The Life Imperative: Life as Prison or Addiction

A previous post points out that life depends upon constant, unavoidable killing.  There is a question of whether a person should continue to participate in that sort of thing, or should instead voluntarily leave this life.  It seems that an answer to that question may depend, in part, on how one understands the situation.

One possibility is that life is an addiction, or at least that it has important and thought-provoking features that resemble the experience of addiction.  If one thinks of everyone as being addicted to staying alive, then it is no surprise that vast numbers of people, including parents, police, and other authority figures, would be engaged in a sort of brainwashing that would overstate life’s glories and would downplay its bad parts.  Such behavior would be consistent with addiction experience: there is always an excuse for partaking, always a reason that drags the addict back to indulgence.

The excuses for staying alive vary, but the outcome is the same.  People may contend, for example, that the thought of ending one’s own life is sick or confused, or that the person who kills him/herself will go to Hell.  But all of those propositions are open to question.  It turns out that the Bible does not support the claim about Hell; the person who sacrifices him/herself to save others is regarded as a hero; the individual who is on the edge of suicide may not feel confused at all, but may actually possess sudden clarity.  Hence the arguments against suicide could look like the sorts of things that any addict would say, or would listen to, in defense of the addiction.

But can life really qualify as an addiction?  Definitions vary, but it seems that addictions tend to entail recurrent indulgence in immediately gratifying behavior that the addict cannot stop despite its adverse longer-term consequences.  Taking it apart,

  • “Immediate gratification.”  It seems that many people strive to stay alive even when life is not very gratifying.  But then, drug addicts often continue to take their drug even when they have built up a tolerance and are no longer getting high; they may just need to avoid the agony of withdrawal.  Maybe that would still count as a form of short-term gratification, when people cling grimly to life despite the absence of any joy in it – despite, indeed, a growing dislike or fear of it.  They still need the experience, they are still making excuses for it, they are still not ready to make a sharp break from it.
  • “Adverse long-term consequences.”  There is, indeed, the perpetual killing that makes each person’s life possible.  But as discussed in an earlier post, there does not seem to be a better long-term alternative.  For one thing, we don’t know whether an afterlife (if any) would be better; we also don’t know what unexpected things might happen if we stay around.  Also, our disappearance will not change the basic problem:  elimination of all killing would probably mean the elimination of all life.  The point of that exercise would not be clear:  we would have killed everything in order to stop killing.  Meanwhile, there are living things (e.g., trillions of bacteria in our guts) that depend on us, or whose lives may be made longer or better through our existence and our efforts.

These thoughts suggest that the addiction metaphor may not be the best way of characterizing the decision to continue living.  There is the problem that life does not always provide short-term gratification; and even if one waives that on the grounds that gratification may consist of merely avoiding the discomfort of withdrawal, there is the problem that the decision to stay alive does not obviously constitute a disregard of undesirable long-term consequences.

Rather than characterize life as an addiction, it seems that it might be better described as an imperative.  That is, the decision to continue to live seems to be a response to a command that we must fulfill.  This feeling of obligation may be especially strong in those who are responsible for taking care of family members or other people, but it tends to be quite strong even without that.  To be sure, there is the occasional suicide epidemic; there are young daredevils who willingly place themselves into harm’s way.  But these tend to be exceptions that prove the rule:  you are supposed to preserve your life. It is a strong rule, less frequently violated than any of the Ten Commandments, and yet not included among them or, usually, among other laws.

How can so many people agree on this imperative to preserve one’s life, when people are inclined to disagree on virtually everything else?  Perhaps the answer is that, actually, people are not in agreement about it.  At any moment, there are likely to be people in your vicinity who are silently struggling with physical or mental pain that they would shed in a heartbeat, if they saw a realistic alternative.  It seems that people might abandon this life in droves if they could look beyond the grave and see the specifics of a viable life after death.

Under the circumstances of real life, with no practical alternative, the life imperative appears to foster a kind of confinement.  We are more or less obliged to stay in this life, even in the absence of commandments, because there does not appear to be any real choice.  Life is not merely an imperative; it is, in effect, a prison.

That will hardly seem obvious to people who are living it up.  But consider prison life.  Depending on the prison, there may be enough to keep you occupied:  classes, reading, writing, researching law, working out, sitting and watching.  There are some perks:  the health care is said to be better than many Americans can afford.  Life is simple.  Some people, especially those who have become accustomed to it, actually prefer it to life outside, where they don’t know the rules.  It’s not heaven; but then, neither is this life.  The point is that it can be tolerable.  Many incarcerated individuals, offered a chance to join in on a highly risky escape attempt, may just not bother.

Life, like prison, tries to be a place where people can stand to stay put, and people reciprocate by trying to make it bearable.  In effect, you and I are in cahoots with life:  we don’t remotely want any more of its harsh discipline; but since we have no realistic alternative, we try to dress it up as a worthy affair.  Like Stalin in the U.S.S.R. during World War II, life may be a son of a bitch, but at least it’s our son of a bitch.  We would rather have something better, but we don’t get to make that choice.  Life, like Stalin, may torture and kill tens of millions, sometimes merely because they were too trusting or just didn’t fit in the plan.  But for you and me, the choice is pretty simple:  become part of the steamroller, or else become part of the road.

As a person who is alive and intends to remain so, I can hardly help being one of those facilitators of an oppressive regime.  Specifically, I don’t encourage anyone to kill themselves.  I do believe the things that I have written in that separate post about preparing for suicide; I think there is much to do, and much to think about, before ever taking such a step.  Nonetheless, in the interests of fleshing out the prison metaphor, an honest appraisal of the situation does seem to call for acknowledgement that it takes courage and, probably, desperation to reach the point of committing oneself to an escape attempt.  When the moment for decision arrives, and you see an opportunity to get out, it is not completely boneheaded or illegitimate if you flatly declare that you cannot stand your present circumstances anymore (if that really is how you feel about it) and that you are willing to take any risk to try something else.  It still may not be the smartest move, but at least it may be understandable.

I am not suicidal because I just don’t see the advantage of a prison break at this time.  I am a participant in life’s murderous regime.  I participate in the killing of plants and animals because everything must die anyway, with or without me.  Is it better never to be born, than to be born and then die?  Never to be born, perhaps, if being born somehow scars an eternal soul; the problem is just that I have no idea whether there is such a thing as an eternal soul, nor what exactly this life might do to it.  Based on the information I have, it appears that I am supposed to just play along, for as long as I can, or at least until I have a clear reason to do something else.  I am invariably able to tolerate life; my life does have its pluses; and if I am imprisoned in this life, I have grown accustomed to it.  It is acceptable.

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