Smelling a pretty flower in a meadow on a summer day just one time is infinitely more valuable than years contemplating hypothetical escapes from an oblivion.
Hello again and welcome to the second and final part of this topic. Last week I left you with some questions, the same ones I’ve asked others in person. They could be summed this way:
Why do you (and everyone else) fear death, and how does it affect your choices in life?
I think that it has to do with your goals.
My claim, in a nutshell: a person’s fear of death (not dying, but death itself) is inversely proportional to the degree to which they estimate they have accomplished their life’s goals.
What this means is that the more you do what you really want to do, the more comfortable you are with the eventual arrival of the end of your own life.
Widely, those who have seen their dreams come true do not fear death. But those of us who set aside their hopes and aspirations rather than actively pursuing them, foster and develop a deep fear of death, and I believe this is because they fear losing the ability to act on those dreams before it is too late.
The signs are there. The way they build defenses from even thinking about what they truly want in life, let alone actually making a plan to address those things. The way the elderly enter into a malaise leading to senility when they realize they are no longer able to do the thing that may make them happy. The way that so many people wither away mentally (followed by physically) once they no longer have a job or someone to take care of.
But I have also witnessed evidence in myself, and to me, this is the most compelling of the lot. In the last few years, I have seen my health decline. Not precipitously, but significantly. I am in my thirties, but I am beginning to sight the end of my life, be it in my sixties, eighties, or whenever (let’s hope a long time from now). The concept of my death becomes more real with the passage of time, and strangely, the penultimate loss that I can remember associating with it all the way back to my first understanding of death as a child, has waned.
Concurrently, I have seen some of my major life goals come to fruition: I graduated college with a degree in science in 2003. I wrote a book. Two, actually. I published one in 2013. I recorded an album of my own music in 2007, and several more since then. I taught myself to record and thereby took control of the entire creative process for a number of my projects. The first one that I helmed without assistance, start to finish, was released in 2015. I fell in love. Real, soul-jacking love, tore myself apart trying to survive its end, and did, barely. That was a few years ago. I moved to a new location and made it there, on my own, back in 2004. I locked in a dependable, lucrative career in 2015 that uses a portion of my training and skillset. In 2000 I adopted and raised a dog from a pup, gave him a long, happy life, and in a short time I will help him leave it behind. And I will endure that pain, and survive to find happiness on the other side, because I have learned how to do that.
Some of those are failures that I spun into a kind of victory, by handling the failure the right way. Seems like a cop-out, but it’s quite valid and in retrospect it is doubly so. One must give up to truly fail. Therein lies a wonderful truth we may rely on in our lives: the person who works toward their success with honest rigor cannot lose, even if success does not come. The idea almost sounds like political propaganda, but it is coming from a place far from there. Emotionally, the value of successfully working toward a goal is far greater than the value of successfully achieving that goal.
These accomplishments I’ve listed mean a lot to me, and this is largely because I set them as life goals before I undertook them, and when they came to pass, I recognized their importance and truly enjoyed the significance of their completion. To a large degree, the second part of that last sentence is dependent upon the first: you must declare your goal before you tackle it if you are to reap the full benefit of the accomplishment. There is a vital time element here. You must choose a journey before a journey chooses you.
Nowadays I have other goals. Some of them are improved repetitions of ones I’ve already tackled, but they’re there, and I am working toward them. They are not lessened by others that have passed. The creation, expansion, and maintenance of this website is one of them. But my point here is that I now see myself as having actually completed some of my life goals. What this means is that as an achiever, I am done with a portion of my life’s work. That fact puts me at peace, and it helps me cope with the fear of dying. My death, if it happened today on the way home from work, would not be metaphorically the same as quitting a book while still in chapter one. It would be chapter four, or ten, or something along those lines, if we wanted to extend the metaphor. I have accomplished something. And I am truly proud of that. That pride, that accomplishment, erodes the fear of death.
Death is an implacable foe. This is the only defense against death we can ever hope to have: to achieve.
Today I have claimed that the fear of death is caused by failure to meet one’s goals. Not as offensive as some of my prior claims, but possibly a very challenging one, depending on you.
What do you think?
Why do you think people fear death?
In saying “I want to”, you own the choice. You own the foresight, the labor, the accomplishment, the credit, the admiration, and the prosperity.
How would you respond to this hypothetical scenario?
Greetings ladies, greetings gents
Spread your blankets, pitch your tents
I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure. I make money doing this. I have been trained, I have performed feats of math and science sufficient of one who is charged with working in a lab where measurements are performed and the performer must do the mathing and the sciencing and the sleuthing and figure out what exactly a measurement is.
And let me tell you, no measurement is perfect. I look at precision instruments all day, and I use advanced technique to evaluate them. Sometimes I put a stamp of approval on it. Most often, I adjust the instrument before doing so. And it’s always to a level of what they call tolerance. This means that it can be inexact as long as it is within X units of perfect. They designate this because nothing is perfect. Nothing is ever exactly what it is meant to be. If you look close enough, you can find how far off it might be. Sometimes you don’t have to look very close at all.
So one thing I learn from this job is that though many things are “made to measure”, nothing really does it perfectly. Not even me. With careful consideration, an uncertainty is derived on every measurement I might do. So I take your one pound weight, and I use highly specialized equipment, training, and thoroughly vetted technique, and I tell you that it weighs 1.001963 pounds. Plus or minus 0.000032 pounds, because that’s how much I might be off by, if you consider the accuracy of the equipment I was using, the standards I was comparing it to, factors that may contribute to error like air buoyancy, magnetism, and things related directly to me, like the training I’ve received, and my observed capacity for error.
It’s all a balance of how far off can it be. The goal is not to get it exact, because you can’t do that. This foe is beyond any of us. How like life, yes? Damage control. If you’re good at this game, you can play it and still stay focused on the good things without withering under the illusion of perfection. And the damage control is a means. You pedal the bicycle, but you keep your eyes on the scenery, the smell of the air, the things that come and go and the beauty of all of this stuff. Most of us give in to some degree, however, to the urge to focus on the strain of pedaling. Or, the more enchanting distraction: the place you’re headed.
That one is truly beguiling. You’ve heard the questions. What’s it all for? What is the meaning of life? And you see these people pedaling along, hearing that the journey and the wondering itself is the point and hoping that’s right, yet feeling emptiness from never truly internalizing this platitude as an answer. Gotta wonder about those deathbed regrets. The sadness for not achieving lifelong goals that were never set. The continued blindness to the beautiful life that came, went, and is over.
But they don’t train you for that in school, do they? They don’t teach you to validate yourself. They don’t instruct you not to idolize perfection. They don’t teach you to work toward the impossible goal, yet somehow realize that the work is the real goal.
Of course they don’t. That stuff is orders of magnitude outside what they can do for you in school. Even just the rudiments that begin you working toward understanding higher-order concepts like these are hard to successfully imprint. And as any teacher will tell you, students are already being taught harder, deeper, more formative lessons at home. And parents? Forget about it. Just the fact that the bromide “these things don’t come with instruction manuals” (in regard to having children) is a thing should indicate the level of expertise we’re bringing to the table when rearing a new member of a future society. But why don’t they come with manuals? Why don’t we have required primers for raising kids?
Anyone who has taken any psychology course has had to grapple with the unhappy concept that our psyches are largely composed of things outside not only our understanding, but our awareness as well. The amount that is going on behind the scenes in our minds would, I think, send us reeling were we to know its proportion. How much of our personalities is unconscious. How much of what makes John Smith John Smith is stuff John Smith has never known, thought about, or will ever consider. And this stuff is learning, growing, adapting, updating, changing all the time. Our consciousness is like a spotlit pinpoint on a vast stage, and though behind the curtains there is a constant din of footsteps and conversation, all we can see and hear is the one actor in the spotlight.
Acting. Well, that’s another topic.
But we think we are so aware! Our consciousnesses delightfully frolic through the world, smugly satisfied that it’s all within our ken, and all is well because we understand everything or are at least capable of it, and what we’re not thinking about at the moment, we somehow understand it all by extension (read: categorize and ignore). This is what we are programmed to do. We see what we see, and attach all significance to it. All the significance. There is nothing else, nothing that transcends your understanding, says your ego. Only things that fit into it at different places.
Yet, imagine a mind that is simultaneously aware of the thoughts of two people at the same time, to as great a level of detail as both those peoples’ minds. The sum of two minds. You cannot. It is outside our ability. You understand the concept as I’ve described it, but cannot actually grasp its breadth. Now imagine a mind that could do this for a hundred people. A thousand. All humanity.
We are so committed to this conceit, this concept that our understanding is universally definitive, that even our fiction, which should be as far flung as our writers can conceive, rarely depicts anything that challenges it. And when it does, it’s usually described as incomprehensible, because human minds do not brook such challenges. We just categorize each new thing into the understanding we already have. Perhaps this is best. I mean, imagine if an author could create a description that could reach outside your paradigm and show you something truly uncategorizable.
If I ask you to imagine a squirrel that has been magically made self-aware, what level of understanding do you give it in your imagination? Something akin to your own, right? Or at least measurable against your own. You have some concept of what part of existence and the world you consciously understand (effectively all of it as far as you’re concerned), and you judge the squirrel’s against that. And in that judgement is everything, because all significance is contained within your understanding.
So here we are, on our stage, carefully (such delicate, deliberate, detailed care!) manipulating the actor in the spotlight, while the vast majority of our minds/psyches are busy, developing, existing, and interacting with the world just outside our perception. Kids are doing this too. Only they’re starting with an untrained stage crew, so they’re learning bigger lessons, more formative ones. And they do this at home, for the most part. Kids are programmed to learn from their parents. You know this, but you don’t really understand how much they learn. And they’re not aware of it. It’s just happening while they’re asking for a cookie or mommy’s attention. Ever had any really deep therapy? Learn a few hard lessons about yourself? If so, you know where I’m coming from here.
But kids are in the care of their parents and nobody in the whole village is helping them by showing them even the most rudimentary steps toward raising an emotionally effective human. Just the body language and subtle manner you exhibit when you respond to requests for attention will have dire consequences on the child’s ability to form intimate relationships as an adult. But the parents don’t know that. They don’t understand it. What’s more, they were raised in a similarly dysfunctional way and are expressing those resultant deficiencies as adults. Most of the time they’re playing their psychological problems off the kid. It’s all considered normal, too. How many of the stereotypical dispositions you have encountered are the result of severe emotional dysfunction?
As for the child’s raising, it’s a crapshoot. Even as we build a world where we are able to protect our families from the elements, disease, even lack of opportunity or insufficient stimulation, we are still taking the same chance that a mother wildcat does when rearing a litter in a shallow depression in the dirt of the desert plain. We are grimly, totally, inexorably exposed to a harsh, brutal psychological battlefield, and we are all of us scarred, limping, barely escaping utter destruction.
And we do this by protecting ourselves. By categorizing everything we perceive (vast!) into the context of our purview (teeny!). By attaching all significance to what we understand (thanks, ego). By fearing, attacking, hiding, and acting. Like the mother wildcat’s kittens, we play and growl and bite and feed when we can, because we are constantly beset by danger and the threat of injury and death.
You can see it, right? Those kittens, they don’t grasp that you understand more of the world than they do. They have an understanding of it, and that understanding IS the whole world to them. All significance is contained within it. And it should be. Without the conceit of a comprehensive worldview, no living thing would have the audacity to exist.
Now, and thanks for reading all that up there, now that you have just read it, let me ask you this: how important is where you’re ultimately going in life? When do you think you’re going to die, and do you think you’re going to perfect anything you’re working on in yourself or your life by then? What use is setting perfection, in anything, as your goal? There are things you’d like in life. What are you waiting for? You really think it’s gonna get easier? Or that there’s a better time than right now?
You constantly judge things in your life; you should be, that’s good. How else will you know the value or position of anything, along any standard or range? You are in a constant state of measurement. But let’s face it, you suck at it. We all do. It’s what we rely on, and we need it to exist. But we aren’t very good at it. It’s only useful in the context of our own lives. The kitten on the desert plain feels proud that it killed a mole rat and thus it can eat. That pride is a measurement, and it exists mostly to emotionally reinforce that kitten so it confidently attempts another kill. By what rubric do you measure these values?
In regard to our own, personal goals, we’re all kittens ready to accept that killing that mole rat is everything. It is worth every ounce of our selves to accomplish. But you’re afraid. Maybe you don’t admit it, but you are. Likely, you blame other things for getting in the way. This is fear too. Some fear is good, but some fear is paralyzing. And here’s why: you measure yourself against your accomplishments.
That same apparatus you use to measure the value of that kill is the apparatus you use to measure your value. And you confuse the two. The kitten that fails to kill the rat does not do very well the next time around. And the time after that? It’s a downward spiral. This is a helpful tool for wildcats and cavemen. But like so many other evolutionary advances that once assisted us, in our world we have outgrown its usefulness, and it now hinders us.
Let what you do be your work, and what you are be what you are. Let your shitty, incredibly biased measurement system decide your value not based on the successfulness of what you do, but on the fact that you want to try, and you do try, and you accomplish some good things some of the time. Because you are living in a world where the mole rats are already killed, and served to you whenever you want one. But you’re still the feral kitten, battered by an unforgiving world, driven by a dire need to succeed, and ready to hinge the value of your whole self on the attempt.
I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure. I know that the work is frightfully uncertain, but it only needs to reach a specified tolerance. After that, the next measurement awaits. And though I cannot achieve perfection, I can become quite effective at meeting tolerance. So that’s the script for the actor in the spotlight. Realistic goals, realistic valuation of a very limited grasp of the world, and the understanding that I will sadly, unavoidably, and appropriately, attach all the significance I can conjure to only the things inside it.
So, have I just taken a long-winded approach to defending setting low goals? Or defended the erection of some sort of psychological defenses? Is this all a blustery huff-and-puff display, designed to ward off fear of failure? Or perhaps is there a nugget of gold in there someplace? Hmmm. Well, thanks for reading it anyway. Hope it gave you some ideas.
Until next time, kittens.