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‘Life Worth Living’ Review: Reclaiming Questions in an Answer-Driven World

4 Stars

Cover of Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz's "Life Worth Living."
Cover of Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz's "Life Worth Living." By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writer

What makes a life worth living? Halfway between theological scholarship and self-help, “Life Worth Living” was inspired by a popular seminar taught by Yale professors Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, who co-authored the book. Their work aims to examine what its writers call “the Question” — a term that they leave open-ended. In fact, they contend, the Question’s breadth and multidimensionality signify different things to different people during specific times in their lives.

What unites individuals in pursuit of the Question, the professors contend, is their shared will to examine how they might live fuller, more intentioned lives. It is a lofty charge complicated by the thorny forces that have come to characterize our collective moment — social media, rising political acrimony, globalization, and the explosive proliferation of powerful technologies, to name just a few. This self-exploration is not restricted to academics and scholars, but to all who crave a more sustainable way of pursuing fulfillment and growth.

Indeed, the professors all but anticipate the eye rolls and head scratches that may result from the heady language of “the Question,” as well as the slew of historical and religious figures they cite throughout their nearly 300-page journey. They engage the ambitious scale of their work without alienating readers by meeting their skepticism with humility and pragmatism. Through guiding questions and a consistently conversational tone, the professors keep their feet planted on the ground as they grasp at conceptual ideas.

“The goal isn’t to finish thinking about the Question,” they write in the book’s early pages. “The truly important thing is to get started. Let’s do that.”

The book lives up to its fullest potential when using historical and spiritual insights to penetrate into the core dynamics of today’s global culture. One such example is a discussion of Silicon Valley, a paragon of growth and development that the professors use to exhibit a cultural blockage. Most individuals in the Valley, they contend, regard effectiveness as the most profound question to be answered. They argue that although this may not be the most discerning question for all people, it’s realistically the most deeply felt question that the Valley’s residents and “many of us know how to answer.”

Herein lies the professors’ critical point: Society often prioritizes optimizing productivity without considering its long-term ethics. That ethical consideration is naturally complex, and the definitions of “good” or “right” will likely differ for every person.

“Many spend their entire lives climbing a ladder only to realize that the ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall,” the professors write.

The professors then arrive at what for many may seem like an oxymoronic revelation, particularly amidst our current era’s individualistic and materialistic culture: The deepest mode of relation to the world is not one that centers the self, but rather decenters the self to make room for others. The most sustainable and satisfying ways of living, then, are deeply relational.

The strength of the book’s structure, however, is also its greatest liability. Because “Life Worth Living” aims to traverse so much material in a compressed space, the text at times provides the contours of ideas at the expense of interrogating their nuances. One example of this occurs when the professors discuss the dueling allures of uninhibited self-expression and societal conformity. (Of course, even the establishment of these ideas as binaristic may seem to many readers overly simplistic).

Foregrounding their discussion through musings from Oscar Wilde, they write: “Pushed and pulled by these pressures, you get yourself completely wrong. You give in. You sell out. You conform.” Absent from the passage is an examination of complicating factors that may compel an individual, despite their individual instinct, to take the well-trodden path. After all, pursuing what one truly “wants” to do is easier for individuals with the material means to do so.

The existential questions posed in “Life Worth Living” seem all the more urgent in light of the seismic technological developments that have dominated recent headlines, one of which is ChatGPT, the viral chatbot from the Silicon Valley giant OpenAI. Poised to disrupt a slew of knowledge industries, the tool is consequential for its presentation of a deeper unease: What does it mean to be human in a world in which technology usurps human capability? It’s tempting to glean a direct answer for this question through the historical wisdom of Aristotle, Jesus, or Confucius, but the professors of this book present no easy answers. The very act of approaching this question with integrity and diligence, they seem to suggest, is part of the answer itself.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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