AS YOU LIE UNDER A SPRAWLING OAK, admiring the play of sun and shade, it’s easy to fall for the illusion that all is well with the beautiful earth. But your reverie is shattered. The thought hits you, like a cold slap, that your young grandchildren, and multitudes of other people’s children and grandchildren, might not be able to enjoy this kind of pastoral delight when they’re fifty-eight years old like you.
You shudder as you picture the world they might inherit (if they or anyone can survive long enough to inherit it). A scorched planet, massive death and dislocation, social breakdown on an unprecedented global scale, possibly even human extinction—such are the not-implausible scenarios for what climate degradation might do to the world in the coming decades if society remains unwilling and unable to confront it.
A nonreligious person, you naturally ask yourself some daunting questions: What would it matter to the vast indifferent universe if life were snuffed out on Earth? What sense of loss or lament could there be if its human inhabitants were no longer alive and, thus, not conscious of this non-existence and the nightmare that caused it?
What do you do? Shrug and carry on? Party like it’s 1999? Climb that glaciated peak while there’s still a glacier? Extract the last few scraps of utility from late-stage capitalism while you still can? Or go back to bed—and stay?
Then it occurs to you that it’s all quite simple. We humans are a form of life, like that gracious tree that shades you, like the bees you see buzzing around the wooden-box hives someone built for them forty yards over. And it occurs to you that because you are a form of life you should listen to your life instinct and do what it tells you, that you should watch what life is doing—and do it.
Which is, simply, to keep life going. And try to make it better.
IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU they wanted to talk about the immeasurable value of “life,” you’d probably run to your rhetorical battle station and prepare to argue with a religious-right anti-abortion warrior, wouldn’t you?
It’s maddening that a concept so simple and essential—life—would be impoverished by such a pinched view and weighed down by such heavy, divisive baggage. It’s unacceptable that narrow, politically motivated discourse has been allowed to shrink it, corner it, weaponize it, distort it, damage it, and discredit it.
No single segment of society owns the urgent conversation about life or the project to wrestle with its continuation and meaning. To be secular and humanist and progressive does not mean one lacks a deep regard for life, as the self-serving anti-abortion rhetoric suggests.
To state the ridiculously obvious, humanists value life. We want life, too. If anything, we want it more expansively than those who’ve co-opted the term. We exalt more life, better life—for all people alive, now and in the future, and for all the myriad forms of life with which humankind is interwoven and on which it depends.
“Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love.”
Humanists have, in fact, a crucial contribution to make to this conversation and project, and an ideal vantage point from which to make it. With no illusions about heavenly interventions and consolations, we can be the clear-eyed realists in the conversation. With our deep regard for the human condition, we have no higher priority than championing the perpetuation and flourishing of our complicated, messed-up, disappointing, and amazing species and the countless other species of plants and animals with which we share the earth.
So let’s talk about life. What can perpetuate it? What can make it better? And why is it worth caring about so very deeply?
IMAGINE YOU ARE FACED with a five-alarm emergency. Take your pick: (a) you learn you have a potentially fatal disease, (b) a raging wildfire is advancing on your home, or (c) you’re hiking in a dense forest and suddenly realize you’re on the wrong trail and hopelessly lost. What do you do?
It’s not hard to answer.
A: You access the best medical treatment you can possibly get.
B: You grab whatever important stuff you can carry and get the hell out.
C: You begin the process of figuring out where you actually are and how you can get back on track.
Why do you do these things? Because you want to survive, of course. Because you are a life, and life wants to live.
It is from this this simple but crucial, 100-percent observable, and completely incontestable reality that we must take our cues, whether we are talking about our own will to survive, each of us, or our collective will to survive under a threat quite unlike any other that the human race has faced.
All else being equal, life wants more life. Next time you’re in a harsh outdoor environment like a desert or at the tree line on a mountaintop—or, for that matter, on a sidewalk that has developed a tiny crack—notice what life is doing. You’ll see that with stubborn persistence and remarkable resourcefulness it is finding a way to assert itself, gain a foothold, and make a living, so to speak.
The desert plant is withstanding the heat and making the most of its scarce water by minimizing the size and number of its leaves (reducing evaporation) and sinking its roots deep, close to the water table. The tree on the mountainside is staying low to the ground to evade the wind’s destructive bluster. A blade of grass is poking up through the crack in the sidewalk as if to say, “You give life even the tiniest shot at living, it’s going to take it!”
The planet offers an endless array of niches, and a seemingly infinite variety of life forms are scrambling to fill them. So notes biologist Ursula Goodenough in her classic work, The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998). “What a windfall it has been!” Goodenough exclaims. “Minute and enormous, beautiful and hideous, enduring and evanescent, independent and parasitic. They occupy the most impossible (to our eyes) niches: ocean vents, arctic snows, desert cliffs, human eyelashes.”
And they live by such inventive means! Multicellular organisms, Goodenough writes, “have generated every complex morphological structure imaginable: wings, gills, eyes, leaves, glands, claws, bark, nostrils, tentacles.”
As these show us, life on planet Earth is irrepressible. It will stop at nothing to express itself—to create, perpetuate, and reproduce life. This is our human instinct, too. We should never stop listening to it.
And we should never stop appreciating it—especially now as we come to accept the fragility of all the gills, glands, and tentacles. As shown by the West African Black Rhinoceros (declared extinct in 2011), Earth’s denizens don’t always make it. The extinctions of the recent centuries, of course, pale next to what’s ahead: one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, according to a recent United Nations report, more than at any other juncture in human history.
YES, LIFE ENDEAVORS TO LIVE. But being a form of life endowed with consciousness and critical thinking abilities to go along with our super-useful opposable thumbs and upright walking ability, we human beings can bring nuance to this conversation. We can realize that when it comes to life, more is not necessarily better. At the same time, in living up to our humanist responsibility to care for life, we can still strive for more than mere survival for ourselves and future generations. We must do whatever is possible to make sure it’s a good life, a “life worth living,” to quote the title of a popular course at Yale (where I served on the Humanist Community board).
Consider the case of elderly patients who suffer from painful, terminal illnesses. The life instinct—or dread of death, more precisely—might tempt the family to demand herculean medical interventions to keep that aged parent living for another day, another week, another month. But why? What value is there in extending life merely to prolong suffering? We want a loved one to live on, yes. But within reason.
We know there are dire circumstances, too, in which people risk or give up their lives to save others or make a stand for a principle that means everything to them. They want to continue living, yes. But not so much that they’re willing to live under galling injustices or oppression.
Of course, the more-is-not-always-better realization applies just as well to immorality—the goal of dreamers and visionaries since time immemorial and, because of technological advances, something that actually might become possible in the decades ahead. Living forever: the prospect might sound great at first, but you’ll probably find it increasingly bad the more you think it through. (For a disturbing exploration of the disastrous ethical implications, read the new Bill McKibben book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?)
When you’re a child and your parent or some other source informs you that all people die eventually—you, too, unfortunately—you might be shocked and saddened. Of course we want to put off death as long as we can, for forever, we might think.
But most of us eventually come to accept the inevitability of death, even the desirability of death. Yes, the desirability. As Goodenough articulates, for mammals like us, as for other multicellular forms of life, it is reproduction, not endless life for each individual, that perpetuates life and allows for the ceaseless creation of its dizzying complexity and diversity. For this life-enriching reproduction to do its work, there must be death. “Death is the price paid,” Goodenough writes,
to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love. My somatic life is the wondrous gift wrought by my forthcoming death.
Would we accept eternal life or a close approximation if such a thing could be offered to us? Wisdom and maturity shout “no!” Some of the most profound insight on this question comes courtesy of Yale philosopher Martin Hägglund in his new book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Hägglund offers people much more than the ability to swallow hard and accept that there is no eternal life. He explains why we are so much better off without it. Without our finitude, life would make no sense, Hägglund says; without death, life would have no meaning.
“The commitment to living on,” Hägglund writes, “does not express an aspiration to live forever but to live longer and to live better, not to overcome death but to extend the duration and improve the quality of a form of life.”
Surely the writers of Humanist Manifesto III sensed this when they wrote that humanists find “wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death [emphasis mine].”
We want to live on, yes. But we do this not by living forever as individuals, but through our offspring if we have them, and by investing ourselves in worthy principles and projects that we hope and trust will carry on and bear fruit after we’re gone.
You want “immortality”? Then invest in the future. And fight like hell to make sure that there is a future and that it’s a future worth having.
ONCE A YOUNG OAK has established a foothold on life and gotten busy with reproduction by dropping acorns, it does not stand pat. It is not content to merely survive and reproduce. It goes for gold, stretching upward and outward, sixty feet high or more, as if in celebration. Life doesn’t want to merely survive. Left to its recourses and given sufficient resources, it strives to be majestic.
The human species, once its members got good at surviving long enough to produce offspring and perpetuate the species, did not stand pat. We, too, went for gold: art and science, philosophy and literature, music and beauty.
Don’t we want these inheritances preserved? Don’t we want the quest to continue?
You want “immortality”? Then invest in the future. And fight like hell to make sure that there is a future and that it’s a future worth having.
Perhaps you think I’m Pollyannaish. Isn’t life a dog-eat-dog affair? Don’t we, as Nietzsche asserts, strive to dominate? Hasn’t evolution favored the aggressive, the ruthless, the selfish? And aren’t these, in tandem with our addiction to fossil fuels and ceaseless economic growth, what have brought us to our existential precipice?
Professor Costica Bradatan, religion editor for the LA Times Review of Books and author of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, writes in a July 5 New York Times op-ed,
What’s most natural to us, just as to any living creature, is to seek to survive and reproduce. And for that purpose, we assert ourselves—relentlessly, unwittingly, savagely—against others: We push them aside, overstep them, overthrow them, even crush them if necessary. Behind the smiling facade of human civilization, there is at work the same blind drive toward self-assertion that we find in the animal realm.
Bradatan might be partially right. But what’s also natural, what we are also capable of—look around and you will see—are more altruistic capacities and more noble practices. Every day you will see creatures and people seeking not to dominate but to cooperate, not only to get but to give, not to crush but to love.
Seriously, if you can convince me that aggression, selfishness, and ruthlessness are life’s natural and ultimate meaning, I will probably say “Good riddance!” the next time I contemplate the possibility of human extinction, whether by climate change, nuclear devastation, comet collision, or any other means.
But until then, I proclaim the inherent value of life. And I assert that if our present generations allow earthly life to suffer a cataclysmic degradation or come to an end while it is our turn to nurture it and pass it on, we will be guilty of the moral outrage of the ages.
More life, better life: if you want to talk about our natural desire, our ultimate meaning, it’s that. If you want something to get you super-motivated, there you have it. Because as wondrous as life is, its perpetuation is hardly guaranteed.
“The existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value,” Goodenough writes.
The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no Creator, no super-ordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue until the sun collapses or the final meteor collides. I confess a credo of continuation.
So should we all. We can see that the point of life is, simply, life. More life, better life. No higher purpose is needed because we already have, deep in our genes and under our noses, a purpose that is incalculably high.