The Human Condition

To be alive is such a blessing that we rarely find ourselves able to grasp it. To feel this blessing in the moment is the most precious thing I know. Briefly I wondered if it makes grammatical sense to say “It’s a blessing to be alive,” for we are not in a position to compare life with any other state. But it does have a meaning, does communicate something, because we could have said “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” conveying the opposite meaning. For life is always beset with circumstance; its essential nature is to be fragile; things could always get worse; there is always reason to give thanks.

Ernest Becker

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on Ernest Becker’s celebrated book, The Denial of Death; mocking and belittling it. Rather oddly, it’s the second most-viewed of my posts, usually from colleges in the States. His theme is the fear of death, and the human tendency to mask it with actions or pretensions which lend us the illusion of immortality. I won’t deny that the book has been meaningful to a lot of people, to whom I guess it explains the world and their own natures in a rather satisfying way. But we’re not all the same. If I were writing on the same theme, I’d start by distinguishing two things: a) the instinctive physical fear of death, which helps us cross the road safely, makes us go weak at the knees with vertigo when we gaze down from a height—even when we know intellectually there is no danger of falling; b) the existential fear of death. At first glance, I take this as a clinging and desperate sense that we’re not ready to go. Perhaps when we have truly lived the moments and fulfilled our lives, then we’ll let go with a smile and a wave.

Why can’t I wake up each morning, or reinvigorate myself whenever I feel low, with the thought, “Here I am, still alive, hooray”? On further examination, I see that it doesn’t work that way. As a rule, we’re not so vividly aware of death as to be grateful for being spared thus far. Except when prompted by extreme events, we don’t think of that actual moment when the book of life closes with a final snap—the end of history as we will ever know it. What gets under our skin, day to day, is a series of metaphorical deaths. “Cowards die many times before their deaths”, says Shakespeare’s Caesar. Fear is the the backdrop to this world’s stage on which we strut our stuff, the basis of the ad-hoc play whose lines we speak without rehearsal. Our strivings and ambitions take their urgency from the secret fear of penury, debt and ruin which may darken today’s sunniest prospect. Our pursuit of love & respect springs from a fear of abandonment and ignominy. Our quest for stimulation and clear focus arises from the fear of being engulfed in dull purposelessness.

Some take refuge in wealth, others in affection, faith or philosophy; perhaps in a cocktail of all four. As for me, I know not who “I” am, except as the empty centre of my own perspective, formed by a succession of random events, like everything in the universe. Sometimes I think I create myself moment to moment by thinking, doing, performing on life’s stage. Other times I seem passive and sponge-like, absorbing influence from the ambience in which I swim. Unconsciously I select which moments suit my need and provide nourishment to my soul.

What is Man!

I am like a caterpillar, hatched on a specific kind of leaf, preparing myself for metamorphoses as yet unknown. At a given moment, I can’t tell if I’m larva, pupa or imago. Consciousness flickers, gives me no constant answer.
Something I recently lighted upon was an enigmatic quotation from Emerson, from a comment by Ellie. It was from his essay Nature, and led me to read the whole piece. You can download it from several sites, for example this one. It declares as fact a lot of things which I’ve glimpsed from different angles and stumbled upon over recent years, like the blind men bumping into the elephant, each feeling a different part and guessing what kind of a thing it was. Is it the proverbial Elephant in the Room? I’ve been each of those blind men, content with my own experience, avoiding the big question on purpose. Emerson seems to see the elephant clearly, approaches it like a philosophical big-game hunter. He has the verbal mastery, the world-class imagination, but mostly the vision of what his contemporaries fail to see: the blessedness of being alive.

click to enlarge

He makes his move, publishes his Theory of Everything, establishes Transcendentalism as a “major cultural movement”.

His essay got me wondering how he came to write it, what impelled him and from there on how he set about the task. I was struck by the way it sounds like a spontaneous outpouring, an overflow of heightened consciousness, fruit of a sustained elevation of spirit.

Emerson

It is of course one thing to have the feeling, and another to convey it eloquently. At the other extreme from Emerson would be the person who can only say “Wow! Nature”; to someone alongside feeling the same thing, that would be sharing enough. From my own experience I surmise that his rhapsody proceeds from a single flash of insight which opens from a tight-folded bud, expands like a full-blown rose to the number of words needed for its full expression. Where can we find that still-furled bud? I believe we can trace it to the very paragraph from which Ellie took her quotation, in the second paragraph of his Introduction. If I had to summarize it in less than fifty words I might come up with this: “Instead of accepting hand-me-down answers, ready-made ways to see the universe, we only have to look, and find the answers ourselves, for they are built into the world around us, and into our own natures.” It is truly a big idea. Its expansion to fifteen thousand words leads us to some astonishing places:

“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass.

Walt Whitman

“Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited. They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding—its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility.
. . .
“The same good office [i.e. Nature being a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths] is performed by Property and its filial systems of debt and credit. Debt, grinding debt, whose iron face the widow, the orphan, and the sons of genius fear and hate;—debt, which consumes so much time, which so cripples and disheartens a great spirit with cares that seem so base, is a

Henri Bergson

preceptor whose lessons cannot be forgone, and is needed most by those who suffer from it most.”

The last one appears to say, “Debt carries its own harsh lesson to those in need of learning it,” a sentiment that few politicians dare say publicly today, at least in England, where debtors have votes like everyone else and can’t be jailed as in Dickens’ day. In the 178 years since Nature was published, Transcendentalism has shrunk to a feeble ember, its flame most notably passed on to enthusiasts of Walt Whitman’s poetry. As for Henri Bergson, and his expansion of similar insights to even greater lengths, who reads him today?

Philosophy is the verbal expansion of a moment’s enlightenment. Religion is similar, but uses different means: faith, ritual, allegory, the communion of souls. Without heightened consciousness, or elevation of the spirit, which they may call the presence of God, I want to say that religion is hollow. Then I think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who according to private correspondence lost her sense of the presence of God for many years. Meantime she carried on through doggedness, courage and faith.

Mother Teresa

None of us can depend on a constant continuance of enlightened moments. Such is our human condition, that we are impelled to seek a formula for grasping Eternity.

I live in the midst of mean streets, I see my own progression toward decline and death, however long it may take. Life is fragile, nothing is to be taken for granted. If one should somehow lose the spark of joy, everything turns to ashes. God is the allegorical representation of all our yearning, the haven for all our insecurity—if this is the way we choose to express it. Me, I stand in the outfield, player or delighted spectator, I’m not sure which.

Over countless years a verse keeps playing in my head from a hymn by John Keble called “New Every Morning” (1822):

The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask:
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God.

I don’t think about what it means, it’s simply a comfort blanket. It gives courage. Bunyan’s “To be a Pilgrim” is another.

Millions have read the Book of Psalms for the same purpose.

Postscript
Since starting this piece, I discovered an extraordinary book called Firmin, by Sam Savage. I was looking for a present for my grandson, who came to visit yesterday. Not finding it in the town’s only bookshop, I went to Eco Chic, which recycles books free, and thought it was a children’s book—which it certainly is not, though it has a rat as its narrator, and its front cover board is gnawed suggestively. He lives in a bookshop, and weaned himself on Finnegan’s Wake (chewing it), in the process miraculously learning to read and thereby obtain insight to human

Sam Savage

culture, to the point where he becomes erotically attracted to girls in burlesque shows instead of female rats. I haven’t yet finished it but almost every reviewer mentions how tragic it is, because his dreams can never be fulfilled, he has no vocal chords, his first love puts down rat poison for him, etc. They think it’s an allegory of alienation and loneliness. I beg to differ, for it recalls the beginning of my little piece, where I said:

“To be alive is such a blessing that it we rarely find ourselves able to grasp it. . . . for we are not in a position to compare life with any other state.”

Savage’s extended thought experiment helps us see how blessed we really are. Like Firmin, we can be eager spectators, but unlike him, we are players too. A message more palatable, methinks, than Finnegan’s Wake, & even Emerson’s Nature.
Ernest Becker

Firmin
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10 thoughts on “The Human Condition

  1. I enjoyed reading and thinking about this very much. There were times when I found myself nodding in agreement. But there were also times when I felt a niggling discomfort, a sense of needing to question when no questions would surface, and hence no answering responses. I do from time to time feel frustration with my inner life, yet also feel aware – or is that belief – that everything may be far better than I can image.

    I find as I get older that life seems to have more promise than it ever did when I was younger. I cannot rid myself of that no matter how much I might choose to intellectualise my situation. As for death, when I felt closest to it as an adult, I felt not fear but calm acceptance. Fear seems to arise when we do not face death directly but when we think about fear as something imminent but not about to happen now. I will consider your post some more…..

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  2. “… perhaps in a cocktail of all four.”

    At first I thought this said, “…perhaps in a cocktail or four.” Some people do take refuge that way.

    I like the distinction you make between the physical and existential fears of death, a very important distinction needed for getting into the heart of the matter.

    More thoughts on this will be forthcoming. I have to step out to run some errands just now.

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  3. This Firmin sounds like a book worth checking out. Sounds right up my alley. At first I was confused about whether your grandson or the rat learned to read by gnawing on Finnegan's Wake, but further reading soon cleared things up.

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  4. I've heard a few people years ago claim that you could learn a foreign language by listening to audio tapes in your sleep. I've never tried it, but I remain skeptical about it.

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  5. Also, I remember an episode of the cartoon Dexter's Lab where he grinds up a dictionary and feeds it to a dog mixed in with its dog food, and thus the dog learns to talk. The dog says all the things you'd pretty much expect a dog to say if it could talk: “Look! Over here, look! It's the stick! Look, it's the stick.” “Oh, hey, it's the guy, the guy from before! Look, it's the guy!”

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  6. As always your gift to me is that you stimulate my thoughts. Thanks.

    You are an observer and a player, and in the 'empty centre', you are the void which is filled with the unknowable.

    You are the playwright who is engaged in writing your script. Only the script is never finished. Nor could it be 'finished' until the play has been produced and performed beyond time and space. Perhaps you are seeing a dress rehearsal in your grandchildren but that is only a fraction of the ripples which have been generated by the pebble named Ian falling into the great sea of time and space.

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  7. As a rule, we’re not so vividly aware of death as to be grateful for being spared thus far. Except when prompted by extreme events,

    Um, not sure how to begin to respond in a brief and coherent way. Death.or the extinction of life is our constant companion. From, perhaps, the moment when one sperm enters an egg. I only mention this because one of my sperm/egg conjunctions did not “see the light of day”.

    Have, over my lifetime, been astonished by the 'near misses' with death; but remain alive – and refuse to allocate any 'reason' as to the “why”.

    The readers here will probably have seen the “news” about the 16 hour siege (and conclusion) within a coffee shop on Martin Place within the Sydney CBD recently.

    The details of the “how” will be 'post-mortems' for a very long time – but, for those there; and the families involved …
    there will always be the unanswered question – why.

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  8. Well said, my friend.

    Gospel of Thomas
    29) Jesus said, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit,
    it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the
    body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this
    great wealth has made its home in this poverty.”

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  9. I like the problem you raise stated in its simplest way as “why aren't we habitually more grateful to be alive rather than dead?” Now that is an excellent question, albeit some human beings no doubt do feel that gratitude more usually than others. Putting aside mental health disorders and other disabilities including past trauma, not to mention indigence, at least for a moment, I believe that it's down to psychological habituation, in the same way, pardon the analogy, that the novely effect of a newly acquired item soon wears off and one easily forgets the reasons one should and do feel grateful for – e.g. the fact that I'm now comfortably at home typing away on a computer sharing my thoughts to like minds… There I did it! To blow my own trumpet, as I am wont to do, I will say that habituation can be more or less mindful, and the more mindful one is of one's habits, thoughts, activities, behaviours the more easy and possible it is to feel grateful in the specific and then in the general, i.e. feel grateful to be alive. I can also occur when someone one knows dies suddenly – as happened to me recently… It reminded me of how final death is, and the deceased individual lives on mainly in the memory of those who knew him or her and, as the case may be such as in the case of a Mozart or Kubrick, the body of work they left for us to enjoy, ponder over and confront.

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