Tuesday, April 21, 2020

To those in despair

No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful.
Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.
-- They Might Be Giants, "Don't Let's Start"
When the green field comes off like a lid
Revealing what was much better hid:
Unpleasant.
-- W. H. Auden, The Two
Dogs! Would you live forever?
-- Frederick the Great
But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
-- Paul McCartney, "You Never Give Me Your Money"

Others are posting messages of comfort, but I get the distinct feeling that what some people really need is a message of discomfort -- a swift kick in the seat of the pants. So, never being one to dismiss distinct feelings, here goes.

Ahem.

Listen. You were always going to suffer and die. Everyone in your family was always going to suffer and die. Everyone you know was always going to suffer and die. All your earthly efforts were going to come to nought, your country and culture -- and, least we forget, "the economy" -- were going to degenerate and disappear, and the sun was going to expand into a red giant and consume the earth as though it had never existed. All that was always going to happen, and you knew it all along, or would have if you had been paying attention.

If you are in despair now but weren't before, you're an idiot. You do realize this game you signed up for is called mortal life, right? Did someone not explain that to you? Were you expecting something different? I don't know anything about your situation, but I know it hasn't fundamentally changed. You were born on death row. Don't you think that should have made you a little tougher than this?

As for the all the dupes and caitiffs and hypocrites and quislings you suddenly find yourself surrounded by -- I hate to break it to you, but they were already like that. All you're seeing now is what their true colors were all along. That's what the word apocalypse actually means, you know: Revelation. Revealing. Uncovering. The green field coming off like a lid. For just a second, you get a glimpse of all the men behind all the curtains in the world. The whited sepulchers may have looked nicer before they were opened, but they were full of dead men's bones all along.


You should have come to terms with death and suffering and evil a hell of a long time ago, but if you somehow haven't gotten around to it yet, well, now's your chance to do so. (Or not. Distraction is always an option, of course. I hear porn sites are offering premium memberships for free.)

Suffering is nothing. Suffering is ephemeral. If you think it matters, you're not thinking clearly. Next question.

And death? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? If death is for real, if mortality is the last word, then nothing at all matters or could matter, and you have nothing in particular to do except enjoy "that magic feeling" and kill time until time kills you. Or cut to the chase and kill yourself. It doesn't really matter one way or the other.

Or perhaps there's something after death, in which case something very likely does matter, and you'd better figure out what. Don't expect me to hold your hand here. Do I look like some sort of spiritual guide? Do your own thinking. Get out there and figure things out. It's a pity you waited until you were scared, though. Now it's just going to be that much harder to trust your intuitions as anything other than wishful thinking. Still, better to trust them, as compromised a they are, than what some Random Internet Person says. Best get on it.


Shall I close by saying that God loves you and everything's going to be all right? Fine. God loves you, and everything's going to be all right. Just keep in mind that God has loved everyone who has ever lived on this earth, and that "everything being all right," by God's standards, is evidently consistent with every imaginable human tragedy. Go read Candide sometime. Or the Book of Job. Or any history book, really. God's love offers no assurance at all against the kinds of things you're probably scared of. In the end, I'm afraid there's just no substitute for learning not to be scared of them. And there are only two ways of doing that.

So, what's it going to be? Philosophy or distraction?

20 comments:

Bruce Charlton said...

Point well made.

But of course these recognitions, and comings to term with, are things that need to be repeated - they aren't once and for all. We have an insight - but it wears off, we forget.

"Philosophy or distraction?" The third option - which is what I try to do - is to try and keep attention mainly on the present and eternity. It shares with distraction the tactic of trying not to think about the future and to avoid dwelling on 'planning', but not by using distraction.

Everything Is going to be alright... in The End. But it's getting to The End (or The Beginning) that we worry about.


I find the Consider The Lilies passage of the sermon on the mount to be helpful just now. Which suggests that - psychologically, at least - thinking of this as the End Times (albeit not the Second Coming) is probably no bad thing, overall.

Francis Berger said...

Good post. Like Bruce, I linked it to my blog. I always get a kick out of "toughen up cupcake" posts.

I've been hitting on despair on my blog over the past few days - not so much to bring comfort, but rather through warning in an effort to bring it to the forefront of people's minds and get them to focus on the bigger picture. Having said that, I like this "open a can of whoop ass approach, too."

S.K. Orr said...

I'm nauseated at the poofy, fragile mindset and behavior of almost everyone I encounter these days.

This is the manliest, most rawboned thing I've read in a long time. Good stuff, brother.

Andrew said...

As a Catholic, this sounds too much like I might have to live out our stories of the Saints and not like the modern, comfortable sentimentality I'm used to.

Ingo k. said...

My non-existence did not bother me before my birth - I do not expect it to become an issue after my death.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Ingo, yes, that’s consistent, and it means your existence is ephemeral and has no meaning. But if nothing matters, it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, so you might as well assume that your existence is *not* ephemeral. If you can.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Happy St. George’s Day to you, too, Andrew!

Anonymous said...

After reading your fantastically thought-provoking article, I happen to go to the medicine cabinet to take my daily dose of Allegra, Flonase, and blood pressure medicine. I stopped for a minute to look at all the things in the closet intended to avoid discomfort. Products for, allergies, headache, sinus headache, migraine headache, athlete’s foot, hemorrhoids, bad breath, warts, itchy skin, bug bites, mild to moderate to severe pain, fever, cough, diarrhia, constipation, and on and on. I thought about the analogies in technology and society intended to do the same thing. Movies, sports, video games, alcohol, drugs, Facebook, YouTube, and on and on. It got me thinking about how so much in our modern life is intended to mask or distract us from discomfort and keep us from thinking about the ultimate suffering and death we all will experience. It’s also possible, though, that this type of analysis is overly harsh. As rational living beings, it’s logical to think we would want to avoid pain as well as the thought of our own or others’ demise. As a renewed Catholic, I think about think about the end of natural life, or Teleios, quite often. I think about the ‘four last things’: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. As with many things in life, balance is important; both in our thoughts about these things and in our actions. Recently, I drew a tremendous amount of benefit and thought from reading ‘Mere Christianity’ by CS Lewis and his discussion about man as a creation of God in His image (known as the ‘bios’ or physical man) versus eventual (hopefully) attainment of being one with God (the ‘zoe’ or fulfillment of man’s spiritual potential). Lewis’ discussion in ‘Christianity’ was very helpful in working out these complex concepts and I invite everyone to read it. Even atheists or agnostics will derive benefit from this short book. Lewis’ examination of humans as not mere mortals but as eternal supernatural beings has been a tremendously helpful model in the expectations I have for myself and how I relate to others in this world.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” – CS Lewis

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Anonymous, please choose a pseudonym and use it consistently.

"It got me thinking about how so much in our modern life is intended to mask or distract us from discomfort and keep us from thinking about the ultimate suffering and death we all will experience."

Pascal's Pensees would probably be on your wavelength, in case you haven't read it already.

FredLewers said...

Life is for living. Dying is a part of living. The cycle continues. The best part is living life so well that you don't have time to worry about it till it suddenly jumps to the top of the to do list.

Sean said...

I have held so many deluxe tickets for the next Grim Reaper Special I've lost count. To die is nothing, nada. To die WELL, that is an idea to make your life having meant something. At that time anyway. I'm going to try and make my death a value to those I leave here, such as stay behind and delay the Orcs a bit so the family gets away. That kind of value, the Orcs being stood in for by the Golden Horde. Like Colonel Kurtz, I just want to go out like a soldier. Just not by machete, if I can help it. If you have to go, and you do, make it count. I've had a helluva good time here.

N Lamusette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
N Lamusette said...

At 71 I am cautious and value common sense, however, I'm still open to life's vagaries - up one, day down the next. Over the course of my life, I have thrown myself body and soul into the gorgeous, wonderful, heartbreaking and sometimes ugly experience of life. While reading your post I thought of a perfect metaphor for this. I live in the northern part of the state of Minnesota which has a very long winter. The days are long, dark and cold. One of my sons lives in Hawaii and bought me a ticket to visit him this past winter. Being 71 year old grandmother I didn't plan on going into the ocean, but was simply glad to be there watching the waves and the people surfing. I watched them grab their boards and run at full speed into the ocean slam their boards down and begin paddling like mad with their arms, out beyond the swimming area and out beyond the rocks, to wait with the other surfers for the next big wave. When the right wave came it gobbled them up and they disspeard into the chaos of foam and water to reappear riding along the wave, first on top then dropping down inside - for awhile. Then as I watched my son, suddenly the wave started collapsing and he disappeared with the others into the foam where the wave broke very near the rocks. I searched nervously for what I hoped would be my son to emerge out of all that. I think I was actually holding my breath, when somehow, several of them reappeared still standing! It was glorious and thrilling, yet nervewracking to watch. Now, I understand why they surf, and why they are willing to risk everything to do it again. And when I say risk, for example, my older son helped a young woman who had fallen off her board (which had sliced into her leg) as she dragged herself up and lay panting on the beach bleeding profusely with an 8 inch gash in her thigh. So grab your board and hit the surf - is my new philosophical bumper sticker.

waitingForTheStorm said...

I would argue that life being mortal implies nothing matters. I believe my life is, indeed, mortal and ephemeral. I disagree that it is meaningless or does not matter? How so?

Well, I have children. I have hosted a dozen exchange students. I have mentored and guided many young folks, primarily in jobs; and, each of these individuals are better for the experience. To be sure, there are some that have suffered because of their interactions with me; but, the number of folks I have helped and the way that I have helped them far outweighs the bad parts (IMnsHO).

So, this is what matters. In my professional life, I wrote software that made many people's work life more palatable. It relieved them of tedium and allowed them to engage in what we call "higher level activities" in which they were able to capitalize on their strengths and indulge in their passions. Some of that software is still running, many years after I left.

I am not so narcissistic to assert that life only matters if I live on in an afterlife. Most of us will, realistically, have a net measurable effect on our peers, our children, our grandchildren, and perhaps another generation. If I make a better life for them, that matters much more importantly than if I continue on in eternity in heaven, or whatever other venue you see likely. I have done the best that I can and have no regrets.

I came this perspective watching my father die racked with pain and debilitating physical torment. Part of me died with him. But, the experience filled me with a resolve to make as much of a difference as I could before I shuffled off of this mortal coil.

I don't mean to be argumentative and YMMV, of course. I came to what I call the two great truths: give your children the best life that you can and try not to disappoint those that you love. By extension, your wards are your children as well.

waitingForTheStorm said...

Opps. My first statement should have been I would argue with your contention that having a mortal life means that your life is without meaning. Sorry about that.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

@waitingForTheStorm, I don't think you've really thought this through. Your children and grandchildren are just as mortal as you are, and so (assuming mortality is for real) any influence you may have on subsequent generations is just as ephemeral as your own life. First you die, then everyone who has ever known you, and then everyone who has ever known anyone who has ever known you, and so on. Then your culture disappears, your language ceases to be spoken, the human species goes extinct, and the Sun goes red giant. And then, eventually, there's the heat death of the universe. In the end, nothing you can do can ever really matter, and your influence continuing for a few decades after your biological death is irrelevant to that larger point.

Think of some random human being who lived, say, 10,000 years ago. Did he give his children the best life he could? Did he disappoint those he loved? Who knows? Who cares? None of that means anything at all now, a mere few thousand years later.

Unless that person still exists, and his children, and those he loved. Then perhaps it does matter. If you'd care to go a bit deeper down this particular rabbit hole, try this post of mine from a few years back: The reality of the past (and passing).

dug said...

so many words, so little wisdom. If you think you can figure it out by thinking, you have another thought coming.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

@dug, you will have noticed that I have cast myself in the role of Random Internet Person, not a fount of wisdom. One of the traditional functions of the Fool is to point out obvious truths that others are too well-bred to notice.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Note: This is turning out to be, by a very wide margin, the most-read thing I have ever posted, thanks largely to a link by the Western Rifle Shooters Association. I feel that readers should be aware that I haven't shot a rifle since my Boy Scout days and currently live in a country where the people have no right to bear arms.

Julie said...

The despair is not for ourselves, but for our children's and grandchlidren's souls. The battle for them is much more intense than it was for us.

Libra

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