At the end of my first post, I posed the question of why not, in the face of our mortality, simply do whatever we feel like, in essence just turning the world into one giant orgy of violence and unending pleasure. Today, I’d like to get back to that question but, more importantly than just saying why this is bad, m’kay, I’d like to tell you a bit about what I think does make life worth living. So let’s begin. M’kay?
First of all, using the senselessness of life as a means of justifying acting like a jackass is incredibly irresponsible and cowardly. You hear this kind of evading of responsibility in the great philosophical aphorism of our day:
“YOLO,” or, “You Only Live Once,” is a, “Carpe Diem,” for the club age. Not surprisingly, you can find it being uttered before acts of stupidity and recklessness. But such recklessness and pursuit of highs is all just in the service of avoiding the reality of our situation, the reality of our pain, the reality that we’re all on the same rickety ship bound for the stygian depths. But what is wrong with not wanting to see the reality of our situation, the helplessness of mortality, and the inevitable end that awaits us all? Why shouldn’t we run towards whatever pleasures and experiences will shield us from this existential pain?
The use of extreme forms of experience are essentially tantamount to suicide. Sure the body continues to live but can the same be said of the mind? Short answer: no. Long answer: At a certain point extreme experience, including pleasure, is actually a numbing agent. Believe it or not, we do not have an infinite capacity for feeling. Past a certain point, emotions and sensations lose definition, break down, and we no longer really feel anything. We become literally overwhelmed and go numb. String together enough of these experiences and you can keep yourself in a state of excitable numbness where you don’t have to think or worry. But why is this a bad thing?
A simple reason for why keeping ourselves numb to the reality of our lives is not a stellar idea is that it makes the maintaining of a comfortable level of numbness the center of our lives, in effect, making us the center of everything. All that matters is that we’re comfortable. All that matter is that we’re happy. Screw you and your pain. Screw the fact that you are a scared, lonely creature living on a rock in space destined to die and just trying to live on the best terms you can. Screw you all. All that matters is I’m comfortable and comfortably numb. All that matters is the high and seeing if there’s a way to get even higher.
So throwing it all to the wind and doing whatever we want regardless of the consequences isn’t a good option. In that case, what can we say is worth living for in a world that lacks meaning? Why is anything worth doing?
The simplest explanation for why bother doing anything is just as senseless as our existence. We do things because that is what we do. Wow. That was simple. And a little unsatisfying. But it is what it is. Why does a plant grow? Why do fish swim? Why do oxygen and hydrogen atoms form bonds? Because it is in their nature. Our nature is no different than other living things. To be alive is to be active in some form, to use energy to do work in some way. A lot of the work we have to do is focused on survival but we are also naturally curious, naturally prone to wondering, and naturally creative. We are also naturally selfish, naturally stubborn, and naturally prone to building belief systems based on faulty observations about the world. No we’re not perfect, but as living things we are active. Of course, this leads to the question of what is worth doing? What kinds of things are worth our time on this planet?
Going along with my post series about humility (Here are links to Part 1, 2, 3, 4 if you’d like to catch up on that.), I’d argue that those things worth doing are those things that are bigger than ourselves, that are not about ourselves but about others or that serve some cause that extends beyond us. I feel like it’s important to be careful with my wording here since it is far too easy to go from the concept of serving something bigger than oneself to serving dangerous causes. As the brilliant French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus said:
This is another big part of what makes something worth doing: it improves or in some way enriches the lives of others. Again, those things that shift our attention away from ourselves to the big picture of existence, to the existence of others, are worth our time, our energy, even our pain. But why, if we are so insignificant, are we to place significance on others, others who are just as insignificant? Well, it’s not that it’s all about them. It’s just that it’s not all about you. It’s also that putting yourself above others, being dominant over others and always placing ourselves as priority number one, is just a way of aggrandizing your own ego, a way to hide your nature as a decaying meat puppet from yourself. Self aggrandizement and self absorption also completely deny the fact that everyone else is suffering as well. Everyone around you is also in some kind of pain. So why not take a little interest in the suffering of others? It’ll certainly help you take your mind off yourself for a while. However, before getting to the last point I want to make, let me take a brief aside and tell you what I’m not telling you to do.
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m telling them to be a martyr and hold delusions that they’re going to save the world or that they should even try. Guess what, this is just another example of self aggrandizement. By and large, we as humans can barely save ourselves. You aint saving nothing.
You can’t save the world. Nobody can. The world doesn’t need saving. It’s going to keep doing what it has been doing. People are going to keep doing what they have been doing: being kind, stupid, perverted, cruel, funny, altruistic, and everything in between. The last thing the world needs is another wide-eyed idealist flapping his gums about utopias. You might know one of our species’s most famous utopian idealists. I’ll give you a hint. He had a silly mustache and he wasn’t Charlie Chaplin. See how well that turned out? So no, you’re not going to, “save the world,” but you don’t have to. You just need to try to be a decent human and treat your fellow humans with a modicum of respect and compassion. See, that’s not that hard. If anything, it’s a lot easier than all the work it takes to try to change the whole world and save everybody on it. Just a little more compassion, a little more listening, a little more seeing if we can be of service to others, a little more keeping our God damn mouths shut. That’s all it takes. Which brings me, mercifully, to the last point about why we don’t all jump in the big orgy pile.
Simple pleasures. That’s right. Simple pleasures have more lasting impact than any fast-paced high we might get from chasing extremes.
“But wait!” you say while flapping your arms like a goose in the middle of a seizure, “You said pleasure was bad!”
While I admire your zeal and funky fowl dance moves, I am going to have to insist you stop before a duck tries to mate with your face and I’m forced to record it and put it online. Also there is a big difference between a simple pleasure and the ecstatic abandon that comes from always chasing the next high. We’re able to appreciate simple pleasures in a different way, a slower way. Not only that but we are forced to consider that this moment will pass. Built right into the experience is the experience of transience, that the moment is slipping away from us. There is something wonderful about that. But it’s not just impermanence that lends simple pleasures their impact. These little moments, in a way, transform the world. The simple pleasures, like good food, time with family and friends, a sunset, a child laughing, are able to connect us to our humanity. It breaks through the biases and filters and reaches down into some fundamental aspect of ourselves. We connect with the world and others in a more genuine, authentic way. The world, for a moment, is presented to us in a new way and we are made new as well.
So there it is. You can run behind and under all the pleasures your body can take but you’re still going to die. So instead, try to do those things that are bigger than yourself, so long as they do harm towards none, and enjoy the wonderful simple pleasures of life. If you can do that, you may find that the world that you thought was so humdrum is actually a great deal more interesting than you’d thought.