Do more people desire death or immortality?

Does everyone like being alive?  Happy people surely do, almost by definition.  If you’re happy, then you are apparently having a good time.  Nobody wants to stop having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “good” in the first place.  If you wanted it to stop, then you would call it a bad time, and you wouldn’t describe yourself as happy.

Some good times burn the fuse and we know they are temporary.  You can be having a good time at a bar but also want to go home because you feel yourself getting tired and run down, you feel the night slipping away, and that it is time to go home.  It doesn’t mean that you wanted the good time to stop.  It simply means that the availability of that good time had passed.  If you want to avoid having a really bad time the next day, you better get your self home.

With Christmas approaching, many people will both love and hate celebrating the holidays over the next few weeks.  They will love it because it is emotional in a  good way, they will hate it because it is emotionally exhausting.  It will be the best of times and the worst of times.  Some will be very sad to see it end, others will count themselves lucky to have survived it.  What makes us want to end an experience is bad feelings, what makes us want to continue experience is good feelings.

It is common to feel tired of life, but I have a hard time believing that people ever actually *want* to die.  Rather, my suspicion is people simply want to stop having a bad experience, and when life becomes a continuous, uninterrupted bad experience, they think they want to end life, when they really just want to end the bad experience–sometimes immediately.  Like staying too late at a bar, we begin to feel an exhaustion set in, and being able to get away becomes more and more attractive.

If both going to the bar and leaving the bar, rushing into the holidays and then desperately wishing them to be over, are both motivated by a desire to increase good experience and decrease bad experience, then the constant essence of our behavior would seem to include wanting to have as good experiences as possible.  We pursue happiness constantly, as much as we perceive as being available, and when anyone says they wish they were dead, they really mean they want to leave their current bad experience and go to a good, or at least better, experience.

The problem with desiring death is it implies desiring the end of existence, or oblivion.  Because oblivion is the absence of experience, we cannot imagine it, so we cannot feel in anticipating death any pain.  Death is expected to be pain-free.   If we are in pain in life, then we can think that we desire death, which is to say to simply be pain-free.  But having a pain-free experience is impossible if we cease to exist.  In other words, when we reason that death is desirable because it is pain-free, we are being non-sensical — failing to realize that by anticipating less pain “there” we are assuming a continued existence in death.  We might kill ourselves to escape experiencing pain, but it is not and cannot be to escape life or to “be” dead.  Therefore, no one desires to die, and everyone desires happiness and perpetual existence, i.e. immortality.

The Kingdom of Heaven

A man and woman were talking to each other while strolling down a peaceful road.  The man asked the woman, “What must heaven must be like?”  The woman answered:

“Well the idea of the kingdom of heaven is that of an ideal kingdom.  The laws flow from the will of the King, who is good.  The angels who reside in heaven are all pious and well-practiced in repentance and forgiveness.  The physical and biological laws there are almost exactly as they are on earth, and indeed the expectation there is that the heavenly kingdom will one day be welcomed on earth.

The ruler of the kingdom of heaven does use fear to maintain order, though many do fear him out of humility and reverence.  Order obtains naturally from the loving interactions the angels engage in with each other.  The more the angels love, the more orderly and harmonious heaven becomes.  All of the angels are aware of this, and live lives full of purpose, hope, and happiness.

The longer any angel resides in heaven, the stronger and more sophisticated that angel gets at loving.  The result is that heavenly society has been growing stronger and more sophisticated since the beginning of the world’s creation.  The angels that love the most are nearest to the King, and angels that love the least are furthest away.  The King enjoys the most intense love from his nearest angels, and in return loves them more than any others.  Heaven is consequently strongest in the areas nearest the King, weakest in the areas furthest away.

Admission into heaven is selective.  Only those that the King chooses are welcomed through the gates, and his choices are perfectly impartial, right, and just.  New arrivals, just as older residents, come to reside with those most like themselves, those that love in the most compatible style and manner.  Some make their way to the King’s throne very quickly, others become very loyal and attached to particular angels and proceed more slowly, not wanting to leave their loved ones behind.  Nevertheless, all angels in the kingdom of heaven are united in and through their love of the King, by whose will and by whose laws this society, so completely saturated with love, has been made possible.

Outside of the kingdom of heaven, proud spirits are largely paralyzed by their own self-love.  Repentance serves no benefit to them, and only promises to harm their pride and to forfeit a fragile and jealously guarded self-image of superiority.  Forgiveness is consistently withheld to justify their strategic contempt for others and to gratify themselves.

These proud spirits form kingdoms of their own making outside the gates of heaven.  Rulers and ruled are dependent on the flattery of each other, which is unstable since it can readily be traded for contempt.  The fluctuations between this thin admiration at one time and coercive contempt at another ultimately sows resentment across all of these dark kingdoms of the proud.  The resentment divides and destroys all such existing kingdoms, as new rulers rise and others fall.  The proud spirits in this state restlessly scrape after the image of greatness, which constantly escapes them.”

 

My Mother, My Immortality

The desire for immortality wasn’t the most obvious topic for my political theory dissertation, particularly one aimed at helping us understand our political situation today (the issue has been considered by most scholars as a dead one for hundreds of years).  On the other hand, we all agree that new solutions are needed to overcome the problems that we face as a society.  Well, new solutions mean new ways of thinking — it’s as simple as that.  And sometimes the old can be made new again.

Of course, new ways of thinking are likely to fail — that is exactly why nobody else is trying them.  They are untested, and often for good reason.

There really is no good way to get around this problem.  Either we seek out these new solutions, and assume the risk that goes along with that, or we play it safe, waiting for somebody else to tackle the big issues of the day.  With one life to live, and with a strong appetite to have some lasting significance, I’m willing to sometimes take my chances.

Over the past few years, I have found that this unusual path gives rise to unusual needs.  I often feel, in my personal and professional life, that I am operating without a safety net — that failure will have serious consequences, and mediating those consequences requires constant vigilance and flexibility.

In this respect, I am profoundly blessed to have the unceasing love and support of my wife, Margarita.  Where I have also found strength, unexpectedly, is from researching my family history.  I began this much more personal kind of research shortly before my mother died 3 years ago tomorrow (April 13th, 2012).  It had long haunted me how little I knew of my family, and how unrooted I felt in this world.  When I began, I could not even recall the names of 3 of my grandparents.

In one of the last conversations I had with my mom, she shared with me some details about our family in order to help jump start my research.  She also gave me some life advice, which was a pretty unusual thing for her to do.  She told me to make sure, apart from working hard, that I try to make sure that I am happy.

This advice seemed pretty straightforward at the time (Sure Mom, okay), but her words stayed with me.  Is there really a difference, after all, between working hard at something you are passionate about and being happy?  Was she just giving me a hard time?  The Bible tells us that we are cursed by the Fall of Adam to sweat and toil to provide for ourselves.  Marx tells us that our labor is actually our fundamental essence, the activity that gives meaning to our lives.  Adam Smith says in the Wealth of Nations that we innovate in the hopes of working less, perhaps suggesting that it is after our work is done that we pursue happiness.  There are lots of different views on this, so was my mother’s advice just too oversimplified?  That’s exactly what I thought for quite some time.

The better answer that I’ve come around to brings me back to the start of this post.  The fact is that the answers given to us by the Bible, by Marx, by Smith are all undeniably subject to circumstance.  They might all be right, they might all be wrong, and it may just depend.  What we are charged with doing in this world, however, is discovering our own answer to our own circumstances.  In this respect, after initially dismissing it, I now consider my mother’s advice to be superior to all three of these great moral and philosophic authorities.

“Make sure that you are happy.”  Go out into the world and discover the possibilities.  Test them; experiment with yourself.  Research your family history, write a dissertation, love unconditionally.  Be devoted, be “all in” when you try something.  Maybe it will work, or maybe it won’t, and you’ll have to start all over again from the beginning.  At the end of it all, at least you’ll have made sure.  I don’t know how any of us could do any better.

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