Thursday, November 5, 2015

On mortality

I turned fifty years old a few weeks ago. There was little fanfare, partly because I've never been a huge birthday guy, partly because I'm somewhat recently divorced, and partly because I simply have a small circle of close friends, a number of whom don't even live all that close to me. And that's okay because even though I recognize the logical shortcomings of so-called milestone events like this (why is every ten years such a big deal, why isn't it every 14 years?), half a century does seem somewhat closer to the grave than it does to the womb.

So death has been on my mind a little more than usual of late. And it got me to thinking about times gone by, about moments of unquestioned stupidity in my younger days when I took serious risks for no good reason. From driving way too fast, to swimming in dangerous conditions, to drinking heavily, to screwing around with things that were most certainly dangerous, to going to unsafe places, to mouthing off to the wrong people, to so on and so on and so on. And there's also just the act of going about my own day to day existence and the inherent perils therein, from traffic accidents to falling off ladders, to slipping on stairs, to being a victim of a crime, and so on and so on, all of which are potentially life-ending events through no fault of my own.

Many people considering such things come to a conclusion that "life is precious," or some such thing, and thus take precautions (both sensible and non-sensible, to be sure). Others adopt a more "carpe diem" kind of outlook, reasoning that since their "time" could be up at any moment, they might as well live each moment to its fullest. And still others see it all through the prism of religion, their family, or their legacy and seek to protect that which is most important to them in this regard.

But I have a different angle, though probably not unique and perhaps a little bit stoic.

It occurs to me that life is just a thing. It's not precious in general, nor is each day some sort of gift, nor is it a bridge of one form or another to the future. It just is. In a purely physical sense, it's a particular set of conditions arising from the interplay of subatomic forces. The manifestation of our physical being is an understood phenomenon, that of our actual mind much less so, but both are rooted in the physical reality that we perceive. One particular life—mine, for instance—is no more or less of a thing than that of anyone else. As a matter of course, there is nothing special about my life, but this is no less true for the life of anyone else. And the things I do with my life, the actions I take or don't take, well they'e ultimately just filler, the stuff between too absolute moments: that of coming into existence and that of going out of it, with respect to being alive and self-aware.

That said, I am self aware. And being self aware, I want, I need, I feel. And I recognize that others do the same (including animals, by the way). At the same time, I know that I will not always exist, I know that I will die. So what to make of the filler between the two endpoints, the filler that we call our lives? There is simple survival, of course. But in the modern, Western world, survival at the most basic level is a given for the vast majority of the population, though as I already mentioned, continuous survival is not a given because even the most mundane of activities can involve some amount of risk, no matter how careful we are.

carpe diem philosophy is unquestionably attractive because it suggests a kind of imperviousness to concerns over the future limiting one's enjoyment of the now. Yet, checking out early because one simply lived with no concerns means the loss of many potentially great things, many great moments, that one can experience. Because let's face it, such moments bring one joy and within the construct that is our existence, joy is a real thing, a meaningful thing, as are all other emotions. We can try to be as coldly logical as we might care to be, but we can't escape our emotions. And without them, well...

Yet, there is a cost to living a secure life, to seeing it as a precious thing: conformity with the artificial structures of society, going to work, going to school, raising children, buying cars, partaking of things designated as "fun," getting involved in things designated as "serious," coping with the day-to-day trivialities that are so far removed from the idea of "adventure" as to make one seem like little more than a worker ant. And again, one can still find life in such a paradigm to be worth it, because again there is still the recognition that it is limited, that death comes to us all, eventually.

No doubt, many will see a middle ground between these things, a life wherein one finds room for both a carpe diem spirit and the joys inherent in the traditional structures, where the cost or potential cost of both can be fairly borne. And frankly, I envy people who truly achieve this kind of balance, because I believe they truly do have the best of both worlds.

Yet, at the end of the day, they will die as well. Whatever their lives meant to them is inconsequential to everyone else. Because their lives are theirs, alone, just like the lives of each and every other person. And a single life has no perceptible impact on reality as a whole, because the human race in toto has no perceptible impact on on reality as a whole. On a cosmic scale, we're not even a blip and what we do in life does not echo through eternity, it just fades to black.

Too dismal? I don't mean it to be. Because again, emotions are real. And feeling joy is, for the individual, a perfectly valid objective. I mean only to point out that this is not a transferable thing, that it begins and ends with the individual, belongs to the individual alone. We get caught up in the structures of daily life, or in our attempts to break free of them, and suppose that there is more going on then there really is. This isn't about stopping to smell the roses. Indeed, that sentiment reflects the same sort central conceit, with regard to our existence: that we matter as individuals with respect to a greater reality.

Yet, that central conceit drive our existence, our society, and our species forward, no matter how each individual perceives it or acts on it. It is, in a sense, what it means to be human, to suppose that one's life is not only unique, but even uniquely important. To point out that the last is false might seem useless or even detrimental, but I think that recognizing this truth is, in fact, a good thing. Because in recognizing it, one might be better able to gauge what it is that one needs from life (we all don't need the same things) while allowing that others are necessarily doing the same.

I guess this is, all in all, a roundabout way of confirming a rather trite philosophy of life: live and let live. And death? It comes for us all, no matter how we live.

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