It Really Isn’t a Question: To Be or Not to Be

It Really Isn't a Question: To Be or Not to Be

Last night I had a dream. I was hunched over my keyboard, working furiously. And in the corner was Arthur Schopenhauer with a friend. He motioned toward me and said, “The Will is strong with this one.” And my head planted on the keyboard — the letter “x” scrolled across the screen.

I assume the Force is a good thing to have. I don’t really know, having seen almost none of the films and not having given them much thought. But the Will is not a good thing to have. It exists for itself. It is a parasite that lives within us, feeding off us — only interested in its own existence.

We all live in the middle of the most terrifying horror show ever imagined. But most of us haven’t a clue. In this context, a drone attack on a wedding party is the ultimate act of mercy and Obama is a saint.

Suicide: A Once Comforting Thought

The writer Stevie Smith famously found the thought of suicide extremely comforting. She said that when she learned about it as a child, it great cheered her because she knew that if life ever got too painful, she could end the pain — in an instant.

As a result, she lived her life to its natural conclusion despite her depression and anxiety because of that thin tether of knowing that she could always kill herself tomorrow.

Nobody’s Waving — Their Drowning

I suppose one could see the Will as a friendly entity that keeps us alive through the bad bits of life so we can enjoy the good bits. But I think that Smith sums up life for most people pretty well in his poem fragment:

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

That’s most people: too far out all their lives, drowning while everyone thinks they are having a marvelous time.

You see a lot of people drowning on Facebook. But they would prefer you not see them drowning, so they are waving furiously as they swallow mouthfuls of seawater, sink, and then breath the brine as they die. Don’t trust the happy pictures of ball games and parties. You need both hands to slit your own wrists.

Emily Dickinson Had It Right: We’re Stuck

Most people only know the first two lines of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poem, “The Chariot”:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me…

Many people they think (certainly I did when I was young) that the word “kindly” is meant ironically. It isn’t. The whole poem isn’t a celebration of death — Dickinson was not a cheerful poet (or person, it would seem — she was pretty much a shut-in like me). But people are sometimes fooled by things like, “‘Hope’ Is the Thing With Feathers.” The quotation marks around “hope” certainly indicate that she sees it has something of a phantom.

But “The Chariot” is quite positive toward death. She looks upon death as a good thing.

All These Prisons

For most of my life, I was like Stevie Smith: I took comfort in knowing that I could make this all go away. But my dream Schopenhauer was right: my Will is ridiculously strong. I could never kill myself except under the most rational of circumstances (eg, I’m in the World Trade Center and a fireball is coming toward me, so I jump). Otherwise, no.

So more and more I feel like a prisoner in this body on this planet — stuck in this constant now, now, now. But like Dickenson, I cannot stop for death. I must live in this cage until it takes pity and stops for me.

It is only science and art and lots of people (one at a time) that provide any kind of relief. I would rewrite Dickenson: “Hope is a thing for children.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

12 thoughts on “It Really Isn’t a Question: To Be or Not to Be

  1. David Graeber (whose article “On The Phenomenon Of Bullshit Jobs” is now expanded into a book) once had an observation I thought was brilliant. Why do Americans in rural areas venerate the military and the churches? Because those are the two places their kids can go if they wish to be of service to others. You’re not gonna get work at some fancy charity if you graduated from Missouri State and your parents can’t afford to support you at an internship in New York.

    Serving others gives our lives purpose; it’s why we don’t automatically die once we’ve bred fertile offspring. And yet our system is structured so that service is either unvalued (except on meaningless holidays like Mothers’ Day or Veterans’ Day that help no mothers/veterans) or restricted to the very privileged.

    As a passionate writer & caregiver, you have purpose. As an employee of some faceless company, you don’t. This is completely backwards. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

    • You are definitely right that it doesn’t have to be that way. And I’m seeing a lot more writing in unlikely places about alternatives to capitalism and improvements to capitalism. People are thinking beyond simple modern liberalism: capitalism with a safety net. It’s a good sign. As the union leader Nicholas Klein (who looked nothing like Ghandi, who certainly understood the process, but was never pithy) said, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

      As for the Graeber observation: it’s interesting. And it is based on a fundamental truth. However, there is the needs hierarchy. And these are two occupations that provide economic stability and social prestige. And I think that is lower down on the needs hierarchy and the actual reason they love these institutions so much. If you show me a lot of rural kids going into the Peace Corps, I will rethink my beliefs. I’m not saying he’s wrong. But I’m far from convinced.

      (The truth is, rural people are, by definition, parochial. They are surrounded by people very much like themselves, so they are more ethnocentric if not just plain racist. They aren’t as exposed to great art and science. And as a result, they are lesser people. I’m sorry to have to say that. But environment matters. They are probably better neighbors than urbanites, so there are good things. But I doubt they would be very good neighbors to the Kumars, if they moved in. And, of course, there are remarkable people everywhere. I’m talking about the group. We know, for example, that people in low-crime rural areas are far more punitive than people in high-crime urban areas. It’s because humans dehumanize other humans who don’t look like them who they don’t have direct experience with.)

      • I don’t buy that Graeber line 100%, either; but I think it’s truer than what most people write on the urban/rural split.

        It’s not unfair or unkind to say closing oneself off from outsiders (culturally, ethnically) makes one a lesser person. It does make one a lesser person. In the same sense that my loathing of insects and gross plants closes me off from the joys of being outdoors, and makes me a lesser person. It’s part of the human experience I am currently unable to appreciate. (I’m trying to do some gardening now. It’s going to be a learning process. There are crawling and growing things everywhere!)

        As for a more benign capitalism, Marriner Eccles (his name is on the Federal Reserve building in DC) once testified to Congress that “either we solve the problem of unemployment under capitalism, or the problem will be solved for us without capitalism.” A banker from Utah, Eccles came up with about half of the New Desl’s best ideas.

        We’re not at the point where capitalism realizes it has to shape up or ship out. But we’re getting closer every day. It may not be unemployment, this time. It’ll always be something, though. It’s the nature of capitalism for someone to figure out a new way of screwing customers/workers and get everybody else to follow or lose market share.

        • You do know that your smugness in being superior is the sole reason that Middle America is all in for Cheato right?

          I keep being told so by the very smart people in New York.

          • And I keep being told by the very smart people that it must be 100% bigotry, or 100% economic decline in rural communities. Apparently the answer cannot be any mixture of “all of the above” which varies from voter to voter and place to place.

            This is why, before his fall, Franken was so valuable. He’d spend tons of time in rural Minnesota, listening to voters and calling them out when he thought they were spewing Fox bullcrap. It earned him a lot of respect, he won re-election easily.

            I’m still mad at the guy for his serial boob-grabbing. I don’t know what was going on, there. Nobody said he pressured them into sex, so unless there are stories along those lines we haven’t heard, he wasn’t on a Weinstein power trip. Just… liked grabbing boob? It’s not acceptable, but it doesn’t fit any normal profiles of sex offenders, how they escalate.

            I still haven’t figured it out, and I’m still mad at him. He was a damn good Senator and the kind of Democrat I think we need, going forward. What was up with the boob-grabbing… who knows.

          • I know! It’s all the liberals’ fault that we have a fascist in the White House and one of the major political parties is fascistic. If I had only known, I would have chosen to be a fascist to stop this from happening! It’s amazing that fascists and racists didn’t have anything to do with the election of Trump.

            And I thought quantum electrodynamics was hard to understand!

  2. That suicide is painless
    It brings on many changes
    I can take or leave it if I please

    Seriously, Frank, you worry me lately. You write as if you are depressed. Or as if you aren’t you.

    Everything’s blue in this world
    He couldn’t believe how easy it was
    He put the gun into his face
    (So much blood for such a tiny little hole)

    Problems do have solutions, you know
    A lifetime of fucking things up fixed
    In one determined flash

    Everything’s blue
    Everything’s blue in this world
    All fuzzy
    Spilling out of my head

    You probably know that is Trent Reznor. I always thought “A lifetime of failure fixed in one determined flash” had better meter, but lacked the profanity that helped sell the product. I’m not a stranger to despair. When I was 27 my mother died. And a few months later my fiance left me for her former boyfriend. The one she left because he beat her. I won’t bore you with the details of why I took it so hard, but I drank an entire bottle of tequila and pointed a loaded gun at my head at one point. I hadn’t resolved to do it. I just wanted to look down the barrel at death. And it was plenty stupid to do on those terms considering what can go wrong handling a loaded gun when you’re that drunk. My niece had been so upset that her Grandma could never come to play with her again. She was four, or so. I couldn’t do that to my sister. Make her tell her little girl I was gone too. So I put it away. I’ve never told this to anyone. Not even my wife. We just celebrated 19 years together. I know the world is shit right now. And if I got twenty wishes from a genie in a bottle there would still be a century of shit to clean up. I think it’s worth fighting for. And I’d miss you if you were gone.

    • @Lawrence — you get it. Nobody casually mentions suicide. If they say it, even in an offhand fashion, they’re dead damn serious. The only debt I still owe is $500 to a hospital in Oregon from decades ago, and that’s because they were super-dicks when they put me in the padded room. They were really cruel about it. I was suicidal, and the padded room stopped me — but don’t be dicks.

      The problem with depression is, how do you treat it? Drugs work for some people, not for others. When I was on antidepressants, the effect was, “I still feel life is meaningless, but I’m now numb about it.” That didn’t help.

      Frank’s essential kindness in his writing is a godsend to those of us who enjoy it, probably a larger audience than he knows. If the clinical drugs aren’t working, what can he do but ride that road, alone? And that’s one awful road to ride, as you know.

      • But being valued by my friends helped me get through it. I hope the same for anyone in that spot.

      • You are right that you should always take any mention of suicide seriously. But my interest is more death. I find it fascinating. It’s not that I’m suicidal (generally). But I’ve been writing about suicide and for decades. It is mostly intellectual. When I am depressed, I don’t think about suicide because I know depression is just the price I pay for my manic phases (which annoy the hell out of a lot of people, but I love).

        My most recent friend to kill himself did so in large part (but not fully) because of chronic pain, so it was at least somewhat rational. (I spent a lot of time trying to help him because I know a lot about pain management and dealing with doctors.) Still, I also knew him on Facebook and he’s still there. And every time I enter “be” his name and picture pop up. I’ve thought about unfriending him, but that seems like such a disrespectful thing to do. Unfortunately, he was very alone and there is no one to take his account down.

        On the other hand, another of my friends died by being hit by a bus. His wife (also a friend) cares for his facebook page like it were a garden. That I like. But my other friend’s Facebook page always makes me think of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” This is Dylan doing it because it’s a lot easier to make out the lyrics:

        But really everyone: I welcome death, but I’m in no hurry. And one of the reasons I didn’t kill myself during that one really bad period was that I didn’t want to hurt the people who love me. I’ve never gotten over any of the suicides of my friends. I don’t want to do that to anyone.

    • Don’t worry! If I’m writing I’m not suicidal. In fact, there was only one period of about two months (admittedly, it was in the last year) that I was seriously considering suicide. But I have made changes to my life and I’m actually quite happy.

      I am also fascinated by death. I have no fear of it. But this article is actually about how I could never commit suicide and that I must just relax and accept (as ED did, that death will come a calling when it is time). When he was on the verge of death, Patton supposedly said, “I’m not afraid, just curious.” Of course he believed in reincarnation (So do I! Just not in the childish way he and most people do.) so that makes sense.

      I don’t really believe in time. I think it is a construct of consciousness that allows us to to experience the universe. So I will always be not born, alive, and dead. Anyway, I think consciousness is a fraud — the outward expression of the Will — an evil thing that keeps us alive so it can feed on us.

      But I feel really good. Really! Better than I have in a couple of years. And Frankly Curious and Psychotronic Review will be big beneficiaries of it. One thing I did was completely give up drinking, which made me feel a lot better. It isn’t an AA thing. I’ll still drink any brandy of XO quality or better. And during Christmas, I will get a six pack of my favorite (unfortunately seasonal) bear: Brown Sugga’.

      I hope this doesn’t all sound like rationalizing and that you think you’ll learn that I offed myself in a couple of weeks. Suicidal people do often get much happier after they’ve decided to kill themselves. But I assure you, that is not what’s going on. (I try to get people to watch The Bridge and I can’t get through my pitch without sobbing. I have had friends who have killed themselves — one because of very minor thing and he just happened to be staying with friends who had a loaded handgun lying around. Otherwise, I feel certain he would be alive today. I take suicide very seriously. But I think my intellectual nature makes it sounds like (1) I don’t take it seriously; and (2) that it is something that I struggle with. I don’t. But anyone who struggles with depression and anxiety is someone you should worry about. But my higher brain has never left me down, “Yes, things are terrible; but this will pass and you will feel great; you are manic-depressive; remember that.” And I do.

      I do, however, appreciate your concern. It’s very sweet.

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