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