“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”
Posted by Stuart McAllister, on September 20, 2012
I’m at an age in life when enough of it has passed that I can make some comparisons. The last five to ten years have been strange. I recently read some essays by Timothy Garton Ash about the period he calls the decade with “no name”—the turn of the millennium to the present. It is indeed a decade in which we have seen some extraordinary events, some dreadful acts of violence, an ongoing range of catastrophes, and some of the worst economic and moral failures that burst the bubble of unending prosperity and further shuttered confidence in many of our institutions.
Many years ago, the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote of “the unbearable lightness of being.” Like many others, he sensed the hollowing out of existence, the thinning out of life, the emptying of meaning that seems to occur under modern conditions. One friend of mine calls this “cultural vaporization.” The thing is, this is not some vague idea or esoteric notion. It is a description of how life is really being perceived.
Many people today seem convinced that the point of life is that there is no point. We face what Nietzsche call “Das Nichte”—or, the nothing. Our public philosophy tells us that we are the result of blind force plus chance and/or necessity. Yet our movies are filled with romantic longings, visions of other worlds, the hunger for transcendence, and love stories between vampires or other worlds where there is a greater unity of life and being. In other words, we face a massive contradiction between what one set of experts tells us is real and what many artists compel us to hope for and reflect on. And somewhere in the middle are our own, normal, day-to-day lives.
Chance and choice: is that it? Does all of life come down to this? A roll of the dice, the power of freedom, and the lottery of life? Many centuries ago, an honest voice cried, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Why? He was reflecting on life. He was seeking happiness. He sought justice, he sought satisfaction, he sought the meaning of it all. And his journey was conducted under the sun—in other words, he looked at life from within life. It was as Derek Kidner called it “a world without windows.”
However, his observations do not end there. This book opens us to another perspective, one in which there is a God, and a God that sees, knows, and acts. The book does not descend into some simple resolution of life’s hard problems nor its on-going ambiguities. But what it does do is add something. It adds a presence, it includes a perspective, it invites reflection: If there is more to life than meets the eye, more than can be measured or managed by the senses, then this indeed makes a big difference today.
With such a difference, weight or weightiness would be restored. Absence would be filled, space would be occupied, and meaninglessness confronted. As Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” This is a far cry from the new atheists who invite us to shed the childish and wicked delusions of whys and hows and accept emptiness. But what if when the God who is there and is not silent is a God of grace, a God of love, and a God of justice? To those empty, confused, or seeking, the unbearable lightness of being can be met in the abundance of his fullness, a gift by the way of grace, not effort!
Stuart McAllister is vice president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.