“I Didn’t Ask to Be Here.” Or: How Do We Find Value in This Life?
Nick Riggle on Ocean Vuong and the Mysterious Beauty of Being Alive
I didn’t ask to be here, I didn’t consent to being alive. One day I woke up and found myself here. And so what? Why should I value this life that I simply find myself with?
This question, this thought—I think of it as The Question—is not about death or suicide. Nor is it about the many other ills that plague us: the climate disaster, the death of the planet, literal plagues, the potential end of humanity due to global war or famine, gratuitous pain and suffering in children, natural disasters, systemic injustice, cancer, oppression, and so on.
The Question arises prior to those concerns. It is about birth, about coming to be the kind of thing I am, in the kind of world I am in. To me, the most puzzling thing about being alive is not that one day I won’t be—that I will die, we will die, everything will die and end up nowhere, as nothing, just as before—but rather that I came from nothing and know fundamentally nothing about where or what I am. And yet I am told that life is worth living. The day is worth seizing, the moment worth embracing. You only live once. So what?
If I could answer The Question, then many questions I have about death would fall away. When I know the answer, then I will know that I should do this or that. One day I will die. And then, just as before, I’ll do nothing, become nothing.
To be aware of, and to love, being what I am—an embodied, thoughtful, conscious being for whom understanding and agreement are everything but, at the beginning, nothing—that is the situation I need to confront, the feeling I have to address. It is not the feeling that death haunts me or calls my life into question. It is not the worry that I will be kidnapped into nothing. It is the feeling of having been abducted from nowhere.
Is there an answer to The Question? If there is, that answer will not come in the form of some story about the cosmos and gods, or about some heaven or hell that awaits me when my life is over. It will come, if at all, in the form of an idea about how being alive can justify itself despite this strange and basic predicament that you and I are in. If I could somehow feel that I belong here, deeply, importantly, repeatedly, not even certainly—if I could feel at home in this life and own that feeling, cultivate it, repeat and propagate it—then I could love this life and not merely live it out.
What could do that? That is what my book, This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive is about.
I don’t know how many ways there are of answering The Question, but I do know that I found an answer that I love. In what follows I want to lead you to it. I want to justify, so I can repeat, the poet and novelist Ocean Vuong’s thought. The narrator writes to his abusive mother,
It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus—that curve of continuation. We were all once inside our mothers, saying, with our entire curved and silent selves, more, more, more. I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it?
This life is troubling and trying, but what if you could show that it is beautiful enough to “replicate”? You replicate life as beautiful when you engage with, create, and respond to life’s beauty with your own beauty, through your ways of interacting with others, through your own products, interpretations, and insights, in the subtle and significant ways you cast your aesthetic attention and act on what it sees.
If being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication, then I can live my life attending to and replicating its beauty, while you do the same. We each do this for ourselves and for one another, in recognition of our each needing to feel connected to this life, to have a home here. And why wouldn’t that be enough to answer The Question?
I did not consent to this life, no one had a chat with me to see if I wouldn’t mind being here a while—but come take part in this beauty. Come see it, grasp it, create it, share it. You and I are among this. We make this. Maybe we are this. In spite of everything, there is a beauty that propels me through life, hoping to create more of it and offer it up to you so you can do the same. Cyclical, perhaps, but not odd, my son.
Vuong writes of wanting to insist. I know that desire, and sometimes it seems that all you can do is insist on the beauty of life. I do want to insist. But I feel the need to understand this desire, and as much as I might want to, I cannot insist on something I don’t understand. What if I could prove it? Or at least prove the worth of the wanting, of the insisting?
Any proof will come from reimagining beauty. The beautiful or the aesthetic—I use these terms interchangeably here—is not some pretty face or silky sky. Some people think of beauty as the antiquated partner in crime of the so-called fine arts, some associate it with flowers and nice faces. Think of the word here as the literary form of the more academic “aesthetic value,” which is restricted neither to art nor to the flowery and fragrant but is broader than both: it includes sneakers, design, decor, fashion, rap, literature, punk, adventure, play, the wild, the shocking, the challenging, dope- ness, sleekness, silliness, and style. If life is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication—if this beauty can address The Question—then what this beauty will move you to do, the form of life it will justify repeating, will not be some private ecstasy or a movement toward a fleeting attraction. It will be something bigger than you or me. Beauty is an invitation and acceptance, a joint enterprise, if not a promise of happiness then a promise to give each other our best answers to The Question.
Excerpted from This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive by Nick Riggle. Copyright © 2022. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.