A Basic, Troubling Question about Life

Almost everyone who is alive loves life.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.  Even those of us who think we hate it, and jump off bridges to get out, are apparently at risk of realizing our mistake on the way down.  You can put people in really terrible situations, with no arms and legs or living in a filthy gutter in the poorest city in the world, and almost always they will cling to life anyway.

You might say life is like an addiction.  Addiction is usually a bad word, but not always.  A person can be addicted not only to drugs or booze, but also to oxygen or work or success or kindness.  Anything can be taken too far, but this world could benefit from more sweetness junkies.

The difference with life is that we can’t tell what the alternative is like.  We can cure someone of an addiction to overwork; we can point to other people who aren’t like that.  But all we can see of nonlife is that either the person didn’t come into existence in the first place, like the never-born children of a girl who died before she could have them, or else the person was here for a while but has died.  It appears that we cannot know what, if anything, occurs after life.  Some claim otherwise, but have few verifiable specifics to share.

One odd feature of life is that it is so ugly.  I don’t mean that some people are happy and some are miserable, or some have good attitudes and some don’t.  I mean that, at its very heart, life depends upon terrible behavior.  Doesn’t it seem suspicious that living things have to fight and kill for the resources of life – that we love to eat eggs, seeds, and green shoots, and that the delicate flesh of the young has the best flavor?  Why could we not all just eat sand and gravel?  Life thrives upon the heartless exploitation and killing of the weak and delicate, and of the happy and the peaceful.  Survivors tend to learn to be wary, tough, and grim.

Of course, plants and microbes have limited capacity for wariness and grimness.  Yet even at their level, survival commonly means crowding out others.  There is usually not enough soil, sunlight, and water for everyone.  When a space does open up, living things grow and proliferate until they come up against competitors.  Likewise, but on a scale people find more horrendous, our wars, industrial farms, and office politics demonstrate, every day, the kinds of growth, predation, and cruelty that contribute to survival.  Individuals and even nations can enjoy relative lulls in the strife, but the circumstances permitting such lulls tend to depend upon relatively unusual and temporary conditions, and extend in any case only to a limited portion of the human experience.

The excuse for our awful behavior is that this is what we need to stay alive – or, when that is not true, this is what we prefer to satisfy our cravings.  We don’t know for a fact that death is worse than who we are, and what we do, during our lives.  We just assume so, based on fear of the unknown.  We are overwhelmingly in favor of continuing in this pattern even though we can plainly see how bad it is.  We can feel somewhat better about it by at least working for the benefit of others rather than just of ourselves; nonetheless, we remain very much part of this grand scheme that pervasively victimizes living things that needed protection from us, but could not find it.

These remarks are not in the usual tendency of human thought.  We tend to take these aspects of life for granted, or to dress them up or ignore them in favor of concerns that become interesting or compelling once one has assumed the importance of staying alive.  In our choice of things to think and worry about and act upon, we are like the person who hunts for his lost keys under a streetlight – not because that is where he actually lost them, but just because the light makes it easier to search there.

Strictly speaking, before we get to all the concerns and perspectives of daily life, there is the question of what we are doing here in the first place.  We treat that as an imponderable, and shrug it off to the philosophers, but it is really quite simple and obvious.  It is staring each of us in the face.  What gives you the right to treat people and other living things as you do?

The answer – that this is what we must do and/or prefer to do, in order to survive at all, and to survive in the manner we find most agreeable – is based, as just noted, on ignorance of what comes after life.  If we suddenly saw past the grave and observed people enjoying a much better form of existence, without all this killing and exploitation, most of us would no doubt promptly decamp for those shores en masse.  Given that we lack such knowledge, there is perhaps a second factor:  that we find ourselves in this strange and highly nasty situation, and may be in some sense obliged or expected to make the best of it.  We were not responsible for putting ourselves here; maybe we are somehow supposed to be here; maybe we should not presume to remove ourselves from here.

In this perspective, we seem to be located within a sort of game whose rules require awful behavior of various sorts.  We can’t change the rules; we can only choose whether and how to play.  Those who think about dropping out of the game altogether – about killing themselves, that is – usually seem to suffer from extreme pain, exclusion, or other physical or psychosocial difficulties that tend to push them out.  That is, people do not generally pay much attention to the sorts of concerns discussed above unless there is something wrong with them, relatively speaking.

The ordinary course of business in life – what the gods could be expecting from us – may be to stay alive and make the best of things, doing what we can to avoid causing unnecessary pain or, perhaps, accepting the ugly realities about ourselves and simply focusing upon becoming strong and comfortable (or perhaps goodhearted, within a certain selective definition of the term).

As I say, the vast majority of people seem to assume something of this nature.  But it would remain reasonable for a god (or perhaps our own consciences), sitting in post-life judgment, to ask why we willingly continued to participate in such behavior when we knew better.  By extension, it seems that we must sit in similar, if repressed, judgment upon ourselves throughout our lives.  And yet a response, to the god and to ourselves – a response much preferred by the potentially deceptive life addiction within us – is that this is the role presented to us, and it is not clear that we are able and entitled to throw it in the trash and leave.

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