Condemned to the Unexamined Life

Surely, If We Believed Life Was Worth Living …
by E.R. Bills / December 22nd, 2007

French-Algerian writer, philosopher and 1957 Nobel Prize Laureate Albert Camus once suggested that the most important question philosophy had to answer is whether or not we should kill ourselves.

It’s a stupendous claim that’s easy to dismiss, especially without careful consideration.

It’s controversial. It’s spiritually and biologically blasphemous. It cuts to the metaphysical quick.

It’s such an abrupt statement that it seems like an attack; but it’s not. It’s simply the ultimate reality check.

In the grand scheme of things, we may be specks of dust gravitationally attached to a spinning pebble that’s flying thru the universe at approximately 16,000 mph, surrounded by billions of other speeding, spinning pebbles powdered with trillions of other specks of space dust. Cosmically speaking, everything we do may be futile.

Making matters worse, our smallish, brief existences are regimented by petty, slavish vocational requirements, ludicrous societal expectations and frivolous material wants. Instead of living, we are preoccupied with “making” a living. Instead of making sure we have what we need, we obsess over getting what we want. Instead of being ourselves, we resign ourselves to being who we’re expected to be.

Clearly, ours is what Socrates condemned as the unexamined life — and our political, religious and economic institutions are ill-fatedly designed to ensure that things stay that way. Camus simply pointed out the obvious.

Much of our existence is absurd. Too much of it runs contrariwise to our own innate wisdom and natural integrity. We are asked to accept and resign ourselves to travesties and incongruities that every cell of our being cries out against, but we ignore our internal unrest and assume our ignorance is simply a fundamental step towards growing up, gaining maturity and mustering prudence. The utter inanity of our surrender is what makes things absurd, and this absurdity is what begs Camus’ heretical question. It doesn’t matter if we despise his claim or resent the resultant query. Once the proposition of life or death is boiled down to a simple value judgment, we are compelled to weigh in.

Obviously, most of us weigh in affirmatively, quickly finding ways to justify our lives. Many rationales may be shallow or contrived, but they’re safe and sustainable, and they allow us to function as conventionally productive individuals.

On an individual level then, our answer to Camus’ question is a resounding “Yes.” Life is worth living. We teach it, we preach it and we cling to it. We live our lives as if there’s more to us than meets the eye, as if there’s a reason we’re here, as if we have something to contribute. We affirm our lives every day, from the minute we get out of bed to the moment we fall asleep.

Unfortunately, even as we individually clamor to proclaim that life is worth living, we collectively indicate the opposite.

Collectively, we live self-destructively as if life is not worth living, much less preserving. We poison and pollute our natural habitat for the sake of mass production and steeper profit margins. We squander our natural resources to maintain cultures of indulgence and material extravagance. We base our politics on greed and brutishness. We base our economics on carbon-based fuels and war-mongering. We mortgage our future well-being for instant gratifications, short-term gains, and perpetual modes of entertainment, leisure and general escapism.

Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we’d be interested in conserving and protecting our natural resources for future generations. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we wouldn’t allow our political representatives to obstruct progress on climate talks, emissions reductions and renewable energy. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we’d be more committed to getting to the bottom of extraordinary renditions, outed CIA agents, destroyed interrogation tapes, nonexistent WMDs, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Blackwater, etc.

Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, the ruling economic elite wouldn’t be permitted to reduce the middle and lower classes to Capitalist-sanctioned wage slaves. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we wouldn’t have a healthcare system based on exclusion instead of inclusion. Surely, if we believed life was worth living, purchasing power wouldn’t be prized over conscience and the dollar wouldn’t be mightier than the pen. Surely, if we collectively believed life was worth living, we wouldn’t live as though we were specks of dust with no hope of making a difference.

Surely, if we believed life was worth living, we’d live more deliberately, more accountably, more responsibly.

Surely, if we believed life was worth living, we’d live more worthwhilely instead of selfishly, cynically and fatalistically.

E. Bills is a writer from Ft. Worth, Texas. His work appears regularly in The Paper of South Texas, Fort Worth Weekly, etc. He can be reached at:


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