Description: Review: Why are we alive?
What is the Meaning of Life?
Why Are We Alive? Review
by Ernest O’Neill
Why do you think you’re here — not just sitting here in this traffic jam — but why are you here at all? Why
are you alive? Many of us say, “That’s much too big a question for me to answer. My problem is staying alive.
My problem is just earning enough money to pay the rent next month. I haven’t time for cosmic questions like,
why am I alive? That’s all right for wealthy people or people who have time to idle away in such philosophical
vagaries, but I myself do not have time for that kind of question.”
Yet, it is crucial that you have some answer to that question, isn’t it? You may say, “No, it’s not. I mean,
my job is just to get what food and shelter I need for today, so that I can get up again tomorrow.”
But why get up again tomorrow?
You may say, “Well, yeah, that’s exactly the question I’ve often put to myself. When I think of the
meaningless routine that I’m involved in day after day, I do wonder that at times. Why bother? Why get up and
go through it all again? But, I really can’t think of an alternative. I don’t think I’m a suicide type. I
don’t see any sense in that. I can’t find any books that help me to understand life better.”
“To tell you the truth, as I look around at everybody else, I don’t see anybody else understanding it any
better, so I think we’re all in the same little rat race. We’re just on a kind of treadmill and we’re just
walking and walking and walking because there’s nothing else to do. It’s like the people who climb mountains
because the mountain is there. That’s what I’m doing. I’m living day after day, driving this car to work,
coming back to this house because it’s here. What else is there to do?”
Yet, it is true that we human beings are different from animals, isn’t it? I mean, we are able to reflect on
what we’re doing. The psychologists call it a self-critical faculty. We are able to look at ourselves as in a
mirror and judge what we’re doing and identify whether it is the right thing or not. We’re even able to
evaluate it. You do that in your work probably. You evaluate where you are in your job or your individual
piece of work that you’re doing today or your career generally. You come to the end of a day and you look back
on the day. You may not want to look back on it, but you do, and you evaluate what you’ve done.
Now, a little dog, believe it or not, cannot do that. An animal does not have that mysterious ability to look
at itself and judge what it’s doing. It simply can’t do it. Even if it could do it, it doesn’t have anything
to judge itself against. A little animal lives a simply unconscious life.
You may say, “Well, that’s what I’d like to do. I’d just like to live an unconscious life. Indeed, that’s what
I try to do. I try to enter into unconsciousness as often as I can with sleeping, if I can get a good sleep,
and drinking, if I can really get totally drunk and zonked. Then, I seem to be able to bear it a little
better. I only wish I could work out how to do my job completely unconscious. (In other words, completely
drunk.) I’ve tried drugs and that’s what I’d like to do with the drugs. If I could blot everything out, if I
could “make the world go away” as that old song said, then I think I could live like an unconscious little
animal as you described the dog is doing.”
But, it’s true that you are more than a dog, aren’t you? You are more than an animal that lives that kind of
almost mindless existence. You obviously have abilities to think about these things. You may say, “Yes, I
have, but I don’t want to think about them. I mean, my old grandmother used to say, ‘Don’t think too much’,
and that’s my aim. I don’t want to think too much about these things. It’s okay for educated people. It’s all
right for those people who like to philosophize, but it isn’t very productive. So, I really don’t want to
bother with that question, ‘Why am I alive?'”
Yet, you know your life is going to end sometime, and sooner or later, you’re going to have to find out why
you were alive and what you were here to do. You may say, “Yes, but I don’t think I have to deal with that
yet. I’ll deal with it, perhaps, when I come to the end of my life. I’ll deal with it when I get older. I’ll
deal with it when I’m eighty-five or eighty, but I don’t have to deal with it now.”
Yet, don’t you agree, that there are many things in your life at present that are there because you have
certain ideas of what life is about. You may say, “Well, you don’t know why you’re alive.” Yet, you probably
would admit you are alive at the moment, living day by day to make money. You may say, “Yes, well, I have to
make money, otherwise, I couldn’t have food and I couldn’t have clothing.”
Still, that is a reason that you have chosen for being alive. You are in the process of answering the question
of why you’re alive at this moment by the way you live. You may say, “Well, yeah, yeah, that’s true I suppose.
That’s right. Some people have turned away from the philosophical question and have started to answer the
question by just living to be happy. So, I suppose you’re right. We are in some sense answering the question
right now by the way we’re living.”
That’s why I ask you to look at the question again. Whether you like it or not, you are answering the question
in the way you live at this present time. It’s very important that you don’t answer it by default, that you
don’t answer it while thinking that you’re not answering it. If you do that, then you’re not giving the most
important question in the world your best attempts and your best thought and your best ability.
You’re really answering it by default. You’re answering it by not answering it. You’re answering it by
expedience, by just doing what seems to be here to do. You’re not really giving it the kind of thought that
your mind is capable of. In other words, it’s important to deal with the question of “Why you’re alive.”
Because, whether you like it or not, you’re answering it by the way you live at this present time.
One certainly doesn’t want to treat as important and vital a question as this with less than one’s full
ability and less than one’s full reflection and analysis. If you say, “Why not?” Well, because it’s obviously
the most important question in the world. If I asked you, “Why are you buying that car?”, you wouldn’t say,
“Because it’s there.”
If I said, “Why are you taking that job?” you wouldn’t say, “Because it’s there.” You normally say, “Well, I’m
buying that car because I like the paint job, or because I like the size of the engine, or I like its handling
on corners. Or, I’m buying this house because I like the district it’s in or the area or the neighborhood, or
I like the look of the house or the spaciousness of the living room.” In other words, in ordinary, everyday
life, you always give your very best thought to the important questions.
That’s why it seems important in these days, when you are able to think about it, to think about the question,
“Why are you alive? Why are you here?” That’s the question that we would just like to summarize and answer
tomorrow for a few moments.