Why are we here?
It’s an impossible question to answer, I suppose.
Of course, on a fundamental evolutionary level, we’re here to pass along our genes. This is why we strive for success. This is why we lust for sex. This is what keeps the species going.
But equally encoded in that evolutionary software and in our culture is another purpose, another less selfish drive: The drive for meaning. Merely to subsist, to persist—what kind of existence is that?
Indeed, the greatest achievements in human history are not selfish ones. It’s art that speaks to what it means to be alive, that gives people hope or insight. It’s a scientific breakthrough that makes things better for everyone. It was the invention of the rule of law, it was the notion that government exists with the consent of the people, it’s the collective sacrifices, it’s the tackling of hard problems together.
It’s the idea that we are here for each other, that we are here to make things better for others, for the next generation, that makes life meaningful and worth living. Because in doing so, we find happiness and respect for ourselves.
“The fruit of this life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “is good character and acts for the common good.”
On Easter, James Altucher sent me a verse from the Gospel of Mark. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” it reads, “and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
There was a time in my life when that would have made about zero sense to me. Look at the language—servant, slave, give your life? No thanks.
As I have gotten older, it’s logic is clearer. Perhaps this came, as I wrote a while back, from discovering the relative emptiness of accomplishments. Maybe it was having kids. Maybe it just took a while for the wisdom to seep in. Or maybe it was a byproduct of bearing witness to the rampant selfishness, needless cruelty and displaced rage that has consumed large swaths of our society, over the last year especially.
I suspect, in a perverse way, the ugliness of that prolonged moment–from COVID-19 to our racial reckoning-will turn out to be a gift for us all. Because it’s a compelling cautionary tale of how easily one’s life can go very differently. Because these people are not just ignorant and unattractive, but punishing by their own way of living. If you’ve ever talked to a selfish or deranged person who has been radicalized by politics or untethered by conspiracy theories, or found yourself related—by blood or friendship—to folks who have been infected with this virus, it sobers you up real quick. It breaks your heart too. It didn’t have to go this way, and yet it so quickly and easily did for so many.
There was a great Huffington Post headline a few years ago that captured the impotence one feels trying to discuss basic human rights or compassion or restraint to some people: I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.
I have found myself thinking that same thing time and time again over the last year too, whether it was after watching something on the news or talking to a neighbor or even writing to my own audience here. About the pandemic. The social justice and race conversations that exploded this summer. The 2020 election. And now, vaccines.
Watching friends say things like “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal,” when social media makes it quite clear literally nothing about their habits or social life was impacted by a devastating pandemic that spreads in enclosed places and disproportionally affects the elderly and the vulnerable. Watching members of my own family seek to rationalize something like George Floyd’s death because he might have been on drugs, might have had a criminal record, or that very few people are killed by the police each year. Stuck in my head is an exchange I had with a woman who took profane exception to me referring to the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery as “hillbillies,” yet seemed to not be bothered at all by a video of the man being chased down and shot like a dog in the street.
Just last week, a very accomplished friend sent me a note explaining his resistance to the COVID-19 vaccines (which by the way, marks an incredible collective human accomplishment on par with landing on the moon). “Why should I, a perfectly healthy adult in a safe age bracket, have to risk myself by taking some new vaccine?” he said to me.
The polite technical term for this is “vaccine hesitancy.” I think it’s more correct to call it an abdication of duty, a rejection of our collective purpose. I’d love a chance to go back and explain this conversation to my grandfather and great-grandfather who fought in World War I and World War II.
Oh, you’re worried about the possibility of side effects despite the overwhelming available information to the contrary? (And yes, this is true even after yesterday’s announcement about the Johnson and Johnson vaccine). You’re wondering why you should have to take a tiny risk when you’re otherwise healthy and could otherwise go about your life just fine? I’m sure the generations who not only lived through typhus, the Great Influenza and polio but then had to cross the Atlantic to fight in someone else’s war would totally understand. Do you know what the data said about landing at Normandy, I can imagine my grandfather saying, it said we were probably all going to die. And it wasn’t even certain that the invasion would work!
You’re saying it’s unfair of me to compare the pandemic to WWII? That’s true. It is. It took the full might of an axis of industrial powers and four years of war to kill 400,000 Americans. It took COVID-19 just 10 months. And by the way, it’s a lie to say these were all old people. A full 105,000 under age 65 have perished from COVID in the US alone.
There were definitely isolationists in America in 1918 and 1941, but by and large people got it. The idea of ransoming oneself for the many, as Jesus said, was common. More than 6 million people volunteered to serve during WWII. That’s nearly 40% of the entire fighting force. And the average service length was nearly three years! That’s what happens when a generation of men and women (and children) get to work for a common cause. And they accomplished something incredible as a consequence, something far more impressive than anything any of them did as individuals, when those fortunate enough to survive came back home and went about their ordinary lives.
But for the last twelve months, in the same country that melted down its jewelry for the war effort just a generation or two ago, we’ve had serious discussions about whether we have any obligations to people who sat vulnerable in nursing homes.
I get it.
It sucks to have your life and business disrupted, to lose opportunities you worked your whole life for. I make my living flying around and giving talks to large groups indoors. The last twelve months were quite anxious economically. It was stranger still having to turn down offers to speak to groups that had no business getting together during the second and third surges of the pandemic, but that was obviously right.
I also happened to have dropped my life savings into opening a bookstore in my small town in Texas…two months before the world shut down. Needless to say, it was a financial bloodbath to sit here and not be able to open, as the expenses carried on nonetheless. But again what was the alternative? Put my interests over somebody’s grandma? Or some cancer patient who was already facing high enough odds as it is? Externalize the consequences of the actions I freely took, and make society carry all the weight?
I think I’d rather die of COVID than that.
I love sports. I’ve missed all sorts of cool opportunities in the last year not being able to go and speak in various locker rooms. I remain nonetheless appalled at the behavior of so many people in sports, because as always, sports are a metaphor for life. Whether it’s Dan Mullen demanding that the stadium be packed for Florida home games…days before his own team was devastated by a COVID outbreak, or just this month, the Rangers packing a stadium in the middle of the 4th surge of the virus. Was our governor concerned? No, he was throwing a tantrum about MLB moving its All Star game due to a stupid law passed in another state.
“I don’t want my son’s athletic career negatively affected,” said the parents of college athletes. “But this is my daughter’s last year of academic eligibility!” Ok, so we have a season of college sports and thousands and thousands of cases in the NCAA. The athletes were all mostly fine and it certainly didn’t turn out as bad as some of the more dire predictions, but it’s indisputable that we (if we had even basic contact tracing in this country) could link these cases to hundreds and hundreds of thousands more people out in the community. Go talk to them about negative consequences.
Of course nobody comes out and says, “I don’t care about other people.” They say a bunch of other stuff instead—stuff that I’m sure some of you are already getting ready to angrily write me in response to this article. They say, “This pandemic is overblown.” They shrug and say, “Well I guess we all have different risk tolerances.” (We can have different preferences about how we invest our retirement money, not whether we drink and drive). They try to claim that what they’re really worried about is how this affects small businesses or lonely people. They say, “But this wedding is really important to my sister.” They say, “My six year old deserves a party with their friends!”
COVID is not the only place this indifference manifests. Rather than wrestle with the police brutality, or the simmering rage of their black countrymen and women, they say, “But what about black on black crime?” They say, “But what about all the property damage!” They said, “What about Antifa?!”
All of this is a way of dodging the reality of the choice in front of us: Can you subjugate your own interests—if only temporarily—for the sake of someone else? Countless someone else’s. Most of whom you will never know or even meet. Can you serve them? Can you sacrifice for any of them? Can you hear what they’re saying? Can you care?
The religious stuff I put up top, maybe that turns you off a bit. I get it. I myself am not a Christian, but I use the verse not only because it’s beautiful but because it seems that Christians have struggled more with the lesson at the core of the verse than almost any other group. The most vaccine hesitant group in America is Republicans and White Evangelical Christians. This video of a woman explaining why her faith made her exempt from COVID-protocols at the beginning of the pandemic sticks with me. So does this photo of an Easter service, attended by a president who quite nearly died of COVID, indoors, without a mask in sight…a year into a pandemic that has killed more Americans than every war the United States has ever fought except for the Civil War—and we’re giving those war dead a run for their money.
Hillel was once asked to explain the Bible in a short sentence. He stood on one foot and said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself—all the rest is commentary.”
I would argue that this is a great answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” as well.
We are what we’re able to do for each other.
We’re here to serve. We’re here to help, to have good character and do acts for the common good.
That’s not always easy. In fact, it’s often quite hard.
Did the pandemic or the racial events of the last year reveal the difference in privileges that some of us have? Absolutely—and this knowledge should increase our sense of obligation.
We are made for each other. We forget that to our peril. We ignore that to our shame.
P.S. My newest book, The Boy Who Would Be King, tells a timeless story about putting others before yourself. It’s an illustrated fable about Marcus Aurelius and how the influential figures in his life guided him along the path to becoming one of history’s greatest figures. You can order it in the Daily Stoic store, where you can also get a personalized signed copy. And we have some great news—for some reason, the ebook version of The Boy Who Would Be King is on sale on Amazon right now for 60% off. It won’t last long so grab it now.