It was Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist novelist, philosopher, and playwright, who declined the Nobel Peace Price for Literature in 1964, who said it. “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
Sartre’s statement resonates with those who have stood at the edge of the abyss of the loss of life’s meaning. Some don’t make it to the other side. Some move to the other side of the abyss with no faith but faith in themselves to create meaning they once ascribed to God or some objective moral order. Others arrive on the other side with their inherited faith not only deconstructed, but re-constructed. I am one of the latter.
Reading of the shooting suicide of a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran philosophy student in the library at Mankato State University takes me back to Sartre’s statement about life and despair. Timothy Lee Anderson was an honorably discharged U.S. Army gunner in Iraq. His picture in The Daily Mail shows him in an Iraqi combat zone with his weapon. In the background of the photo, Iraqi women in traditional Muslim dress appear to be crossing the street. How, I ask, does a guy who served as a gunner in the Iraq War choose philosophy as his major when he comes home to the U.S.A.?
Philosophy is not a popular choice these days. Unlike computer science, it’s not job- related. The word ‘philosophy’ derives from two Greek words meaning love (philo) and wisdom (sophia). Philosophy is the love of, and the search for, wisdom.
Wisdom is born of experience, not inheritance. It’s not hard to imagine the dashed, unexamined, inherited convictions of a young Army recruit: a world dependent on American goodness and might; an America with a manifest destiny in the global order; an exceptional nation privileged and responsible, whether by religious or political creed, to bring its blessings to the rest of an ignorant, unenlightened, uncivilized, and sometimes terroristic and defiant world.
Nor is it hard to imagine a soldier’s despair upon return, reflecting on his experience in search of greater wisdom among the philosophers. The early reports of Timothy Lee Anderson’s life experience point to a less than comfortable homecoming with arrests for marijuana and violation of an order for protection. The gun shot he fired at himself on the second floor of the Mankato State University library was a shot of despair, whatever the immediate reasons or circumstances.
The great sorrow is a life that ended too early on the despair side of the yawning abyss of collapsed meaning. It remains to the survivors and the rest of us who look with sadness on Timothy’s tragic departure to learn that claims to religious-national exceptionalism and wisdom go together about as well as bombs and day-care, guns and libraries.
– Gordon C. Stewart, February 3, 2015.