Archives for posts with tag: death

It seems almost unconscionable to ascribe a moral quality to ill health. It’s absurd to think that someone who has caught the common cold is some kind of sinister deviant, but as far back as the lepers being shunned and shuttered out of society, humanity has pointed at the unwell and called them devils.

Europe blamed the Black Death on the wrath of God, who was furious over the alleged impiety of His people. The mentally ill used to be incarcerated alongside criminals, their characters indistinguishable. Even lately, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s seemed only to punish those considered perverse. Consider how we inquire after cancer: did they smoke? Did they eat processed foods? Did they stay too long in the sun? What was their lifestyle like that earned them a terminal illness?

Disease is an unquestionable evil, but why are we so quick to point to its host as having responsibility for it? When disease becomes a moral choice, the pure among us become immortal. The myth that bad things only happen to bad people convinces us that if only we maintain our righteousness, we will be spared. Righteousness only as a veneer, of course, as compassion for the ill could only ever be a supererogatory act. Far simpler to pillory the sick and use the blind luck of our good health as evidence of our sanctity.


A meritocracy of health. God, I hate memes.

Where this demonization of illness is most prevalent is the disease that seems to be built on a long series of choices: addiction. It’s so immoral that it is literally a crime. Mitch Hedberg satirizes this mentality with his quip:

Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. “Goddamn it, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” “Goddamn it, Otto, you have lupus!”

One of those two doesn’t sound right.

Addiction is a reaction to trauma, neglect, and mental illness. Addiction is what happens when reality is so brutal that the body seeks any kind of escape from it. Addiction isn’t so much of an illness as it is the medication for when life is a sickness, and then through the obsession of escape it becomes a part of that sickness. Any sense of “choice” in the matter is illusory, any kind of “morality” illegitimate.

But people continue to yell at those whose lives have become diseased. Consider the top rated comment on a CBC article saying that in the first 8 months of 2017, the number of overdose deaths in BC had reached 1,013, compared to the entirety of 2016 which was 922:

I have a real hard time feeling sympathy for these people who have died. They knew fentanyl was out there. They knew that over doses were on the rise and out of control. There’s absolutely no way they didn’t know the risk that they were taking! Yet, they chose to anyways. So no. Finding sympathy is very hard for me.

1,013 human lives extinguished. That’s 1,013 families that have to deal with the grief and guilt of a loved one they will always wonder if they could have done more to save. Of course addicts know that there is Fentanyl in the streets. Some of them ask for it directly. The “risk” isn’t the point. The cure may be worse than the disease, but for many of them it’s the only option available, and some might see the risk of overdose as a potential escape from their sickness altogether. Can we truly judge those adrift at sea who drink saltwater rather than endure the agony of thirst?

But it’s fine. Sympathy is for the bleeding hearts. That could never happen to me because I am morally righteous. I am pure. I am better than them because I wasn’t raped, or abandoned, or abused, nor do I have voices in my head that only shut up when I shoot heroin into my veins. I get to tell myself that it’s my choices that make me noble. My fear of death, a bold reminder in the face of an addict, is well hidden behind the vitriol I espouse. But death cannot come for me. I am pristine. I am immortal.

A young boy dashes through the park, trampling through the flower beds. He stops to admire his handiwork, trying to memorize the patterns of dislocated petals and frantic insects. Weary of play for the moment, he collapses onto a bench.

He sees a group of children come up with rules to a new game, devoid of any reason. They scream and run about, tagging one another then arguing over new sets of rules to replace the old ones which allowed them to be tagged. Their laughter rings across the park, the frivolity creating an ambiance of innocence.

He witnesses a young man let his dog off the leash. The young man throws a ball down the field, and the dog bounds after it. With the ball retrieved, the dog jubilantly takes off across the park. The young man yells out after the dog, and begins a slow lope to chase it down.

A couple walks past the bench, hand in hand, talking quietly among themselves. The words are meaningless, but the conversation between their eyes and the dialogue of their bodies express a mute intimacy.

He looks further across the park, and sees a man with a stroller. The stroller is surrounded by a cooing group of women, while the man sheepishly stands by, feeling awkward with the attention. The group of women carry on their way, waving their high-pitched goodbyes to the infant, while one waves only to the man, who waves back with a grin.

Hearing a commotion, he turns to see that the couple, further down the path, have erupted into an argument. They remain mostly hushed to avoid public embarrassment, though passion elevates the occasional phrase before a scrutinizing stare quiets it down again. The words maintain their meaninglessness, however, while tone conveys everything they didn’t intend to communicate.

He sits back in the bench and observes the environment surrounding him. The lives of so many blur together to create a primordial vision of human existence. A flurry of sound and colour wash over him, engulfing him in their emotions. The world spins around him while he sits in the centre, calm and unmoving.

An old man struggles to his feet, and walks slowly toward the gate. As he reaches the old iron bars, he pauses. He pats at his pockets, and turns slightly, as if to look back. Shrugging his shoulders, the old man raises the collar of his jacket against the bitter cold and crosses the threshold, certain he’s forgotten something.

Some people think that a meaningless universe is inherently depressing. That a world without value or purpose is a void, is empty, and that emptiness seeps into all aspects of our being and tarnishes it black with despair. Nihilism is alleged to be the only reasonable belief system within an empty universe, and this frightens people. We all feel that there is meaning, and if that meaning is based on nothing, then it becomes invalid.

But let us look at a purposed universe. If the universe has to start at point Alpha, and must end at point Omega, then all the events between those two points necessarily must be predetermined because everything must culminate at this final position. If we are driving towards a particular end, then we would have no choice but to head towards it. We would be interchangeable cogs; our own value would be nothing, and the only possible meaning would lie in the path, not those who follow it.

If we are free, however, and we can either choose to follow the purposed path or ignore it, then that would be like “choosing” what 2 + 2 might equal. The answer could only ever be 4, and we end up not actually choosing at all.

If we are free to choose to the point where the Omega becomes fluid, then this universal purpose becomes invalid. Think of a screwdriver. If a screwdriver is only ever used to, I dunno, stab people in the eyeballs or something, and is never actually used to screw things, can we genuinely say its purpose to screw is imbued within it? Is it a screwdriver, or is it a stabby tool? By every single perspective, it would be a stabby tool, because that is the purpose that we have prescribed to it. Its created purpose would be irrelevant.

Any universe, if it has a beginning with a predetermined set of events that would lead a causal chain towards an inevitable end, saps any meaning from the individual and places it onto that chain. I know I was using Biblical terms to show the issues with God’s Plan, but this works with material determinism as well. At least with God there’s a semblance of hope and goodness in it. The common consensus is that entropy is the Omega of the material universe, and if our purpose lies solely in our path, then our purpose as material beings can only be death.

If there is no inherent meaning, however, then we are free. Some might argue that birth and death would be our Alpha and our Omega, and that freedom within these two illustrates that freedom can be possible within a purposed universe. However, death is not our ultimate Omega. Jean-Paul Sartre says, “It has often been said that we are in the situation of a condemned man among other condemned men who is ignorant of the day of his execution but who sees each day that his fellow prisoners are being executed. This is not wholly exact. We ought rather to compare ourselves to a man condemned to death who is bravely preparing himself for the ultimate penalty, who is doing everything possible to make a good showing on the scaffold, and who meanwhile is carried off by a flu epidemic.” Death, though inevitable, is unpredictable and just as contingent as everything else, thus making it impossible to be our purpose.

Because we are free, we choose our meaning every moment of every day. We constantly assign value, and our purpose comes from our decisions in the face of the contingencies of the purposeless universe. We are not an infinitesimal part of some “great plan”, we are the greatness. I would argue that the purposed universe is the empty one, because we as individuals become insignificant. In a meaningless one, we have the only significance.

The reason we fear the purposeless universe isn’t because we believe it leads to nihilism. It’s because it means we are responsible. In a universe with meaning, we are without obligation, without fear, because we know that what we do must be a part of what necessarily must happen. If we are free, then everything we do we are responsible for. Responsibility holds the greatest weight. One choice removes all other possible choices forever, and we can’t not choose.

It is, of course, impossible to prove or disprove fatalism. The jury is also still out on whether or not quantum theory has fully disproved material determinism. Just because a meaningless universe sounds better, doesn’t make it the truth.

I’m going to give two examples that personally make me lean more towards meaninglessness over meaning. I volunteer at a recovery house for drug addicts, and some guys get better, but most don’t. Sometimes the guys in the house get along, and sometimes they don’t. To me, if someone is trying to make a better life for themself, and they get placed in a house with someone else who they just can’t fundamentally get along with, and are forced to live next to this person 24/7, the likelihood of that person relapsing shoots up to almost 100%. Well, both of them, really. That something so trivial as the timing one is placed into a home for healing can make or break someone’s life, quite literally, is absurd. But it happens.

The other example is love. That there is someone out there that is perfectly compatible with you actually is quite likely. The law of averages says that someone within the entirety of the human race would have to have optimum compatibility with you. And that person would even necessarily have to be culturally compatible with you to the point of at least putting your location and timelines pretty close together. But pretty close together is relatively speaking compared to the entirety of the human race. Living on the west coast of Canada, my optimized ideal match could very well be in England, or Australia, or could just be being born right now. The likelihood of us ever meeting is almost non-existent. But let’s add the stipulation that this is a person that I will actually come across. There must be, throughout my life, the most optimized match for me. It won’t be as strong a match, but it will be stronger than anyone else I meet. But how many people do I actually engage with that I meet? Maybe I just see her on the bus, and we’re both wearing headphones. Or we just pass in the street. Now let’s add the further stipulation that of all the people that I engage with at least to the point where a relationship might become possible, there has to be an optimum match of those. But what if she’s just getting out of a relationship and is unable to commit? Or the opportunity passes because it is not recognized? Or I’m in a relationship and it’s fine enough that I am disinclined to leave it? We’ve already added so many stipulations that we’ve eliminated most of our optimal matches, and even when we’ve made it the easiest it can be to spend all of our days with this watered down “love of our life”, there are still many factors contributing to even that not coming to pass. Let’s be nice and say that you do meet this person and fall in love and spend the rest of your days together. What if you meet this person in the hospital bed next to you as you lay dying in your final days?

Dostoevsky has similar views on a universe with purpose. He looks at the suffering of children, and goes through many examples of horrific events involving the death and massacre of innocents. An army general letting loose his hunting dogs on a child; a child being locked in a Russian outhouse overnight, etc. He suggests that if the purpose of a universe is an ultimate harmony and bliss, why must it be paid for by the suffering of children? “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I would protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Dostoevsky looks at the world, and rejects any purpose that necessarily requires the atrocity that he sees. That the universe might work in mysterious ways is another position Dostoevsky rejects: “I must have retribution, or I will destroy myself. And not retribution in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.” What value has justice if it’s obscured and postponed to the point of irrelevancy?

Yes, it is possible that this this world of seemingly pointless horror does have a point to it. A point that removes freedom and responsibility from those who participate in it. It is equally possible that there isn’t, and to me that seems the more sensible, and uplifting option. Unless all the meaning you’ve created for yourself disappears through contingencies outside of your control, and there is no permanent meaning outside yourself that you can cling to, that will always be there waiting for you, THEN I guess it could be a little depressing. But more meaning can always be created, and despair is not an excuse to not search for more. Just as misery can be pointless, so too can joy. Ever find ten bucks laying on the sidewalk?