Existentialism and the Grand Canyon

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Existentialism—and philosophy in general—is simultaneously enticing and frustrating to me. I should be more clear. The discussion of philosophy; writing about it; thinking about it; answering questions; asking questions; considering ontology, epistemology, axiology, etc: these things keep me up at night in more ways than one. Sometimes I lie awake mulling over how I would attempt to prove the existence of God. Sometimes I ask myself questions, like whether God is bound by His nature or if He determines His nature from His will. Sometimes I stay awake till the sun rises in conversation with friends, working through the implications of time travel or predestination or the butterfly effect. Sometimes I just can’t sleep (not everything is so complicated).

I’m not sure how to really go about articulating my thoughts, but let me try. I feel like a lot of philosophy has been a lot of people talking about some great landmark, like the grand canyon. These people know a ton about the grand canyon. They can tell you the geological make up of the canyon and the rock that it’s carved into. They can detail all the stats: how deep and long and wide it is, how old it is, how many gallons of water flow through it annually… They can tell you the cultural significance it has had to native populations. They can drone on and on about what makes it beautiful and how different poets and artists have been right and wrong about describing and depicting it. A rare few go so far as to explain how it makes them feel. Some know more than others. Some speak clearer than others. Some just speak louder. Everyone talking about the grand canyon seems to be sitting around, sipping hot tea, perfectly content with their discoursing while reclining on couches in a comfortable, dimly lit room.

I’m sitting there, too. I’m somewhere between an existentialist and a Chinese communist—not ideologically, literally. I’m sitting at a coffee table, and the Chinese man and this marxist are going at it. They’re talking about the practicality of the grand canyon, whatever that means, and they don’t seem to be agreeing on anything. I’m not adding anything to the conversation. My intellect is far beneath the likes of these two; half the words they use and the people they reference are completely new to me. Their arguments are long and august and rhetorically brilliant. I’m sitting there listening, entertained at the spectacle of the debate because I love what they’re talking about. I love the grand canyon, even though my factual knowledge is so comparatively limited. At the same time, I’m nearly miffed at the content of their debate. For all these guys know about the grand canyon, the fact remains: they’ve never been there. I have.

That’s the root of my frustration. I’ve been to the grand canyon. I’ve stood at its edge and gazed across it. I’ve walked through it. I’ve heard my singing echo through it. I know what it smells like. I know how the sun plays off its walls. I swam in the Colorado River. I watched birds fly and snakes slither there. I left my footprints there. The two people I’m sitting with have never done or seen or felt any of that. They just talk away, spouting off facts and dropping names. I have no clue what they’re talking about anymore; it’s beyond me. As they continue their debate, I’m caught up in my own head asking who really knows more about the grand canyon: myself, or these two? To be honest, I know very few facts about the grand canyon. I know that it is in Arizona and that the Colorado River runs through it. I know that it was likely created by water erosion. I know it is the biggest canyon on earth. Anything past that, I can’t wholly confirm without google. Yet, I do know what it looks and smells and feels like. I know how great an impression it left on me. I can’t tell you much as far as facts go, but I can tell you stories from personal experience. So then, who knows the grand canyon? In one sense, these two philosophers know far more. At the same time, I’m inclined to say that they in fact no nothing at all about what they speak. Do I know about the grand canyon? Well, I know the grand canyon. Is that different? Is it better or worse? I hesitate to use good and bad as a distinction. Instead, I’d say that what they know is true and what I know is real. They have facts. I have experience. They have an argument. I have a testimony.

Let me step away from this analogy for a moment and move to another thought. In my existentialism class this semester, we’ve tackled the questions of the meaning of life and suicide, among other things. We’ve read several books by different authors spanning a couple centuries and several european countries. Each philosopher takes his or her turn at trying to explain life; so far, I haven’t found any of their answers sufficient. My objections are not merely philosophical, though many are that. What I really deny is their practical veracity. Far more important than making sense is being right. People like Nietzsche and Camus suggest models or justifications for life: will to power, living absurdly, eternal recursion, etc. They have their moments and can make good points, but none of these chart to the reality I’ve found in my own lived experience.

I’ll get more specific. Honestly, I find these thinkers’ answer to the “question of suicide”—how tame and abstract that sounds—wholly unsatisfactory. It leads me to wonder if they’ve ever actually had to answer this question. I wonder if they’ve ever been so far as to learn that it’s not a question at all. It’s a resolve. In the moment, it’s an inevitability. For the “question” of suicide to matter, it’s no longer a question. One doesn’t sit holding the knife asking, “Should I do this?” That’s a question for the dim-lit room in the company of others who sip tea. I know. I’ve sat holding the knife. I’ve been on the ledge. I’ve recklessly barreled down the highway hoping I might lose control. This time, I am speaking literally. In those moments, on the brink of killing myself, the question isn’t abstract. It isn’t phrased “Should I do this?” It isn’t even thought through with language.

I think the question, quite frankly, is a waste of time. We know the answer to the question without having to prove it. I know that I should not kill myself. There was a time in my life I couldn’t explain why; that had no influence on my answer. In fact, I was more certain that I shouldn’t commit suicide before I started trying to defend the position. The answer is so natural, so obvious. Yet, I have found myself on more than one occasion fully resolved to go through with it. There was no question. It was simply a decision, “I will kill myself.” I knew I shouldn’t. I equally knew that I’d do it anyway. There’s no further appeal to reason or morality. What’s most appalling about our discussion of suicide is the idea that suicidal people can in the moment engage in rational discourse to dissuade themselves from the action. They cannot do this. At least, I couldn’t do this. A few things have kept me from going though with self-destruction. Once it was fear of pain: I couldn’t bring myself to actually press the blade hard enough to cut because that brief pain was more intolerable than the infinite release death had in store at the end. Caring for others has deterred me more than once. I’ve had too many friends tell me they wouldn’t know how to live if they found out I had killed myself. I can’t imagine the pain my family would feel to lose me by my own hands. And then there’s always been the problem of dealing with my body after I leave. The thought of a family member finding my bloodied corpse sprawled across the floor or the bathtub breaks my heart. I couldn’t do that to them. I don’t want to hurt myself, but more than that, I don’t want to hurt other people.

Yet it is pain that drives me to suicide in the first place. This is where the existentialists are right, though I don’t mean this to be a compliment. It’s hard to miss this aspect. Anyone who has ever seriously thought about suicide does so for the same reasons as everyone else: they question meaning and they can’t bear suffering. That’s what I’ve observed in others and experienced in myself. Actually, what has most frequently driven me to suicidal resolve is the overwhelming belief that I am unlovable and a failure. It’s out of this loathful identity I question meaning and suffering. How can I amount to anything? What is the point of life if I’m destined to be alone? If I’m going to continuously taste bitter failure and loneliness for the rest of my days, why not reduce the number of days immediately? Perhaps this is something Camus missed in “Myth of Sisyphus” (try saying that ten times fast). What pushes one to suicide isn’t merely the absurdity of being a rational creature in an irrational world. It’s not just the lack of meaning and the suffering we experience, it’s also the questioning of “Who am I?” in the midst of that.

So then, the “question” of suicide is not a question at all when it matters. What brings one to the resolution of committing suicide is generally the lack of meaning and presence of suffering, and these always relate to the self’s identity. The final question: why haven’t I killed myself? Though I already answered this in part, I want to dig deeper. By this question, I mean to discern why I continue living here and now, when the knife is not in my hand. I can only speak for myself; I dare not answer this question for others. For some, this isn’t a fair question: they did commit suicide. I cannot explain that, either. I wouldn’t know. If I did know why they had gone through with it, I would not be able to explain it because I, too, would have killed myself. Please do not think I speak lightly of this. Suicide as a philosophical inquiry is simply—though disturbingly—another topic; as a reality, it is unbearably tragic. The greatest grief I have felt in my life was brought about upon hearing of a neighbor committing suicide after killing his two sons and wife. I had gone to middle school with the older son. Though I had not known them personally, many of my friends had. It is hard to describe grief and that is not the point of my rambling, so I will leave this tangent here. Back to the question at hand: what keeps me from despair presently?

Much to Camus’ chagrin, it is faith—though, I must say, my faith and the faith Camus describes seem to be two different things. Existentialists like Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir deny God’s existence as a premise to their books. If God doesn’t exist, should you kill yourself? If God doesn’t exist, does life have meaning? If God doesn’t exist, can there be a basis for morality? They then proceed to build their arguments implying that God indeed does not exist. All fair and well—they pose it as a hypothetical and answer it appropriately. However, my issue arises when they critique faith because their critiques are still based in the assumption of God’s non-existence. To that extent, I would have to agree with them. Faith would be pathetic and a cop-out, a real “philosophical suicide” if God did not exist. But the undeniable and, to these writers, shocking reality is that God does exist. The God of the Bible is real and alive and active and true. This changes everything.

How can I dare claim such knowledge in such confidence? For I am not saying, “God might be real,” or even, “God is most likely real,” or even further, “There is sufficient evidence to confirm God’s existence,” (though I will say that shortly); what I am saying is ontological in nature, not merely epistemological. God’s reality is an absolute. Again I ask on your behalf, how on earth can I claim to know this? If I told you, you’d probably call me a liar. If not a liar, you’d likely take me as innocently mistaken at best and mentally impaired if you’re honest. So be it; I’ll tell you anyway. If I might put it this way, I’ve been to the grand canyon. Sure, I’ve studied it, too, but my faith is rooted in my experience, not my studies. I’ll now be explicit. I have literally, audibly heard God’s voice. I have plainly seen His orchestration of my life, or at the very least of major events. In a way that is far harder to explain, I have undeniably felt (if that is the right word) His comfort and peace and faithfulness. I know what Christians mean when the speak of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Giving testimonial account might better explain that, and I am more than willing to share actual stories from my life, but not now. Take me at my word or ask me later, but either way, know that God is real.

I want to answer a new question: does God’s existence discredit or render irrelevant the work of “atheist existentialists”? I think the argument could be made, though I will not go so far as to say I agree with it. As I pointed out, their work all depends on the hypothetical conditional premise “If God does not exist, X?” Yet, the hypothetical question is asking an impossibility. It would be like me asking, “If I were an alien from Mars, what would my impression of earth be?” Any value found in such a question would be found in the creative process of structuring an answer, but there could be nothing directly prescriptive to gain because I am not, nor will ever be, a Martian. There still may be lessons learned, but they will be indirect and not come from the actual answer offered.

It is my hope that I’ve made my frustrations clear, hopefully without severely offending anyone. Perhaps my assessment of existentialism has been unfair and inaccurate. Correct me if I am wrong. I quite agree with the concept of thrown-ness. As Dasein, we do find ourselves in the world without a manual to life. With that being said, just because we aren’t born with life’s directions doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Let me repeat that without so many negations. Thrown-ness and God can both be realities. God reveals Himself to His people over time and in many ways. The Bible teaches who God is, who man is, what our relationship is, the history of that relationship, and the prospect of what that relationship will be moving forward.

Damn it, I wanted to learn about existentialists, not become one! And yet, I’ve been asserting that one cannot truly understand unless one experiences for oneself. This is absurd! Of course the semester I take existentialism is the same semester I struggle most viciously and most profoundly with faith, suffering, and suicide. This, too, is absurd. More still, I was inducted into Alpha Chi Honor Society this semester, as I struggle to maintain my grades. This is also absurd. For the record, I’ve never been to the grand canyon. Furthermore, I walked out of my counselor’s today telling myself that unless by some disastrous miracle someone texted me today asking for help, I would spend the whole day working on reading and writing papers. My friend texted me right after writing my honors report if we could meet. All of this is beyond absurd. This is divine providence. Praise be to God. Though I suffer and cry as though walking through fire, I will emerge refined.

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