The year began with a life ending. My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and died quickly – but, thankfully, painlessly – within a few weeks. Her bodily deterioration scraped down the iron exterior of her social self. I had grown up with her presence always filling any room or event that we attended. The gaps of silence between withdrawn family members forced to interact, the awkward distances moulded by time apart between once close siblings and cousins, were filled by her incredibly sharp – usually scathing – wit, creating a bridge on which interaction could take place. She was someone who was lucky enough to have more people love her than she loved; not through malice but through being unaware that so many did.
Considering Christopher Hitchens was the master of the English language, it seems particularly stupid of me to use it now. It’s like trying to serenade the world’s greatest singer. But here goes my poor attempt which is aided greatly by a quotation by a Nobel prize winning author.
The Inconsistency of Our Views
If we genuinely care about alleviating suffering, making people’s lives better, decreasing suffering or perhaps maintaining moral duties, it is inconsistent for us to deny the voluntary right to die. Many people and, more importantly, States oppose voluntary suicide (VS) because of some hang up or slither of of sanctity, even if it’s never explicitly laid out as such. “Sanctity”, or sanctity of life, says there is something almost supernaturally “special” about human life, that it must not be destroyed or diminished to any significant degree. Indeed, it states, human life or living should be promoted, whether on an individual or species-wide capacity.
I find this idea inconsistent with our views in other areas. If it was true that States care about promoting the length of citizen’s lives then all matter of restrictions should be in place: we should not be driving, smoking, drinking alcohol, etc. Why do we allow for these things, which are proven to cause suffering and hasten death, whereas we deny people the means to avoid suffering but bring on a quick death? It is inconsistent and arbitrary. There is no good reason to oppose someone wanting to take his life.
Without god, there is no fairy-tale ending to this life. Life, filled with glory and suffering, heart-filled wonder and atrophied passion, comes to a sudden end with a flat-line: a monotone ending to a symphonic life.
And being human, we can’t help but have rhapsodic variations on the theme of this ‘condition’. Dylan Thomas rightly warned his father to rage, rage against the dying of the light. But his assertions apply to us all and not only toward the end of life – to ‘not go gently into that good night’ is not merely about the end of existence but apathy, too. Indeed, as the French define the moment after sex as ‘the little death’, so giving in to apathetic nihilism is itself a kind of self-destruction – though not one that follows pleasure like la petite more.
One difficulty in cleaning the fairy-dust off the collar of maturity, before we straighten it and head out into the world with all its indifference and difficulty, is precisely this: to not give into the apathetic nihilism that calls to many. Of course being a complete nihilist is an almost impossibility, which is something Nietzsche highlighted quite often in his writing. The passion Nietzsche called for – as opposed to what Mel Gibson yelled for – recast in Anglo-Saxon eloquence by Dylan Thomas, is something we need to set straight our sails. Nihilism is not only counter-productive, it is also boring. Life’s ultimate meaninglessness is enough without trudging through it with dreary abandon and the heavy boots of banality, finally caught by a sense of fatigue, only to drop without pause into the grave. This will not do.
But remember, we don’t need fairy-dust to fly (we have planes), we don’t need gods to be moral (we have ethics), we don’t need heaven to find meaning (we have reality), and we don’t need myths to position ourselves (we have the ground). This is what it means to straighten the collar of maturity; we have no super best friends by our shoulders guiding us through our life.
Our lives are perhaps the ultimate expression of Ecclesiastes 1:18: ‘For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.’ As nonbelievers, we care about what’s true. What the religions teach, or rather, preach, is not true. Our conclusions as to the veracity of religions’ claims might initially sadden some; for others, like myself, it can be ecstatic. Or, as Bertrand Russell said, exhilarating.
So, whilst we might increase our knowledge about the world, finding religions’ claims lacking, we respond in different ways. Ultimately, however, we cannot escape the sorrow that our lives will end – indeed, for some of us, painfully. Others might be glad to see it end (and not for reasons that would legitimise euthanasia), but then, this discussion does not apply to such people.
It is easier to perhaps not think of future non-existence (death) than to truly face his haggard grin. To think on life is itself to think on death. As Cicero put it: ‘To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die.’ We often hear the phrase that death is a part of life, as if that somehow is consoling. Instead, we must learn to not ignore death. But, because of our strong ties to finding out what is true, we cannot let our future corpses force our current passions to stagnate. We are not wormfood yet, we are not ash in the wind today.
So, if life is ultimately meaningless, if death is the end for our individual life, if no tawdry reward awaits us after – which turns us all into a choir-slaves if we’re good and satanic playthings if we’re bad – what are we to do? It seems obvious from this that our brief splutter of life now, our little light of current realisation, should ignite a passion to live fully, greatly, wonderfully – but, most importantly – freely. Enclosing flames puts them out. As we rage, we must rage for good reason. And there are plenty – primarily they should be about others lives, other fires. We should aim at bettering the lives of others, since overall, we benefit ourselves.
Truly it is magnificent that life is ultimately meaningless. Firstly, I would feel enormous responsibility and, therefore, fear if my actions had cosmic repercussions. I don’t know how people who are guided by The Secret and astrology manage to live everyday without going mad from the echoes of their failures and over-indulgence and solipsism. Secondly, it means I am not special to anyone other than those who can directly appreciate my meaningfulness. This is not an ultimate meaningfulness, but a protracted one, in which loved ones come to orbit my tiny life. We need no more than that. We are, indeed, lucky if people know us and appreciate us beyond our immediate circle. But a greater gaze means a greater scrutiny: for this reason, we all are forced into knowing the sexual goings-on of B-list actors. Yet, ultimately, it leads back to my first point: that kind of responsibility is terrifying. Finally, living a life that has no ultimate meaning seems to indicate freedom – I am not tied to ancient scripture into maintaining a cosmic balance, I have no need to consult sexually-repressed, old men about what a deity needs from me, personally, in order that he doesn’t wipe out the species. I am free to be an adult, to face the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune of living but not asking for it, facing suffering that in the end has no meaning. The price-tag on freedom, in this sense, is high; what we had to go through, as a species, so that I might pen these words, is something too awful and too incredible to at once consider.
Schopenhauer, in his magnificent The World as Will and Representation, asks the following: if you compounded all of a person’s suffering and hardship that he will go through in his life into one long act, an act of suffering bleeding into another, we must ask this person: ‘Do you want to live this life?’ For Schopenhauer, the answer was an obvious no. Schopenhauer does not ask about the opposite: what if we took all the joy and wonder in a person’s life and showed her? It seems obvious the person would then take it. If we showed both, which would we let the person experience first? Pain or happiness? Suffering or security? Schopenhauer was not myopic in leaving out the corollary to his question. He was particularly sensitive to the suffering of the world as a whole; a feeling, he stated, that we could all feel quite sharply. We all could feel the horror of the world, of differing lives; but we rarely could, to the same level, be affected by joy and wonder. No matter how many rainbows or Megan Foxes, for Schopenhauer, nothing can eliminate the universe’s cruel nature in its ‘natural disasters’ nor man compounding such evil with his own innate hate of anything that is different, strange or unknown.
Certainly it is cruel and hard; and you might disagree with Schopenhauer. But we have to begin a new conversation, because answering with gods and fairies will not change that the world really does not care about us being here and that our brief flash of life will be smaller than dust in a cosmic gas cloud. As we, even now, swirl around, let us not be tempted by the sirens of apathy or the barks of dogma. Because, as Plato reminds us, ‘Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a man.’
We are nothing but extemporaneous matter, dissolved into a fine fluid of prehensile fear, docked between a sea of chaos and a harbour of doubt. Setting our anchors would be dogmatic, to let them float idiotic. Yet, tossed we are on these rough oceans that would permit only the stars’ ebbing reflection to be a form of stability, and nothing but darkness as a dream.
We arise from what we perceive to be nothingness and will return to nothingness. We are suspended between two poles, existing on a trajectory from a high pole of “birth”, which glides down to join the lower one of “death”. We are a tiny droplet of water snaking down from the first pole to the last, reflecting the images surrounding us from the environment, yet distorting it with the refraction of subjectivity.
Evolution – not any deity – has prefigured us with a consciousness: That is, we are aware of ourselves, our existence and the surrounding world. But consciousness, whatever it is, comes with a horrible cost and it is for this reason that if there is a deity, he is surely a cruel one.
The reason I say this is due to the shadow set aflame by the light of consciousness: The awareness of death. The two most horrid combinations one could invest in an entity would be consciousness and transience. Or perhaps mortality. Regardless, what this means is simple: “You are aware to such a great extent that you are aware of your oncoming death.”
Yet, we humans – especially those of us who face up to the fact that there is no truth to the monotheisms’ metaphysical claims – are not found cowering in corners, spitting at clocks, defacing watches and ignoring our pulse. Our pulse is the slow countdown timer that leads to a flat-line. Everyone has an amount of heartbeats that they will beat in their life time. The average, if you live till you are 70, is 2.52 billion heart beats. The slow countdown is gradual, like drops off the suspended line between the pole of “birth” down to “death”.
But each drop of heart beat lands to make music in the surrounding environment. We do not dismiss each drop, we should relish in it. It will fall into nothing anyway, so why despair when it is, in fact, more reasonable to celebrate.
As Richard Feynman said:
If a Martian (who, we’ll imagine never dies except by accident) came to Earth and saw this peculiar race [sic] of creatures – these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come – it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live.
What a waste it would be to slide down that suspension, from one pole to the other, as a blinkered drop. How distasteful to clamour for dispair because there is no celestial hand holding the string to cater for your every snaking move. It would be better to never have been if you take no comfort in being a reflecting drop, in celebrating your movement and your awareness and the “kingdom of infinite space” – as Raymond Tallis calls it – in between your ears. We do not know everything, nor will we. Our knowledge is various lit lanterns placed on the precipice of the external world, which show the extent where the border into ignorance rests. Crossing into that land is exhilarating, since it requires that only place we know which is endless: Our imaginations.
Imagine can be traced to the Greek phainesthai, which means “to appear”, which itself is related to phaos and phos meaning “light.” Thus, our imaginations light the way for knowledge, which is made tentatively and by incremental snaking – though from a pole of ignorance to one of further ignorance. I have always thought it is better to proclaim the extent of ones ignorance than the extent of ones knowledge, since we can change our ignorance but there is nothing much we can do to our knowledge. This might be translated into Confucius’s better phrasing: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of ones ignorance.”
As tiny droplets, there is much wonder to reflect upon. Why should we be sad? We exist and we can not know non-existence, so there is nothing to fear. It is not death but dying that people fear. Rise up with your flame of knowledge and traverse unknown lands with the map of the imagination. It has been suggested that the fact that the majority of our species do believe in celestial beings, ghosts, demons, witches and one or two other supernatural paraphernalia, is testament to humanity’s inherent capabilities to using its imagination. Even if, like myself, you find ideas of religion and other supernatural or superstitious vagaries annoying, distasteful and perhaps the central problem of today’s world, you can still take comfort in this: At least people are using their imaginations.
Both believers and nonbelievers are using their imaginations to fight off the fear of death. The only difference is that we realise that our imaginations is testament to wonder at the workings of nature, whereas the faithful, the superstitious and the overzealous equate their ancestor’s imaginations with knowledge. There is nothing to be terrified about the ties that knot around knowledge and imagination are allowed to loosen. Many religious already do this and it these many call the “moderates”, who allow for ignorance to be a leading focus and drive. It is the dogmatic fundamentalists who believe so strongly in a god that they do not believe in ignorance. It really has become something of a dichotomy.
But there is beauty in ignorance, in wonder and in relishing in the wonder-full universe we are citizens of. To make a propitiation toward an obscure Palestinian deity, when a universe of wonder awaits, seems to me to be worthy of a criminal offence. We are all heading toward that same end, that same nothingness, that same bottom pole.
Would it not be better to be conjoined droplets, making a lasting impact on that line, to reflect collectively the great wonder and achievements of our past and then create a wave that would prevent us from self-destruction? The line is taught and easily broken. Let us slow down, relax our hold and take a good look around us. There is much light to be shone and only a short amount of heart beats for us to do it in.