is also a very popular option.)
  • Force yourself to develop the mental habits, the personal narrative, the internal monologue, the selective memory, the self-bullshitting skills, the faith, the megalomania, the talk therapy, the Prozac prescription, or whatever it takes, to make your life less bad, knowing it will be an uphill battle, and that there will be slippages, there will be times when you feel like your are sitting on the edge of your already-dug grave in the cold rain, but hope that in the end, you end up with positive balance in the ledger.
Good luck!
posted by jeb at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2011 [55 favorites]

Why keep on living?

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

I find the question of "why live?" philosophically interesting. However, in my own experience, when that question becomes very loud and painfully insistent it is a cardinal sign that my depression is not well controlled. Rather than engaging with it, I'd urge your BF to seek treatment. I'm not advocating living an unexamined life -- just advocating that your BF get well first and not draw conclusions from the limited vantage point of depression.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:19 PM on October 1, 2011 [18 favorites]

Why keep on living? Because the other option is death.
posted by Cerulean at 12:36 PM on October 1, 2011

The moral obligation to continue living really sucks sometimes. Even if you have just a shred of decency left, there is no other way then to keep on going. And it's the same shred of decency that makes you realize that it can be worth it. Even if it's only once in a long, long while.

That and the notion that you have no free will anyway.
posted by ouke at 12:37 PM on October 1, 2011

Because I haven't read all the books or ridden all the motorcycles. Because there will always be another smile on the face of someone I love to fill me with joy. Because chasing my boys across town on motorcycles, fucking those I'm lucky enough to fuck, cooking a meal for dear friends, camping out under the stars, sharing a quiet beer with friends at the end of a long day, discovering new street art and hidden neighborhoods on a walk around town all these things make me so fucking glad to be alive.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:38 PM on October 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm going through some rough shit right now and fantasize jumping off the Tacoma narrows bridge, but....

I remind myself the universe is a big ol waste of time, that good and bad times are really only made up constructs in our heads, that I am feeding myself bullshit lines no matter what, so I might as well feed myself bullshit lines that feel good.

There is no reason to exist. This is built in to the very fabric of the universe we live in, and being able to liberate myself from that false sense of responsibility that comes with requiring a reason to exist and trade it in for an ambiguous sense that we just are, and can do as we please (within reason, duh) without harming some grand karmic law of having to "find the reason" really helps takes a load off my mind.
posted by roboton666 at 12:43 PM on October 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Because there's beauty, wonder and adventure around every corner and in every individual, and we only have a limited time to soak it all in. Because we have an opportunity to bring out the best in others and in so doing, leave our mark on the world. Because there is always someone out there who has it way worse than you do and you can do something to make their journey a little easier. Because as bad as today might be, if you keep on living, there's always tomorrow and a day after that and who knows what will happen then?
posted by kat518 at 12:49 PM on October 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Why keep on going through the daily grind for the rest of your life?

Why indeed. Lots of us have rejected that daily grind and find our own way to get by.

Why keep living? Because that's what we do as organisms.

In the grand scheme of things? No reason at all.
posted by cmoj at 12:49 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

We need to have the courage to make our own meaning.

Is there truly nothing that he would like to leave a little better? No mark on the world he wants to make - no matter how small?

Are you sure this is a philosophy question - he might need clinical help.
posted by Flood at 12:52 PM on October 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Curiosity. I wonder what's going to develop. This overrides my wondering 'why bother?'. Also, new music. Sounds silly but things like new music, new things to read (at least new to me), new movies and fall fashion etc have gotten me through some truly awful times where there seemed little reason to look forward.
posted by marimeko at 12:54 PM on October 1, 2011

Because you don't know what the grand scheme of things actually is.

The fact is, you are here. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't assume the right to kill another person. Supposing you accept that "you shall love your neighbour as yourself," well, then, you don't get to kill your neighbour and you don't get to kill yourself.
posted by tel3path at 1:27 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why "not live"?

Ending one's life is a form of action. In fact, it's a real waste of energy, in a way. All the experiences and food and water and everything else that has conspired to make an individual that particular individual - wasted.

I hate waste.

I don't think there's a reason to exist. But I don't think there's a reason to not exist, either. I might as well stick with the option I have and see what comes along, rather than waste all of those opportunities.
posted by Solomon at 1:46 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think one of the cruellest and most wonderful gifts we were given was a conscious because on the one hand we're painfully aware there is no reason at all beyond passing on our genetic material to the next generation and making sure it survives, but otoh you can spend so much time getting lost in the most seemingly irrelevant, but wonderful things like discovering wool carder bee's in your yard then spending time watching them throughout the summer while you try to figure out how to make them come back next year.

I don't think there is a point beyond finding ways to mitigate pain through curiosity, distraction, love.

I'm not sure this is a philosophy question either especially considering he isn't able to find fun in anything. This sounds like someone who's depressed considering all that he's gone through.
posted by squeak at 1:50 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the grand scheme of things, why keep on living?

It's that or nothing, isn't it?

I came from a poor working class background. My father died four years ago. He left precisely nothing, because he had nothing. He'd never had savings beyond a couple of hundred quid to buy me and my sister some Christmas and birthday presents when we were kids, bless him. My mother basically supported us for the last fifteen years of his "working life", most of which he spent unemployed.

Why live? Why go through the grind? Up to you. Up to us. I have no problem with people deciding to kill themselves because it all seems too bleak and not worth it. That strikes me as a rational position to take, under certain circumstances, and I can honestly respect it. But it also seems lacking in guts and vision.

We're here. We don't know why. It isn't fair. It makes no sense. But we have these faculties, and we find ourselves in this wild environment that contains elements of both the playground and the torture chamber. It seems wrong to me to be either optimistic or pessimistic, because either view is unbalanced, just in different directions. We're here. Why not make the most of what we have, and what we can get our hands on and our minds around? You don't need money. I mean, you need a certain baseline amount of money, but it isn't as high as most people seem to think. As a former poor person I know this. Of course being poor sucks, but the worst mistake we spoiled modern westerners make is to associate wealth and means with vacuous crap we don't really need, like TVs and smart phones and cars and big houses and, you know, shiny materialistic shit.

There's the sea. Trees. The night sky. Poetry. Good company. Jokes. Music. Thunderstorms. Coffee. Wine. Singing, even if you suck at it. The pleasure of a hot shower on a cold day, or a cold shower on a hot one. The fun of good company when you're lonely, or solitude when you hate people. There's sex, even if it's only wanking because you're an ugly curmudgeon who can't get laid. There's good food. Your kid's birthday party. A good night's sleep. Even a bad night's sleep. Sometimes those can be wild nights, can't they, those terrible red-eyed insomniac nights? A good book. Crying. Scratching an itch. Thinking you have a tumour and then finding out it's only a hernia. There's just so much... mad stuff. You have to embrace it, or you might as well kill yourself. That's true. If you can't embrace it, you really might as well kill yourself. It's not an unreasonable option. But I do think it would be a shame, given how eminently possible it is to find... well, if not joy, at least interest and distraction in this baffling and meaningless reality.
posted by Decani at 1:54 PM on October 1, 2011 [13 favorites]

I was once assigned the essay topic "What is the purpose of life?" and my answer basically boiled down to "Achieving mastery in some domain and making human connections." Working toward a personal goal makes you feel like a productive, purposeful being. This does not mean becoming a master of industry or even really achieving total success in any realm, in means having the experience of striving and improving and challenging oneself. Putting effort in to life (in whatever sphere you choose to do so, particularly if it's truly your own choice) is so rewarding. The paradox of not putting forth that effort is that soon nothing seems worth the effort. I would encourage your boyfriend to identify anything that he still has a flicker of passion for and can pursue in some small way right now.

The second piece is human connections. Again, this is nonspecific, but in terms of your boyfriend's situation he could look to his relationship with you, or with his best friend, or with his younger sister, or whoever. Other people bring warmth and richness into our lives. Depression makes you withdraw into yourself, but if he can focus on caring about and connecting with other people (and accepting their caring for him), once again that can only help.

Best of luck to both of you.
posted by Bebo at 1:56 PM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is no grand scheme, there's just us, and we have to create meaning in our own lives. That's the joy and the agony of being human - there's no givenness to meaning in our lives, but there's also no inherent limit to the meaning and the pleasure we can find in life. Love, family, pleasure, experiencing the outdoors, art, books, the joy of helping others, of seeing children grow, of creating happy lives for them - all these things can give life meaning, and make it worth living.

Depression is the wrong frame through which to look for meaning in life, because it's so hard to see through the haze of unhapiness and torpor. Help your boyfriend get treated for his depression, and life won't look so meaningless to him.

Being poor makes everything harder, but it doesn't have to make life meaningless, and the fact that your boyfriend is working a low-paying job now doesn't mean that's the rest of his life. Having a sense of a path out of poverty would probably really help. Is there a trade that could be attractive to your boyfriend, and a path to education that could help him see a better future for himself?
posted by Dasein at 2:00 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

People generally need a thing to organise their lives around to feel that there's a point: raising a family. Rebuilding a house. Being passionate about a job. Building a company. Rescuing dogs. Travel. Friends. Family.

If you don't have any of that, then basically you need enough good days to make the rest of the bullshit worth while. If that never happens, if you have no capacity for joy, that's clinical depression.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:17 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Helping other people. No matter how shit life is, someone has it worse. Chances are quite a few people. Get him to go volunteer with people who really are in the shit - local homeless shelter, for instance - and suddenly your troubles are put into context.

Wallow in it or help someone else. Choice is yours/ his.
posted by dmt at 2:19 PM on October 1, 2011

Because if you don't stick around you won't wake up to the sun rising or the birds singing the next day. It's as simple as that.

But you can't give him the answer, he needs to find it himself. You could slip him a little book called "the joy diet" - it helps people who are stuck in a rut and feel there should be more to life. Can't remember the author right now.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:26 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why? Because you're not a failure. You're irreplaceable.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 2:38 PM on October 1, 2011

Book recommendation: Alain de Botton's very accessible The Consolations of Philosophy.
posted by swift at 3:02 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of people with it a lot worse and you're a long time dead.
posted by joannemullen at 3:05 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

YMMV, but here's my answer: if you're dead, you're gone and that's it and there's no more possibility for anything, as far as you're concerned. As long as you're alive, you have your identity and you can make decisions and do things and experience things. If life sucks and you die, the last thing you'll ever know is life sucking. If you postpone dying 'til later, who knows? I'd rather have the potential.

(Well, for certain values of 'decision,' adopt to suit your personal view on free will vs. determinism -- have the illusion/experience of making decisions anyway).
posted by Alterscape at 3:16 PM on October 1, 2011

Don;t hate life, change it. If you're unsatisfied with your lot, change it. Turning it off is a valid answer.
posted by Max Power at 3:36 PM on October 1, 2011

Savor consciousness.
posted by Corvid at 4:02 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

A combination of Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus and Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is a pretty solid defense of life. Camus holds that this question is the fundamental q of philosophy, the one without which all the others are futile. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy..."
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:36 PM on October 1, 2011

I'm about to mix some metaphors here, so I apologize in advance.

If you imagine the universe as a giant tree, you could say that most people think of themselves as birds, landing on a branch for a short visit, then flying away into nothingness. But that's not right. Nothing exists at all besides the tree. For billions of years, this tree has grown in a state of oblivion -- completely blind, deaf, and with no ability to contemplate itself. Then one day, fairly recently, the tree began to grow strange leaves: us. We can see, hear, and think. Us strange leaves are the only things that let the universe see its own beauty or even experience that it exists at all. Doing that is our job.

Sometimes a leaf decides to wrest itself off its stem because it can't bear to know that other leaves are on higher branches and have the chance to see and hear things that it never will.

That's such a loss. There's not much consciousness in the universe. It's a shame to waste even a little bit.
posted by the jam at 5:05 PM on October 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

I am going to tell you my short, dorky story, because it contains one seed of why I consider life both delightful and utterly worth living, and it's worth it to me right now to recall this because I am REALLY ANGRY at some homophobic nonsense elsewhere on the 'net and need to remember joy.

I was 16, and I was hooked on an online (text-based--this is years ago) game. I was flunking out of the fancy, advanced school I had been admitted to. I had stopped talking to all of my friends. I broke up with a cute guy to play this game.

I was kind of idiotic and extremely depressed, and while I was not suicidal, I was definitely in a very small little sad ignorant cloud, and could easily have stayed there forever.

One spring day, though, shortly before I was going to leave the school and go back home to repeat my grade in the poorest school in the state, someone had left the door in the little lab I frequented open to the outside. For whatever reason, I logged out of the two game sessions I had going on two different terminals (I really had a problem) and I got up and I went outside. In my memory, "outside" has become a kind of primeval fairy tale forest with moss on the trees and pools, but in truth, there were just some big old trees on a grassy lawn. I wandered for a while, and sat under a tree, and came to what felt to me like some kind of profound conclusion. "Life is about the trees," I thought. I had found a kind of reason not to be so damned miserable.

It took me a long time, and a brief period of calling myself a pagan, to understand that all I'd really figured out is what it means when people say "life is in the moments."

It's a bigger truth than it sounds like it is. I stay alive for pumpkin bread in the fall, baby smiles, kisses on my nose, kissing other people on the nose, kittens (on the internet and not), books and other good stories, Ensign Ro, coffee drinks, elaborate Sunday dinners, fuzzy blankets, fresh sheets on the bed, and beach smells. I could go on.

I would argue that when you've lost the ability to enjoy these things, you need some serious change in your life, you've got a chemical imbalance, or you need a therapist to help you find perspective.

I also want to point out that when you choose to live a big life rather than a small one, you are not necessarily choosing to enjoy great success. You are only choosing ambition. For me, the quest to constantly better myself helps when pumpkin bread loses its luster. If I don't have one, I almost always have the other.
posted by hought20 at 5:21 PM on October 1, 2011 [9 favorites]

Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:23 PM on October 1, 2011

Why keep on going through the daily grind for the rest of your life?

Why indeed. Just don't fall for the false dichotomy that's embedded in that question. "Daily grind" and "suicide" aren't the only options available to you. You could, for instance, walk out your front door one day with nothing but the clothes on your back and never come back. Hello, adventure! Amazing things happen, and history is full of true stories of people who did basically that. If your life seems to suck, your perspective just needs a reset. Christ Almighty, just smell the smells when you walk down the street. That's reason enough to live right there.

It's ironic that when we want to die, it's because we fear life more than we fear death, even though the worst outcome we could encounter in life is commonly conceded to be...death.
posted by bricoleur at 6:07 PM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I also want to add one thing, so nobody dismisses my comment as some kind of pollyanna nonsense: I did not write that comment as a someone who has had an easy time reaching these conclusions. I still struggle with being happy, and sticking with things that I choose to do. I am so, so far from perfect, and I am also not one of those people who has had everything handed to her (though, yes, I am first-world blessed, but I started out towards the poorer end of that).

However, after many, many years of holding onto that really dorky "but there are trees outside" thought, I reached a place where I never doubt that I am happy to be alive, even when things really fucking suck.
posted by hought20 at 6:30 PM on October 1, 2011

Here is this thing. It is indescribably rare. In the history of the universe it is the tiniest blip in time in the tiniest corner of space. It has intrinsic qualities that are unlike anything else to be found anywhere or anywhen. You have been randomly selected to receive a portion of it. That portion will measure between a few minutes and a dozen decades. when your allotted portion is up you are never getting any more ever again. Do you choose to opt out early?
posted by 256 at 6:37 PM on October 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

I think looking for the answer in metaphysics is a mistake. You (well, he) would have to look for the answer in your boyfriend.

He's had a series of bad things and inconveniences happen, and they've got him down. Life, from the point of view of American consumerism, isn't giving its bang for the buck lately, so maybe the solution is to return it for a refund. After all, life is supposed to be satisfying, right?

It seems like he does have hobbies, he just can't practice them right now. It seems he can't 'escape' the stress of his job and money troubles through said hobbies, and doesn't have a good strategy to deal with that stress otherwise. It sounds as if he could use some worthwhile, practical strategies for dealing with money troubles, stressful job, etc. It doesn't sound like metaphysical teachings would help with those things, unless he was religious, and it doesn't sound like that's the case either.

So basically, reframe the question and destress. Find a way to deal with the job productively. Find a sport he could do without equipment, such as swimming at the community pool, running, etc. Even turning to alcohol (in some moderation) is probably better than questioning the Meaning of Life unless you're naturally predisposed to philosophy.

I know this is odd coming from someone who is predisposed to philosophy and metaphysics, but really, I don't recommend it. Don't worry about it. Thinking about this stuff should only be done if you absolutely cannot avoid it, and even then, try to reframe and make it more practical if you can, so that it can be of use to you. Most people take their life 'philosophies' (the values they live by) and treat that as if it was metaphysics, but these are very subjective philosophies, intrinsically individually tailored. Any one answer suits the one person giving it. So whatever it is that makes him happy, let him do that in any incomplete way possible, and anything that makes him discouraged, try to alleviate it in any way possible. Dedicate your energies to that, and worry about the meaning later. In fact, the meaning will come naturally. That's fine. Worrying about meaning never really helps most people anyway, you know. This is why philosophers don't generally have real jobs, but sportsmen do.
posted by reenka at 7:07 PM on October 1, 2011

Living isn't like working towards a goal. It's not like you're going to live your life and at the end it all pays off (okay, I guess some religious folks believe this, but not me).

You live because nice things happen sometimes. That's it, I think.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:23 PM on October 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

your question seems to presume that the purpose of life must be something outside of work, that fun can only be squeezed in around work hours. Some of us find our work meaningful, fun, a reason to live, downright life affirming. I personally have never understood why people are content with jobs that feel like a daily grind - that is not the type of person I am and maybe that's not the type of person your boyfriend is? I think it's still likely he is suffering from depression, as one of the classic symptoms of depression is anhedonia (inability to enjoy things that you once enjoyed), but at the same time, I wanted to point out that there are a lot of us out here that are not working to earn money to pay bills.

I work as a doctor and I run a nonprofit organization. There are days in both of those positions where it gets frustratiing and I question why I'm doing it. But in the end they're both incredibly gratifying to me and I would do either one of these jobs without pay (I've been running the nonprofit without being paid for 8 years anyhow). Getting paid is just a nice side benefit. And if I couldn't be a doctor or run a nonprofit anymore, I would go out and start a bed and breakfast. Or a horseback riding outfit for tourists. Or I would knit designer baby hats. Or I'd go learn marine biology and swim with the dolphins. Maybe teach children how to read. I'd train as a stunt double and learn how to light myself on fire and throw myself through windows. None of those jobs are actually as easy or romantic as they sound, but I suspect that I could have a huge amount of fun living my life and doing any of them.

I also know a family friend who agreed with your boyfriend's perspective - so he built himself a cottage on a friend's land and has dedicated his life to not needing to pay any bills. He doesn't have electricity or plumbing. He gets his food by growing it or dumpster diving. He uses things that other people throw away. He is an artist in his spare time. He has basically zero expenses. And I think he's happy as a clam. There are plenty of nontraditional ways to live your life.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:46 PM on October 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

it's hard to say really, why one should go on living, without questioning precisely the meaning of that in regard, life, funny how these terms, one and life, can indicate either a miniature or a magnitude, and also funny, how often it seems phrases come across containing these little words which confuse the two sets of definitions.

what is the purpose of one's life? said in an open room to several, therefore one means an abstract model of a man, life to means the just as general existence of that model

said again, in a different place, such as on a metafilter message board, and i found myself asking the question, what is the purpose of one's life, with you as the model, and life as the model conceivable from your parameters, though that's not exactly what we're looking for is it - cuz your life or it's dissolution isn't the issue

so i think we need to know what your boyfriend is doing? or what exactly finds important, or distressing, or whatever. or maybe he should talk to a psychologist.
posted by past at 9:38 PM on October 1, 2011

Because he hasn't spent enough time hanging out with you yet.
posted by Brent Parker at 10:14 PM on October 1, 2011

Jeb, as ever, nails it. If living a small life doesn't seem worth it, then live a big, wonderful life, knowing that has nothing to do with wealth or fame.
posted by anildash at 4:59 AM on October 2, 2011

Because living well is the best revenge?
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 6:01 AM on October 2, 2011

I'm sort of thinking that your friend needs a dog. Caring for another being gets you out of yourself. Having someone who unconditionally loves you (as almost no human being ever will) makes you know you are valued.

And, hey, there's your new exercise machine.

Get a dog from a shelter or a dog adoption agency (you can return him if you have to), and you'll see a different side of life.
posted by musofire at 6:16 AM on October 2, 2011

There is no good reason, really.

All of the reasons given to continue seems to revolve around some form of "Because, you never know what happens next." That's not a good reason. Truth is, many people simply don't have it in them to become the great, glorious achievers of others' dreams and fantasies.

All the homilies offered to living a great, amazing life are pretty-much feel-good codswllop. I think people proffer these pollyannaisms out of some form of self-protection. They need to believe that life is about something amazing...that we're here to do amazing things.

It isn't. We aren't.

It is what it is. And, if one finds that it isn't worth living, so be it.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am on my 4th recurrence of breast cancer. I'm a month out of chemo (for the second time) and I am facing a big scary surgery (for the second time) on Tuesday. I'll spare you my "pollyannaisms". But.

You sound young, OP. I offer this with as much respect for your relationship as a stranger on the internet can muster. If your boyfriend does not seek treatment, please consider whether you want to continue being the person who must help him answer this question. Depression can be contagious. It's ok for you to step away and just live your life, whatever "size" you make it, without having to justify your existence. It's your choice.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:50 AM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I forgotten weekend program on public radio once addressed this question and they were asking it of a bunch of elderly people and I thought the best answer was Cherry Pie.
So go out and have a slice, heated. With vanilla ice cream.
That's what life is all about.
posted by Rash at 11:23 AM on October 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you knew you had only one day to live, would you kill yourself? What about only one week? Or one year? Two years? Five? How much would be too long?

You probably -- depending on your age, and depending on luck -- have fifty more years left, give or take. Maybe as many as seventy. That sounds like a lot, and when you're depressed, it sounds exhausting, insurmountable. But it's not that long, really, and you only get one shot. You can kill yourself any time -- you can always opt out if it really gets too bad. But in the meantime, you might as well try to live, try to enjoy it.

I once heard someone say that she had a pact with a friend that went like this: if things ever got so bad that one of them was tempted to kill herself, the suicidal one promised to first take all of her money and blow it on something exciting, like traveling the world. Because you might as well, right? If you're going to kill yourself anyway? And for some reason, that was very reassuring to both of them, because it meant that suicide could never be a snap decision in a moment of sadness. They had to first commit to trying everything in their power to enjoy life, before ending it. I like that story.
posted by cider at 7:13 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your boyfriend sounds clinically depressed to me. Pretty common after life deals a blow, or in his case, several in a short time. Treatment for depression would be my first suggestion: therapy, maybe an antidepressant. He really needs to work through these life problems and put them in perspective. Then he can learn about what life has to offer.

This situation looks to me like an opportunity for your boyfriend to grow.
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:23 PM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to sit and think about the futility of it all. It was pretty depressing. Now, whenever I feel that way I do something to engage with the now and the real world, instead of the fake meaningless world in my head.

Consider reading How to Do What You Love by Paul Graham. Basically, finding work you really love is hard, and requires effort over years to get good at something valuable and interesting.
posted by sninctown at 9:39 PM on October 2, 2011

i'll play a little devil's advocate:

Because its unfair to abandon the people that care about you.

we all die sometime, it's more a matter of "when" then "if".

it's selfish to kill yourself prematurely? ok. isn't it also selfish to demand someone keep living when they don't want to?

"i'm leaving this party, it's not fun anymore"

"no, don't go! that would make us feel bad"
posted by cupcake1337 at 6:23 PM on October 3, 2011

If you don't kill yourself you get to pet some pretty cool dogs.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:39 AM on October 4, 2011

er, my point being it's a cost benefit analysis with uncertainty. either way, if your decision is the "wrong" one, you can't reverse it.
posted by cupcake1337 at 12:19 PM on October 4, 2011

As I think someone already pointed out, the question is sort of the wrong way round.

Seeking a meaning to "tack on" to life is the opposite of the correct approach, simply because we don't give ourselves life. Existence has been imposed on us.

The fact that your friend does continue living demonstrates there is a meaning; the real problem is to comprehensively describe and understand the meaning, without censoring anything.

Read the entire book at the link above for a very simple method for doing this.
posted by KMH at 8:31 AM on October 7, 2011

Tossing a lot of Erich Fromm your way, I've always found comfort in his ideas.

“Who will tell whether one happy moment of love or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies.”
― Erich Fromm

"Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence."
― Erich Fromm

"Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve."
― Erich Fromm

"Man's main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort is his own personality."
― Erich Fromm

"There is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself."
― Erich Fromm

"To die is poignantly bitter, but the idea of having to die without having lived is unbearable."
― Erich Fromm

And to summarize a quote from Bill Clinton in John Bogle's book Enough (the first page of the linked PDF shows the context):
"Tomorrow can be better than today, and we all have a moral obligation to make it so."
posted by jasonhong at 2:32 PM on October 7, 2011

“Who will tell whether one happy moment of love or the joy of breathing or walking on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies.”
― Erich Fromm

i think it depends on the life, some suffer more than others.
posted by cupcake1337 at 6:53 AM on October 8, 2011

Wow, I am glad you posted this Q and that it's still open. I want to answer it for myself and maybe you could see it.

I love rtha's answer: I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow. If I don't stick around, I won't find out. I hate cliffhangers.

It's hard to take advice about living a big life, so I let curiosity be the reason I live. Once in a while I feel good, most of the time I feel average. Sometimes I feel absolutely horrible and nothing matters. But I really want to know how things will turn out, in both the deep, serious way and the gossipy, voyeur way-- even if the world goes to hell I want to be there to know it happened. And in the chance that it doesn't (which is likely my lifetime), I want to know how I and the people I know go through it.
posted by ichomp at 11:29 PM on April 27, 2012

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