The Meanings of Our Lives

“The Kremlin,” Dmitry Nalbandyan

The Meanings of Our Lives

People commit suicide when their lives seem to them meaningless.  At least, that’s been my experience, which I’ll share with you.

I’ve talked two women friends out of killing themselves, which they seemed quite serious about doing.  I’m not a professional at this kind of thing, but it might be worth revisiting the incidents to see what I did.

They were both women I knew from a twelve-step program, whose meetings I attended during the period when there was “someone in my life whose drinking bothered me.”  After I left that group, the friendships attenuated too, so I don’t know how their lives turned out later.

The first friend was a wholesome American girl with normal ambitions and skills.  Bright, not intellectual, but good at many things.  A book contract had been dropped that seemed indispensable to her ideal picture of herself.  Perhaps the market had changed.  Or the publisher’s priorities.  You enter the realm of book proposals at your peril.  It’s well known that people don’t read as much as they used to.

What did I contribute?  On the advice of a friend who’d lost a daughter to suicide, I arrived with a musical teddy bear, the announcement that dinner was to be on me, and a readiness to listen quietly to everything she had to say.

Just be there.

Finally, when she was clearly talked out, I offered two reasons not to do it.  First, if you think you don’t look good without a book contact, how good will you look as a dead body found in a hotel room?  Second, drawing without apology on occult lore – this wasn’t a talk at an academic conference – you’ll only have to go through the same challenge again in your next life and it’s reported to be harder the second time.

I don’t know which reason she found more convincing.  She wasn’t much for occult lore, so probably the first.

The other suicidal woman friend had a much darker and more complicated background.  She was Latin, with an aristocratic bearing and name.  As I recall, her father had killed himself and that sort of thing is contagious.  She came from one of those countries south of the border where the life of women is dominated by other women’s talk – always teetering on the brink of malice.  They see you as you walk toward them and as you walk away.  In her particular case, she was darker skinned than the other women of her family and, when they took a look at this newborn, that was not a plus.  I had lived in Iberia and I knew what she was talking about.

Here is what pushed her to the brink: She’d been seduced by one of those guys who prey on good-looking newcomers to twelve-step programs.

So what? you might be inclined to protest.  We’re all modern people.

No, we’re not.

I knew exactly how she felt.  How profoundly offended.  How outraged.  How insulted.  And his cover story, that we’re uninhibited modern people, only made it worse.

So what magic philtre did I offer, to offset this injury to her feminine pride? 

Just this: I accepted her view that it was a profound injury.  I did not come rushing over to apply scraps of modernity with its psychologies.  I didn’t “make it better.”  I didn’t erase the eternal feminine in her.

And that was enough.

Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning.   It recorded the time he spent as a prisoner in Nazi death camps.  He was young and did his skeletal best to appear fit for slave labor so they wouldn’t send him to the crematoria right away.  He managed to stay alive in the filth and the terror.  His book is really a handbook on how to live through your Holocaust.  You need to find meaning and keep your mind on the plane of meaning.  Whether it’s a sunset, the remembered face of your wife, the decision to care for another’s life more than for your own – these preserved your will to live and, in cases he recounts, sometimes saved life itself.

All very well, you may want to rejoin.  But what if the entire culture in which you find yourself appears to have lost its sense of meaning?  It’s quite a trick to confer meaning on one’s own singular, individual life while all about you are finding their lives absurd.  In that circumstance, is there any balm in Gilead?

Relevant to this question is an essay I’ve just read in a collection titled Russian Philosophy in the Twenty-First Century.  The writer is Igor Kliamkin.  He’s lectured internationally, survived the Soviet era and has a lot to say about Russia as a problem culture.

Here’s the story he tells.  In 1453, the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottoman Turks.  Constantinople became Istanbul.  A great part of Christendom fell under Muslim rule and what was left unconquered became the Russian Orthodox Church.  Suddenly, the remainder of Christian Rome had to account for a defeat of that size.  The reason it found was that the Greek Orthodox Church had looked to heaven overmuch.  Christians had to fight!  Accordingly, Tsars like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great ruled a militarized state.

And what did the Russian people, especially the lower classes, think of this?  They accepted it!  The unity of the Tsar with the militarized nobility that served him, and the classes beneath that served the nobility, gave to the Russian people a sense that their lives were parts of a meaningful whole, a melding together of faith and force.

What is astounding to western eyes is that, the more the Tsar limited his own power, and freed the nobility from compulsory military service – the less faith the people had in their rulers.  When, in the twentieth century, the communists seized power, the state was expressly placed on a war footing and – as long as that regime remained viable – its communist ideology (its “faith”) revived the allegiance of its people.  Only now, when the state has decayed to the point of economic and social failure, has the people’s faith in its ideology been lost too.  Life in Russia has become meaningless.

Kliamkin’s proposed solution?  The Russian nation must now learn to be governed by law.  Where law is respected, absolutist solutions have been laid aside.  Legal verdicts are approximative – sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes beside the point entirely.  Such is the human condition.  We aren’t perfect.  We need to allow ourselves space for compromise.

What for any of us, is the meaning of life?  One can proclaim a principle – even a true and just principle – but a meaningful life isn’t done with abstract proclamations.  It’s achieved by careful watching of the changing clues as to who one now is, what one is to aim for, and what means will serve one’s chosen ends.

God is not flattered by our faking it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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