'Adam and Eve' by Artist Jan Gossaert via Wikimedia Commons

QUESTIONS OF LIFE AND DEATH: At the Root of that Discomfort About the Mystery of Life

The fear that leads to an attempt to control everything (even pain and death) is strictly connected to the “intense individualism” of today. Margaret Somerville is discovering that “the essence of the human being is the search for meaning.”
John Zucchi

“There is nothing more important than myself.” The problem is not individualism itself but this “radical form” it has taken on in men and women. Margaret Somerville has discovered it even in her relationships with students and thinks that this conviction is intimately bound up in the very essence of being human–that is, with the search for meaning. And with a basic fact: “We are enormously uncomfortable with the mystery of life.” Somerville is the Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. Traces examines what Father Julián Carrón has defined as “a problem as old as man,” individualism (see Traces Vol. 11, No. 11, 2009).

You speak about intense individualism in both your books, The Ethical Canary and The Ethical Imagination. What do you mean by that?
In the fields that I work in, when you say to people, “You really should not be allowed to design your baby,” they say, “Well, whose baby is this? This is my baby. I want it that way; that’s what I am going to do.” Or you might say, “We don’t think euthanasia’s a good idea,” and they say, “Well, this is my death; why can’t I do it?” And then they want some genetic change, and they say, “Well, these are my genes; what are you going on about?” There’s a whole list of such matters. “It’s my, my, my, my …” With one lens on the situation–the intensely individualistic lens–it is their baby, their death, their genes, and whatever else they want to carry on with. However, what we do as individuals affects others. That is the nature of being human and of being in society. Even if you are an intense individualist, you must still consider to what extent you would accept that individualism–in other words, your own personal preference–being limited for the greater good of people and society, itself. One way to approach this is to say, “Well, because I am human, because I can’t be fully human just as an isolated individual, I need community, and so I must sacrifice just a bit of my individualism in order to sustain and create community.”

Do people normally understand what their true needs are?
We might not consciously understand all of them, and some we probably feel rather than know.

How is that?
We sense that something is missing or not right, often through our intuition. Humans have a deep need, and I believe that the essence of being human is the desire to find meaning. People might not know that that is what they are looking for. For example, when they go to buy famous designer brand products, meaning is probably what they’re seeking. We also know that in the values surveys, the fastest rising value trend in North America is the need for people to feel that they belong to something larger than themselves, that is, community, an experience of transcendence, which is a powerful need. We need transcendence because without it we can’t find meaning; it’s a precondition for finding meaning. And I also have, for a long time, been a believer that some of the most essential things we require as humans cannot be directly attained–they can only be contacted through indirect measures.

Can you give an example?
For some people, that could be religion; you go to church, but you don’t just go there and get only something direct. You go there and have an experience which leaves you open to other things that I believe you actually need. But you don’t know, necessarily, the nature of all the needs that you are fulfilling. One related issue that I have been working on for a long time is trying to articulate what is the essence of being human.

What are you discovering?
If we are going to protect whatever is the essence of being human, we need first of all to know what it consists of. I’m not sure we can do that, but we must try. One characteristic that I was very keen on was that empathy was of the essence of being human. But now we know that mice have empathy for other mice in pain, if they belong to the same social group, so empathy is not uniquely human, although empathy for the stranger–the Good Samaritan–seems to be. What I am currently thinking is that probably the essence of being human is the search for meaning. As far as we know, no other animals have that characteristic, and possibly the capacity for imagination–no other animals have that either.

You speak of this tension between the individual and the common good. What is lacking in our understanding of community?
I think fear is a very big element in what we do–our living in a global reality probably elicits a lot of free-floating anxiety. We’re the first humans to have to do that. You try to find something to fix that anxiety on, and take control over whatever that is, to reduce the fear and anxiety. The remedy for intense fear is taking some control over what frightens you. So, one way to live intense individualism is by shutting down and going into yourself, saying, “These are my decisions,” thereby reducing the anxiety and fear by taking some control. We are enormously uncomfortable with mystery, and the current attitude toward mystery is to turn it into a problem. Instead of saying that, for example, there is a mystery to death and to traveling with someone on their journey through the mystery of death–and eventually it will be us who will be in that mystery–instead of that, we convert the mystery of death into the problem of death, and we seek technological solutions. The technological solution to the problem of death is a lethal injection–euthanasia. But it’s the antithesis of experiencing the mystery of death. Psychologists studying the psyche of society talk of terror-reduction mechanisms. Euthanasia is such a mechanism, as we are terrified of death. We don’t know how to deal with it.

Is there not a contradiction here? We wish to be able to control but, on the other hand, the sign of our humanity is our ability to experience mystery, which is a necessary part of our search for meaning.
That’s exactly right. Moreover, the loss of a sense of mystery might be related to people losing their ability for transcendence.

In one of your articles, you mention that you discovered intense individualism even in the relationship with your students. Can you explain?
I was teaching 40 senior law students–some of them with MAs and PhDs–and only one of them saw a problem with euthanasia. I came away from the class completely distraught. Forty future lawyers and they will all go out there and say, “Euthanasia is a terrific idea.” I wondered, “What am I going to do about it?” And maybe it is not just 40 smart students, but all of society that thinks this way. So I wrote an article for a newspaper chain to which I contribute, but first I e-mailed it to every student in that class and told them this was my impression, and if they had any objection I would not publish it. No one objected and many said they were pleased to see it go off. They had many interesting comments. The most interesting of all was that they said they were not pro-killing but that they could not bear to see suffering. What I think has happened is that it is enormously difficult in a secular society to ascribe any meaning or purpose to suffering. I think this is what religion used to do for us: it gave us meaning or purpose even in the worst situations. Suffering had some value beyond what people were currently experiencing–think of people offering up their sufferings for the souls in purgatory, for example.

Intense individualism and loneliness… Is there a connection between the two?
There is a difference between solitude and loneliness. Loneliness is something else, like the old line, “You can feel alone in a crowd.” Intense individualism can deprive us of the ability to find meaning. If you are an intense individualist you belong only to yourself; you can’t belong to something larger than yourself, so you can’t find transcendence, you can’t find meaning. And you can’t find transformation, which is, ultimately, I think, what we are looking for. Loneliness is the feeling that you are being deprived of something that is central to what I would call the “human spirit.”

And solitude, on the other hand?
Solitude is not loneliness; it is something that you might even choose because you find it useful for discovering what you want.

Is there a fear of facing experience, reality in our culture?
We don’t like random or chance experience. The rise of extreme sports is a choice to face difficult experience. Autonomy and self-determination and consent are very strongly related to intense individualism. You invoke them so that you not have anything happen to you that you haven’t chosen. Nothing should happen to me that I don’t choose. One example of this is the extreme sportsperson, who says, “I am going to do frightening things but I am only going to have the frights that I choose to have.” Or, “I am only going to have the experience that I choose to have.”

Is there an opposition between science and religion?
No. It depends on how you see what science reveals to you. If you see it as the only truth and nothing exists that can’t be logically known (note that the opposite of logical is not illogical but alogical, which means logic is not a proper tool with which to understand it), and if you think that’s the sum total of what humans can know and you have no perception of the great mystery of the unknown that science reveals, then of course you won’t see religion as being important. However, if you think that science is revealing these enormous mysteries that we have no real comprehension of, then we have a tool, which is logic and reason and science, through which we can see some aspects of this great mystery, and therefore there is no contradiction.

There is a Japanese saying that states: as the radius of knowledge expands, the circumference of ignorance increases.The radius of knowledge is like a laser beam going out in the darkness of our unknowing. The further out it goes, the more we know that we don’t know, and if we have a proper humility then we call this the mystery of the unknown–and it is extraordinary. We have to have a reverence for the mystery of the unknown. I don’t think you have to be religious to have such reverence–there can be a “secular sacred.” To experience this, I think, is fundamental to being human.

Do you see any hope in the midst of many battles?
Someone once asked me what my own favorite sentence that I’d written is. I answered immediately: “Hope is the oxygen of the human spirit. Without it, our spirit dies; with it, we can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles.” Don’t lose hope and don’t lose courage. Hope and courage: that is what we all need, each one of us and as a society and a world. Hope and courage are intimately related. Without hope, you can’t have courage; if you have no hope, it is not worthwhile taking a risk.

What is hope based on?
Hope is a sense of connection to the future–what you do now matters for the future. Many people have lost this sense. I know from my work on euthanasia that it is important for people to know that their life matters, that it has meaning, and that they can leave a legacy.

Where do you see hope now?
Everywhere. We are like little green shoots; it doesn’t matter how often people mow us down, we come up again. I see hope everywhere. I see it in my students.

How so?
Well, they care about suffering. At a recent one-hour speech on the ethics of climate change, I devoted literally one line to a definition of the human spirit and said that our search for meaning was primary and that required us to have access to that sense of deep mystery. The students just swamped me afterwards, saying, “You are right. How do we do that, what is it, what are we going to do?” That is the only thing they picked up on. I think they had a sense that it’s missing in their lives and in the culture and values that are being passed on to them, and at least some of them want it. Some are hostile, perhaps because they are frightened of thinking that there might be mystery.