A Fate Worse Than Death
Over the past few years, I have bumped up against a pillar of our culture that is so deeply ingrained that most of us don’t even think about its existence. That is, until we run afoul of it.
The pillar I speak of is the idea that wanting not to be alive is insane.
There are evolutionary arguments to be made for this. DNA’s primary purpose is continuity and self-replication, and as products of this material, it should stand to reason that survival would be paramount in our psychological makeup. And for most of us, it is.
Yet as our brains have developed over millennia, we have taken ourselves into philosophical territory that occasionally conflicts with our physical programming. How many of us want something that we know isn’t physically possible? I would say that is a feeling the majority of us have experienced, although my sample set is likely biased by a preponderance of artists and intellectuals in my social circle. Still, wishing for the impossible is not a concept foreign to a large number of people in our society.
So what happens when the desire for something is strong enough that the denial of it becomes painful? I know lots of folks whose dreams have been dashed on the rocks, and have grudgingly resigned themselves to a mundane existence. At some point, the ensuing depression might escalate to a level where continuing to live in a way they do not want might be so unpleasant that life itself is no longer enjoyable. Should we, as thinking adults, be able to make the choice to unexist rather than continue in a life we do not want?
This is putting aside entirely the number of people affected by severe mental or physical illness, for whom daily existence can be tantamount to torture. Yet even these people are expected to want to live, despite the clear evidence that doing so means prolonging their suffering.
We cannot bring ourselves to say that in some cases, perhaps more than we’d like, death is preferable to life.
Often this viewpoint is bolstered by the concept of hope, which in the end, is an article of faith. That hope always exists is not a provable contention. Yes, the future is unknowable, and in that uncertainty might lie the potential for improvement of one’s circumstances. But equally, things could get worse. Or more likely, stay the same. The insistence upon placing more emphasis on a positive outcome rather than a negative one is not a stance that can be defended with logic. It is faith, based primarily on a sense of universal justice. Which is more or less religion. Which, for my money, is often based on a fear of death.
Why do we fear death? It is the same sort of unknown murk that the future holds. We don’t know how it will feel, or if we will feel anything. Again, DNA’s imperative for survival and replication could argue for a resistance to non-existence. But when an organism does not possess this reluctance to deactivate, is it in fact a critical fault? If so, it wouldn’t be the only inconsistency in our behavior. Most organisms don’t shit their nests, but we have a nasty habit of doing that as well. The next century or so might show us how very bad we are at survival, with all of our instincts seeming to drive us to destroy the very habitat upon which our existence depends.
Perhaps self-destruction is actually baked in.
To be clear, I would much rather that this were not the case. Life offers many pleasures to be enjoyed, and I’m in no hurry to stop enjoying them. But that can change. Has changed for people I know, who decided that on their own P&L analysis, there was much more loss than profit. It could be that depression and other mental ailments blurred their thinking about this, and that they are not seeing the picture clearly. But it could be that they are right. And if so, would it not be reasonable to allow them a full range of options to remedy that situation?
We do not allow for this possibility in our culture, except in cases of terminal illness. Life is seen as the most precious of all gifts, a phrase which reveals its provenance from the realm of the mystical. The fact that we regard it as something that some higher intelligence has bestowed upon us circumscribes our thinking on its value.
For much of human history, life has been extremely cheap. Peasants relegated to little more than livestock, soldiers sent to die for the whims of their masters. That this has changed somewhat is an unmitigated good. The concept of equality, enshrined in the foundation of democracy, allows us to place unprecedented value on each individual’s existence. Facilitating life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all should be our primary goal. This despite the fact that in practice, we often fall back on our belief that some lives matter more than others.
In the best light, though, the desire to prevent people from committing suicide speaks to our better natures. It shows that we care, and that is beautiful.
But if we truly care about the happiness of others, we must be prepared to believe them when they say that enough is enough. We must be willing to accept the possibility that a feeling we do not share is nonetheless real to those who are feeling it. We must be able to let go of our fear of death, and refrain from imposing it on others.
Maybe this belief makes me a bad person. I rather think that it is the most realistic outlook, and that we owe each other that level of honesty.
I want you all to stick around. But I’ll understand if you can’t.
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