To Be Nothing
“Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2).” The young man and the young woman admired each other. They lived in the same building but on different floors. Providence allowed them to meet, talk and fall in burning, passionate love, the kind displayed in movies, the stuff of lively dreams. He marched her to an altar soon thereafter and they promised each other that only at death would they part; a house, red car and two children followed. They both worked decent jobs; there were bills to pay and a healthy, modest lifestyle to maintain after all. They’d been together for five years when she turned to him wearily one night in bed and said “honey, do we have it anymore?”
They both agreed that their love had been a thinly-glued illusion, fading like a slight puff of smoke, fleeting like dry leaves on a windy day. So, quite naturally and bravely, they decided to annul the marriage; she was to take the house and children, he was to take the car, which he killed himself in by taking 45 bayer aspirin tablets (the tiny, white ones) the night before the divorce was to be finalized. He was 34, weighed 177 pounds, and some—many, in fact—would say he was handsome.
Now some, like my father, believe that the young man, who lived five houses down from us, was stupid to kill himself over a woman when there are so many in the world—so many who’d kill to have a decent man. But perhaps my dad, wise to the world as he is, has missed something. Perhaps the young man was on to something that only a few have eyes for. Plus, in any event, he kept his promise: “till death do us part!”
What then could the young man have seen? Could he truly have a just reason to take his life? Could his final act be a beautiful revolt against suffering, a brave and rational response to the angst and pain of living? Well, just consider this world, this life. Isn’t it true that everything built can and probably will be destroyed, that there’s nothing made that’s beyond significant improvement, everything is flawed?…Look at people how they make noise behind their favourite Politian, their hero, their redeemer, their Heaven sent. They vote and are let down when the Politian fails to work a miracle. They become disillusioned, they swear they’ll never vote again (they always seem to change their minds the next election though). Look at what and how we eat; the best food tastes sweet only as long as we’re still hungry, after that it begins to be nauseating. Even saints have their time when they need to be corrupt and vengeful; heroes often turn out to be frauds or at least full of flaws…The baby is born and from that time onwards its life is a futile protest against something sure, something inevitable. Eventually, whether at birth or somewhere between 3 score and 10 years later, it will get sick, it will decline, it will die. Decay in all forms, it seems, is the whole history and future of this world. It watches over it like a night-watchman. It waits for us—all of us—in crevices and corners like a cunning robber until the day it finally gets to write “HERE LIES ANOTHER CHILD OF SUFFERING, NUMBER [SO AND SO]” on our graves.
Even the ancients sensed it, perhaps more acutely than us. There’s an old Greek legend that King Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, the god of drunkenness. The chase went on for years and years in a certain forest. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked “what’s the best thing of all for men, the very finest?” The demigod remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said, “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this—to die soon.” (Adapted from The Birth of Tragedy)
Diogenes of Sinope, the annoying Greek cynic, was asked, “What’s the difference between life and death?
“No difference,” he said
“Well then, why do you remain in this life?” The questioner went on.
“Because there’s no difference.”
And Saint Paul famously declared in Acts that “if it is in this life alone that we have hope, then we’re like men [humans] most miserable.”
Both Diogenes and Paul, though they’ve grasped the futility that is fundamental and inseparable from the human experience, seem to be in error to me, however. Diogenes errs because he misunderstood his question. It seems obvious to me that the other and more appropriate way of phrasing and interpreting the question “what’s the difference between life (existing) and death (not existing)?” is “what’s the difference between life [with all its opportunity for pain and suffering] and death, which is without that opportunity?” And, so understood, there’s clearly a difference.
Saint Paul errs to me because he makes hope in another life the solution for the problems of this one, as if this one is to be forgotten, disregarded for life eternal. See, before we can attain Heaven or any other afterlife glory [we’ll assume there are such glories although there is something grammatically and ontologically unintelligible about the word (and concept) “afterlife”] we’re faced with the problem of living this one successfully. And isn’t that the first task of every human being—to live this life to the fullest (whatever that means), whether for a reward in a next life or in this one? I certainly think it is. It seems to me then, that if it’s the hope of a better life to come that separates us from men [humans] most miserable, then we’re just hopeful men [humans] most miserable.
But I digress.
A Gift from the Lap of Nature: The Will to Live
What am I saying exactly? Should we all cry out that suffering is inescapable, that all our attempts at living a full life are futile, that life isn’t worth while because death becomes us all? Should we kill ourselves? Well, MAYBE. That’s certainly the most amiable solution for a certain kind of person—the type who are tired of life, weary of this Samsara, this cycle of being and becoming—people like the young man and some pastors and priests (but that’s a story for another time). But what about the majority who aren’t depressed? Why should they go on?
I suppose they’d say that because life is sweet (and they’d find it hard to understand a person like the young man with his weak nerves). I suppose too that they’d say it’s the young man who has missed something that everyone else sees quite clearly: that amidst all the suffering life is perfect, that suicide is a coward’s salvation. To these people, I think the young man would ask “is it so cowardly to leave your life behind when you’re done with it?” They’d probably respond “you should never be done with life, instead wait until it’s done with you.” To which the young man would probably say “but it feels like it’s done with me, I don’t feel the joy you feel, I don’t have the hope you have; I’ve come to know just about how difficult living can be.”
And perhaps without knowing it the young man would be leading us to ask a very important question. That is: why do some people want to live while others want to die? The obvious answer is that the ones who want to die are depressed, mentally ill, there’s something wrong with their nervous system—they’re going through what the Christian mystic, John of the Cross, calls the dark night of the soul. Now look at what they’re treated with: pills and other types of medicine. Therefore, depression is a physical illness, which means it’s our bodies that will us to live on. That is, a person with healthy nerves cannot have suicidal thoughts. Yes, Mother Nature, cruel as she sometimes is, has given all healthy humans one task: to live and have life in excess!
Life after Death: A more digestible form of suicide
Now, if we can see and accept that the aim of life is to grow, to blossom, to flourish—to have life in excess—then our next task is naturally to find out how exactly that is to be done. I must confess that I’ve yet to find a universal answer, although I’ve searched far and wide. But there’s a theme in most psychologies, philosophies and religions that I’ve come across: that in order for us to blossom—to become what we potentially are—we have to be “born again” or, in other words, we have to die to the self or parts of ourselves that keep us from flourishing. In a manner of speaking then (and I hope I’m not being presumptuous), it seems, that in order for us to live a full life, we’re going to have to sort of kill ourselves at some point, refusing to go on living blindly and spiritually impoverished—a necessary and honourable type of suicide. For that is what true suicide represents psychologically: taking one’s fate into one’s hands and refusing to continue with one’s life when one is tired of living a certain way, dying at the right time. What bravery, what a remarkable sense of responsibility must true suicide take!
Advice for the young man: find a game that’s worth the candle
Now suppose I saw the young man right before he killed himself, what would I say to him, what advice could I give him? “Don’t do it?” No, I think things would be too far gone for cliché instruction to have any effect—perhaps for any advice to have an effect. But I do know this: only hope can penetrate the shadows of sadness, only faith in a future happiness can see us through deep, dark despair. So, for the young man to want to live again, he must have reason to, one so strong that he’ll be willing to suffer through his depression for it. After all, it is as Nietzsche says, “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
Therefore, then, I’d ask the young man “what would make you the happiest man in the world?” He’d probably respond “having my wife love me again, getting a chance to rebuild my relationship with my family.” To which I’d probably say “then sir, if you can’t let her go, then fight for her and your children with all your heart and soul. And keep the memory of them alive in you until they come back. Go through life this way.” And he might ask “if I do this will I be sure of getting her back?” And I’d say “not at all, but I think it would be a worthwhile game to play.” Now if he says “I don’t think I want to play that game.” I’d say “although I would hate for you to, but if it’s your true and only wish, then yes, you’re well within your rights to kill yourself.”But if he says “where do I start?” I’d say “first, start the long and hard process of killing the self that caused you to want to die when they left, the same self that probably caused the relationship to end in the first place. Secondly [and perhaps I’d be being too playful here], learn to chill, jeeeez.”
*****************BY THE WAY MY READERS, DON’T KILL YOURSELVES*****************
photo by Yasmin Al-Samarrai
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