Note: All of the quotes in the post (except Bible verses) are from The Erotic Phenomenon by Jean-Luc Marion.
There are so many questions we can ask of ourselves and the world, and so many tasks to take up. There are so many projects on which to embark and so many paths to pursue. Yet, to all of them we can ask, in the end, “What’s the use?”
Here I am – great; I exist. But how do I know that it’s good that I exist? How can I be absolutely certain of that? How can I be certain that my being matters at all? In fact, the anonymity of life and endless grind of history witness against me. What’s the use?
“Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil, at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecc. 1:2).
How can I be shielded from this vanity [uselessness]? Why do I care that I exist? Is everything useless? Can I be sheltered from purposelessness and meaninglessness? How can I show myself that I am? Or am I, in the end, on my own to run on a hamster’s wheel with no way out?
To have never confronted even the possibility of these questions is to skim the surface of life – it is like not admitting to yourself that you are living. Read Ecclesiastes (these kinds of existential crises smacking us in the face are biblical and meaningful).
What’s more is that there is really no certainty (no proof) in any answer one can give to these questions. Any attempted certainty can be just as quickly met with an, “Are you sure?” that immediately makes certainty weak. And the best we can do is to try to shut out the persistent slither of “Are you sure?” and distract ourselves from hearing it.
Certainty of these kinds of things is not possible in this life – it is our own fabrication, it is a game we play when we lack what we most need. But, shockingly, this is good news, because certainty is wholly inadequate. Certainty just sends me back to myself. Only I can concoct my own certainty; but if it comes from me, then what good is it?
To produce my certainty myself does not reassure me at all, but rather maddens me in front of vanity in person. What is the good of my certainty, if it still depends on me, if I only am through myself? (19)
Thus, certainty reveals its failure in the very instance of its success. You see, in the end what we most need is something much different (something much more real) than indifferent, banal, deadened certainty.
But how can I live with “all” being “vanity”? How can I make sense to myself? Should I give up on reassuring myself against the ruthlessness of this question, “What’s the use?”
In my case, assurance demands much more than an existence that is certain, or indeed, than a certainty in general. It asks that I might consider myself, in this existence, as freed from vanity, released from the suspicion of inanity, indemnified against the question, “What’s the use?” (20)
And the only way out is to put myself to another question – the only one that can begin to bring me out of this hole – “Does anybody love me?”
It is here that vanity melts.
… I could not be, nor accept to endure being without at least that open possibility that at one moment or another someone is loving me. For me, to be signifies nothing less than to be-loved. (21)
I am: this eventual certainty even when assumed to be unshakable, even when set up as the first principle [of life]… is nonetheless worthless if it does not go to the point of assuring me against vanity by assuring me that I am loved. (22)
In short, I don’t care if I exist, if I don’t have assurance that I am loved. So, when I put myself to the question “Does anybody love me?”, I can no longer ask, “What’s the use?” because it is along this pathway (and it alone) that I immediately see ‘the use’ and attain to the crux of myself – where everything is at stake.
Who can hold seriously that the possibility of finding oneself loved or hated does not concern him at all? (26)
To give up on asking (oneself) the question, “Does anybody love me?” or above all to give up on the possibility of a positive response implies nothing less than giving up on the human itself. (21)
It is thus necessary, in order for me to be with a certainty that matters to me, that I be more and otherwise than what I can guarantee myself, that is to say, be with a being that assures me from elsewhere than from me… Only an other than me could assure me of it, like a guide in the mountains assures his client. For assurance is not to be confused with certainty. (23)
The certainty of my own self, which I thought I needed to defend against the question, “What’s the use?” gives way to what I receive from an affirmative answer to the question, “Does anybody love me?” Thus, if affirmative, this question of “Does anybody love me?” begins to give me to myself by giving me what I need most of all: assurance – moreover, assurance of myself as one in love, assurance of myself as a lover. Only this will do to stave off vanity. Only Song of Songs can extinguish Ecclesiastes. It is only in this land that we cannot ask, “What’s the use?”
This is the radical reduction of life – the one drama, the one way of life. Life is reducible only to love; and life is endlessly expansive only in love. And this expansive reduction happens along the pathway that starts with the shocking importance of “Does anybody love me?” like a wave crashing on the beach. Only the pathway opened by this question seems feasible to us.
Oh God, let us feel exquisitely this question, “Does anybody love me?” and the assurance You and You alone can give to it. Turn us back to the children we must be. For what are we but little boys and girls who have been lost in a wood, yearning to be found?