Sense And Nonsense: To Understand Better All the “Whys”

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The feast of St. Luke was one of those perfectly beautiful October days in Washington, a Friday.  After a noon class in which I was discoursing on Hobbes, a Saudi student in class told me that he liked this material. Machiavelli and Hobbes were not allowed to be studied in his country, he explained. His remark about their now being his “favorites,” however, made me wonder whether he thought these two strange philosophers were also favorites of mine. I decided I was just luminously unclear. I did not especially want to be known as what Strauss called “a teacher of evil” in Saudi Arabia!

In any case, the sun was out and warm after a very wet, cozy day. I cut down to the C&O Canal Path below the campus and just above the Potomac. As I walked under Key Bridge, I noticed a rather elegant chalk pastel on the base of the arch under which I was about to walk. The mural-like painting began with a large “WHY?” On getting closer, I saw the words following were, “Is Life So Hard?”

We never knew what to make of such random graphics on abandoned walls and sturdy bridges, but we wonder if this poignant question is perhaps a joke or is it a cri de coeur? Is it a philosophical query or a sign of existential pain? If you bother to read the other graphics on such public walls, of course, you will soon decide to take nothing on them too seriously.

Yet, the perennial question — “why is life so hard, so difficult?” — takes on a further depth if we think of it in the Christmas season. The Incarnation of the Son of God among men was intended to address that poignant query found at the base of Key Bridge on the Feast of St. Luke, the same St. Luke who gave us an account of the Nativity of Christ. The Incarnation, itself the primary grounding for joy for our kind, does not immediately take away the difficulties, as we might, at first sight, expect God to do for us.


On July 10, 1985, John Paul II gave a brief address on “Proof of God’s Existence.” The Holy Father readily acknowledges that what we think of God makes a difference. Indeed, this very question, “why is life so hard?”, is a challenge to God. It implies that life ought not to be so hard; but if it is, it is somehow God’s problem if not His fault.

Christianity, of course, holds that if we did not exist, if the world did not exist at all, there would be no difficulties, no pain. Some no doubt would rather prefer to think the world and God out of existence than to have one human soul cry out below Key Bridge, “why is life so hard?” And yet, the askers of such questions need to listen for answers, something that may require even more bravery.

After reviewing the arguments for the existence of God, John Paul II concluded,

The proofs of the existence of God are many and convergent. They contribute to show that faith does not humble human intelligence, but stimulates it to reflections and permits it to understand better all the “whys” posed by the observation of reality.

What is remarkable about this passage of the Holy Father is its recognition that we are both to “pose” our “whys” and to answer them in the light of God’s existence. We are given knowledge of God not so that we will be humble but that we may know more, may know all that is. “Why is life so hard?” is clearly a question that most people have asked if not about themselves, surely about others. The more important question is not “why is life so hard?” but why is there human life at all, even if it is difficult?

If we look at Luke’s account of the Nativity, it is striking to note the number of “whys” that appear in the text. First of all, Caesar Augustus wanted to know the number of inhabitants in his Empire. This census turned out directly to effect where Christ was born. Why was Christ born in Bethlehem? Because of Caesar, because of the Prophecy. The conditions of making it to Bethlehem answered why Christ was born in a manger.

And what does one do with questions properly posed? St. Luke describes Mary. She listened to what the Shepherds had told her about events going on around this Birth. “When [the Shepherds] saw Him, they recounted what they had been told about this Child; and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said.”

What did Mary “do” about this new knowledge? “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them.” She treasured and she pondered.

In his A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, Josef Pieper writes: “Only someone who is silent is listening.” And he goes on, as if to reflect on this scene of Mary “pondering” in silence the events which she has seen and heard:

Since reason is nothing else than the power to understand reality, then all reasonable, sensible, sound, clear, and heart-stirring talk stems from listening silence. Thus all discourse requires a foundation in the motherly depth of silence.

Only someone who is silent is listening. All discourse comes out of the motherly depths of silence. The words of silence are to be fruitful.

We are, then, to understand all the “whys” that are posed from our observations of nature. With Mary, we listen to the words and the events about the Nativity when the Shepherds heard the “Glory to God in the Highest.”

“Why is life so hard?” I think it is a remarkably Catholic thing to realize that we are meant also to “understand” this hardness of life. To do this, we must ponder why the Christ was born among us as a Child. We must realize that God created and redeemed precisely us, our kind, ourselves. We must say, looking at the Incarnation, that in spite of the tragedies and difficulties of life, we exist and pose the questions about the “whys.”

In silence we listen with Mary, who pondered all these things in her heart. This heart the sword would pierce, a heart that knew that this suffering was intended, even from its beginning, for our glory. It is intended for our joy in which all these cries are subsumed in glory if we accept the dignity God has given to us. This is the dignity of choosing what we are, of choosing to learn from what God is so that we may know what we are.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).