The Courage to Be or Not to Be: That Is the Question

The Courage to Be or Not to Be: That Is the Question March 30, 2021

St. Paul in Prison, Rembrandt, 1627; Wikimedia; {{PD-US-expired}}

Not all enduring questions and concerns are welcome ones to ponder. But still, they never get old. Those who seriously examine the human condition over the ages account for intense feelings of finitude and the inevitability of our mortal lives coming to an end, the gnawing question of nihilism and whether life has meaning, and agonizing remorse and regrets over things we have done or failed to do. Such considerations can easily overwhelm us and the inner turmoil they generate may tempt us to throw in the towel. What gives us the courage to be rather than not to be?

Paul Tillich addressed such concerns in The Courage To Be. In confronting the modern epidemic of anxiety associated with such dynamics and the threat of non-being, Tillich writes in his treatment of Friedrich Nietzsche that “courage is the power of life to affirm itself in spite of this ambiguity, while the negation of life because of its negativity is an expression of cowardice.” (Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, 27) For Tillich himself, according to Shelby L. Condray, “Healthy anxiety is that which leads to the courage to absorb the threat of non-being into oneself through an act of courage.”

Moving on from Tillich, certainly there have been times in our family’s current crisis involving my son Christopher’s traumatic brain injury and unfolding aftermath, where I have wanted simply to crawl into a cave, roll into a ball, and die, as a friend of mine said of his own relentless ordeal. But we don’t give in to the threat of non-being. He and I keep going. Why?

It reminds me of the father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. A cosmic disaster leaves the world in tatters. The apocalypse is too much to bear for the wife and mother (pregnant with her son at the time of the cosmic nightmare’s occurrence), who eventually kills herself. The father and son set out on a journey, heading south, in search of warmer weather. Their love for one another keeps them going, until the father dies resulting from severe health complications. Still, his boy finds a home among a caring family of strangers who also keep fighting to live. But what keeps them going on the road to life when it ultimately leads to death? What keeps any of us going?

I have always respected Friedrich Nietzsche because he didn’t settle for easy shortcuts and pat answers, like believing in something simply for pragmatic reasons. If a belief in heaven and the afterlife works for you so you don’t despair, why question it? But as Edward Craig remarks in his comparison of Nietzsche and William James in The Mind of God and the Works of Man, Nietzsche understood so painfully well that an idea held for pragmatic reasons is halfway to its abandonment. So the threat of nihilism remains:

Where pragmatism enters, “Nihilism stands at the door,” [taken from Will to Power, paragraph 1] and to accept nihilism and to overcome it calls for a degree of inner strength far beyond the normal. Hence the force of its competitors, as Nietzsche well knew. (281)

Sometimes it is best to live the question rather than quickly resolve to live without reflection. After all, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. From the other end, I cannot examine my life if I quickly resolve to die. Remember that Socrates was forced to kill himself because of his undying determination to pursue truth, which posed a threat to the societal status quo. Most of us who ponder suicide pose no such threat to society. All too often, we are all too busy amusing ourselves to death to ponder truth.

While I could try to answer and resolve the question over what is so meaningful about living in the face of tragedy with some neat and tidy apologetic strategy, I prefer not to do so. I hate Hollywood endings, since life generally or never really works out that way. The struggle to live, to examine, to be stretched in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds, that requires courage. Such courage in the face of overwhelming anxiety is itself meaningful. I see such courage on display in my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, and granddaughter as we cope in search of hope regarding Christopher’s critical condition. Certainly, my Christian faith sustains me, but not as if it seals me in Saran Wrap or a Tupperware container, where I don’t have to ponder whether to be or not be, where I don’t have to struggle to live.

Pondering the existential questions of finitude and possible meaninglessness, regret and shame, which our race asks from generation to generation keeps me honest, keeps me human, keeps me alive as human. Even the most humane Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who had lost so much of what he loved, pondered them in works like Night. The courage to be kept him going, even as he struggled to survive his existential questions.

Even the Apostle Paul entertained questions of meaning and meaninglessness. There was no pragmatic shortcut such that he believed in the resurrection of the dead because it made him happy. At one point, he even tells us that he despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8). Paul and the apostolic community realized that if there be no resurrection from the dead, they were to be most pitied for their monumental suffering for their faith in this life. Apart from the bodily resurrection from the dead, their faith would be completely meaningless. Thus, he could not entertain pragmatic considerations that involve believing in something simply to be happy. For Nietzsche, it was not the doctrine of bodily resurrection, but perhaps the doctrine of eternal recurrence which kept him from giving in to nihilism. For Paul, on the other hand, if there were no resurrection, it is time to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:19, 29-32). I’ll drink to that.

What beliefs, whatever they might be, sustain you and help you to keep going no matter the level of existential anxiety? Those who have never pondered this question have never really lived an examined life. Those who confuse this essay’s engagement of existential anxiety with the kind of anxiousness Paul challenged in Philippians 4:4-7 from his prison cell in Rome should think again. Contrary to Nietzsche’s view that Christianity is a world-denying faith, for Paul, to live was Christ. For Paul, to die in seeking to live for Christ here on earth with great courage against all existential odds was gain (Philippians 1:21). Paul knew well that a belief not worth dying for is not worth living for, which would be the cause of an even greater anxiety. Belief in Christ did not keep Paul from existential anxiety or suffering over the need to examine his life, but led him into it, even if that meant death for doing so. For Paul, his entire existence was Christ, come what may. He put his life where his faith was. Whether crazy or not, I respect such consistency. It takes courage to be, even if that means willingness not to be, whereby one dies so that others can live. For Paul, to live is Christ and others no matter the situation.

It is worth noting how Paul closes his reflection recorded in Philippians 1 from a Roman prison cell on whether he should keep on living or depart and be with Christ. While the option available to him to depart and be with Christ would be better by far for him, he decided to stay for the sake of the community of believers who needed him for their own growth and development in faith (Philippians 1:22-26). Unlike Nietzsche with his absolutely rugged individualism, but like Paul who was a father of faith to these Philippians Christians, like the father in The Road, or the family who took in this father’s son when he died, or countless others throughout history, concern for loved ones who remain, as well as for posterity, give us courage to be. The hope that my son may experience once again a form of meaningful existence, the wellbeing of his wife, his daughter, my wife, my daughter, my faith in Christ, who does not leave us as orphans, gives me courage to be.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author of numerous works, including The Word of Christ and the World of Culture: Sacred and Secular through the Theology of Karl Barth (Eerdmans, 2003) and Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Thomas Nelson, 2012). You can read more about the author here.

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