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This Mortal Coil

Life’s a bitch. And then you die.

As I sweat out the last few weeks of my chemotherapy and anticipate, with something less than unbridled enthusiasm, my two months of daily radiation treatments which follow, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about life and some of the philosophical questions that have been mulled over since mankind first came down from the trees and walked on two legs. Or, as Douglas Adams so succinctly put it, Life, the Universe, and Everything.

For the overwhelming majority of people alive today, life sucks. Despite Thomas Thomas_Hobbes_(portrait)Hobbes’ rather sunny view of man’s condition after he has invented “civilisation”, most people still endure lives that are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and all too short. Billions of our fellow passengers on spaceship Earth will go to bed tonight without the certainty of a meal tomorrow. For countless others, clean water is only a pipe dream. In the “developed” world, the gap between the rich and the poor has become a chasm; there is an enormous underclass that holds little or no hope that the next generation will rise above the cycle of poverty in which they are being brought up.

Those members of the underclass who are fortunate enough to be employed are often all too employed; many work two or even three soul-destroying jobs and are still below the poverty line. And to add insult to injury, the prevailing views of the overclass include the mantra that those who access an utterly inadequate social safety net are parasites and choose their miserable lot in life out of laziness. Until fairly recently that viewpoint was, by and large, an unspoken prejudice. However, the last US presidential election legitimised that contemptible meme. mittromney_47When one party’s presidential candidate has his fellow citizens divided into “makers and takers” and opines that the latter are a lost cause, ignorance and hatred have gone mainstream.

The close examination of a snapshot of the condition of humanity today would reveal a pretty bleak existence for most humans, and a life of relative opulence for a minority. Meanwhile, that privileged minority complains constantly about the fact that a miniscule portion of their enormous wealth goes to attempt to alleviate some of the suffering of their neighbours. None of this is to suggest, however, that the equitable distribution of the necessities of life in the world is in worse shape now than previously; on the contrary; in earlier times the lines were even more clearly drawn and the suffering was virtually universal except for a tiny class of aristocrats.

Life, for the average human being on this planet, as noted above, sucks.

“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” acamusasserts Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus . Of course Shakespeare had anticipated Camus by over three centuries and put that philosophical quandary into sharp relief when articulated by his depressed Dane: “To be or not to be; that is the question”. Not a question, but the question. And frequently, not to be is the answer for those unable to suffer any further slings and arrows of their outrageous fortunes.

So what is wrong with us as a species? We’re pretty smart guys and girls, aren’t we? We know, at least in shakespearetheory, that happiness is attainable; we have occasionally seen people who are genuinely happy. And even after you discount the profoundly deranged majority of happy people, there are probably still a few people who are both happy and rational. We even know what it takes to help people become, if not happy, at least not among that “mass of men (who) lead lives of quiet desperation”. Thoreau, from whom that quote is taken, found his way; he opted out and went to live on Walden Pond where he enjoyed life without any human company.

Of course, even Thoreau opted back in. Idyllic though his solitary life might have been, he eventually reintroduced himself to that mass of the quietly Henry David Thoreau; Artist unknown; No datedesperate and, presumably, joined the club. What seems to be the greatest contributor to the misery of human beings is other human beings. And yet social psychologists will tell you that human beings will melt down if deprived of the company of others of our species. In a maximum security prison, where one will encounter a selection of the most virulently anti-social misfits our society can produce, the most effective disciplinary measure is universally acknowledged to be solitary confinement; the deprivation of human contact.

Let’s face it; we have to live among other human beings. We can reduce our societal intercourse but we can’t eliminate it. That means we have to live with our tormentors and they have to live with us tormenting them. The question then (after we have decided that the answer to Hamlet’s question is “to be”) is how reasonably to minimise the mutual torment that we have voluntarily chosen to inflict and to endure.

The real mystery is how, after millennia of civilisation, a species that congratulates itself on its intelligence can have failed so resoundingly to have devised a simple solution to man’s cruelty to his fellows. The notion that we ought to look to the animal kingdom for answers is a non-starter. It’s a jungle out there. Dolphins ostracise pod-mates who have a deformity. Chimpanzees, our cousins who share 98% or more of our genes, practice wars of aggression, infanticide, and cannibalism. Lions will eat the young of a female they wish to mate. But we’re smart, right?

Those critters operate on genetic pre-programming and simple survival skills. We, on the other hand, are smart. We know that happiness is attainable. We know what can make us happy. And yet we continue to behave in ways which are certain to bring more misery and wretchedness to the world in which we must live.

The human race has a remarkable penchant for self-inflicted injury. But recognising our inclination to self-immolation is a necessary first step in our quest for some degree of happiness and serenity in our lives. So, for now, let us simply recognise that we are the source of our own unhappiness.

Let’s explore some possible ways to make ourselves less quietly desperate in further posts.



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