Writings on the Purpose of Life
August 3, 2018 11:36 AM   Subscribe

My deep-thinking 17yo is struggling with the big questions: what is the point of life in the face of certain death, how can one live and be happy with all the suffering in the world, and so on. I'd like to offer them some readings on the subject, and would like suggestions.

Suggestions, please, on living life in the face of the inevitability of death, and with the knowledge that there is always suffering.

I know Reinhold Niebuhr is known for this, but I haven't read him. Ideas about where to start with him?

Otherwise: Poetry, essays, and books are all OK. Kid is up to reading nearly anything. Pure uplift is not going to work: they need writings that engage with suffering and/or inevitable death, and address living well and finding happiness in the face of it.
posted by Orlop to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Has he watched The Good Place? It's not reading, but it grapples with just these issues.
posted by emjaybee at 11:47 AM on August 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

For the Time Being by Annie Dillard.
posted by BundleOfHers at 11:55 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

A grounding in philosophy and logic is good, but I will say from my own personal experience it would have been very helpful would be parents who encouraged me to define my own criteria for truth, and follow those logically.
posted by rebent at 11:58 AM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Prior Walter's final monologue in Angels in America (Perestroika) hits these themes -- as does another monologue a little bit earlier, when he asks for more life in the face of dying of AIDS. It's a long play (two plays, really), but Kushner's writing rewards the read. Honestly, the whole thing is about surviving and grabbing all the life you can in face of certain death.

(Argh, I could have sworn that there was a recording of Andrew Garfield performing the 'more life' monologue, but possibly it's been taken down. There is a film of the two plays, but I've not seen it so I can't speak to its quality.)
posted by kalimac at 11:59 AM on August 3, 2018

Buddhism, Plain and Simple - by Steve Hagen.
posted by kerf at 12:07 PM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

When I was seventeen and my father had just passed away, I read, read, and re-read Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which on the surface doesn't seem like it would be relevant to your question but I think really is.
posted by gyusan at 12:08 PM on August 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

When I was their age, Franny and Zooey really spoke to me on this stuff. I have no idea if it's continued to age well.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:10 PM on August 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

I read a ton of Kurt Vonnegut when I was that age and grappling with many of the same questions. I found the perspectives in Cat's Cradle, Galapagos, and Bluebeard very helpful.
posted by capricorn at 12:10 PM on August 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Life is absurd. Douglas Adams captures that absurdity well.
posted by booooooze at 12:17 PM on August 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

The Philosophize This podcast is an accessible but hardly simplistic survey of philosophers. As you get to know the podcaster, you learn that his interest was driven by a crisis of meaning he experienced in his teens.
posted by bendybendy at 12:18 PM on August 3, 2018

If you're not ruling out a religious perspective, When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner grapples with this.

I found reading about the experience of Holocaust survivors helpful. These people experienced the worst suffering imaginable and somehow found a way to go on with life afterwards. Man's Search for Meaning, mentioned above, falls into this category. I would also suggest Elie Wiesel's Night.
posted by FencingGal at 12:18 PM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also: How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan.

Though that depends on whether you want to implicitly encourage your 17 year old to experiment with psychedelics.
posted by booooooze at 12:23 PM on August 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'll be reading comments here with interest, as it's a problem I encountered when I read Time article in 1991 and it pretty much, in combination with some existing issues, broke my faith.

I can't contribute much to your answers but I can say that this is the theologian's paradox:

God is all-powerful.
God is all-good.
Bad things happen.

And that the study of it is theodicy.

Using those as search terms might yield fruit.
posted by WCityMike at 12:32 PM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sophie's World is both a good novel and a good introduction to philosophy for someone their age.

In terms of real philosophy, I might start with Plato's Apology. It's a pretty easy read and is the source of that maxim "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Seconding the recommendations for Vonnegut and Adams.
posted by General Malaise at 12:37 PM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

I would actually recommend the Phaedo over the Apology if we are thinking specifically about the meaning of life in the face of mortality. (The Phaedo is the dialogue set after Socrates's trial but before his death.)

But is there a desired religious perspective here? Quite different books might be appropriate for a Catholic as opposed to an atheist kid, for instance.
posted by praemunire at 12:47 PM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, the Phaedo is definitely a good call. I always forget that it's not part of the Apology.
posted by General Malaise at 12:52 PM on August 3, 2018

posted by rhizome at 12:52 PM on August 3, 2018

In 1991, Life Magazine put out an incredible collection of essays in a book titled The Meaning of Life. The book is inexpensive to buy used via amazon or elsewhere. It had a big impact on me when I was a teenager, especially because it included essays by powerful people that showed they were struggling with the same big ideas as anyone. Here's the description: "Commentary by Desmond Tutu, Carl Sagan, Richard Nixon, Marlee Matlin, and other contributors offers reflections on the meaning of life, in a collection highlighted by photographs by notable photographers"
posted by belau at 1:22 PM on August 3, 2018

Wendell Berry -- or any writer who reminds us that it's not about YOU.

For the love of all things sacred, keep him away from Ayn Rand.
posted by egeanin at 2:12 PM on August 3, 2018 [7 favorites]

Science Fiction and Fantasy are really good for this. They are all about good vs evil, and learning to live life to the fullest. Check with the librarian near you for really good suggestions available free.
posted by Enid Lareg at 2:13 PM on August 3, 2018

When I was a few years older than that, I read a bunch of David K. Reynold's books on Morita Therapy. The first one is Playing Ball on Running Water, I think, but they all cover a lot of the same territory. I think they might fit the bill.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:43 PM on August 3, 2018

Along with the advice to look into Buddhism, Stoicism and Epicureanism may also be useful. Although Classical Stoicism accepts some kind of divinity in its outlook (Epictetus does mention Zeus a LOT); Epicureanism (like Buddhism) is essentially Agnostic about God.

These outlooks/principles have been helpful for me in dealing with some crazy stuff recently.
posted by indianbadger1 at 3:18 PM on August 3, 2018

I find the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, specifically his poems, useful on this front.
In terms of fiction, the His Dark Materials trilogy is not overtly related to these themes but I feel are very much so anyway.
posted by mymbleth at 3:29 PM on August 3, 2018

seconding wendell barry - "sex, economy, freedom and community" or "life is a miracle" are both fine introductions, though i haven't found an essay of his that doesn't work.

also have found value in stephen batchelor's "Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism," and "Living With the Devil, A Meditation on Good and Evil."
posted by 20 year lurk at 3:33 PM on August 3, 2018

Reading Alan Watts helped me out a lot around that age. Especially recommended: "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are" and "The Wisdom of Insecurity"
posted by kmkrebs at 3:34 PM on August 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

Seconding "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. I just read it a few weeks ago and it is amazing. He directly addresses your specific questions of what is the point of life in the face of certain death, and how can one live and be happy with all the suffering in the world.

The first half of the book was written in 1946 or so and describes his experiences in concentration camps -- so he really does address the meaning of living in the face of [almost] certain death. It is pretty heavy reading but I think a 17-year-old can handle it.

One paraphrased quote that sticks with me: yes things are bad in the world, but unless we all do our best, they will only get worse! (Not actually as negative as it sounds!)
posted by heatherlogan at 5:59 PM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Obligatory, just in case he hasn’t seen it before.

I also like the book of Ecclesiastes.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:05 PM on August 3, 2018

Camus (Myth of Sisyphus, upthread) did it for me - the point is to act as though life is not absurd. Also - YMMV - politicization, because death is certain but we can make life less shitty for those oppressed by capitalism along the way, if nothing else.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 6:22 PM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Here is the Prior monologue in text: We live past hope.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 6:24 PM on August 3, 2018

Primo Levi’s “if this is a Man” had a profound effect on me when I considered these questions in my 20s. And seconding “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
posted by t0astie at 8:47 PM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

In all seriousness just listen to Ram Dass and enjoy life
posted by LansLeFleur at 9:11 AM on August 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh jeez yeah, Alan Watt's The Book was another big one for me and my friends at that age — seconding that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:15 AM on August 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn
Primo Levi's concentration camp writing.
Douglas Adam's and Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by ethical_caligula at 5:40 PM on August 4, 2018

Terry Pratchett's Mort and Reaper Man were helpful for me on this topic. Also Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy was good for seeing that I wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last to have these questions, and that there were a variety of ways of thinking about it. I've recently found The Good Place an enjoyable take on it, too.

I don't suggest these lightweight and/or fictional takes on it because I think your teenager isn't capable of handling anything more difficult. But more to show him the buffet of options he has, with a chance to hear about a lot of them quickly so he can maybe pick one to do a deep dive into. I ended up with a secular humanist take on things which is very similar to Pratchett's, partly because Pratchett showed me that we have a choice here and the answers don't have to be dogmatic one-true-way stuff.
posted by harriet vane at 3:09 AM on August 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

This hits close to home, as this sounds like me at 17. I ended up studying philosophy in college to try and grapple with this and there isn’t one perfect answer. When my oldest son was born, I bought him a copy of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse in anticipation of when he hits this point. It might be a good option for your 17 year old.
posted by buddha9090 at 8:06 PM on August 8, 2018

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