The Examined Life and the Extravagance of Nature

(Nurse) Susie – Do you ever get to solve the puzzle?

Dr. Jason Posner – No. When it comes down to it, research is just trying to quantify the complications of the puzzle.

Susie – You help people, you save lives and stuff.

Jason – Sure, I save a guy’s life and the poor slob goes out and gets hit by a bus.

Susie – I guess I just don’t see it that way.

Jason – Besides, you can’t just go around… thinking about that meaning-of-life stuff all the time. You’d go nuts.

Susie – Do you believe in it?

Jason – Believe in what?

Susie – I don’t know, the meaning-of-life stuff.


It seems that we must conceive of life either one of two general ways given that we understand that life is virtually a puzzle, filled withlevel upon level of meaning.That we can effortlessly exist without ever understanding the how of our very being. That the complexities of life, on a biological but also on a deep  philosophical level are so intricate that a man with a million lifespans could never plumb the depths of  its store. That under no circumstances is man capable of grasping the whole of his own ‘ness’ as long as he lives. There seem to be two obvious responses to this knowledge. 

First, one could look at it in the manner Jason chooses to in the movie ‘Wit’, realizing the intricacies that make up life due to the education you receive. Jason is a doctor and claims that one requirement to being a doctor is being ‘well rounded’,  requiring him to take a poetry class among other things. He has clearly received a good education and seemsto understand how complicated human life really is because of man’s sin,his helpless nature and need for a savior, but the frustrated inability to personally fulfill that need. He says all of these words, he gets it!– sort of. The result he comes up with is that his job as a doctor is not for the good of men but for some sort of quantifying which doesn’t hold much weight except for the fleeting glory that a new discovery may bring with it. He dismisses further thoughts which his education should have sparked by saying that thinking  about all of that “meaning-of-life stuff” will simply drive you mad and should be left alone. It drove Herbert nuts didn’t it? Isn’t it best to forget about it if we are incapable of comprehending the mystery of life? Why should we waste our time philosophizing and trying to find the meaning of life if our brains are too small to really grasp it?

The other way of life seems to answer this. Although our existence is a great and incomprehensible mystery it is a beautiful one. God created man in his image and walked with him. Man sinned. I would not say that without sin man could understand God because man is less than God and therefore unable to completely fit the idea of God within his mind even in the original created state. However, sin obscured our intelligence even more causing deception of the senses and distortion of facts. This means that truth is hard to discern. This does not mean that there is no truth, that we can never find truth, or that we should stop searching for truth. When I was younger my mother would tell me to clean my room and I recall that among my myriad of excuses for not doing it was that it would just get messy again. When we engage one another in our search for essential, fundamental truths, one excuse to give up may be that there is always more to mess it up again. That even if we can be sure that something is certain, there will always be  uncertainty about other things, most things. This excuse is poor stuff. The meaning of life matters. Our  understanding is deepened the more we search for truth. Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.  The complexities of life are not simply inscrutable, they are beautiful. The natural world provides mankind  with a smorgasbord of sights, sounds, tastes, colors, and feelings. While our search for truth may seem a tiring one at points it is certainly sweetened by the beauty of the world around us and above us. 

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard gives a visceral account of her own explorations of the incredible place that she calls home. The things she writes about seem to be commonplace and yet her words remind us ofthe mysterious and truly magical things they are, revealing insects to be veritable monsters who rule their tiny kingdoms and water to be a living breathing creature that hides both life and death within its currents. She writes, “That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about creation” (129). Not only should we search for truth, we should take pleasure in the activity of it; and often it is important to simply acknowledge the vastness of God’s creation and the intricacy of the laws which make up the universe, governing the true ideas of goodness truth and beauty which we work so hard to define, and in this realization to stop and remember how small we are. To admit that we will never understand, and rather than  being discouraged or disappointed by that very fact, revel in it. Our God is a great God and it is worth  resting in his perfect ability to create something, and even to be something which we are at a loss to fully know. Men are blessed to be allowed to explore the creation with the mind God endows them with and they are  lucky to be governed by such a God; one who cannot be figured out. The conclusion that we should reached,  based on our inability, is that it is a privilege to live the examined life.


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