I am reading Atul Gawande's book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, (Metropolitan Books, 2014), together with others in my local clergy group. It's a book about aging and dying, something we all face eventually, and something that we as clergy deal with in pastoral ways. In one of the chapters we read for this month, the author was dealing with the question of meaning of life, especially the contexts of living in a nursing home. He was telling a story of a doctor who decided to do something radical to bring life to the residents. In the context of this discussion he turned to a book by Josiah Royce from 1908. It's titled The Philosophy of Loyalty.
Gawande raises the question of what it takes to make life feel worthwhile. Why live, in other words, if one feels as if they're being warehoused. He writes:
The answer, he believed, is that we all seek a cause beyond ourselves. This was to him, an intrinsic human need. The cause could be large (family, country, principle) or small ( a building project, the care of a pet.). The important thing was that, in ascribing value to the cause and seeing it as worth making sacrifices for, we give our lives meaning.
Royce called this dedication to a cause beyond oneself loyalty. He regarded it as the opposite of individualism. The individualist puts self-interest first, seeing his own pain, pleasure, and existence as his greatest concern. For an individualist, loyalty to a causes that have nothing to do with self-interest is strange. When such loyalty encourages self-sacrifice, it can even be alarming --- a mistaken and irrational tendency that leaves people open to the exploitation of tyrants. Nothing could matter more than self-interest, and because when you die you are gone, self-sacrifice makes no sense.
I wanted to bring this rather lengthy quote to you as a way of suggesting that if we want to find meaning in life, we have to look outward, to be committed to something bigger. In the case of the nursing home under discussion, life was brought to the people living in this place when two dogs, two cats, and 100 birds were introduced. People who showed no life, suddenly were awakened as they took interest in and concern for these animals in their midst. Loyalty to these animals gave them purpose.Royce had no sympathy for the individualist view. "The selfish we had always with us," he wrote. "But the divine right to be selfish was never more ingeniously defended." In fact, he argued, human beings need loyalty. It does not necessarily produce happiness, and can even be painful, but we all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable. Without it, we have only our desires to guide us, and they are fleeting, capricious, and insatiable. They provide, ultimately, only torment. "By nature, I am a sort of meeting place of countless streams of ancestral tendency. From moment to moment . . . I am a collection of impulses," Royce observed. "We cannot see the inner light. Let us try the outer one." [Being Mortal, p. 126].
We ask the question of meaning even in death. Gawande, following Royce, suggests that we find meaning in our deaths because we "care about what happens to the world after we die" (p. 126). We find meaning because we ourselves as part of something bigger to which we can be loyal.
To what are we loyal?