Sunday, 29 April 2012

On Dying and Getting Old


I had a thought today: what if this is as good as it’s going to get for me in this life?

I don’t really want to be comparing myself with anyone else’s life, otherwise things could get ridiculous. But I noticed while sitting there on the blue couch thinking about my life so far, the things that have gone wrong or turned out badly do seem to be outweighed by those that went right. I can’t explain what exactly was either ‘right’ or ’wrong’ about these things, I just know at that seated moment, and generally, the balance seems to tip in favour of the good.

I sit here now and it’s quiet. The rain and wind have stopped, I can hear crickets chirping outside below my window and going about their life-cycles without care for my churning thoughts. I’m pretty sure I can still hear a cicada in the distance, even though it’s ten o’clock and hasn’t been light for a few hours now. Maybe I’m just hearing them in my head; they have been rather loud today. I’ve just had a shower and am nursing some fairly good blisters after a satisfying soccer game. And as I wait to fall asleep and dream the kind of cool dreams I’m used to now, I can’t really understand how so many people seem to be haunted by horrific dreaming, I truly am sorry for them. In the morning I’ll awake to begin another week of a great job that I’m pretty happy with. It’s not my dream job, but I’m pretty sure it’s keeping me sane.

Which is why I was really surprised when I was hit again by some disturbing thoughts about life. These do seem to come and go with some regularity. Some weeks I can go without thinking about the big issues, while in other weeks I can’t seem to stop the flow. I correlate it with being tired. That usually brings my confused thoughts to the surface for attention.

You know it’s weird, thinking about getting old and dying. I don’t think anyone wants to get old to the point where they’re just waiting for death. I mean, I guess they know they’re getting old and everything, it’s not like it has just snuck up on them. One minute you’re 18 the next you’re 80. I would say though that we don’t really expect things to change the way they do. Maybe they’re resigned to it, who knows. I know it’s coming, but all I can see and feel right now is how things appear to a young man with little life experience.

For me, as someone without supernatural belief especially, these questions are hard. But I presume it’s hard for everyone, regardless of what you believe. I’ve made a conscious decision to learn as much about this world and universe as possible. I don’t expect to be involved in anything special in my life; I don’t expect to help very many people overcome problems or work through different strife; I can’t really see myself changing anything worthy; and there’s not too many influential people I know nor even am I exposed to extraordinary events. And as much as Disney would have me believe, I can’t do anything I want. My life ambitions are constrained by forces outside of my control, and there’s really no point in despairing over this fact. I think getting on with living and doing whatever I feel interests has to be the best recourse.

I am in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment I think. Ever since I began to discover the world wasn’t the way I’d always been told, and the framework began to come down, things have been different. My goals changed. I’ve become more interested in learning; it’s an almost unquenchable thirst to discover. I won’t say this’s only just happened. I do feel I was definitely brought up that way. What I will say though is that there’s been a definite drive to find out more about the world, whatever form that takes, be that experience, book, films, discussion, etc. Yet for all that, I’m not convinced this is a good thing to be spending the majority of my time doing.

Given that I just said, like a hundred words before, that I’m under no illusion that my life will be significant, I can’t help but feel it might be worth giving it a try. I don’t mean striving for grandeur; I’m referring to actually getting better at something and making the world a better place for those coming after me. Just like all those people I talk and listen to say, it’s not about what you can do for yourself, you’ve got to think about the children. What if they come into a world and want to learn and discover all the things you so enjoy now? Wouldn’t it be great if you could add just a little bit more for them to discover and write a few more pages of knowledge?

Yes, I do think that would be a good thing. But somehow, sometimes, it all feels so pathetic. Just stepping back and actually looking at the things I’m doing with cold rationality doesn’t help the old optimism. All this knowledge I’m gaining about the world is just sitting inside my head. Sometimes I put it on paper and into words while sometimes I even discuss things with other people. But ultimately it just sits there, all but useless, in my skull.

Sure a lot of it helps me get through life in various measures. My interest in geopolitics helps me understand the world and people and keeps me from falling into dangerous thought-traps and conspiracies. My love of intelligence and the world of espionage have real application to seeing geopolitics in a deeper light and it actually gives me useful skills in my day-to-day existence. Be that walking the streets or talking to people. I live my life as if I were a spy. I don’t do anything that brings unwanted attention to me and I make sure I understand the situation fully before beginning any action. Purpose, response. I can’t think of any situation in life where the skills I’ve come to really enjoy practising wouldn’t be useful.

I have a deep appreciation of science and some key scientific discoveries. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to wrap my head around difficult scientific subjects and disciplines. I can safely say I am not ignorant of science. So much if it is important, and I’ve come to realise this more and more as I look at some of the other people I know. I feel that one can’t have a very deep understanding of the world if one doesn’t understand how science works or what it’s discovered. We can be so prone to reversion to primal instincts and emotions that being able to understand biological and evolutionary reasons for human actions can make you feel so powerful and in control of your own life. It really is like nothing else.

My experience of this world is broken down into very distinct parts. I live in New Zealand. This means I’m about as far away logistically from most of the major human centres of this world. I don’t know if this bothers me very much as communications are pretty awesome and getting better by the day. Sure, I’d like to see more of the world, but living in New Zealand isn’t really all that bad.

I’m a male. This gives me pretty good access to a lot of things. More so than my female counterparts unfortunately. I’m in a privileged position being white also. The history of humans is disgustingly full of terrible stories of racial division.

But all this knowledge bothers me. I know I’m not nearly finished with finding things out. I know things about some topics. Then there’s stuff I know nothing about. And stuff I know about, but only in parts. And then there’s the stuff I don’t know that I don’t know. In fact I remember a scene from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos where he’s in the US National Library or something. He’s standing in front of a shelf of books 12 feet high, the camera can barely fit him and all the books into the frame. He’s telling us about the average amount of books a person can read in a year and the camera pans about as he measures them out with his arms. Carl looks at the camera telling us to extrapolate that out to the maximum amount of books read in an average lifetime. He begins to walk along the hallway measuring this length out. It begins to look impressive. The viewer is exposed to hundreds of books as the camera follows him. You can still see Carl quite clearly as he explains that it would be great feat to read that much and absorb all this information in a lifetime.

Then he does a clever thing, and something that has always stuck with me. He says that this information is a drop in the bucket of current human knowledge. He says this as he laments that all the knowledge he could possibly gain wouldn’t come close to representing all the possible knowledge he could gain, given the requisite time. The camera begins to zoom out as he says these words and you realise that the library is enormous. There’s got to be millions of books lined up on seemingly endless high shelves as Carl himself gets get smaller and smaller in the foreground. Suddenly the great volume of information he said an average human could read in a lifetime doesn’t look all that impressive. And a deep sense of futility and urgency hits me.

This scares me, but why? I mean, I know I won’t be able to read everything I want to and get access to every piece of information to fit all the puzzle pieces together. I’m well aware of the limitations in both my intelligence and time on this planet. I didn’t really need Carl to point that out for me. No, what scares me about all those books is probably the futility of reading even one of them, let alone all of them.

I don’t think this makes me a nihilist to figure no amount of reading will have an ultimate purpose. In fact presuming an ultimate purpose even exists is a bit of a stretch. But this is what bothers me so much. If I’m just going to die in another 80 years (hopefully, I’m 24 now, so I have my hopes and doubts about this lifespan) or maybe I’ll die in the next few days, then what does all this knowledge I’m dedicating my life to attaining really worth? Should I even be asking about something’s worth as if it were inherent? Why would worrying about it even be “worth” my time at all?

It’s worse than that though. Not only will I perish and fall into oblivion when I die. My cells will break down into their constituent star-stuff and sink into the planet erasing eventually even the memory of the evidence of my existence. Outside of me, those things that seem at least more permanent like the city I live in, or the culture, or even the species I’m a part of will all eventually fall apart in much the same way as my body. One day, the memory of even the existence of humans will be gone from this earth. Even the planet upon which all of this stuff happens will one day disintegrate until that word ‘disintegrate’ no longer means anything. There will simply be an end to anything that could remotely point to my existence. It will be as if I were an unborn baby. All this will be as if no words to even describe that words will eventually break down have even existed. The destruction will be ultimate, complete, permanent and utter. The universe will be bereft of something it probably doesn’t even know it has.

But the universe, if I can even address it as though it were a thing to be described (such arrogance in the light of utter eventual destruction of the describer), cares not a jot. From the little I know about this universe, I can fairly safely assume that this destruction has happened before, somewhere, some-when, long ago. We humans can’t possibly discover the tales of other suburbs of distant solar systems long since perished. Even now as I sit here typing to the quiet chirping of my neighbourhood crickets there’s probably many great galactic systems perishing, blown to the far reaches of the universe as we will be.

I’m more than a little worried about all this. But I’m not even sure something this complete or inevitable is worth worrying over. Surely more pressing needs deserve my worry, like finding food, water and a partner. Spending my short life with as much happiness an upright ape can attain should really be the goal. And so it is for all of us, I think. Simple, easy, evolutionarily accurate desires and worries should focus the majority of my time, not this existential bullshit. But still, it floats to the surface, and I can’t push it down. Like an itchy, annoying hair that just won’t cooperate this worry stands to attention and calls out to be noticed. So I give it a scratch, this annoying hair.

I do worry about being old and dying. I’ve seen terrible things like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia attack people who once were just like me. They were dancing, laughing, running, falling, reading, watching, thinking and loving; and now just a shell of their former selves. It breaks my heart to think that my own parents may one day have to ask for my name again. In that moment it will be as if I have never existed to them, and I really don’t know what I’m going to do at that point. I think I’ll cry, I think I’ll cry long and deeply. I will know then what it will be like to not exist. I’m extremely frightened about meeting that moment.

I can console myself in my understanding of the end of life. I have no reason to fear the time before I were born, so why should I fear the time following my death? In fact, ‘time’ in this sense doesn’t seem to fit at all. There is no time once death reaches me. Time is in the human mind, without the mind there is no time. Sure, the world will probably keep spinning around that ordinary binary star and some forms of life will evolve and live on this clump of rock for a little while longer, it means nothing to me. Yet to continue living amongst people who should care the most but can’t remember a thing about me is as close to being dead as I ever want to be. Losing one’s mind through old age is a terrible thing but I think it’s somehow worse for those people around the sufferer. After all, I’ve no reason to think that after some point the patient doesn’t even know they’re losing their mind, it’s just happening and steadily getting worse and worse. The people around them notice and it probably affects them more. I really don’t know how I’m going to cope if I’m forgotten by my parents.

But what if that happens to me? What if I lose my mind? All this knowledge and all this learning will have been for nothing. I don’t really know why learning or gaining knowledge should be “for something” but for me it is, it’s something that drives me to wake up in the morning. To know more tomorrow than I do today is a great motivating factor, and something I live by.

It doesn’t help that all this knowledge leads me ironically to explore issues like this. Without knowing about the history of the universe I doubt I would ever have felt the feelings I do now. A mix of elation, fascination and terror is probably the best way to describe it. Ignorance, I guess, really is bliss.

All this knowledge, this entire discovery, all this understanding will be gone. I can’t store it to use later. I can’t use it for very long. 80 or 90 years is miniscule and I can’t come back to try again and start where I left off. No amount of knowledge will save me from this inevitable oblivion and whatever bliss I gain from it is simply going to dissipate as my synapses collapse when I’m buried in the ground. Even if I try to spend my life doing things with the urgency that inevitable death gives me, I feel that even the best experience of life is useless or even futile. I don’t think even considering usefulness as a reason to do anything really changes things. Go and help the poor and the hungry every waking moment of your life, discover as much as you can about how the world works for future generations, enjoy life in the most hedonistic way possible or destroy everything you can possibly find and it doesn’t seem to matter or change anything.  

Why should this bother me if I know that asking the question “why” is meaningless? Don’t we do things because we want to, not for some ultimate purpose? Well, because I can’t really be satisfied with that conclusion. I want to be able to live my life as an ape and enjoy it as much as my brain can make me. I want to feel like when I look back that I enjoyed myself. But this brief blink of time will then be gone. There will be no looking back after a certain moment, and no looking forward. In fact there won’t even be a present. Whatever I am made of now will then be gone. All that went into my life, whether I eventually make a difference in someone else’s existence or I discover extraordinary things about this cool universe will be gone. For me they will be gone. If I sit on my arse right now and don’t move a muscle for the rest of my miserable life I will still be gone, just as surely as if I were to do all the cool things possible.

The option or offer of living forever is just as terrible in retrospect and closer examination. For the exact same reasons, I wouldn’t want to do anything for eternity, no matter how awesome it was. Perishing and not remembering anything is more desirable, a bizarre desire. As hard as that is to say.

So what the hell do I do now?

I don’t have the answer to that as the years keep on rolling in. They do say you have to find something you like to do and that doesn’t feel like a chore and stick with it. Give it as much time as possible, regardless of how pathetically futile it might be. I like this idea, because doing something I love feels important at the time. Doing something I love and being able to help other people with the thing I love seems to speak to the evolutionary part of my history, then again, pretty much everything can be explained in such terms. So I know why I’m happy doing what I love. I think I’ll get busy doing things I enjoy and giving the middle finger to the void. I can’t stop it coming, I can’t cease the feelings of futility all the time; I can’t even seem to convince myself that I can continue. But I think I will, just because there’s no real reason to speed up the onset of oblivion is there? It’s gonna come and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I’m going to do the things I want to do in full realisation of the destruction and staring directly into the cold gaping eternal hole of the never ending days of being dead. And I’m going to try to love every moment of it. After all, it’s really been only the last hundred years or so that people could “do whatever made them feel good”. Before that it was more simple, a hand-to-mouth existence for most humans. I know how lucky I am even to have the chance and discover the things I want to do. I won’t talk of wasting life or wasting time. I see no reason to be mournful of time lost doing stupid things. Your whole life is made up of a series of stupid things done for different reasons; I guess we just convince ourselves that they aren’t stupid things. Who cares if you melt your brain watching TV or playing video games? Who cares if you build your brain reading books or taking part in discussion? Who cares if you smash your bones careening downhill on a scooter or waste yourself having awesome and satisfying sex with hot strangers? Do what you will with your time, who am I to tell you what it is that makes you excited?

No, I’m sure that cicada is just a remnant from my tired brain, an echo from my long day. And I think I can hear the gentle rain returning again. That’ll be nice to go to sleep with.

I want to see what happens in the next hundred years on this planet. I’d love to be around to see if they figure out what this Dark Matter really is. It would be amazing to be drawing breath when they announce discovery of life on other planets or in space somewhere. There’s really no way I’m going to be able to see any of that, at least, not with the way things are going. We’re still fighting over ridiculous things, but the trend for human history does seem to be going in a positive direction. Things are looking better. But imagine if they were better a thousand years ago. I could have seen all the things I just listed. But I guess I’d just be yearning for new discoveries in that case.

I’m not going to be here for ever. I’m not even going to be here for a decent amount of time. I think I’m ok with that though. It’s a mixture, a problem I’ll never get over. The futility and uselessness of a small planet lost in the far reaches of a swirling galaxy temporarily housing a worried keyboard tapper is a picture that will trouble me forever. I’ll not worry too much about this futility; it has the potential to really slow up my slithering. And like I said, I know it’s a bit weird to want to carry on, but I do think looking forward and outward is better than sitting and waiting for the inevitable void to take me back.

1 comment:

Robyn said...

I'm sitting here, now 50. Same age as your mum. I know for certainty that I have less time in front of me, than I have just had in the past 50 years. It's quite chilling. I haven't done everything I wanted to do, or read all the books I want to read.

Yet, because I was born in the 20th century, I know that I have lived a lot longer than I would have if I had been born in the 19th century.

And I'm quite sure, that your generation will live longer than ours, simply because medical intervention has improved somewhat, even in the last 20 years or so. And it will keep on improving.

Our knowledge of nutrition also keeps us younger for longer.

So - I wouldn't worry about it too much, you have the world at your feet - just get out there and live it :)