No man standing where the horizon of a life has touched a grave has any right to prophesy a future filled with pain and tears. It may be that death gives all there is of worth to life. If those who press and strain against our hearts could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. Maybe a common faith treads from out the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness, and I should rather live and love where death is king than have eternal life where love is not. - Robert Green Ingersoll, Oration at a Child's Grave, 1882
Introduction: Recognizing the Fundamentals
To be born is a bit like receiving a double verdict from a jury despite having done nothing to deserve it. The double verdict: a life sentence and a sentence of death.
With the life sentence, you receive an opportunity, for varying time periods, to dwell with consciousness and a body under sun and stars. If favored by random good fortune in the lotteries of family, place, genetics and other variables that affect the extent and quality of love, happiness, freedom, knowledge, joy and wonder you experience, you could be in for a glorious ride lasting many decades. If not so favored, you might have very little or no such experiences. Your fate could be unbroken hunger and privation, pain and rejection, slavery and unmitigated misery. There is no rhyme or reason that can explain why some infants are born into lives of health and advantage with prospects for longevity and prosperity, while others are born into squalor and sickness, want, ignorance and grief. As Ingersoll noted in the speech referenced at the top (delivered within a few feet of the gravesides shown below in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC on January 12, 1882):
Every cradle asks us whence, every coffin wither. The poor barbarian weeping above his dead can answer the question as substantially and as satisfactorily as the robed priest of the most authentic creed. The tearful ignorance of the one is as consoling as the learned and unmeaning words of the other.
But, it is just a ride - whether rich and loved, poor and ignored or anywhere in-between, the ride of life does not last long. What's more, you don't get to go around again - no second chances, even if really bad things happen along the way.
These factors are as capricious as they are significant. You get few to no choices, particularly in the first decade or so. It all just happens, like the Big Bang. Don't take it personally. This is how things are, for you in the present time period and how it's been for the 200,000-some years for our linear ancestors. What's more, there's little chance it will ever be otherwise.
Consequently, you might as well focus on the fact that you are here and the time for your life is now. You've probably been down the road for a few decades, given that you're reading this. I hope things have been going well, for the most part. Now, more than ever, you have opportunities to make decisions that could boost the quality of your life experience while moving along, toward the end.
Death, the Waiting Room and Exuberance and Liberty
Let me review some basic facts, starting with an idea I have had for a very long time. That idea is that we all need to have more orgasms, and we should have them in ways that are not diminished with guilt, worry, fear and other forms of non-joy and positivity. I want to promote wellness orgasms, or WOs. These are ever so much more than the other kind. A WO is simply a joyous experience, as mental as it is physical, most of the time.
Life should be filled with WOs, multiple WOs, throughout every day. No pills are needed to have them when you get old. A synonym for WOs is a DBRU, an acronym created in honor of a classic Gary Larson Far Side cartoon. I don't want to get off track here, but you can find what you need to know about this in essays on WOs and CANTDOIT and REAL wellness at Seekwellness. All should foster clearer thinking about death, WOs and REAL wellness mindsets.
Start with the insight contained in this quotation from Richard Dawkins. Think of being fated to die as a small price to pay for the opportunity this enables - to live. What a wonderment - whether into a world of favorable or even rather grim circumstances, to have life, however briefly, is a wonderment. We who live at all, nearly anywhere at almost any time, are lottery winners. For so many, unfortunately, that bit of luck will not seem such a blessing, but for many, it surely seems and is so.
This perspective aligns in some ways with the REAL wellness dimensions of both exuberance and liberty. Diminishing or even eliminating a fear of death removes a barrier to exuberance. However, accepting death, including a recognition of no before or after-life, is a liberation. This emancipation from religion-induced fear is a quintessential freedom.
A WO Outlook on Death
Everyone is filling in the time while waiting to die. You might think of us all gathered in the waiting room, moving around, reading things, trying to stay busy if not entertained. Okay, so not a very cheery thought - but it's true and there needs to be nothing un-cheery or morose about it.
We all know there's not much time left on the clock but the game's still going so we don't give up or stop doing something, raging perhaps or otherwise dealing with the dying of the light. (Thanks, Dylan Thomas.) Most of us, except the undertakers, perhaps, don't like to think about it, so we look for diversions. That's the ticket - busy stuff that helps us feel worthwhile and keeps our mind off our looming demise. One of the common ways we do this is to go along with and even wholly embrace bizarre depictions of how we and everything else came to be. Belief systems, varied and contradictory, all claiming to be the one true religion. We're offered revealed truths (that, conveniently can't be verified) and wondrous myths that explain what one god or another wants from us. We also learn what he/she or it will do to us, when we're dead, if we don't obey, love and serve the one true god (guess well or else) properly while alive. Never mind that there is no evidence for any of it. Billions still believe every word or a selective sampling of words of one religion or another.
Well, they tell us and themselves they do but I suspect most simply believe in believing - and are having a struggle trying to pull it off.
On what basis do they believe this stuff? There is but one basis and no other - faith. Faith, as Mark Twain famously noted, isbelieven what you know ain't so. Faith has been explained as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
Despite our intelligence, we embrace folly, a fact not lost on countless observers, including Aldous Huxley:
You never see animals going through the absurd and often horrible fooleries of magic and religion... Asses do not bray a liturgy to cloudless skies. Nor do cats attempt, by abstinence from cat's meat, to wheedle the feline spirits into benevolence. Only man behaves with such gratuitous folly. It is the price he has to pay for being intelligent but not, as yet, quite intelligent enough.
Of course, much of the busy stuff represents eking out a way to survive and pass on our DNA to the next hapless group, who pass their DNA to the next group and so it goes, forevermore until who knows what?
We try to give our existence meaning when no meaning exists. We arrive on the earth by chance, into unchosen environments, with no pre-determined purpose, do what we're told and sit in the Waiting Room for our time to leave. All our personal achievements provide momentary pleasure but they are meaningless in the bigger, cosmic sense.
The Good News
So, here's the good news from a WO perspective. Once we get through all the thought stages of death and dying, we can start living on our own terms, enjoying our momentary existence and refusing to take orders from the guards in the Waiting Room. Paraphrasing Michel Onfray's Atheist Manifesto, some of us prefer philosophers and irreverent comics, radicals, cynics, hedonists, sensualists, scientists and voluptuaries to bishops, popes, rabbis, imams, ayatollahs and mullahs.
Why be cloistered in thought or action by other people who want to control your meaningless existence? Why accept their rules, if you can create your own without infringing on rights of others? You will be dead soon, so now is the time to play your own game. Time to ignore the forces of bureaucracy, politics, marketing and religion in order to do what makes you happy, enthusiastic and exuberant - provided it's legal, considerate and does not interfere with the happiness of neighbors. I agree with Ingersoll that everyone should be as happy as he can be, provided he is not happy at the expense of another, and no person rightly constituted can be happy at the expense of another.
The certainty of death and the meaninglessness of life invite us to freely engage in WOs joyfully pursued.
It's time to cheer in the Waiting Room. Time to do what you want to do - aware of but not controlled or inhibited by friends, family, teachers, lawmakers, parsons, priests or gods.
That's the beauty of randomly occurring life. You can wait quietly or make a fuss, which might bring more pleasure to others than just going along. As in Ingersoll's Improved Man, your own greatest joy might come from the love of those whose lives you have enriched.
Andy Rooney put it this way:
We all ought to understand we're on our own. Believing in Santa Claus doesn't do kids any harm for a few years but it isn't smart for them to continue waiting all their lives for him to come down the chimney with something wonderful. Santa Claus and God are cousins.
Let me conclude on an upbeat, suitably existential note with The Galaxy song by Eric Idle with images from NASA.
Note: The essay is also based on a chapter in my forthcoming book, co-authored with Dr. Grant Donovan of Australia, entitled Wellness Orgasms: The Fun Way to Live Well and Die Healthy.