If you discount the existence of a deity or the claim of an authoritarian government or institution, the decision is yours. At the moment, I would say that my life has none. It has its compensations certainly, but mere survival marks the limit of my abilities. My pain is such that I sometimes fight back hysteria. Demerol won’t touch it. Dilaudid is a joke (ha, ha, ha). Percocet and Vicodin are like baby aspirin. I think that, if I were weaker of character, I would lose my mind.
When I ask myself what losing my mind would look like, I picture the drainage canal across the street, and then I picture myself gibbering like Porky Pig while running naked onto the bridge over that canal and throwing myself into the water. The drop is only fifteen feet, and the water is never more than four feet deep, so death would be an unlikely outcome—but that’s the point. Suicide requires judgment, but if I lost my mind, I would lose my judgment, which completely precludes taking the course of a local woman who put on lots of clothes, loaded the pockets with rocks, and drove her car into a lake. Such a woman could not, in any respectable sense, be accused of losing her mind. Losing your mind has to appear profoundly stupid if it’s to count for anything, and the most the woman with the rock overcoat could say was that she was depressed. I laugh at depression (ha, ha, ha)! I left mere depression behind months ago. Depression is for pikers. Depression is okay as a starting point for people whose goal is to lose their minds, but that’s the most that can be said for it.
The more I think about throwing myself into the Amazon (for that’s what the drainage canal is called) the more I doubt the advisability of losing my mind, because it is plain that nothing good would come of it. I might break my legs—or even my back—but in any event I would be locked away in a padded cell and force-fed anti-psychotics. These drugs pose a significant risk of tardive dyskinesia (a permanent condition that causes one to compulsively grimace, stick out his tongue, smack his lips, blink his eyes, and lots of other party deflating activities), and this condition alone is enough to convince me that I really, really don’t want to be locked away in a padded cell.
But then I reflect that, okay, what if no one was around when I threw myself into the Amazon. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have to worry about tardive dyskinesia, but I would have to decide what to do next. I would probably start by sitting in the oil-slicked water until I got cold. Then I would crawl through the blackberries that line the canal’s steep banks until I could peek out and see if anyone was coming. When the coast was clear, I would make a break for my house, take a long, hot shower, and—I suspect—feel relieved that I was all done with losing my mind and could move on to more rewarding activities. In other words, I would be right back where I am now, only bruised, scratched, and with a broken leg or two….
….Since I have no idea what to write next, I paused just now to listen to the clock tick. It’s an electric clock, so I see no reason why it should NEED to tick unless its creator thought he could sell more clocks that way—or had lost his mind. Yes, of course, he lost his mind, and in his psychotic state concluded that ticking noises annoy clock hands, which then run round and round to get away from the racket, and coincidentally tell us what time it is. When the ticking gets tired and takes a nap, the hands stop moving, and then someone has to wake the ticking up again, either by winding the clock or changing the battery.
What I find about being in pain every goddamn moment of every goddamn day is that it takes a lot out of me. I can’t sleep, so I can hardly hold my head up when I’m awake. I’ve taken lots of strong drugs, and they have left me feeling polluted in body and senile in mind. I can’t work at anything requiring two arms, and this means that Peggy has to do her job plus much of my job. I can’t make plans because I have no idea when or even if I will be able to do most of the things I enjoy, plus I’m too despondent to make plans anyway.
This brings me back to the purpose of life. I see life as like a movie that’s weird and not terribly interesting, but that you keep watching just to see how it ends. Only every time I’ve forced myself to sit through some dog of a movie just to see how it ended, I hated how it ended because there was no resolution. It was as if the director ran out of money after 116 minutes and immediately stopped shooting. THAT’S how life is. The different scenes aren’t connected into a coherent whole, and it doesn’t come to a meaningful conclusion; it just stops with a final exhalation of air. It can be a 105-year-old feature length life, or it can be a day old public service announcement length existence, but either way, people try to build a meaningful story out of it (i.e. make sense of it) as an afterthought because we NEED coherency.
I guess most people don’t feel as I do, but I don’t why. Look, I’m down on my own life, okay? I’ll admit it. I look back at my six decades, and damn if I can figure out what the point of my existence has been or why I didn’t do it all better. But I pass the same judgment on other people’s lives, or at least most other people’s lives. Let’s say you’re a teacher, or a plumber, or a road-crew worker; what’s the good in it? Of course you contribute. You make sure kids can read, people can flush their toilets, and the roads are paved; but, really, is that enough to make you feel that all the shit you had to put up to stay alive was worth the bother?
I suppose most people would argue that there’s more to life than work, as if life were a layer cake that gets better as you add to it. So, you’ve got your job; plus you’ve got your family, weekend bowling tournaments, yearly vacations, popcorn at the movies, and so forth. What I would ask then is this: why do these things give you purpose; why do they make your life worthwhile? I can see that they’re fun or that they contribute to the world to some extent, but, on the other hand, you’re going to be dead really soon, and in a few decades no one will even know you lived, and there will be little if any reason to believe that the world is a better place because you were in it. Doesn’t it bother you that, in the big picture, you’re no more important than a spittlebug?
I would guess that most people, if it really came down to the bottom line, would say they lived for their family or for serving God. Take the plumber. He might feel pride in the years he spent gluing pipes together, but I doubt that many people find purpose through such things. Maybe I’m wrong, but if you were on your deathbed, and someone asked you what you did in life that you were the most proud of, would you talk about your job? I would guess that most people would talk about the people they loved. I’m guessing, so feel free correct me. Pretend that I just arrived from Mars, and I’m trying to understand earthlings.
Right now, my life sucks. It really does. I can’t tell you what a drag my life is. I hurt all the time; I’ve lost most of the friends I ever had; I’ve stopped attending all of the groups and activities that were ever important to me (chronic pain is as isolating as a monastery); and I can neither do the work I love nor pursue the hobbies I enjoy. I spend hours a day loathing the present, panicking over the future, and blaming myself for the past. Great. Some life. Yet, it is not without its compensations, and they are partly due to the fact that things are so bad in the macro that I have become skilled at finding pleasure in the micro.
For example, Peggy and I went to Goodwill yesterday. We call such trips our dates. She bought three CDs and a drinking glass with penguins on it; I bought a four-cup coffee maker; and together we bought a book of cat-inspired art and poetry. When we got home, we made supper together and then watched the Olympics. While we watched, Peggy threw the ball to our blind dog, Bonnie, who would alternate between searching for the ball and humping my leg. Except for the Olympics (we usually watch really old TV shows or even older movies), it was a typical evening. In such small things, I find reason to live. I become inordinately happy at times just because I have a roof over my head and food in my pantry. I rejoice on those few days when the rain stops long enough to take the dogs for a walk. I appreciate the fact that neither Peggy nor I have been diagnosed with cancer. I find happiness just by shifting my arm to some position in which it hurts less than it did in the previous position.
And as much as I dread the late hours when I must finally face getting into my chair for another night of suffering, even then I find rewards. Ice packs feel SO good on my shoulders. They make me cold, but that’s okay because the heating pad feels SO good on my chest. Next, I pull the CPAP mask over my face, and I remember that CPAPs were only invented 25 years ago and that without one, I would almost certainly have died a prolonged and miserable death. Some nights, I listen to the rain or the wind, and feel grateful that I don’t have to be out in it. Other times, I feel appreciative that I have insurance to pay my medical bills. When I finally get out of my chair at 11:00 a.m., I rejoice that I don’t have to set an alarm clock and go to a job I hate; or any job for that matter, because I honestly don’t think I could find the strength.
So, do I think—for me, for now—that life contains some BIG purpose? Hell no. My life is worthwhile only because I am well loved by a good woman and two good dogs, and because I still have the capacity to feel joy, pleasure, and gratitude. That’s it. If I die tomorrow, there will be no traffic jams around the funeral home, and people won’t share stories about how much I accomplished or how many people I touched. If they’re honest—and if they know me well enough—they will be at a loss to find much of anything good to say about me, because I have done nothing more noble than to blunder my way through life pretty much as blind Bonnie blunders her way through the house, bouncing off first one wall, chair, or table and then another until she finally stumbles out the exit. Maybe your life has gone better, but I wouldn’t trade. Mine might not be much, but at least it’s paid for.