Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
This essay by Sara Jane Wojcik reminds me of E. D. Klemke’s “Living Without Appeal.”)
The most basic form of integrity is to accept reality for what it is rather than how we would like it to be. I have always loved science fiction writer Phillip Dick on this when he says, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I am sympathetic to the sentiment that underlies Parfit’s viewpoint—I really am. The prospect of this grand panoply of life, with all its colors, characters, and challenges, amounting to nothing, either personally or ultimately, is sometimes almost more than I can bear.
But it’s hard not to conclude that his [Derek Parfit] efforts amount to an elaborate rationalization, a denial of the essential truth of life’s meaninglessness, by reading into reality something that is just not there. The continuity of universal process (physics yields chemistry yields biology to beget us) that he equates to a sort of immortality doesn’t ring true. Once I shed the “mortal coil” of my body through death, so, too, disappears the consciousness that constitutes the unique “me-ness” of my personal identity as Sylvia Jane. I am more than the sum the physical elements and processes that constitute me. Even if these physical elements could be reconstituted exactly in Parfit’s thought experiment terms, it could never amount to the same “me” because I would necessarily have different experiences. It’s that old idea that you can never step into the same river twice.
I’m not happy about this pessimistic conclusion, but I would rather accept it than delude myself with false comfort. I maintain that the best we can do is to pursue what I have called the fulfillment offered by “pure experience.” We can only cope, not cure. (my emphasis.) Depending on our personal tastes, these can vary widely, but in their highest form, they are all participatory and first person in nature. This begins with the visceral pleasures of good food and drink, exercise, creating art or building things, discovery, and lending a helping hand. Then there are joys of children and especially grandchildren, of course.
But at this point in my life, I think its highest form might be the opportunity to interact with and imbibe of the camaraderie with other thinkers about life’s Big Questions as I am here. (Would that it could be more of a face-to-face event over a good glass of wine!) I have this unquenchable thirst to simply know how it all hangs together. Isn’t that why we all visit this wonderful blog! Beyond the practical advantages, it’s simply fascinating and, to me, an end in itself.
This might seem like so much fluff. I imagine everyone mostly gets the point of my conception of the vitality that pure experience affords, but it might lack the impact or immediacy that it deserves because no matter how artful the words it is nearly impossible to convey. It might be somewhat off the topic of the post in question, but I’d like to offer the following piece called “Success” to make what I mean by pure experience more tangible. It has been apocryphally, though not undeservedly, attributed to Emerson, but was actually written by Bessie Stanley in 1904. I grant it might be a tad overly sentimental but I think it still works and remains relevant. Here is my amalgam of its several variants:
To laugh often, love much, and appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others
and win the respect of intelligent people
as well as the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To fill your niche and accomplish your task
by leaving the world a bit better than you found it,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
a perfect poem, a rescued soul,
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
To live a life that inspires,
and whose memory becomes a benediction:
This is to have succeeded.
I claim no great progress in this direction. All I can say is that I find as I get older I am perhaps getting a little better at it. I like to think that intent matters as much as result. If we honestly do the best we can, we really have succeeded—at least in moral terms.
Anyway … I have far less difficulty with the Russell quotation, but vicarious immortality through living on through others yields, to me, only false comfort. Though our descendants are certainly derived from us, they are not us. I see it as a sort of cultural form of Parfit’s argument from the physical.
9 thoughts on “Against Suicide: Coping with Reality”
It seems that a lot of people here make the assumption that life is meaningless. It is an assumption you know. We don’t’ know and what’s maybe worse is we don’t know that if there is a meaning it’s a benign one. If you look around you might begin to really wonder about that. I assume I’ll find out ( at least in a sense) at death. If there is nothing I’m ok with that because I think life mostly stinks of suffering and for everyone who catches a few breaks there’s thousands who get the shit kicked out of them on a daily basis and if we be honest we only hang on out of fear anyway. We are built that way. Cowards we be until the suffering becomes intense enough that we just say fuck this, I’m out of here.
If you’re familiar with Charles Bukowski here’s a little example from one little life. This is one of the emotionally more difficult books I’ve ever read, yet I couldn’t stop once I’d started. And I thought my childhood was hard. Well in a way it was just as hard but slightly different.
Life has little meaning for me because it’s not much good for most humans and animals. Otherwise I’d feel different but in the end I’ll still have to leave. Personally I’ll feel better about myself if I choose when that was rather than some ugly creator consciousness or ugly process like evolution deciding how long and in which ways I’d have to suffer at the end. But as Schopenhauer said it’s not easy up until the moment you’re ready and then it’s the easiest thing in the world. Best of luck to all of you.
I can offer an odd take on this question. I have lived on my 40 acres of forest land for over twenty years now. I have worked on the forest, thinning the overgrown sections, clearing out brush, taking out dead trees, and improving the health of the forest. In the process, I have learned some of its intricacies: the many animals living there and how they all interact with the rest of the ecosystem; the underground flow of water that feeds the trees and kills some by its absence. The erosion of the ground from the flow of surface water; the constant struggle of life to survive and procreate. As my understanding of the completeness of the system grows, the closeness of my identification with it increases. I am part of this great system, just one more citizen of a diverse society. Sure, I’m smarter, but that oak tree will long outlive me. That gopher can dig underground where I can never go. That Ponderosa Pine can capture sunlight and use it to create wondrous chemicals.
To commit suicide would be a contradiction of the biological imperatives that I share with all these other creatures. It would be a denial of my fundamental nature.
Yet, I also realize the artificiality of heroic efforts to preserve my life when I am no longer living. My fundamental purpose in life is to make the world a better place. When I reach the point where the sum total of what I give in my future life falls below what I will take, then I am no longer making the world a better place, and it is time for me to retire from life. That’s not suicide, it is graceful retirement.
thanks for the perceptive comments Chris. JGM
First edict: Avoid pain … except when tolerance leads to greater opportunities for lasting pleasure.
Second edict: Seek pleasure … except when indulgence will likely lead to lasting pain.
If you lack the omniscience needed to discern when to favor either edict … welcome to the club.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably conscious … and likely immortal. Attempting suicide (in adherence to the first edict) I suspect only results in a violation of the second edict.
“When I reach the point where the sum total of what I give in my future life falls below what I will take, then I am no longer making the world a better place, and it is time for me to retire from life. That’s not suicide, it is graceful retirement.”
Chris that’s beautifully said.
And who would know better when it’s time to retire then each of us? If someone else decides for us I’d have to call that slavery either by force or fear.
I completely agree we should the ones who decide when we want to die. JGM
“If we honestly do the best we can, we really have succeeded—at least in moral terms.”
Agree we can succeed in limited ethical terms. But things have changed so much that *honest*, *best*, *really*, *succeed*, *moral* are on the endangered species list.
A definition of SE:
“Situational ethics or situation ethics takes into account the particular context of an act when evaluating it ethically, rather than judging it according to absolute moral standards. With the intent to have a fair basis for judgments or action, one looks to personal ideals of what is appropriate to guide them, rather than an unchanging universal code of conduct, such as Biblical law under divine command theory or the Kantian categorical imperative”
Morality is now archaic, for better and worse. For better because morality is revealed truth, filtered through secular laws, relative to time & place.
For worse?: don’t want to write about it, especially concerning an article on suicide– which segues to:
“I completely agree we should the ones who decide when to die.”
Amen to that.
In my experience there are mountains more that do not commit suicide due to fear of death or the act itself than do not commit suicide out of bravery or honor. I think I have lived a long time in fear, existing on year after year in a world that I believe has little to offer in the way of honesty and compassion for the sufferings of all creatures on this planet. I am at least indirectly responsible for a lot of animal suffering (human and otherwise) just by participation in the culture I belong to that wars on other countries under false pretense so I can have a comfortable lifestyle and low gas prices and lots of material pleasures and a fun job to distract myself with. I have chosen or felt impotent to really stop that from happening in my name. I just go along. I think the honorable thing to do, for someone who feels like I do is to check out and quit a game I think is dirty and rigged somewhat in my favor although I am certainly being used also. I hope I have the strength. It matters little what someone else thinks about my actions, especially a creator that I have no respect for… but somehow I have to go on living with myself. I take’s balls to kill yourself for honorable reasons thought. You find out what you’re made of of if you have the honestly that goes beyond a few well spoken words. Or I could just keep on playing the game of posting “my philosophy” at a safe warm computer screen.
John. Again I suggest you discuss these issues with a professional therapist or counselor or doctor or friend. Go luck. JGM