Category Archives: anxiety

“To Be or Not to Be?” Which is Better?

Is it better to exist than not? Don’t answer too quickly! For this is a subtle question requiring careful thought. First of all, it is stated as a comparison between two things that are difficult to compare. “Better” is the comparative of good, and good can mean “good for” for a particular nature or absolutely good, which means something “good for” every possible nature. Only God is absolutely good. Life with food is better than life without food because food is “good for” living things. It is difficult to say that it is better to exist than not, because there is no comparison between nonexistence and existence. Not existing is not a defective state of existing. Indeed it is not a “state” at all. Hence we can’t conclude from this comparison that existing is better than not existing. Nor can you get at the question by asking an existing person whether being deprived of existence would be a loss of good and then concluding to the superiority of existing because of its greater goodness. In so far as we imagine a state of being deprived of all goods, of course we would find that condition worse than our present state of relative contentment. But our imaginations fool us here, because ceasing to exist is not comparable to losing a good while remaining in existence.

Is there a way to answer the question? I do not think so if we limit ourselves to the original question: is it better for me to exist than never to have existed? But there are other possibilities: is it better for the universe or others that I exist rather than never to have existed? We may not be able to answer this question, but at least it makes sense. Perhaps we can ask it another way: was it better for God to have created the world than not to have created it? The only workable answer I can imagine to this question goes like this: God created the world out of sheer love to share his eternal joy with creatures. If so, we can safely assume that God determined that it was better for God’s purposes that the world, which includes us, exist rather than not. But even from a divine perspective how does God know that it is better for you and me to exist than not, since there is no way to compare the two? I can think of only one way. God can know that it is better for me to exist—for myself and not just for others—only if I am not merely nothingness and chaos before I exist in this world and for myself. I must in some way exist for God and be known and loved by God from all eternity even before I exist for myself. I can then understand God’s act of creating me as enabling the me God knew eternally to exist and act for myself as good for the world and good for me.

Hence we can assert that it is good to exist not only because we desire it naturally or when we experience more good than evil but also as in faith we validate God’s decision that we should exist. Since you in fact exist, you can know that it is better for you and for creation that you exist than never to have been. As long as God wills it, then, “To be” is better than “Not to be.”

Note: Recently, a student asked me the question discussed in this essay. I wrote these thoughts in answer to his question, but I thought I’d share them with you as well.

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Why I Envy the Homeless—They Don’t Hear That “Little Voice”

My wife and I spent part of Monday at the Ventura County Fair. The fair grounds are adjacent to Ventura Beach and about a half a mile from the Ventura Pier, so after a few hours touring exhibit halls, looking at farm animals, and watching a pig race, we took a walk on the beach. As we walked, we passed several homeless people. Some were asking for money, others were sleeping under the palm trees, and still others were conversing with their friends. I felt something I often feel when I see homeless people: envy. No, I don’t envy everything about their condition, and I know that my envy is based on a superficial understanding of their condition. I envy their apparent carefree attitude.

Here is what I imagine it’s like: They don’t have to report to work or worry about a superior’s evaluation. The clock doesn’t control their lives. It doesn’t matter what time of day or what day of the week it is. The tasks they need to accomplish are simple. They are not obsessed with building a career or pleasing clients or producing a product. They are not burdened with social, family, or professional responsibilities. The expectations of others do not trouble their minds. They don’t seem to be worried about their appearance. The prospect of success or failure doesn’t shadow every move they make. Most enviable of all, I imagine that they do not experience this little voice inside their minds that never stops whispering, “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Have you fulfilled your responsibilities? What have you forgotten? Couldn’t you accomplish more? Have you done anything today that matters?”

Of course, I don’t really want to be homeless, and I would not trade places with them. I have what most people consider the marks of success: financial security, a job I love, good friends, professional respect, a wonderful family, a nice house, and reliable cars. And I don’t want to give these things up, and I don’t want to be irresponsible. And yet—here is why I am envious of the homeless–I have to admit that I have not learned how to deal with that anxious voice I mentioned above. It doesn’t want me to relax. It sets unrealistic expectations, and it keeps moving the bar. No matter how much I do and no matter how well I do it, the little voice is never satisfied. It never says, “That’s enough for today.”

Does anyone else experience the oppressive little voice? I’ve tried to deal with it by reasoning with it. I tell it that it expects the impossible. No human being can do every good thing imaginable and do it all perfectly! You need to find a healthy balance between work and recreation. “Good enough” is good enough! Things don’t have to be perfect to be effective. As reasonable and persuasive as these arguments sound, they are not completely effective in stilling the little voice…because the little voice doesn’t get its thoughts from reason, so it doesn’t listen attentively to reason. The little voice always finds a way to evade reason. It can always reply, “How do you know when you’ve done enough? Where is the “balance” between work and relaxation? When is it good enough?”

If reason and common sense fail to still the little voice, perhaps reason informed by faith can succeed? As a Christian thinker I am driven to explore the resources of my faith to deal with this problem, and I believe I find help there. But first we have to consider whether faith may actually contribute to the problem. What I mean is this. I am totally convinced by Paul’s argument that because of God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ we are accepted by God on the basis of our empty-handed and humble faith in Jesus. As far as I am aware, I am not trying to be good enough to earn God’s love and forgiveness. I know this is impossible.

But I do believe I am obligated to use my life, my energy, opportunities, my talents, and my time to do God’s work in the world. And the little voice won’t let me believe I am actually doing a good job of this. Perhaps, the little voice doesn’t accept Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith and not by the works of the law. Or, it may fear that if I begin to think I am doing enough and doing it well enough, I will become proud and self-righteous. Or, it may think that if I relax I will become lazy and presumptuous.

In the coming weeks and months, I want to explore the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament for help with this problem—my problem. Here are some ideas that may be relevant: (1) We are responsible to God only for the assignments he gives us, and God does not give impossible assignments. (2) We may need to stop trying to evaluate ourselves. Instead, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. We are not good judges of ourselves. (3) God does not depend on me (on us) to accomplish his will. God will not fail just because you forget something. (4) Don’t expect to see the final result and value of your work in this life. Leave that to God. (5) God gives us work to do on a daily basis. Don’t expect God to lay before you a detail plan for your life’s work. It’s amazing what new and unexpected opportunities arrive with no advanced notice!

Yes, I envy the homeless for the carefreeness. But their carefreeness seems to be the result of their abdication of all responsibility. And I don’t envy that. What I really want is a carefreeness based on trust in God’s grace and power, a carefreeness in work and recreation, in friendships, in the routine business of life, and above all in acts of love for others.