The Philosophy Exam Question, Asked at Age 70

There’s a story that I heard when I was a student. It is almost certainly apocryphal.  It concerns a famous philosophy final exam. The students took their seats in the lecture hall and the proctors passed out the blue exam books. The professor went to the front of the room and wrote the exam question on the big chalkboard. The question consisted of only one word: “Why?”

One student gave an answer that earned the only A+ in the class. That answer consisted of only two words: “Why not?”

I recently had occasion to recount this story to a woman who is my fellow student in a weekly ceramics class. The previous week she had celebrated her 70th birthday and she asked me, who had reached this milestone six weeks earlier, how I reacted to turning 70.

The prior week’s work in the ceramics studio had been frustrating. I had considered giving up on pottery. Too much time invested for too little progress.  I had too little energy and too little enthusiasm and my work showed little technical or aesthetic quality. But on the day of our discussion, my work in the studio was going well.

So I told my classmate that I often look at the pursuits in which I invest my emotions and energies and ask myself “Why?” but that after a brief period of reflection, I answer “Why not?”

“Why not?” indeed. I try to achieve something of quality in pursuits that are “artistic” – visual art (pottery and painting) and music (trying to learn guitar) – and “intellectual” (studying and writing about politics, religion, biblical studies, philosophy, and popular culture). These interests have dotted the map of my life since my youth. They are frequent sources of frustration. But they are sometimes sources of pleasure and a sense of growth and accomplishment.

Erik Erikson constructed one of the many stage theories of human development. He saw our lives as divided into sequential phases.  In each of these we encounter a psychosocial “crisis” that we must successfully resolve in order to move on to the next stage prepared to live a healthy life. In the last stage, which he generously called “maturity” (age 65 to death) he described the choices facing us as “ego integrity vs. despair.”  It is here that we receive the payoff for whatever success we experienced in navigating the preceding crises.

The terms Erikson used are profound. Ego integrity. Despair. Ego integrity implies that we are one with ourselves, that we have overcome – as much as is possible – the alienation that characterizes our sense of self in a psychologically, physically, politically, and economically assaultive world where we try to balance our personal and social identities. We accept who we are and in so doing accept without denial all of the implications and consequences of our decisions and actions and the emotions that arise when we contemplate them.

We can, and will, look at each branch of the decision tree that is our life and ask “Why?”  These, of course, are not so much questions as judgments. “How could I be so stupid?” “Why didn’t I do it sooner?” “That was the smartest thing I ever did.” “I should never have gone there.” Etc.  But all we know is the life we have. The alternative lives that we could have lived (or might be living in some parallel universe) are unknowable to us. “Ego integrity” amounts to accepting the life we have and living it as creatively and productively as we can.

The alternative that Erikson poses is despair. Literally, hopelessness. Giving up.  Becoming immobilized by premature grief for our own lost lives.  It is the overwhelming sense of futility that expresses itself in terms of “It’s too late” and “Why even bother?”  and all the shoulda/woulda/couldas that we hoard as if they were priceless treasure.

Having reached the biblically significant age of “three score and ten,” I am acutely aware of the shortness of the time that is ahead and of how quickly it will pass. It is easy to believe that we are in a race to complete our life’s work before the clock runs out. But this is an illusion. Either our life’s work is never complete or it is finally complete when our life ends. It is probably the metaphorical clock, as much as our personal goals, that determines what will count as our life’s work. Knowing this – or at least believing it – helps keep our aspirations and strivings in perspective. If we have work to do, the shortness of time is no excuse for not doing it. And if we’re not doing this work, then what are we doing?

There is another story, the one about the scorpion and the frog. At the climax of the story the frog asks the scorpion “Why?” The scorpion does not make excuses for himself or moralize about the creature that he might have been had evolution worked out differently. While few of us would hold up the scorpion as an example to follow, we cannot deny that in his own way he, too, answered “Why not?”


2 Comments on “The Philosophy Exam Question, Asked at Age 70”

  1. Ana King says:

    Do you ever “visit” the previous stages of your life — particular events or slices of time from previous decades? Do you ever have a Proustian moment, where a scent or a smell suddenly transports you right back to the first time you sensed it? I practice this on a regular basis. It helps me understand the “why” of as much as I can remember of my life. I travel back to the 15-year-old me, the “brand-new-teacher” me, the 30-year-old me, etc. When one is blessed with the ability to have a life where s/he can pursue her/his interests and passions without interruptions from societal forces (such as war or economic depression), family pressures (such as them forcibly choosing the path one will follow), or health concerns (such as serious illness or physical injury), our life’s “why” grows, improves, and flourishes. But we don’t step back and look at it enough. That is why I purposely take these trips back into my mind. I do it right before I fall asleep. I choose a different decade or even a season of a particular year. I re-connect to why I was doing those things. Sometimes I wince; sometimes I sigh. No matter what though, these journeys help me understand the sum of the “why.”


    • wsettles says:

      I do this randomly, rarely systematically. Sometimes, thought, I look at certain events or periods in my life and respond with amazement that things have turned out as well as they have.


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