Sunday, 21 February 2010

carpe diem, or, it's Happy Hour again.

It's all interlinked, I feel - what the best sort of funeral is for person A - the story of A's life - how A dealt with her own mortality - how A lived.

If here A = me, then I can't decide on my own funeral until I've worked through some more thoughts and feelings about my own mortality. The practicalities of the funeral are very important to those who live on, (won't matter a fish's tit to me, because there won't be a "me") but deciding on these practicalities in order to spare family and friends unnecessary hassle and distress causes me to think about my own life and death.

(Oh cheer up, for God's sake! Who wants to live for ever? Do you? Are you sure? Give it some thought, use your imagination, think about how our time-limited consciousness shapes our joys and sorrows - then think of taking away the time limit.... Hah! Gotcha, I bet.)

What's the point of spring if there's no winter, and vice versa.

So I'm moving a little further away from funerals, for now at least, and looking at how we deal with our own mortality. In an earlier blog, "cast a cold eye on life, on death," January sometime in case you're interested, I had a look at stoicism. Stoicism means a lot more than just putting up with nasty things with as little fuss as possible - though that is an important gift to family and friends, of course. Classically, it involves a disregard for the pleasures of life as well as its pains, and I feel that is harder to achieve than in earlier, more physically robust and harsher times. Also, I expect that, like me, you rather enjoy the pleasures of life!

A contemporary substitute is perhaps "carpe diem," "seize the day," in the sense of "enjoy, make the most of, this day." The Latin poet Horace was not the first, surely, to have this thought, but it's his tag that is often used.

In its purest form this suggests to me living in and appreciating the present moment, rather than just following the stream of one's thoughts into past events and future concerns. So far so good - that's related to mindfulness, of which more in future posts.

"Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life....
For yesterday is but a memory, and tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well-lived makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day."

(an ancient Sanskrit inscription, apparently.)

Eminently sane, seems to me. But there is another kind of living in the present which seems to me self-destructive in youth and also useless in helping us face death later in life. And "Look to this day" is not the same thought as " sieze the day."

There are, according to polls etc, many people in our fair land who do not have a strong religious belief, so don't believe in an after-life. They may live fairly noisy tumultuous lives, perhaps, haven't had the chance to mull over the Big Questions, maybe lack the tools to do so (no criticism of them intended) - and of course if they are young, they may feel they'll live for ever, anyway. (Not literally, but older people are naturally more aware of the end of life, surely.)

At a deep level, such people may be very scared of death - not the manner of it, but the end of identity, the cessation of consciousness, the finish of "Me." Well, if all you have to throw in the teeth of life, the old bitch, is your defiant sense of "Me" then that's all that stands between you and death. So of course it's scary. Not on the surface, you may appear full of life and swagger, plenty of sap and cheek, but much deeper down. So what do you do?

You carpe the old diem in a sort of witless hedonism. I stress "witless;" hedonism itself deserves a better press than it usually gets. I mean the sort of hedonism that destroys your liver a little more at each Happy Hour and thereafter till one in the morning, that causes you to drive around the land uninsured and unMoT'd a danger to yourself and others, that causes you to hurt and damage other people unneccessarily, to crash about helplessly in the grip of your own frustrations and anxieties etc.

This may look like living for today, but it isn't looking to this day, because today isn't being well-lived - how can it be if your liver is going to pack up and kill you in your early forties? If you're banned from driving for three years? If you can't face work without a nose-full of coke? Tomorrow is hardly a vision of hope for such a life.

(I'm enjoying this rant probably more than I should, but I'm not excorcising any particular personal traumas here!)

Big N very B please: I'm not blaming people who haven't had the advantages I've had, I'm not talking about their causal and societal context, I'm talking about their fear of not-being. This fear can be felt by very advantaged people, it may just be easier for them to hide it and sublimate it without crashing out.

Now if there is anything in this grotesque stereotype that is at all valid, how can such people approach their own mortality?

Answers next time. What a cliff-hanger, eh?


  1. Well, a strong sense of being time limited certainly puts a spring in the step, whether that manifests as urgency or hysteria. As to the making sense, I think there's much to be said for the open mind. We are used to wondering what's on the other side of the door - of a new pub, say, or someone else's house. So I guess a lot of people regard death in the same way. I say this because the widespread rejection of religion has not led to a concomitant rejection of expectation of an afterlife of some benign sort. Atheists are always missing this. As to a fear of not being: is this so terrifying a prospect? If it's like being unborn, I'd have thought not. If you resign yourself to dying and not being any more, I guess you can do so in a spirit which makes you feel it's a matter not worth pursuing - a bridge you'll cross when you get there. There are so many more trivial things we'd rather not think about; we're in practice!

    Yours is an exuberant line of argument, Gloriamundi. I hope I haven't missed the point.

  2. Of course, Charles, you haven't missed the point, you've developed it!

    My argument is exactly that there is no need to fear unbeing, but I've had a chance to mull these things over, I've had a relatively calm sort of life so far, reasonable education etc - I've had every opportunity to think through my own mortality and try to reconcile myself to it.

    What concerns me is that for people without such advantages, all they may have to face their own mortality with is their ego and sometimes, some self-destructive sort of hedonism.

    As for the afterlife, people I've encountered as a celebrant who don't follow a religion mostly tend to say that they hope they might somehow see X again, or that maybe there's something else after this life.

    Well, I think I'm reasonably OK with the idea that there isn't, and what they believe is fine with me, why would it not be, I'm not a Calvinist Atheist, as it were - but my concern is that facing your own mortality with "maybe there's something else after this life" isn't much help either.

    I feel a post coming on...