Meaning? Nevermind.

2.1 The Problem in Life Is Death



And I have found both freedom and safety in my madness: the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us. — Khalil Jibran in The Madman

“The meaning of life is: love!”

Yes, it is clear that Jesus states as much. It is also relatively easy to see how that teaching is scattered throughout the writings of the followers of Jesus. But I struggle with the explicitness of the statement as well as with the expressiveness of so many restatements of “Love God & People”.

Does that nice phrase even understand what the problem is?

There are all sorts of complicated problems in life, but they meet at the point where incessant reminders underline our ultimate mortality.

Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his most famous poems, ‘The Raven’, conveys this idea of life’s irreversibility in a sinister raven perched on a window ledge, capable only of repeating ‘Nevermore” over and over again.

Poe is suggesting that death means everything that is unrepeatable. Death is, in the midst of life, that which will not return; that which belongs irreversibly to time past, which we have no hope of ever recovering.

— Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought

How do we live in the shadow of Death?

Death is the ultimate problem in life.

Engaging in life involves engaging with questions meaning and mortality whether we are conscious of it or not. Although it is difficult to do well, some degree of processing our beliefs about the broader realities of life and meaning are essential for living purposefully.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. — Ecclesiastes 3:10,11

Much misery in life comes from not taking the time to draw out our various beliefs and theories about reality that automatically interact with our choices. By mapping out our actual personal worldview, including seeming contradictions and uncertainties, we become more self-aware of who we are and who we would like to be as we live out our lives.

Life to death is the problem in the biblical narrative as well.

The Biblical Story from Creation to Completion:


The Love Story of the Bible begins with the hope of life that is designed to flourish. The paradise of Creator and creation, with humanity linking Creator and creation, is floated before the reader of Genesis as an elevating start to a plunging story of disorder, chaos, betrayal, pain and death.

Column 1 Creation: Crown/God — Heart/Humanity — World/Cosmos

From the introduction of the curse of death whispers hints of hope can be heard. Humanity’s serpentine seducer has brought the pains of separation but humanity will be used to fatally crush the cause of mortality. The fall from Life to Death is the problem, followed by a promise. But for now we will dive into the problem.

Column 2 Separation: Humanity is separated from the Creator in an upside down & chaotic relationship with the Cosmos
  • Why this dynamic of life vs. death matters will be explained in 2.2.
  • Each symbol will be explained in detail in 2.3 (a future post).

2.2 The ‘Ought’ Is ‘Not’

The Lion King is a story of life that finds peace with death. Death is merely a subordinate to life. Everything that seems wrong is actually in harmony. There is a circle that includes death, but it is not defined by death. It is the “circle of life”. That is a very nice story. But I find Dylan Thomas to be more honest and moving.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

My Enemy: Death

Death was the only thing I naturally hated as a child. I passionately disliked vegetables as a kid, but I did not actually hate them. I hated death because I sensed it was somehow personal. Death did not just happen. Death was against me. Death was against everything that I loved and could lose.

I wept dramatically, even for a 4 year old, as we drove home from my grandfather’s funeral. For a variety of reasons I remember that as my introduction to the Lion King philosophy of life and death. Who knows what my father actually told me. What I remember understanding was that I needed to deal with the pain of death by limiting my grief. Then I was to actually make friends with death as a natural part of life. I did not trust that lesson then. I am writing this book, in part, as an account of my rejection of the call to appeasement.

Obsession with the problem of death is not unique.

Over a decade of living among Buddhists in Asia taught me different ways of looking at life.

‘Life is dukkha; misery and dissatisfying suffering.’

That’s the Buddha’s primary enlightened insight about the problem. Life is a swampy mess of desires that only highlight the fact that we are impermanent and our satisfaction can only be impermanent. We crave, seek satisfaction, crave more, repeat the futile pursuit of satisfaction and then we die. But death is a cruel enemy that will not release us from the unsatisfying struggles of life.

‘This monks, is the Holy Truth of the cessation (nirodha) of dukkha: the utter cessation, without attachment, of that very craving, its renunciation, surrender, release, lack of pleasure in it’. Buddha (Harvey 1990:60,61)

The scary part for the Buddha was realizing that we just keep getting plopped right back into the swamp of life and the taunting hope of sated desires, life after life after dukkha filled life. Buddha’s teaching was focused on the seemingly inescapable problem of chaos in life that not even death solves. His ultimate advice includes directions on how to suffer well, cooling your heart’s desires through disciplined detachment, such that one day you will be so wispy there won’t be enough of you to plop back in the swampy misery of life.

No god, no Brahma can be called

The Maker of this Wheel of Life:

Just empty phenomena roll on

Dependent on conditions all

Path of Purification XIX; translated by Ven. Nyanamolit Thera. (Khantipalo 1989: 52)

Buddha says that we cannot solve the problem of an ‘ought that is not’ because there is no ‘ought’. Buddha says that life is meaningless and unworthy of our attachment through affections. Nirvana, neither ‘being’ nor ‘not being’, is the ultimate escape from the meaningless suffering of life and the false hope of release through death.

My way of summarizing Buddha’s answers to my three questions:

  1. Worldview? Life is a meaningless swirl of illusory desires.
  2. Identity? I am not a real self; thinking I am is why I suffer.
  3. Progress? Through disciplines I can detach from everything, bit by bit, until ultimately the “I” who is detaching completely deconstructs and is free from existence.

Solomon’s Sad Wisdom

Bursting bubble is another way of trying to describe the problem of life’s undelivered promises of meaning and satisfaction. We start with something shiny and full of potential. We blow into it ever so diligently. It expands. It begins to sway and swell in the wind, still growing and glistening full of marvel and swirls. Then there is a collapse that isn’t even a splash. It just splatters into nothing.

I said to myself, “Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.”

So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind.

The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief.

To increase knowledge only increases sorrow. — Ecclesiastes 1:16–18

This is the imagery from Qoheleth, the Teacher, delivered through Ecclesiastes. The wisdom of Solomon basically says we can try really hard to find meaning in life, in any direction we want, but it is basically a futile exercise in relearning what we started our quest with: life doesn’t seem to have much substantial hope, does it?

It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. Already twisted by evil, people choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!”

The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime — loving, hating, envying — is all long gone. They no longer play a part in anything here on earth. So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!

Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave,there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. -Ecclesiastes 9:3–10

The Problem of Death Informs the Problem of Life

Tolstoy tells it in the form of a traditional folk tale that sounds like a bad dream. You are running across a field being chased by rapidly closing wolfish beasts. The well you have been running to for a last hope looms suddenly and you dive in without a moment to spare. Bouncing off the crusty walls as the darkness rushes toward you a branch arrests your fall. Rolling painfully you start to drop and then desperately grab the branch as you realize that below you is just as certain death as the fierceness above.

Whimpering you are suspended between an angry sky and a merciless abyss. Your eyes adjust, and you forget your problems as you focus on a dripping honeycomb. Right at the end of the branch, just at the edge of your reach, sweetness! As much as you try to focus on getting to the goodness, you can’t help but notice mice, black and white, gnawing at the base of your life saving branch. No safety up or down, only a matter of time before your grasp is lost. So, focus on the honey?

Fable from Tolstoy’s Confessions

Life offers enticements of sweetness, but when we see clearly that there is no hope of survival we lose our appetite. Heaven inaccessibly above, the unavoidable grave below, day and night like rats eating away our limited hours…. we are ruined.

Delusion; Despair; or….

I think there is more to the story. I’ve tried to find it, but it is a dangerous pursuit. Hope can be nothing more than crystallized wishful thinking. That is scary. The last thing I want is to believe that if I’m o.k. when I’m not. I want hope but I actually want it to be effectual, real. I have not pleasure in finding peace through delusional hopes.

So who do I turn to? There are people who seem content with no explicit hope. These are often very interesting and enjoyable people to interact with, but they aren’t real useful for getting me out of the well.

I could also turn to a variety of people with energetic, loud and confident ‘HOPE!’. I could, but they usually freak me out. There is something about the ‘shiny happy people’ of the Maoist propaganda inspired R.E.M. song that resonates with my revulsion of mass culture and pulls me back toward the hopeless folk and their mocking.

Surely there has to be a better way. I think there is.

— — — — — —

Study guide:

Essentials #2/10 The Problem Is Life to Death.

Essentials Training Principle: Responsible growth seeks for truth that ends in action.

Truth: Lost connection with God results in death undermining life.

Action: I will clarify how the problem in life is essentially death.


Genesis 2:17 “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Ezekiel 18:20a “The soul who sins shall die.”

Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hebrews 2:14,15 “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Observations: Death is experienced in a partial sense now, literally one day, and in a lasting sense if we are not saved/rescued from death.

Conclusion: The essential problem is life to death.

What should I do? (sample suggestions)

  • Memorize scriptures about death vs. life
  • Rewrite your articulation of “The problem is life to death”.
  • As needed, work through how biblical terms and images fit or challenge the priority of the theme of life to death.
  • Considerations: creation, fall, sin, suffering, Satan, judgment, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Abraham’s Bosom, Paradise, wrath, Lake of Fire,etc.
  • Process your convictions with growth partners and explain as helpful.
  • Gather more passages of scripture, songs, experiences, stories etc. that connect this idea to how life is lived. (The next 2 essentials will give the solutions to the problem and more specific actions to do).