Whitman and the Meaning of Life

The poet Walt Whitman photographed in 1869, when he was about 50 years old.

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

That is one of my favorite poems. It was written by the man who I believe is easily America’s finest poet, Walt Whitman. Like any decent poem, it is a piece of philosophy that calls us to examine one of life’s great mysteries, and what mystery could be greater than the meaning of life itself?

The answer that Whitman gives is utterly Western and American. Two things exist in every person’s life, says Whitman: the powerful play and yourself. Both of those things have meaning inasmuch as you contribute to the play. Life does not only find its meaning in identity, which is the right of the individual to define him or herself. It also takes meaning from the individual’s efforts to redefine society: to add their own verse to the powerful play.

As a Christian, I do find this poem uplifting in a certain sense. For one thing, it is not defeatist. It sees real meaning in life. The poet also seems to suggest that one’s contribution to the play should be a positive one designed to make society better, though that is not explicitly stated. The emphasis on the value of the individual seems to fit in with the concept of the imago dei.

However, as a Christian, I must also confess that this poem does not capture the true meaning of life. There is no God in these lines. The sense of responsibility to one’s fellow man is not spelled out in detail, but rather implied. Whereas Whitman defines purpose in terms of individual identity, and poets from other cultures might define it in terms of one’s group identity, the Bible says our true identity as Christians is in Jesus Christ.

Whitman can only link us with a kind of abstract concept: the “powerful play” that is the great sweep of history. Yet, without something greater than ourselves, that history is nothing more than a series of related and unrelated events. Although we may sense that it is improving on something and progressing toward something else, we would be hard pressed to define what exactly those things are without some wider context.

The Bible begins by telling us that everything was brought into being by the will of God. History is simply the unfolding of the purposes of God. Yes, creatures have a major role to play in all of this, but their actions only have meaning in relation to the Creator. They may choose to follow that Creator or rebel against Him, but either way, their eternal destiny will be shaped by their relation to Him.

Suffering and joy, hatred and love, war and peace – these things only find their full meaning in how they either reflect or reject the character of God. That is a great encouragement to me as a believer. These days, I often find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I sometimes lay there for half an hour attempting to psyche myself up to deal with the pain and exhaustion. If I thought that the only reason to get out of bed was to add a verse to the powerful play, I probably wouldn’t bother. How many of those verses are actually remembered? How many of them really make a positive difference? I am a speck on the face of this earth, which is a speck on the face of the universe. It is the height of arrogance to think that my actions truly matter in comparison to those of 7 billion other souls.

However, I believe that I live for the glory of God, and that at the end of time my Lord will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe that my identity is in Christ, and that my suffering finds meaning in His suffering. I believe that the seemingly random and senseless actions taking place here on planet earth will be weighed in the balance, and the Lord Almighty will judge them all. What He decrees will surely come to pass, and He will keep His promises concerning me.

Whitman’s words are inspiring, and if I choose to apply them in a Christian manner, they can actually be quite helpful. If I view “life” as the gift of God, “identity” as my identification with Christ, the “powerful play” as God’s sovereign plan, and my “verse” as any actions I do to the glory of God, then I have found a purpose that can sustain me in both good times and bad. If I take Whitman’s words as a kind of secular idealism – the willful denial of the realities of materialistic nihilism – then they have nothing to offer me.

Allow me to close with the words of the Apostle Paul.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Colossians 1:15-20

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