Why Live?



Is this a question you have asked yourself recently?


I am reading a book of that title at the moment – it’s not well written so I won’t recommend it – but the question has been a companion of mine for a while. It came crashing into my life as the unwelcome consort of bad news. The kind of bad news that saw my legs buckle beneath me. It shattered me. It came at a time when life was already full of challenges. I was stretched as thin as I could go, so I snapped. I couldn’t hold it together.


Through bleary days and fretful nights this question haunted me. It was tantalising and repellent at the same time. It frightened me.

I’ve had nightmares before. I grew up in an evangelical church where hell fire and damnation was preached for just about everybody who didn’t belong to the born-agains. For a naive eighteen year old, encountering death as a student nurse at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, it was a frame of reference that was utterly devastating. My nights were filled with images of burning up in hell while my days were spent on the ward caring for my young Hindu patient whose life was already drawing to a close. It has been years of spiritual exploration and education that has banished that particular incubus.


I have found peace in the heart wood of the Christ message – presented so succinctly in the Q gospel – it boils down to love yourself, love your neighbour and love your enemy. Or in the words of Hoʻoponopono, ‘Please forgive me, I love you, thank you’. Forgiveness, love and gratitude – a Trinity that doesn’t care what you look like, where you are from, what you do or say, or what you believe. But even with a more nourishing, wholistic world view, the storm of grief can still threaten to capsize one in the sea of futility.

I was talking mid-life with someone recently and she reflected that menopause had come to her with the realisation that she still had a lot more life left to live, and she just felt too tired for it. It wasn’t the harbinger of the end that many women dread, but an awful mile stone that indicated still more toil. Grief, loss and the weariness of suffering can cause us to ask the question, ‘Why live?’ There’s no pat answer to this. In fact, I haven’t really got an answer at all. Today I’m with the author of Ecclesiastes,

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’

Says the Teacher.

‘Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.’

I’m curious what it is we do when the meaning and purpose of life slips from our grasp. I recently came across the story of the Snake and the Three Leaves. A Princess, beautiful but strange, says she will only entertain suitors who are willing to be buried with her should she die before them. A poor young man leaves his father’s house to make his way in the world and comes upon the Princess. He’s the only one who will agree to the royal marriage terms so they are wed and live happily enough until the Princess does indeed die young. Entombed with his dead wife, the young man watches a snake slither from a crack in the wall. He kills it with a stone only to witness a second snake tend to the injured serpent with three leaves. The dead snake is immediately revived and slithers away with its saviour. The young man gathers up the leaves and gently places them on the body of his wife. She instantly awakens and they hammer on the walls of the tomb until the guards release them.


I wonder what goes on in the young man’s mind? Having been the consort of a narcissist, and willingly entered a relationship that had very unfavourable terms, albeit unwritten, but nonetheless evident from early on, I recognise something in myself in the decision he takes, to risk it. It doesn’t pay off – and he finds himself buried alive in the prime of his life. Hope comes to him in the ambiguous form of the snake and he rouses his wife from her deadly slumber. What does he feel for her at this stage? The story doesn’t tell us but it describes in great detail how she treats him. This is no love story. On a sea voyage that follows their release from the tomb, she falls madly in love with the skipper and has her loyal spouse thrown overboard. Fortunately for him, the servant with whom he entrusted the healing leaves, witnesses his wife’s foul play. The servant rescues the drowned man and revives him with the very leaves that were used to bring the treacherous wife back to life.


Not the young man’s willingness to agree her terms, nor his sacrifice and resourcefulness is enough to inspire his wife’s love! He is alive but life has brought him twice perilously close to death. What does he make of his life at this stage? I’ve had moments of recognition when suddenly a period of challenge has reached resolution – “the meaning of suffering is…”, or “the reason this experience has come to me is …”, only to have this newfound insight immediately dashed by another blow. Suffering, by its very nature, can feel relentless.

In the story, the young man goes to the King, the Princess’s father, who is so horrified by his daughter’s behaviour that he contrives to send her and her lover to a watery grave in a boat full of holes.


For me, the story’s ending is incomplete. True, the parts of us, represented by the Princess, that prey on the sacrifices of others, can not survive the light of Truth. They are fundamentally meaningless. We can not take someone else into death with us either; it is a journey we must make alone. And, without love, gratitude and forgiveness we live with our passions in a boat that is sinking. But I like stories to end with lovers re-united, completion, the incubus chased from the bedchamber. For the young man in our story we can presume that, as the King’s son-in-law, he is well-provided for. This is at least better than Sysyphus’s fate – who, as punishment for cheating death twice, is condemned to push a boulder uphill for all eternity.


Kierkegaard posits self-love as the antidote to the absurdity of the world, and perhaps that is what our hero discovers in the years that follow the Princess's demise. And for us too. Self-love is the balm that doesn't put to rest the mind's desire to understand suffering or the will's need to have purpose. Rather it soothes the soul, nourishes the heart, lightly and tenderly. Love has to start at home; it's the ripple effect. Love yourself begets love for your neighbour which breeds love for your enemy.


Why live? Don't bother with the answer. Simply love yourself.

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