'To Be or Not to Be' Remains the Question


The fact is that is "To be or not to be" is both a simple, perhaps the simplest, and a complex question, the hardest to sustain, let alone to ask. I ask it myself often — maybe as many times as five or six a week — and it is the asking, not any hope for an answer, that yields the most searing and immediate insight. I don't get it right every time, but when I do, I am thrown for a split second at the other side of being, the place where it begins.

But I can never retain that amazing feeling for long. What is required is a kind of radical pull-back of oneself from the most banal evidence of life and reality. Jean-Paul Sartre, after Shakespeare, was probably the thinker who framed the question best in his novels and philosophical treatises. The issue, however, is that this question is profoundly existential, not merely philosophical. It can be asked and should be by any living, thinking, sentient being, but cannot be answered.

There is huge energy and cognitive release to expect from it when it is properly framed. You have to somehow imagine that everything, absolutely everything has disappeared, or never was, that you have just happened upon your own circumstances by accident, the first accident of being. Another approach is to imagine sharply that anything that is, is a result of a warp, a blip in nothingness. It is not even a matter of finding out why or how, those demands are already far too elaborate. It is a crude, raw, brutal question followed by absolute, lightening speed amazement. And then the ordinary familiarity of all things known and named takes over, slipping your whole being into the stream of life, of being, with its attending problems and felicities. I feel strongly that there is a fundamental need for Shakespeare's question in every day life, but that is not what you and I were taught in school.