Life Is Not a Problem to Be Solved

Life is a mystery to be lived and, not infrequently, endured, which is what makes it so profound and persisting a drama.

People often say that life is a problem waiting to be solved. Like the sum of two plus two, for instance, for which one needn’t be a rocket scientist to unpuzzle. Or even putting some guy on the moon, for which an understanding of rocket science would certainly prove helpful. 

But life is not a problem to be solved. Rather, it is a mystery to be lived and, not infrequently, endured, which is what makes it so profound and persisting a drama. Indeed, the sheer unpredictability of the thing makes life both dangerous and delightful. At every turn, you are forced to face a future you simply cannot foresee.   

It is a future fraught with far-reaching, even eschatological promise, including the prospect of an eternity spent in the company of God and His angels and His saints. Who could imagine a consummation greater than that? Yes, but suppose you’re not interested? All right, then, here’s your alternative: an unending odyssey of the self-centered self, in which you say to God, “I don’t want to love. I don’t want to be loved. I just want to be left alone. Forever.” 

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Take your pick, in other words. Paradise or perdition, bliss or misery. And every moment of every day the whole weight of heavenly glory, or infernal loss, impinges upon the choices you make. Life, as the poet Keats would say, “is a vale of soul making.” It is the place where you shape your soul for one or the other outcome.    Take your pick: Paradise or perdition, bliss or misery. And every moment of every day the whole weight of heavenly glory, or infernal loss, impinges upon the choices you make.Tweet This

To see life in that way—sub specie aeternitatis—to understand it as a mystery compact of conflict and drama, means that at any moment The Great Unknown may come crashing through the ceiling of your world, smashing all the furniture and the dishes and every carefully laid plan you’ve ever made to ensure that everything remains neat as a pin. It will all be blown completely apart.   

How perfectly congruent that is with the mind of the Church, “Whose constant care,” as the poet Eliot assures us, “is not to please / But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse / And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.”                                           

What else has the Church got to offer but the truth, the urgency of heeding the words of Christ, who enjoins us always to stay awake, for we know neither the day nor the hour, when the Son of Man may suddenly show up. The only real certainty we have is that He’ll come like a thief in the night. Be vigilant, therefore, for the time of nightfall is ever before us; it is the end toward which we are moving, yes, even while the sun shines and all seems well. Who knows, perhaps it will come even before I’m done batting out this little blog, thus sparing uncounted readers the ordeal of having to finish it. Instead, I shall be finished.

There is a great line from Emily Dickinson, who in a letter to a clergyman acquaintance, whom I suspect she found a bit tiresome, told him, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.” What had she in mind but death, which will surely be the most radically startling event we’ll ever face. And no one gets to miss that appointment. 

So, make sure on the day you expect to die that you’ve scheduled nothing else. Because at that moment you shall find yourself catapulted into the “undiscovered country” of which Shakespeare speaks, “from whose bourne no traveler returns…” There are no exceptions. Well, maybe one or two. Lazarus, for instance, but what on earth could he tell us upon his return? You imagine poor Martha having to tell him at mealtimes, “Oh, Lazarus, do get on with your food!” His mind was elsewhere. 

Mr. Henry James, that master storyteller, was once asked by a very silly woman, “Do tell me what you think of life?” To which he replied: “I think, Madam, that it is a predicament which precedes death.” I expect that silenced her, thus allowing him to get back to writing more stories about that very predicament.  

Which brings to mind a wonderfully instructive piece of advice from the pagan world: respice finem (look to the end). Which is useful to know even for non-pagans. Of course, for most people that is hardly the thing they care to look to at the moment. The irony is that by the time they finally get around to looking, it may be the end, and it’ll be too bloody late to look at all. 

“The last act is always bloody,” warns Pascal, “however pleasant the earlier parts of the play. We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to prevent our seeing it.” I like how Eliot puts it in Four Quartets: “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” Or that, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Death is the reality we cannot bear, and when it comes it will not be nature’s way of telling us to slow down. 

Isn’t this why the virtue of hope is so vitally important to the Christian life? Especially when it comes to the outcome—that is, the hope that we shall be embraced forever by the Arms of God. Because it will not finally depend on us. Why else do we call it hope? If we knew the outcome, we’d have called it knowledge. 

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason—not recommended, by the way, unless you like swimming through wet sand, which is how one of my professors characterized German philosophers; he was not German—anyway, Kant says that all the interest of the human intelligence, whether speculative or practical, comes together in the following three questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? When one is about to die, there can’t be much point in asking about one or two, can there?

The story is told that when Leo Tolstoy lay dying, he turned to his wife, whom he had not treated too well during their life together, and said, “You know, I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.” “Leo,” she shot back, “you’re supposed to die. And I wish you’d get on with it.” It may have been apocryphal, but if not, she certainly had her revenge. 

If, as St. John of the Cross tells us, “In the evening of our lives we shall be examined on love,” then Question Three is really the only one that matters. “What may we hope?” Salvation is not a self-help enterprise, and so we may need to throw ourselves upon the awful mercy of God, hoping somehow to surmount that final, fearful ordeal. 

“The Dragon sits by the side of the road,” says St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “watching souls pass by. We go to the Father of souls, but it is necessary to pass by the Dragon.” Therein lies the real drama, the supreme, climactic moment when we find out whether we shall be devoured by sin or delivered by grace. And we simply do not know the outcome, which is why (once again) everything depends on hope. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” as the poet Dickinson tells us, “That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all.”

Nevertheless, here is something we do know, on the strength of which all that we hope for may find its most secure anchor: namely, the certainty that God’s absolute will is for the world’s salvation, and that only the most obdurate refusal on our part can thwart His desire to give us the joy of eternal life. “The whole purpose of life,” as Leon Bloy used to say, “is to await the resurrection of the dead.” The only memento mori we require, then, is the one that we may look upon every day of our lives, which is the Cross of Jesus Christ, who by His death delivers us from a final, unending death.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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