Attachment to Life and Inspiration from Death

One of my most profound fears is losing someone I love. It’s something that has disturbed me since I was very young. When I first became aware of mortality – I can’t specify a time or incident – I very soon realized the implications, even at my young age: I would some day die, whether I want to or not. So would everyone and everything I’ve ever known and will know. It was a disturbing realization, and one that has since resurfaced regularly thanks to my tendency for neurosis. Were it not for the human capacity to disassociate from such concerns and focus attention elsewhere, I’d probably be driven to a consistent state of chronic depression and nihilism.

But it does keep me up some nights, and I do endure bouts of sadness as I reflect on the inescapability of death. Nothing I can do will stop my loved ones from perishing one by one. Nothing I can do will save me either. Everyone I see today will eventually disappear, the following generation replacing the previous one, only to be superseded itself some day, and so on and so forth for as long as our species continues. I dread the day when I have to worry about my parents or older relatives deteriorating. I’d rather not even write about it.
While some very few of us will live on through memory, the majority of us will forever cease to exist after a few generations. There will be only faded tombs or memorials, if even that. It’s a terrifying prospect to wrap my head around, and one that partly explains why so many people seek the comfort of faith and an afterlife (indeed, that’s arguably why such concepts were universally developed by humans in the first place).
The invincibility and permanence of death are not what terrify me the most, but the sheer randomness of it. There is nothing to stop or prevent death. You can reduce its probability but never eliminate it. I know of all kinds of stories of people dying arbitrary deaths in the most unlikely circumstances. Few people wake up in the morning knowing that they’ll die – heck, few people wake up really thinking about death at all. The fact that anyone I know, myself included, could die at any given moment is a disturbing realization, not helped by the fact that I have a graciously wide circle of people that I love. We go about our business with death looming over us at all times, never certain who, when, and where it’ll strike. Most people don’t think about it, but those of us that do find the concern nerve wracking, even if it’s fleeting.
I have an intense love of life. I imagine most humans do as well, of course. But I’m referring to something deeper than merely the act of living. I want to consciously enrich my life. I love and cherish every human experience: the expansion of knowledge, the meeting of new people, the exchange of good dialogue, the taste of good food, the sound of good music – all of it is what makes living precious. These aren’t just hedonistic indulgences, but the most vital element to being alive. Our times are brief, and our senses and perceptions are all we have to embrace the time we spend here. The more we stimulate them while we can, the better. When we grow old and reach the precipice of our demise, all we’ll have are these memories (or what is left of them).
To that end, love and compassion are equally valuable. As far as I’m concerned, a life lived well must encompass some degree of empathy for others. The time we spend with other humans (and animals) is the spice of life. As a social species, we are intrinsically reliant on one another to survive, not only in the most basic sense – for food, shelter, etc – but also for emotional and mental well-being. Without some degree of love, friendship, or empathetic interaction, we become troubled and even psychologically ill.
We’re all in this together: whatever our differences in this world, we all share the same fate. Death is the great equalizer. But most of us also share in common the gift of life as well. We share this Earth. We bear a responsibility to enhance and deepen one another’s experience, and in doing so, become surrounded by pleasant people who care about us and provide us with companionship. We seek better this world for our friends and children, and as we become more interconnected and intimate with one another, we expand this circle of responsibility to include entire regions, continents, or the human race.
In other words, all we have – to the best of our knowledge – is this one life, this one Earth, and this one generation of fellow humans who share it all with us, and who are in the exact same predicament. At any given moment, all of this can be taken away from us. There doesn’t have to be any warning, or pattern, or reason. This is frightening to me, but also empowering. It gives me a sense of purpose. I can either wallow in despair at the seemingly nihilistic nature of our existence, or I can make the most of my finite and fragile existence on this planet.
I want a life that is wealthy with happiness, experience, and friendship. I want a legacy that will endure for generations, if only for at least a handful of people. Simply put, I want a life lived well. Any minute, my life can take a turn for the worse. As morbid and disconcerting as this might be, it’s as good a reason as any to make sure I can squeeze the most out of every second.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Thinker’s digressions.— With many thinkers, the course of their thought as a whole is rigorous and inexorably bold, indeed sometimes cruel towards themselves, while in detail they are gentle and flexible; with benevolent hesitation they circle around a thing ten times, though in the end they resume their rigorous path. They are rivers with many meanderings and secluded hermitages; there are places in their course where the river plays hide-and-seek with itself and creates for itself a brief idyll, with islands, trees, grottos and waterfalls: and then it goes on again, past rocky cliffs and breaking its way through the hardest stone.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

I am a huge fan of Nietzsche, and count him as one of my favorite and most influential thinkers. Indeed, he’s widely regarded as one of the most important philosophers in human history, having contributed heavily to a diversity of subjects, including religion, morality, contemporary culture, and science. His influence was particularly significant in the topics of existentialismnihilism and post-modernism, all of which were  largely conceptualized by him well in advance of other thinkers. These represent some of the most vital concerns of the 21st century, making Nietzsche’s work as crucial as ever.

He remains most known for his style and radical questioning of the value and objectivity of truth, as the above quote, alluding about the meandering of thoughts, attests. Some of his key ideas, which have become well-established in popular culture and language, include the death of Godperspectivism, the Übermenschamor fati, the eternal recurrence, and the will to power.  A central theme that underpins most of his philosophical works is the idea of “life-affirmation,” also known as Nietzschean affirmation,  which entails a sincere inquiry towards all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. Essentially, he concerned himself with what validates one’s existence, something that inevitably interests all human beings in one way or another – and makes Nietzsche and indispensable person to read.

I highly recommend you all engage in at least a cursory look at his philosophy, and try to read some of his works. He’s definitely an author that discusses a lot of topics vital to any human who has ever let his or her mind wander. Expect me to post more from him in the future, though I’ll refrain from trying to explain or interpret his work – I prefer to leave that to my reader’s discretion, given the frequent debates that center around what past philosophers really meant or said . Many thanks to my friend and fellow philosopher Paul for bringing up the quote.

Fiat Justitia, et Pereat Mundus

The phrase is Latin for “Let there be justice, though the world perish.” I first encountered this phrase during my highly influential Theories of International Relations course. The concept entails that justice should transcend and take precedence over our very existence – if destroying a civilization or society is imperative to the pursuit of justice, then so be it. It implies that a world without justice should not exist. There must be justice, even f the human race must be extinguished to achieve it. In a morbid and perhaps twisted way, eliminating humanity would indeed by extension eliminate injustice: after all, injustice is a creation of man, as no such concept as justice or injustice exists in nature. Only when you eliminate humanity does injustice and evil cease to exist (on the other hand, if humans didn’t exist, neither would numerous other, more favorable, concepts, such as reason, self-awareness, morality, and so on).

It’s easy to argue that we live in a corrupt and miserable world, and sometimes this fact honestly saddens me. Despite my general optimism and contentment in life, I am well aware of this fact, and find myself contending with internal struggles concerning my view of humanity and the world around me. In fact, a major contribution to my bouts of depression and melancholy is the nihilistic perception that the world I live in is ultimately meaningless. Evil, sadness, misery, and injustice is endless and ubiquitous throughout every human institution, endeavor, and society. Even as I write,  numerous horrific things are happening to people all over the world, things I’ve had the fortune of studying as opposed to enduring.

What is most difficult to accept is that such negative characteristics of reality will always exist by some significant measure. As the Latin phrase I quoted strongly suggests, humanity’s existence will always be burdened by evil. Poverty, crime, terrorism, war, genocide and other social and moral evils will always confound, destroy, and bedevil us for as long as we live.

The chaos and senselessness of this world can be mind-blowing. Sadness, suffering, and death can often befall any of us at random; we’re all equally susceptible. There can be little innocence in a world where no one is safe, whatever their good deeds or intentions: children, good and well-meaning people, bystanders, civilians – these are often victims of the terrible tragedies I read about on a daily basis.

On the flip side, we see murderers escape justice, dictators subject their people to misery until old-age, and evil persevere unabated in numerous places where the rule of law has either broken down or been co-opted. . Liars and cheats get what they want and keep it. People live undeserved lives of luxury and gluttony for nothing, while those that struggle and try to earn an honest living die from disease or starvation.

Once again, where is the justice and order? Where is the reason? It is no wonder that religious people argue for the existence of an afterlife and a just and good God – how could they comprehend that such terrible things could happen without any justice or reason? I don’t blame them.  What if none of this mattered, since chaos and injustice are the norm? It is argued that God has a plan for all of us, and such a claim is no doubt made to make sense of this all. But does that plan include millions dying without a chance? It is no wonder that my faith has eroded; though many other reasons contributed to my lack of belief, it was the incompatibility of  an omni-benevolent being with a world rampant with evil that added to my doubts.

Many people often ask me – as I ask myself – how I can remain happy and optimistic hen the world around me is filled with so much hypocrisy, corruption, and immorality? How could I ever be happy if this is the nature of reality that I must accept for as long as I live? I am forced to endure the fact that I am powerless to stop the many evils and injustices that seem to taunt me, and equally powerless to prevent them from befalling me and my loved ones. Unsurprisingly, others that contend with depression cite this reality as a key reason for their melancholy. Notice how many philosophers, artists and intellectuals—those most attuned, informed, and analytical of the world around them—are generally the most cynical, melancholy, or despairing? There is a correlation between how much we know about this world and how much we are saddened. The notion of ignorance being bliss has held true for this long for a reason.

We are defined by this struggle. Like all living things we exist only to survive and continue our existence. This, in addition to all my previous observations, is what often leaves me struggling with my own innate optimism. I’ve always been pleased with myself for being able to know of these terrible things so intimately, and yet at the same time maintain that ultimately the world is a beautiful place and worth saving, even if cannot be. I feel there is enough justice, good-will, and goodness in our reality to make up for all the darker aspects. In such a jaded and  cynical society, especially as of late, society needs its optimists and hopefuls, even if they are deemed as fools. Maybe I’m romanticizing it too much, but the way I see it, me and my ilk are just fulfilling the natural balance of things.

As much as humanity is mired by great evils and terrors it too must be blessed with progression and morality. If our race is truly as crooked and evil as many would believe, it would’ve destroyed itself long ago. Constant chaos and injustice cannot sustain itself – it takes reason, good-will, and creativity to transcend our awful proclivities.  History has shown that if societies fail to develop and grow beyond their primal or selfish natures, they collapse into themselves. We have so far reach a point of mixed results, with much of the having come a long way to establish societies that are freer and more progressive than before, while an even bigger proportion struggle to overcome the usual obstacles of our existence.

The world is currently at a cusp: it comes precariously close, as recent events have shown, to destruction, while bearing great potential to fix our planet, solve our social ills, and improve our societies. I feel we have the potential and means to persevere, as we’re apt do in such circumstances, but need the creativity and will. I think the injustices of the world, rather than inhibit my faith in it, should do what all obstacles must: give me motivation. I can’t let myself be dogged and tied down by these negativities. I can’t just sit there and lament the erosion of the value of life. If the nihilists were true in their belief that human existence lacks any inherent value, why do they themselves continue to live? Obviously they, like most of us, see something worth living for, even if it is cynicism and materialism.

My struggle with these nihilistic and misanthropic pondering is just a test of my will. I see it as something to keep me going and prevent me from ever doubting the beauty of this existence. I embrace any challenge as just that: an examination of my will to fulfill my dreams. The world need not perish in the name of justice, for if it did, than so would the beauty of art, reason, logic, morality, and justice. I would rather live in an unjust world, with some shinning light, than no such world—and thus no such light—at all. I know that’s easy to resign myself to from the comfort of my home, but I figure I might as well make the most of my fortunate life. I hope I can remember that for as long as I live.

Purpose Through Adversity

It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.

-Douglas Hostadter

Would our lives have any meaning if we were immortal or death didn’t exist? Would we even know what life is without knowing death first? Would we appreciate love if we never knew loneliness or value security if we never knew fear? Everything is effectively defined—and given significance—through its opposite and counterpart. If it wasn’t for the horrors of war, we would never appreciate the importance of peace. Poverty needs wealth, freedom needs oppression, and light needs darkness. These things, which are all opposed, are also mutually dependent on each other. This is the paradox in which things that are conflicting are also inextricably tied to one another.

How do you explain death without life with which to compare it to? Is not darkness merely the absence of light and wealth the absence of poverty? Without their opposing force, these concepts and beliefs would be worthless, indefinable, and incomplete. Without this system of disparate forces, we wouldn’t innovate, change, invent, adapt, create…these things, all the beauty and advancements we’re responsible for, are all bred through—and because of—conflict.

Through adversity we survive. Without a challenge, we stagnate and decay.

Life (and human existence in general) is nothing but constant struggle, a struggle that we need in order to define ourselves and give us purpose. If we didn’t have conflict, what would we have? What would drive us and occupy our time? Does not every story and narrative—fiction and fact alike—have a central conflict of sorts? It’s not merely something so metaphysical and grant: it could be as simple as wanting to graduate, getting a promotion, or losing weight…it could be as cosmic as good versus evil, chaos versus order, destruction versus creation.

In poorer countries, the concern is survival, modernization, increasing wealth and prosperity, and so on. In wealthier countries, where such problems are largely solved or marginalized (discounting a minority of people), the concern becomes more philosophical. We strive to maintain the standard of living and comfort we’ve reached, and struggle to resist the wearing down of our prosperous, affluent way of life as time passes. We also begin to develop a more existential dimension to our purpose: we start questioning the purpose of our lives, going through existential crises, engaging in ultimately petty pursuits. Devoid of any real conflict, we engage in subconsciously fabricating them. Or perhaps they were just always there, for we always need some obstacle or challenge of some kind. Even if we reach utopia, we would find our paradise somehow flawed and troublesome in and of itself (boredom would likely be the issue)…ambition and perseverance, this desire to always strive for something and overcome something else, is as much a human trait as inquisitiveness.

Everything is in constant conflict with everything else. We live in a system—globally, naturally, and universally—that is in constant flux and change and chaos and disagreement. And it is this natural state of divergences and clashes that is so dynamic, so beautiful inspite of its absurdity.