The tenor of our age: nihilism born of egoism

When I die, my ability to experience will die with me. How I lived, how long I lived, and how I am remembered won’t make any difference to me because I won’t be able to experience it. From the perspective of experience, death voids everything. Unfortunately, from that very same perspective, living is not that much different.

Living is a series of loosely connected experiences of now, each of which is quickly forgotten. We overlook the ephemeral nature of experience because of the illusion of memory. Our memories are an experience of now masquerading as an experience of then. We don’t experience the past through memory. We don’t know it either. We imagine it. Whatever our imagination may conjure for us, there is only now, the experience of now, and nothing.

Nihilism to the left of me; oblivion to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle with now.

But, hold on.

I may not be able to experience again an experience that has past, but many past experiences effect my experience of now. I can’t experience again those many hours I spent reading, writing and studying, but the positive effects of those experiences stay with me. Likewise, I can’t experience again the cigarettes I’ve had, but their harm stays with me too. Experience may be the means through which we interact with the world, but living in the world is not reducible to our experience of it. There is much more to living than experience.

From this perspective — the perspective of living — the focus on the non-experience of death is myopic. The effects of my life will live on, for better and for worse, long after I am here to experience them. This longevity of effect is nothing like the immortality that the experiencing self craves, but it is the easy proof that death does not void everything. The experiencing self will be extinguished, yes, but its effects will persist long enough to be relevant, whether they are experienced by the extinguished self or not.

So, on closer inspection, the fact of death, in itself, is not the source of the nihilism that is often associated with it. Instead, it is the myopic focus on experience. If outcomes only matter to me when they are directly experienced, death may seem like a good reason not to care about any outcome at all because, at some point, all experience will come to an end. However, that very same focus on experience will likely lead someone to also disregard or ignore outcomes that they don’t directly experience while they are living. If a person’s own experience is the only thing that matters to them, why would they care about what’s happening in the next house, the next city, or the next century? The short answer: they wouldn’t.

Nihilism blooms not in the corpse of god nor in the ever-present fact of death nor in the loss of faith and tradition. It blooms instead in the belief that a person’s own experience is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Nihilism is a product and consequence of egoism, in whatever form it happens to express itself: religious, philosophical, or economic. It this relationship, I think, between egoism and nihilism that best explains the tenor of our age.

A Dangerous Pillow Thought: There’s No Experience Like It

PeekaBrutalIt happened at the exact moment you wouldn’t want it to happen.

My head had hit the pillow with a determined, if groggy, purpose. I had had a productive day at work. I had been to the gym. For the first time in a long time, I had worked on editing a video, and, in doing so, I had reminded myself of how much I enjoyed the craft of it. I had earned, and was ready for, an easy drift into the unknown comfort of sleep. I was determined to make it so.

Instead, as soon as my head hit the pillow, my mind, which had been foggy with sleep mere minutes before, raced off into parts unknown. Of those wild wanderings, of the paths taken and the sights seen, I am now sure of only one port of call. I found myself reminiscing about one of my heart bursting teenaged crushes, which had, of course, gone uncommunicated and unrequited. A crush from whom I had received my first wedding invitation.

And then it happened.

I’m not sure if it happened because of the bittersweet remembrances of the sublime joy of teenage angst or if it was caused by some other wild wandering now forgotten. Whatever the cause, I had the very thought any sensible person should avoid while waiting in the dark of night for sleep.

I will not experience death. Death, as inevitable as it may be, is not a subjective experience. All that I am shall end and I won’t even know it. Death is a certainty we will never know.

If you have never reflected on this inevitable outcome of life and if you have never come to understood its implications deep in the resonating well of your soul, don’t worry, it’s not impossible to describe. There is always a sense of perfect clarity, which is perceptual, emotional, and conceptual. You, the world, everything looks and feels sharp, defined, and profoundly immanent. It is as if the unreal, which is a gauzy mediation between experience and understanding, is simply no longer there. The experience, not unlike one’s first encounter with HDTV, is more real than real. Inevitably the mammalian survival instinct kicks in, triggering a dread-filled and heart-racing panic, as it fights and flights in all directions at once.

Or so I thought.

This time, another instinct kicked in and prevailed. Fearing the long restless night that was sure to follow the adrenalized flight from death’s certainty, some part of me resisted the easy slide into fear and trembling. Instead, I perched on the precipice between understanding and dread and I experienced the clarity of understanding, as if from a distance, without slipping into the heart racing panic. After a moment of unexpected teetering, I turned my attention to sleep and somehow managed to slip away into it.

Because the experience had happened so close to sleep, I might have forgotten it, like a dream. Instead, the very next day, I had another confrontation with the nonexperience of death at the most unexpected of moments.

The winter night had already comfortably settled itself, when I emerged into it. The air was cool, fresh, and crisp. Directly in front of me, a tall tower of office lights thrust into the sharply defined night, drawing my spirit up and away along its solitary axis. Perhaps it was the abrupt shift from the cloistered and artificial light of the office into the wide open clarity of the winter night; or, perhaps, it was a return of the repressed experience of the previous night. Either way, once more, that sharp clarity of understanding, which is so often triggered by a deep understanding of one’s own mortality, reframed all aspects of my experience. Fortunately, I remembered that it was possible to step back from the easy descent into fear and trembling. I did, and I walked for a few minutes in the clear beauty of a world framed by the knowledge that my experience of it would inevitably be no more.

In reflecting on both experiences, I realized that death is only one of the many unknowable non-experiences that exist beyond the frame of living. Life itself, once experienced, disappears forever beyond the event horizon of memory. Philosophers sometimes wonder what it might be like to be a bat, but now I wonder what it might be like to have been myself. Although I once experienced being five, fifteen, and twenty-five, in the same way that I won’t experience what it is like not to be, I can’t experience again what I was. Our memories are not objective snapshots retrieved from pristine archives, they are reconstructions made in the here and now. Memories of your past experience are profoundly shaped by your present experience and everything that made it just so. The inclination that one can directly access past experience through memory is as mistaken as the inclination that death itself will be experienced.

It was once said to me on Twitter that the fear of death diminishes with age. I didn’t believe it then, but, now, after my recent experience, I am more inclined to believe it. It isn’t so much that the fear is gone, but my reaction to it has changed. Perhaps the same part of our brain that tames our adolescent risk-taking also tames our metaphysical risk-taking, and maybe they are both variations on the same theme.

We are, it seems, experiencing beings that are surrounded on all sides by oblivion. It is only a trick of the brain that lets us think otherwise. Dying is a fact of life but death isn’t. Life, I think, becomes an end in itself only when we understand and accept that it would otherwise only be a means to death.

And that, for me, is beautiful.

The Living or the Dying: Who Should We Trust?

WinterTreesWhat truly matters in life?

The dying and almost dead seem always to offer the same answer. The living seem always to offer the wrong answer.

Or do they? Why should we be so inclined to take the word of the dying over the living?

In the face of death, we are capable of unspeakable betrayals, crimes, and self-delusion. Perhaps, it is the living who have the luxury of wisdom, while the dying and almost dead have only the poverty of imprudence.

To further complicate matters, the brain remembers very differently than it experiences. With a few tricks of timing and intensity, the remembering brain can be tricked into choosing for itself one of two experiences which is objectively worse than the other. Are we experiencing or remembering, when we face death? Is it a remembering that demands an experiencing or an experiencing that necessarily diminishes what is remembered? In our final months, days, and minutes, what tricks of timing and intensity might be affecting our judgement?  

Admittedly, there are many far-from-dying sages who have offered the same answer to the question of what truly matters as the dying and almost dead offer, but these answers are motivated by a deep understanding of the fact that we are all dying. Birds of a feather flock, cherish, and die together.   

So, who should we trust? The vanities of the living seem pointless to the dying. The myopia of the dying seems pointless to the living. The answer to this final question lies, I think, in an experience shared by both the living and the dying — the sated joy of being in the presence of the wide open being of the very young.

The very young are a direct connection to the divine pleasure of a wide open, loving, and enchanted being that we know we experienced but can’t remember directly, a being which is too easily lost in the wind chasing that we learn to call living because we are so afraid of dying. The living and the dying both learn in the incandescence of the very young all that matters in life. The dying, however, don’t have the time to forget the lesson over and over again.

Happy New Year.