Bulfinch wrote that the “creation of the world is a problem naturally fitted to excite the liveliest interest of man” (n.p.). Once humans have solved the “problem” of the creation of the world, though, there remains still another problem that might also excite our liveliest and deepest interests. The problem also provokes, in many people, a feeling of the most profound despair and creates a vast chasm where deeply-held conviction should be in personal philosophy. That problem is discerning each individual’s place within the scheme of creation, finding out the reason why we exist and if there really is any purpose behind our everyday lives higher than what we have created ourselves. Why am I here? What am I meant to do with what the poet Mary Oliver called this “one wild, precious life” How do I make sense of the presence of evil and ugliness in the world in the midst of the beauties of human creation? For the atheist, this is a difficult balance, especially when all that’s left to beleive in is human value. How do I learn to live with other people in satisfying symbiosis, attempting to close the chasm between us an eschew what Slater refers to as “the pursuit of loneliness”. Although the questions themselves are, of course, rather existential in nature, the answers to this set of questions produced by this philosophy have direct relevance to our everyday lives. Most, if not all, human beings struggle with these questions at some point throughout their lives, attempting to resolve the questions once and for all, although without ever being able to know for certain if the answers we’ve come up with are correct or if our philosophy can ever be bullet-proof.

What I have begun to come to understand is that the answers to these most profound and preoccupying questions of life are rarely, if ever, answered satisfactorily, and certainly not once and for all. Because we are constantly evolving, and because our societies and the environments in which we live are dynamic, changing all the time, we must necessarily develop self-schemas and personal cosmologies or philosophy structures that are open to change themselves. Otherwise, we will find life very unsatisfying and frustrating indeed. While I am not advocating that we come up with a set of answers to these deep and perplexing questions that we can believe in fully or declare as absolute philosophy, it is helpful and important in life to have some basic understanding of how we feel about the answers—even if we don’t claim to know the answers directly. In other words, a flexible set of answers to life’s most profound existential questions does not signify that one is ambivalent or indecisive. On the contrary, a flexible set of answers to the questions articulated above signifies that one is mature enough to recognize that rigid, static responses will only limit one’s own experiences of himself or herself and of the world because such responses are, quite simply, unrealistic. Furthermore, it is important to signal that having flexible answers in place of rigid philosophy does not mean that one lacks a belief system. Again, the opposite is true. One builds one’s answers upon a foundation of core beliefs. While the answers themselves may—and should—change over time, it is unlikely that the core beliefs will, for they are the guiding values of an individual’s life.

In my own case, I have established my belief system so that it orients itself towards a single core value, and that is my belief in the basic goodness of human beings, in true atheist, humanist form. Obviously, there is plenty of evidence, both domestically and abroad, broadcast on our televisions and published in our newspapers every day, to contest the philosophy that people are essentially good, that they want the best and most peaceful life for themselves and for others. To believe in the essential goodness of human beings is not to live in a fantasy world that denies the horrors that we perpetrate against one another, evidence that we rarely learn the lessons that previous generations tried to pass down to us as the result of their own struggles. Rather, believing in human goodness is a position that permits possibility. In other words, I believe that the opposite of a fervent trust in the goodness of human beings requires accepting the dim and desolate view that human beings are essentially evil, and I find still more evidence to contest that belief. Believing in human goodness posits that people become distracted by desire—be it for land, religious dominance, money, or any other number of indicators of status of a social, political, or economic nature—and their efforts to express the best within themselves becomes obscured. However, the seed of goodness remains, and in other circumstances, under the right conditions, goodness can blossom again.

Perhaps such a world view may be considered naïve, and I concede that it does carry a note of optimism and hopefulness which can be chipped away at daily if one focuses on the bad news of the world. However, I firmly believe that the narratives we rarely, or never, hear are signals that overall, the world is a pretty good place. When we permit ourselves to express the best within ourselves, and when we recognize that what is best within ourselves may not be the same tomorrow as it is today, then we promote an environment of supportive mutuality and begin to foster the qualities that are needed for healthy communities. What is my place within this community? The answer is not immediately clear. First of all, each human being is a member of many communities: the community of one’s family, one’s school, one’s religious institution, one’s geographical region, and, in some areas, one’s cultural group. Some of these identities are conflicting, and in such cases, we are called to make difficult decisions about bringing the disparate parts of ourselves into harmony. Sometimes, we are even called upon to eschew one aspect of our identity because it creates such a degree of conflict within the other communities to which we belong. These negotiations with the self, though, are never static (though we often believe, or would like to believe, that they are); we renegotiate our contracts with ourselves and our various communities all the time.

There are numerous factors that affect these negotiations with the self and with community, and which directly impact our responses to the existential questions mentioned earlier in this paper. The fact that we are living in the twenty-first century, in particular, requires that we marshal our greatest personal resources and attempt to be flexible human beings. Perhaps at no other time in history has culture, society, and the notion of what community means and how it is constituted been so utterly dynamic. Those of us living in this watershed moment have observed the emergence of technologies that were not even a seed in an inventor’s imagination just ten years ago. The accelerated pace of all kinds of development demands that we incorporate information about ourselves, others, and our possibilities quickly, while still making thoughtful and conscientious choices. That is no small, nor easy, task.

If we look back over just the course of our own brief lifetimes, we see how much our society has changed, and yet how it has retained a basic infrastructure, both tangible and intangible. We acknowledge that we are not the same people that we were two, five, or ten years ago. How could it possibly be otherwise? The answers that we held to the existential questions at earlier points in our lives may no longer be relevant in many cases, as new possibilities have emerged. It seems more life-giving to me to be willing to suspend one’s future plans, which are based on notions constructed by present realities, and practice living in the moment. Living in the moment does not mean that you do not have future plans. Rather, it means that you are willing to devote your concentrated attention and effort to the present moment and, furthermore, to be attentive to the influence that this moment will have throughout the remainder of your life course.

A simple example from contemporary life may explain how this philosophical posture and pragmatic engagement with life is an effective approach to living life’s questions in the moment. Imagine, for instance, that you were a technological industry employee during the dot.com boom. You were riding high on profits that astonished every other professional field, you were having fun on the job, where a new work paradigm was being explored and established, and you loved what you did. You imagined yourself in this position forever. You were good at what you did and thought “This is my place in the world! This is what I am meant to do!” Suddenly, though, the market plummeted, and the job and any prospects for its future recovery evaporated. A job that seemed could and would last forever disappeared, leaving plenty of people in existential despair. Such kinds of experiences occur every single day, to more and less dramatic degrees. When we are attached to a particular vision of ourselves or to the answers that we believe are permanents responses to the most profound philosophical questions, then we find ourselves lost and bereft when the answers can no longer satisfy the questions.

In the world, a complex and dynamic organism, there is far too much unpredictability and far too many factors beyond our control. The Great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, realized the value of this flexible approach to life when he wrote his famous lines to a young writer who sought his counsel. The young man was troubled because he wanted to be a poet but felt frustrated in his attempts. He wrote Rilke in search of comfort, encouragement, and practical advice that would help him answer life’s biggest and most pressing questions. Rilke, as much a philosopher as a poet, wrote a moving response to the young man, a response which we may take as relevant counsel today: “I want to beg you…to be patient toward all that is unsolved…and to try to love the questions themselves….Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…. Live the questions now” (34-35). Rilke continued, “[T]ake whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing” (35).

Rilke’s advice is perhaps the most useful as any I have ever encountered, and it helps me learn to live the questions. His injunction to live in the moment transcends platitudes; Rilke explains why we should love the questions and why we should live them. The most effective engagement of life’s questions can only occur when one approaches answering those questions assertively yet understanding that any set of answers can only ever be tentative. The world is a beautiful and dynamic place, and our lives can only be the same. Developing flexible cognitive and psychological schemas about ourselves, others, and our place in the world will help us to live more meaningful and fulfilling lives, both for ourselves and for the greater good.

Works Cited

Bulfinch, Thomas. “Prometheus and Pandora.”

Oliver, Mary. “The Summer Day.” Retrieved on July 16, 2007 from http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. New York: W.W. Norton, 1934.

Slater, Philip. The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Boston: Beacon Press.