Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “I’ve asked myself many questions and answered all of them. What I cannot answer is why I don’t commit suicide.”
Penn students ask themselves many questions, that is, if they can find the time. Between interviewing, networking, exercising, studying and occasionally sleeping, it can be hard to keep up with classes, let alone find time for self-reflection. But when life is not going well and failures force self-reflection on us, we sometimes reach the same hopelessness espoused by the skeptical existentialist Sartre.
Ravi Zacharias was 17 years old when he reached this breaking point. While Ravi never studied at Penn, the pressures of his environment were such that his peers would tie their hair to lampposts to keep from nodding off over their books. Ravi’s siblings were all academic stars, but he was failing. Failing at his elite school, shaming his family, disappointing those in his life. As he went through the numbing motions of his seemingly fun-filled and “successful” social life, deep down he despaired. He made his decision quietly, played a game of cricket, went to bed and the next morning locked himself in the bathroom with a glass of water and stolen packets of poison.
Ravi found himself in the hospital. He couldn’t move his hands and his windpipe was so dry he couldn’t swallow. His mind wound down in despair: He’d failed again and perhaps made himself an invalid in the process. But a few days later, a Christian man gave him a Bible verse: the words of Jesus Christ, “Because I live, you shall live also.”
Lying in the hospital, Ravi made a silent promise to himself: If this Jesus who claimed to be the author of life would spare him his health, he would “leave no stone unturned in [his] pursuit of truth.”
As we mourn the tragic deaths of four of our peers over the last several weeks, we are forced to reflect on the fragility of life. Maybe it’s God or maybe it’s the grave, but regardless, we are confronted with questions about the essential meaning of life. Like Ravi, we must seek intellectually sound answers to Sartre’s hopeless dilemma: Why not commit suicide? Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl observed that “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
When Ravi walked out of the hospital, he was determined to do one thing: find out if there was a rational basis for meaning in life. Trying to live well and laugh often had failed him; he was going to keep asking questions until he found the truth. And as he devoured books, searching through science, philosophy, Hinduism, Christianity and other religions, the weight of evidence gradually drove him back to where he started: “Because I live, you shall live also” — the words of Jesus Christ. For the 50 years since, these words have sustained Ravi.
While we should certainly seek help from the resources Penn provides, our hope should not rest in a counselor or therapist alone. Like Ravi, we need rationally grounded answers to maintain hope through the ups and downs of life. Of course, not every thinker has come to the same conclusions Ravi has. Sartre claimed to have answered nearly every question he’d asked himself — but certainly came to conclusions different from Ravi’s.
What is the meaning of life? Is this meaning universal or relative? It’s an age-old debate, but it hasn’t lost importance. For during those inevitable downs when life is not going well and laughs are forced or bitter, we all need answers to these questions — answers that give us hope, answers that are anchored in truth.
Micah Sandusky, Jeremiah Keenan, Hannah Victor and Faith Concepcion are a Wharton junior, a College freshman, a Nursing sophomore and a Nursing junior, respectively. They are organizing members of the forum “Is Truth Real?” — an event tomorrow at 7 p.m. in Irvine Auditorium at which Ravi Zacharius will be speaking. They can be reached at email@example.com.