“That Dreadful Question ‘What For?'”

This right here. After 38.5 years of living and on my 16th wedding anniversary (happy day, Lover!), I deeply resonate with Seth Godin’s post about the infinite game.

What is the meaning of life? Godin answers it – “To play.” In Christian religious speak (and archaic sexist language), the question and the answer go like this – “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace (which took me the past year to read!), Pierre – a Russian aristocrat taken captive by the French – discovered the same thing after being freed.

(Aw, go ahead, sit down and read this little passage! I’ve highlighted my favorite parts for you skimmers, and added a couple explanatory notes in brackets. And I acknowledge that this passage also uses sexist language.)

A joyous feeling of freedom- that complete inalienable freedom natural to man which he had first experienced at the first halt outside Moscow- filled Pierre’s soul during his convalescence. He was surprised to find that this inner freedom, which was independent of external conditions, now had as it were an additional setting of external liberty. He was alone in a strange town, without acquaintances. No one demanded anything of him or sent him anywhere. He had all he wanted: the thought of his wife which had been a continual torment to him was no longer there, since she was no more [it hadn’t been a happy marriage, and his wife had died while he was in captivity].

“Oh, how good! How splendid!” said he to himself when a cleanly laid table was moved up to him with savory beef tea, or when he lay down for the night on a soft clean bed, or when he remembered that the French had gone and that his wife was no more. “Oh, how good, how splendid!”

And by old habit he asked himself the question: “Well, and what then? What am I going to do?” And he immediately gave himself the answer: “Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!”

The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find- the aim of life- no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily- he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time.

He could not see an aim, for he now had faith- not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, ever-manifest God. Formerly he had sought Him in aims he set himself. That search for an aim had been simply a search for God, and suddenly in his captivity he had learned not by words or reasoning but by direct feeling what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere. In his captivity he had learned that in Karataev [a peasant who had befriended Pierre in his captivity] God was greater, more infinite and unfathomable than in the Architect of the Universe recognized by the Freemasons. He felt like a man who after straining his eyes to see into the far distance finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.

In the past he had never been able to find that great inscrutable infinite something. He had only felt that it must exist somewhere and had looked for it. In everything near and comprehensible he had only what was limited, petty, commonplace, and senseless. He had equipped himself with a mental telescope and looked into remote space, where petty worldliness hiding itself in misty distance had seemed to him great and infinite merely because it was not clearly seen. And such had European life, politics, Freemasonry, philosophy, and philanthropy seemed to him. But even then, at moments of weakness as he had accounted them, his mind had penetrated to those distances and he had there seen the same pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness. Now, however, he had learned to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything, and therefore- to see it and enjoy its contemplation- he naturally threw away the telescope through which he had till now gazed over men’s heads, and gladly regarded the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked the more tranquil and happy he became. That dreadful question, “What for?” which had formerly destroyed all his mental edifices, no longer existed for him. To that question, “What for?” a simple answer was now always ready in his soul: “Because there is a God, that God without whose will not one hair falls from a man’s head.”

2 Comments

  1. “He felt like a man who after straining his eyes to see into the far distance finds what he sought at his very feet.”

    Yes, this reminds me of G.K. Chesterton (I have been reading him on and off the last few years), and his idea that the great quest for a human being is to set off on a journey and end up, at some grand arrival, at home, at the place where you started. That is, the world we are surrounded by is sufficiently interesting should a person choose to simply look around. Chesterton also said, and I think this fits with your post, that “seriousness is not a virtue.” Isn’t that wonderful!

    I often lament the fact that I cannot travel, and likely will never be able to, and that I am not very successful. But at those times I remind myself that there is mystery and happiness enough in the sagging trees in my sad little yard, and that from the worn out cushions of my decade old sofa I can think my way through time, know people from all over the world, and just generally be happy (internet NOT required by the way!)

    I am increasingly convinced that our culture of incessant progress, whether it be fattening our 401k’s or increasing our power and prestige in our careers or accessing and mastering the latest technology are corrosive to whatever true humanity is…well, you said what it is, the need and ability to play, to find some “lightness of being.” Thanks for the happy post!

    • “Seriousness is not a virtue” – ooh, I need to post that on my wall! (I mean, my physical wall.) If there’s one thing I consistently would like to improve in my life, it’s to have more fun in the everyday. Thanks for your comment.

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