Is Life Worth Living? —

‘The greatest use of life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.’ – William James, The Thought and Character of William James (1935) 

A year ago, on a late afternoon in November, I decided to walk the seven miles from my hotel in Manhattan to Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore. It was a cool day, on the cusp of evening, at a moment when things, even grimy New York-type of things, seem to glow, and I was so busy looking around that I almost didn’t notice the small white sign that someone had placed at the bottom of Brooklyn Bridge. The green lettering was newly painted and read: ‘LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.’ 

For many people, life’s worth is never in question. It never becomes a topic of conversation or debate. Life is simply lived until it is not. But something bothered me: if life’s worth is so obvious, why was the sign put up in the first place? It is because there are those of us who occasionally find themselves on the top of the bridge, contemplating a quick and fatal trip to the bottom. Decades after battling depression in 1870, the American philosopher William James wrote to the philosopher and poet Benjamin Paul Blood that ‘no man is educated who has never dallied with the thought of suicide’.

For the majority of people, free will can be exercised in any number of ways (which don’t have to include committing suicide), and in many of these cases one can choose to embody new habits of thought and action. If meaningful freedom seems evasive or unrealistic, most of us still have a choice about what to see and what to look past. This too can be worthwhile. ‘The art of being wise,’ James suggested, ‘is the art of knowing what to overlook.’ Maybe these possibilities could have kept Rose alive for even longer than they did. Maybe not. I don’t presume to be sure.

I think one surefire way to send jumpers off the edge is to pretend that you know something they don’t: that life has unconditional value, and that they are missing something that is so patently obvious. On the ledge, I suspect that they’d detect some deep insecurity or hubris in this assertion. And they might jump just to prove you wrong. Because you would, in fact, be wrong. In James’s final entreaty in his essay ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings’ (1899), he reminded his readers that they often don’t have a clue about how other people experience the meaning of their lives. Better to leave it at ‘maybe’.

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