They will be like the morning mist, like dew in the morning sun, like chaff blown by the wind, like smoke from a chimney. Hosea 13:3


I saw life as predictable and everlasting because time moved so slowly that I couldn’t imagine myself growing up. Days were alike except for weekends and holidays, which seemed so far apart that I once tried to hurry Christmas by pulling leaves from September trees. I knew that real change would someday come, but the time seemed so far away that thinking about it was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I lacked the words to say so, but I regarded change as theoretical rather than actual in the same sense that the earth someday being obliterated now seems theoretical rather than actual, although it will certainly happen.

My concept of life as more or less a status quo affair lingered into my fifties because, while many changes had by then happened around me, I stayed constant within myself. Then, my health changed in ways that left me with pain and limitations, and once a person can’t trust himself to stay right, and other people can’t make him right, life becomes more serious. Now, when I look back upon all the people and events that I once knew and experienced—and are gone forever even though it once seemed that they would continue forever—I become panicky and nauseous because I know that the people and events that are currently a part of my life will also cease to exist, and that the time before it happens no longer seems like looking through the wrong end of a telescope but through the right end of a microscope.

I have an 87-year-old friend who says to me every time I see him: “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” He says this with a solemn voice and baleful eye as if it’s his own original and profound discovery even though he’s been saying it for years, as have millions of other people. He says it this way because it is his own discovery and it is original and profound, although the bromidic words with which he expresses himself can’t begin to impart his private realization that life can and will go horribly wrong no matter what we do, and that, all too soon, everything will be lost. All the work, all the years in school, all the relationships, and a million little things, will soon disappear in the same way that light disappears when the bulb blows.

In late adolescence, I began to think of life as the product of how one looked at it, which meant that if I looked at it as a game, I could avoid suffering. Yet, even then I knew what it was to step on a nail, to fall ill with strep throat, and to bend double from food poisoning, and I would guess that no one ever said that life was a game while he had a nail sticking out of his foot, or was having diarrhea in a toilet while throwing-up in a trashcan. There are even books that promote the view that life is a game, but I very much doubt that any of them were written in Palestine or Darfur or by people who were in intractable pain. The irony of life is that the same brevity and powerlessness that make it meaningless also make it profound. Indeed, when I was able (on my better days) to view life as a game, I had yet to understand that life is more akin to a gasp that bursts from the eternal blackness of the void only to be sucked back into it. Once that thought reached my core, life became a tragedy. As my IOOF ritual put it:

“I have seen the rose in its beauty spread its leaves to the morning sun. I returned and it was dying upon the stalk; its grace and form were gone; its loveliness was vanished away; its leaves were scattered to the ground, and no one gathered them together again. I have seen man in the pride of his strength. He walked; he ran; he leaped; he rejoiced in that he was more excellent than the rose. I returned, and life was departed from him, and the breath from out of his nostrils.”

All but one of the nine men who used to stand around a coffin with me as we performed that ritual are dead. “Death is in the world,” they said; “All who are born must die,” they said, and so they died, leaving only my 87-year-old friend and me.

Given such a reality, I can understand why people turn to religion and spirituality, and even today, I wish that they could be true. Yet, from adolescence, I viewed their content as so fanciful that I could but cling to them desperately in order to enjoy even the fleeting illusion of a permanent hold. I asked the darkness around my bed why, if there really exists an Eternal Beneficence that reaches out to us as eagerly as we reach out to it, doesn’t that Beneficence reveal itself equally and undeniably to everyone rather than leave us to interpret the words of dead men in contradictory ways, all of which promote hatred in the name of a thousand different Gods of Love. Finally, I couldn’t go on believing in God anymore than I could go on believing in Santa Claus, there being so few things that make life bearable that the rest must of necessity fall away. What could possibly make life bearable for an atheist, some might ask. Kindness, integrity, intimacy, art, music, literature, good health, simple pleasures, adequate resources, writing, reflecting, studying, time in the woods, and, most of all, truth. Given that there are so few, none can be relinquished without the loss outweighing the gain, and religion and spirituality required that I relinquish truth as I believe it to be within my deepest self.

The truth of which I speak is that the existence of certain persistent questions regarding the possibility that our lives possess an ultimate purpose, doesn’t suggest the existence of answers, but rather a need that there be answers, and so it is that answers are invented—both by religion and philosophy—not to satisfy a truth need, but rather a psychological need. Some people are satisfied with these answers; others appear to have been born with a lack of interest in the questions; and still others are left with the questions despite the absence of any hope that there be answers. They are left to feel that religion, spirituality, and philosophy have all failed to satisfy their needs and, indeed, that their needs are unsatisfiable short of death. Wittgenstein expressed philosophy’s failure as follows. Religion and spirituality are unable to address their own limitations so humorously.

“The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—this method would be the only strictly correct one.”

In case his words are obscure, I will tell you what I think they mean. The only truthful tack that philosophy can take is to say nothing about that of which it knows nothing. If it does this, its remarks will be limited to natural science, a field unrelated to philosophy. If someone should come into a philosophical circle and make a remark about the existence of a reality that transcends natural science, philosophy can but dismiss his or her remark by breaking it down into its constituent parts and pointing out that they suffer from a lack of clarity and specificity, and are therefore nonsensical. The person who made the remark will not find this approach satisfying, and won’t even understand what it has to do with philosophy, yet those who offer it can take comfort in knowing that they have presented the best that philosophy has to offer.

To put it another way:

“Even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein

24 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

Oh Snow. Your posts always make me think, and often leave me with more questions than answers. Today, you have reinforced my own life philosophy (for want of a better term). I believe that our lives are random. What is, is - the good, the bad and the indifferent. I don't think it has meaning - other than what we give it ourselves. No deity. So, I live my life as best I can - according to my own ethics. A work in progress.

rhymeswithplague said...

This one is deep, bro, very deep.

Snowbrush said...

"Today, you have reinforced my own life philosophy..."

Wittgenstein was writing about professional philosophers, but, of course, we are all philosophers in the sense that how we interpret the world and our place in it determines how we live. Religion and spiritually might be seen as optional if anything is optional (which I doubt), but philosophy is required.

"This one is deep, bro, very deep."

Thank you. It's very different from your own interpretation, obviously, yet I'm sure you realize that a major difference between myself and most believers is that I ask more questions. Once you do that, you either have to go deeper into your faith, or you have to move away from it. Would you not agree?

Stephen Hayes said...

One reading is not enough to fully absorb the content here. I know I'll be coming back for a second read. And maybe a third. But I will say you are a consummate wordsmith and it's a joy reading your posts.

lotta joy said...

Those who died when I was in middle age, the rest of us moved into the hole they left, filled up the gap and went on. Grief. Misery. Loss. Close ranks.Move on. One foot in front of the other.

NOW, I have one sister left who is in the final process of dying a particularly cruel and horrifying way. I am in a rush to head home just to memorize her face (as if that were possible).

She was my touch-stone. My safe place to land. She was my strength. She will be gone and there is no one left to move into the hole she leaves.

She says she is ready, but not in a hurry, for she believes in the afterlife and being reunited with all who went before.

Mortality has reached me as it never has. Once she's gone, everything will be gone. There will be none left to scootch into the spot she leaves. There will just be me, next and last in the chain.

Believing as she does, gives her peace, and she will die never knowing what I believe. It would wound her to think I "won't be in her heaven".

But I KNOW, deep in my heart, there is no "after", as strongly as she believes there is.

It doesn't bother me that there is no afterlife. It never sounded logical in any shape or form.

It is my belief that something of such tantamount importance and truth would not have been left up to personal interpretation and error.

I think what is bothering you and me is seeing the last of the troops dropping away from us. THE END, is really, THE END.

Lisa said...

This is beautiful Snow, and has given me much to think about this beautiful Spring australian after noon x

Linda said...

You speak so eloquently it takes my breath away.

I started my little philosopher brain activities when I was about four. Only when I took philosophy classes at university did I realize the philosophers who write books thought the same thoughts I did before I ever entered school. However, I put away what I deemed childish thoughts and entered mainstream religion for a period but slowly slipped out of those thoughts. Now, I am at the end of my life, so to speak, and think like I did when I was four. I was not having childish thoughts. I saw life and questioned the reality of everything I saw and experienced.

Your words are so beautiful to me.

Charles Gramlich said...

When I was young, I just never thought my body would betray me. It has.

Snowbrush said...

Stephen, thank you.

"Believing as she does, gives her peace, and she will die never knowing what I believe."

I wouldn't tell her now, but I would have told her years ago. I'm sure that a lot of people who have "dirty little secrets" like atheism or homosexuality try to keep it to themselves, and only share it at long last with their closest friends, and even then with "fear and trembling." I communicate my atheism fairly early on in order to avoid wasting time with people who are going to reject me anyway once they find out, and I would say that I am rejected far more often than not. Of course, I can't say for sure that it's the atheism that does it, because it could be the other person's perception that I'm sharing too much too soon. Yet, any survey ever made in regard to America's attitudes toward atheists proves that we're hated just as much as pedophiles are hated, and imagine telling a new acquaintance that you're a pedophile.

Thank you, Lisa. Thank you, Linda.

"Now, I am at the end of my life, so to speak, and think like I did when I was four. I was not having childish thoughts."

The main thing I remember about those early years was that nothing seemed too wondrous to be true. I saw the universe as benevolent. I saw myself as eternal. I believed that nothing existed apart from my presence, and this made me the creator and sustainer of reality--God as it were, although I didn't make the connection. At the same time, I listened to sermons that portrayed God as a wrathful old man who was going to descend from the sky really soon--maybe that very second--and throw everyone who didn't believe in him--along with everyone who hadn't had time to forgiveness for his or her most recent sin, no matter how trivial--into a lake of eternal fire, and I believed that too. So, I look back on those early years as a time of contradictions with some such beliefs being happy and others being nightmarish, and fully believing whichever one was in my mind in the moment. I was a puppy then and an old dog now. I wouldn't have believed it at the time, but in many ways, being a puppy was better.

"When I was young, I just never thought my body would betray me."

Yes, to fall down and get up laughing. Or to break an arm and consider it fun to wear a cast.

PhilipH said...

There are thousands of 'bloggers' but only one Snowbrush.

This post is a masterpiece. It really is.

Your "life is akin to a gasp" is so true; I've never heard this said before but it sums it up succinctly and honestly.

I, too, remember sitting alone in a small back garden in Croydon when I was probably about four. I just thought there were children and adults. That I would grow into one of these giants just didn't enter life.

Now I've just become a great-grandfather and I actually feel sorry for this helpless little chap and the life sentence he has just been given.

Life without the prospect of death is scary in the extreme. It would be unthinkable to me. The need to go into an eternal rest, freed at last from all the physical and mental pain that life entails for almost all humans, is the only saving grace imo.

I'm the eldest of five boys. I've lived longer than both my parents and at least two of my younger brothers, Michael and Geoff. Michael died at age 45 after a brain haemorrhage. Brother Geoff was 72 when death cured him of kidney cancer.

Life is an accidental happening and death mends us all from life's hurts.

possum said...

Buddha believed that life equaled suffering. The First Noble Truth is that there is pain and suffering in the world. He realized that pain and suffering are omnipresent in all of nature and human life. To exist means we will all encounter suffering. Birth is painful and so is death. Sickness and old age are painful as are physical pain and loss. Throughout life, all living things encounter suffering.

He also told his followers to question everything, not to believe what they were told but to THINK and QUESTION. Then, when something made sense, accept it but be prepared for that answer to change as more information came their way.

I have discovered that there are those who are unable to THINK, and accept the Santa Claus god and all the stories that go with it. I guess it is very comforting to some to believe that stuff, but perhaps their brains cannot go any further. On the other hand, like many others, I questioned the Bible and the punishing, jealous god from the time I was old enough to read (3) and they took the Bible away from me because I was asking embarrassing questions at church.

I also remember as a pre-school age kid thinking that the Earth was where bad souls were sent until they learned how to truly become LOVE and filled with compassion.
Buddha gave us only one rule: Do no harm. Everything else was a suggestion to bring us to a more peaceful existence.
I guess all that made more sense to me than any of the stuff I heard in the various churches, temples and mosques I attended on my search for An Answer That Made Sense.
Doing NO Harm is not as easy as it sounds.

Great post, Snow. I hear you.

Kerry said...

I sometimes wish everyone would just talk about what they knew about, and ask questions about what they don't know.

This post is dense with ideas; you have fodder enough for 6 more posts.

Snowbrush said...

"I've just become a great-grandfather and I actually feel sorry for this helpless little chap and the life sentence he has just been given."

I too feel sorry for children, but would I prefer to have never been born? No, because as hard as life is, it contains many compensations. You?

"Life without the prospect of death is scary in the extreme."

In America, some prisoners (sometimes the most dangerous, other times the ones the government hates the most) are locked into a cell for 23 1/2 hours a day, year in and year out, with no possibility for giving and receiving love, enjoying holidays, or witnessing the seasons. Not being able to look forward to death would surely be hell to such people and to many others. The only version of heaven that would be heaven would be ecstasy in the moment in a place out of time. Of course, that would be reminiscent of a happy moment in the life of someone with Alzheimer's.

"He also told his followers to question everything, not to believe what they were told but to THINK and QUESTION."

Which is the opposite of Christianity. Yet, it seems that much has been added to Buddhism that is very much like Christianity. For instance, I have no idea that I would be any more accepted among those who believe in reincarnation--which surely necessitates belief in a spirit world--than among those who believe that Christ died for their sins, but did the Buddha teach reincarnation? Not that I know of. In regards to religion, the atheist community is the only place that I seem to fit.

"I sometimes wish everyone would just talk about what they knew about..."

If I only said what I knew, my speech would be limited to, "It seems to me that..." or, "I feel that...", but even there, I would--if held to the highest standard of truth--have cause to question who was speaking, and what my standards for knowing truth were. Yet, I agree that we humans would do a lot better simply by leaving off everything that is not true for us to the extent of our frail ability to know truth. It would also be good, I think, if we could leave off saying that which holds no value to us--the chaff of our minds, as it were--but I have never succeeded in doing this. As with religion, our need to speak seems to fill a psychological need rather than a truth need.

Winifred said...

Crumbs that was deep Snowbrush. Lots of interesting things there you writing is absolutely brilliant even if I don't always agree with you.

I agree with your mate who says that getting old isn't for cissies.

All Consuming said...

I watched the film 'K-Pax' again recently and a character in it who proffeses to be from another plnetary system, says this to a psychiatric doctor who believes him to be mentally ill -
"I wanna tell you something Mark, something you do not yet know, that we K-PAXians have been around long enough to have discovered. The universe will expand, then it will collapse back on itself, then will expand again. It will repeat this process forever. What you don't you know is that when the universe expands again, everything will be as it is now. Whatever mistakes you make this time around, you will live through on your next pass. Every mistake you make, you will live through again, & again, forever. So my advice to you is to get it right this time around. Because this time is all you have." - Of course that is fiction, but the one fact that sticks with me is most definitely true I feel - Just one chance to get it right, so work as hard as you can to do just that, for yourself as much as for anyone else. I had to face my mortality when I was unfairly young, and once you become aware of it, and the undeniable reality of what will happen to you and everyone else you care about, it sticks with you and the closer it gets the harder it is to live with I believe. I try not to beat myself with that particular stick if I can help it, not very often anyway, though it's not always easy and also, it's important to share these things with others. That's part of the deal. Don't dwell too much though, it'll rob you of your remaining happiness. Long may that remaining time be too dear. X

Myrna R. said...

As always Snow, you combine your heart and your mind to deliver a gem full of questions and most of all a chronicle of your own exploration of self, life, and the inevitable. I watch as my mother-in-law lingers between life and death and ask many of your questions too. I try not to be afraid, to do the best I can. It may be easier for me to see the brightness of life, since I live in relative health. But I understand how pain can make you focus more on the flip side - the darker side of life. With purpose or not, I too am glad I've lived. And the ride's not over yet. Take care.

Snowbrush said...

Hi, Winifred, good to see you.

"once you become aware of it, and the undeniable reality of what will happen to you and everyone else you care about, it sticks with you and the closer it gets the harder it is to live with"

How well I understand this. How to live with it is another matter.

"Don't dwell too much though..."

Peggy and I took a trip recently, and I found it easier to do this while away. The times that are hardest are when I'm at home, alone (Peggy is often gone, either to work or on a trip), bored, in pain all day everyday, and without a project that the pain will allow me to accomplish. Such times make the present seem pointless, yet I know that--unless I die suddenly--the future will bring times that are even worse. Ultimately, no one "gets well." It's strange to realize that I spend too much time alone, yet I have no desire to be among people because I view them as if they were on another planet. Besides, people take energy, and I don't have it to give.

"I understand how pain can make you focus more on the flip side - the darker side of life."

Pain isn't something to learn from but to survive. I've discovered of late that I can no longer take narcotics because I become so furious when I am on them that it's all I can do to control myself. So, Neurontin makes me stupid; narcotics make me livid; sleeping pills no longer work; and marijuana has gotten, more and more, so that it takes the bad and magnifies it. I see my surgeon in two weeks about the possibility of having a fourth shoulder surgery, but the more of those one has, the less willing a doctor is to perform yet another one.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

Always something to ponder Snow...

Carola Bartz said...

When I was young I thought that everything would be different for me, that I wouldn't ail and my health would go on forever.
Yeah right. As if. My body knew "better" and I'm slowly following. Very slowly, almost as if in disbelief.

Joe Todd said...

Snow.. Excellent post.. For many years I thought of life as a game (to win) then life "happened" and I discovered I wasn't 10 feet tall and bullet proof LOL.. Today I try to keep my head "under the radar" so to speak. Life isn't for sissies... Yes I have been slacking as far as posting but I'll stay at it... Always the best Joe Todd

ed pilolla said...

hi there, it's nourishing to read your bare bones life observations. you who talk of life and meaning and purpose but does not undervalue the pain involved is my kind of columnist to read. i had a theology teacher in high school -- may have mentioned it when i was visiting here previously when i was blogging regularly -- and he would say all we have are the questions. someone would say that love is the answer and he would say no! love is the question!

the fact that we don't have any answers leaves us all together without answers, which means we have to take care of ourselves. two things come to mind: a basic level of lifestyle we think everyone is entitled to by virtue of being born into this slave camp. and then we ought to be talking about pain management, as you have so eloquently written.

as soon as you start talking this way, people with their strong opinions of god and morality they learned from their privileged parents or in church foul it all up. and we are left with the world as it is, a place that would be heaven on earth with consensus, but a world that will always get its direction from hard-headed people who claim to know what's best for others and the mafia that makes money off every transaction.

great to read you again, bro:)

James Quinn said...

I was exposed to Gurdjieff as a child, and it has colored my life experience ever since. He insisted that his followers give assent only to things they had "verified" for themselves. Like most people, I've verified to my satisfaction e.g. that the Earth is round, that the moon revolves around it as they revolve together around the sun, because any other interpretation of what I see day by day in the sky is nonsensical in comparison. I am also confident of the existence of "higher states of consciousness" as described in many mystical traditions, particularly that we live mainly in a sort of "sleep" from which it is possible to "awaken." As an active Episcopalian however I fall way short of declaring any belief in the involvement of a "higher power" in the creation of these internal states of "awakening" that I have achieved through meditation, the cultivation of mindfulness and inner silence, etc., including when using traditional tools of Christian mysticism. I have verified that these higher states exist, that certain kinds of meditation etc. are effective in producing them, and that with time and practice one can sustain them longer and longer, presumably to a point where one could "awaken" and remain that way indefinitely. I have not however verified that anything supernatural is involved in the process. Perhaps that keeps it in the realm of science, but I suppose a big difference is that I don't feel the need to dismiss the possibility. Like your dog being in two places at once.

I am open with my fellow churchlings about what I call "radical agnosticism," my assertion that by declaring a final belief in anything I close off the possibility of any future, better understanding of truth. I say that if I ever come to believe in God, I want it to be the real God, not anyone's idea of God, least of all anything my own feeble mind might concoct. I also tell people that I once intended to become a monk, until I discovered that belief in God was a bona-fide occupational qualification. Nonetheless I remain a Christian because I believe deeply in Jesus's message of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, and believe that his theory of ethics and morality based on Love is the best way to approach life as a member of the human species.

I don't struggle with the Problem of Evil because I consider it simply self-contradictory and oxymoronic. I consider Pascal's Wager to represent an obscene disregard for truth, and sadly nihilistic with respect to life and the world we live in. I have known many people who say they would hold onto their belief in God despite any irrefutable proof to the contrary, because life without it would be unlivable. I had a devout Roman Catholic co-worker who invariably replied to "How are you?" by saying she was just trying to get through life and die as soon as possible so she could go to heaven. And it wasn't with any sense of hope in that future, so much as a malignant ennui and disgust with life. Are these anything but downright punishing examples of nihilism? Like you, I value truth too much ever to "believe" something I think at the outset might well be untrue, simply because I would like it to be so.

These people conventionally assume that anyone who doesn't believe in God must naturally be ruthless and hurtful and selfish, because they have nothing to restrain them. On the contrary, I think kindness and charity are more important in a godless universe, since any responsibility to relieve suffering falls squarely on us. If anything a poorly considered belief in God gives rise to more potential evil since it relieves a person of having to consider reasons of their own for acting morally, reducing it all to "because God [i.e., my religious authorities] said so."

O.K. I meant for this to be a brief reflection and it's turning into a manifesto, so I'm going to stop. Thanks for posting such incredible food for thought.

Snowbrush said...

"someone would say that love is the answer and he would say no! love is the question!"

I know that, for me, this idea of universal love raised questions without providing answers, but I think that for most of those who claim to adhere to it, it's not so much about love per se as about regarding themselves as "good Christians."

"I have known many people who say they would hold onto their belief in God despite any irrefutable proof to the contrary, because life without it would be unlivable."

It's an understandable but pathetic position that I would find impossible to maintain even if I tried to take it. I would like to ask of such people if they find it possible to hold truth secondary to comfort and still respect themselves.

"one could "awaken" and remain that way indefinitely."

I know little of such things, but wouldn't it suggest the possibility of maintaining such a state regardless of ones physical circumstances no matter how dire they might become? Otherwise, it wouldn't be so much a state of being as a construct of thinking, and that is what I imagine it to be because I don't believe that, anyone could maintain inner peace in the presence of abundant physical suffering.

Since you're an Episcopalian, I'll mention that along about last November, I started going to an Episcopal mid-week Bible study as an open atheist. The people--including one priest--seemed welcoming, but I came to imagine that they didn't understand the implications of my atheism, and that they assumed it was something that I was ready to put behind me. In any event--and to make a long story short--I soon found myself shunned, a fact which didn't encourage me to seek dialogue with the group (about our difficulties), which was something that I would have otherwise loved to do. I blogged a great deal about all this at the time it happened.

Joe Todd said...

Well I've "caught up" on your posts Snow.. Enjoyed them all .One last thought spirituality may be it's own drug...