Why Do We Want This Anyway?

It is time to ask the question: why would we want to live forever anyway? Or rather: Do we truly want to live forever, in the sense of continuing as we are, or even as ourselves in a reinvigorated body? Might it be that it is actually something else that we want, which we then proceed to mistake for continuing as we are? “There is something in us that does not will life,” said Schopenhauer, and “Death is the great opportunity no longer to be I”. I would venture to suggest that anyone who can seriously face the thought of being himself or herself forever is either unutterably enlightened or else the equally unutterable reverse.

In my own case there is an extra reason not to want any longer to be I; namely that for some reason or another, my memory works very selectively, retaining only painful, embarrassing and shameful memories. I have experienced many pleasures, particularly in the mountains, but unfortunately I cannot remember them. So the idea of being reincarnated with a different organising principle for my memory would be most attractive, if only it could be arranged. Failing that, extinction is preferable.

It is worth noting that, although Christian doctrine distinctly speaks of being issued with a new flesh at the Resurrection, almost no Christians seem aware of this today, and seem instead to assume that their old bodies will be revived like Romero zombies, or assume the quite heretical Hollywood doctrine of inhabiting a non-material world. Moreover, all that the Christian blessed seem allowed to do with their new bodies is to participate in the court ceremonial of a Hellenistic despot. As we all know, an hour’s ceremonial on earth can seem like an eternity, so an eternity of it would be unthinkable; which is why people appear to “believe” it without seriously trying to think of it.

For the Bedouin, hanging out in a shady, well-watered garden was an obvious reward, although one wonders how long it would take him to remember that ease only has meaning after exertion, luxury only after deprivation. The same applies to the prospect of his promised houris, intoxicating enough in the desert, no doubt, but when inspected more closely turning out to be a 72-way catfight. And the same again goes for our very own Cockaigne; this was the folk fantasy of people who had no realistic prospect of ease and luxury, and were not in a position to ask the aristocrat how much he really enjoyed them either.

The imaginations of the Hindu East offer a better clue to what it is we might want instead of a never-ending continuance. On the face of it, to come back and live other lives seems more interesting. I should like to be an architect, says the plumber; and, I want to come back and study mathematics all my life, says the sweeper. Or perhaps I might want not to be me any more, but someone else instead; my will-to-live is strong, but it wants to be united with a different personality.

There is also curiosity; for the intellectually curious person, death means never getting to discover how things turned out. But of course this kind of return is not actually how metempsychosis works. The original goal of Eastern reincarnation was not the Pure Land of the Japanese Buddhist sects (uncannily similar to the Christian scheme of salvation by faith), but rather non-being, extinction, going out like a blown candle. The East has always known how burdensome would be infinite continuance.

When we imagine ourselves facing death, whether natural or not, we may find that what we really want is not to continue existing as we were, but rather to begin living – living at a higher level or perhaps even living for the first time. Our distress in the face of death is partly a matter of the animal will-to-live, but also a matter of chagrin, that most inevitable and most useless of emotions. It is a recognition that we have failed. The thought that we could have really lived, but chose not to, or were deprived of the opportunity, or otherwise simply missed the turning, is one of the most painful that a human being can suffer. Hence the saying that what we most repent on our deathbed are not the sins we committed, but the sins we failed to commit.

This may be what many suicides are trying to say, too: not that life is of no value, but that they cannot see the way forward actually to embark upon it. Contrariwise, all that actually keeps more people from killing themselves is the hope that the horse will learn to sing. Indeed, many suicides may have had an unacknowledged belief or hope in reincarnation, so that what they were actually doing was attempting to come back for another try. This would involve being born with a better body, to a better family, in better circumstances and so forth. If this be so, the suicide who really and truly seeks complete extinction would be the exception.

Posted on May 25, 2009 at 13:19 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion And Conceptual Muddle

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