SOME MONTHS AGO I was on the phone with a friend of mine who had spent the three previous weeks planning his suicide. To great relief of all his friends, including me, the intervention of a observant psychologist and a caring family member had prevented him from carying out his plan.
“I had everything planned out,” he said to me. “I had picked a method that would make it look like it was an accident — for insurance reasons, you know. I had prepared a bath, surrounded by candles. There would have been beautiful music. The pain would have finally been over.”
One specific part of that conversation on the phone I have often repeated in my head afterwards. You see, at one particular moment, I wanted to provide my friend with in a positive retort, but I just couldn’t do so in an honest way, to my great frustration.
“During my college years I have often heard that life is a kind of precondition for positive and negative emotions, and not necessarily a condition of suffering or joy in and of itself,” I still hear myself saying in my memories. “Sure, there is never an absolute guarantee that life will get better in the future. Life might continue to be horrible for you. But it is always possible, at least in principe, that life will get better for you, no matter how bad things are for you right now. And by killing yourself, you will also take away that possibility.”
“That’s might be true,” my friend replied. “But when I’m dead, I will no longer care about the fact that I’ve given up on the opportunity to be happy later.”
His answer felt like a real blow to the head to me, and for a rare instant, I deliberately decided to refrain from answering. I realized that my friend was right. Only the living regret lost opportunities. The dead have regrets nor interests. Yet it would hardly be a wise or strategic move to agree with that statement out loud when you’re on the phone with a friend who has confessed he was about to commit suicide —or would it?
IN THE FOLLOWING MONTHS I stumbled upon all kinds of YouTube videos, articles and books that only sharpened the problem for me. In spite of this, almost all of those also seemed to disregard the seriousness of the problem in a some way or another.
On the question-and-answer-site Quora, one respondent compared the question “What is the point of living if we are going to die and not remember anything?” with the question: “If you’re going to run out of cake to eat, what’s the purpose of eating cake?” Undoubtedly, that’s a strange way of reasoning, that correspondant claimed. Just enjoy the damn cake! Of course, we all agree with this way of thinking in practice, in so far as we all like to eat a nice piece of cake, despite the fact that all of us eventually will run out of cake to eat.
In spite of this, this analogy forgoes the crucial aspect of remembrance that is contained in the original question. After all, if the cake analogy is to be fair, it has to take into account one brute fact: the person for whom the cake tasted so good will disappear after the meal. Not only the experience of pleasure itself will come to an end after we’ve eaten the entire cake, but the memory of that pleasant meal too will soon be swallowed by the jaws of eternal oblivion.
So generally speaking, the problem comes down to this. Experiences only have meaning for someone who experiences them as meaningful. This process of giving meaning can occur during the experience, but also in the afterglow of memory. But death not only makes the person who provides the world with meaning disappear, it also destroys the meaningful experiences that are stored in memory. In short, death destroys every faculty that would give any experience its meaning.
So the problem is not so much that there are meaningful things in our lives that will perish eventually. (At least we can give meaning to those losses in some way, afterward, in memory.) The problem is that we will disappear, along with all the faculties with wich we give the world meaning. And what kind of meaning does cake have in a world where no one can taste it or even remember its taste?
LIFE IS FULL of fruitless enterprises. Between that aforementioned phone call and the writing of this blog post, I had spent weeks looking for a YouTube video by one of my personal heroes, Canadian clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. In that video he discussed in what way he thought that a totally nihilistic view world, according to which nothing has any meaning, goes wrong. I paraphrase in Canadian (especially near the end):
Suppose you meet a child who is dying from terminal bone cancer. What are you going to tell that child? “Don’t worry about it, none of this will mater in a million years”? If that’s really the best answer you can give, then you might want to reconsider your time frame, bucko.
If we follow Peterson’s reasoning, broadly speaking, then there are two general kind of time frames with which to resist nihilistic thoughts. We can give meaning to our days by either…
- … adopting a time frame that is just wide enough to take the impact of our lives into account, but to narrow it down just enough so that the consequences of our lives don’t become irrelevant on a cosmic time scale. We adopt this kind of time scale when we say things like: “We live to leave a better world for our children.”
- … adoping a time frame that limits our concerns and interests to the time scale in which they are important to us, namely the time span of our own lives. Think of statements like: “Live every day as if it were your last.”
Unfortunately, as soon as we take a somewhat cynical attitude, we realizethat both these modes of reasoning are philosophically naive. The rebuttal is evident: every single person is doomed to die, and mankind as a whole will also perish. Indeed, future generations will enjoy the world we have left behind — up until the inevitable moment that our blue speck of stardust will be consumed by the sun. After that, our collective legacy will mean nothing to anyone, because there will be no one left to value its merits.
And what about Horace’ famous advice (to the little girl Leuconoë) to seize the day — carpe diem? Well, as those romans used to say: “The sting is in the tail.” As a closer to his famous motto, Horace also gives Leuconoë the additional advice to “believe as little as possible in the following day.”
The irony of that statement, of course, is that his underlying reasing for this piece of advice is exactly our problem at hand. On the day of tomorrow we might not be able to appreciate the day of yesterday, because we might no longer be there ourselves. Richard A. Watson, emeritus professor and author of “Solipsism: The Ultimate Empirical Theory of Human Existence,” expresses this in a way that really grabs you by the throat:
There will come a conscious moment that is exactly like the present moment. It will be your last conscious moment. It will be the last moment that you are still aware of your death before you exit life. It will be a conscious moment (like the present) in which everything that you are, your whole conscious being, will be compressed. It will be what you are. Life will last for a moment, and then it will be gone.
ON ANOTHER LEVEL, however, Jordan Peterson’s question is quite instructive. Why don’t we tell the child with terminal bone cancer that its suffering won’t matter in a million years? For everyone who has a heart and some common sense, the answer to that question is in fact self-evident. Namely, how is a remark like that of any help to that child ? Correct — it isn’t. It is suffering now, at this very moment — and that is the only thing that matters.
Of course, there is a great truth hidden in this observation — one that we are all familiar with. Namely, in a very essential sense, the experience of the present moment is the only thing that we really have. At any moment in time, we live in a timeless present in which the past is a memory and the future is a product of our projective imagination. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.
Obviously, this is the same reason why the prospect of eternity and our inevitable death doesn’t mean anything to us whatsoever — in the present moment. We can enjoy the cake, as long as we eat it. And then there will be nothing.
Of course, neither does that observation solve our problem. It still remains a fact that all sense of meaning will someday disappear from the face of world, namely when every single person is dead, maybe sometime around after the inevitable heat death of the universe.
Personally, I can only think of one reason why life ultimately makes sense, despite the fact that all meaning will disappear eventually. That is, the epicurean thought that if death will be here, then we will no longer be here. And up until that moment when we lose everything, we will only ever have the current moment.
In short, it is always now, and in that timeless moment all the meaning of the world is contained. And I sincerely hope that my troubled friend learns to appreciate that timeless moment once again.