Between the wake of living and the insensibility of death: the experience of now

It’s an old and familiar trope; as a young man, it would enrage me.

Picture it: an old person, who is tired of living, decides that they are ready to die. Then, they close their eyes and die, as if the matter was decided in that moment — probably after some important milestone had passed and some important wisdom had been imparted.

The decision itself to die is not, I think, the key issue. Death as the ultimate sacrifice, in the name of some higher principle or for the benefit of some other person, has always tickled my adolescent fancy. Likewise, for as long as I can remember, I have always thought suicide to be an appropriate response to a cruel and terminal illness, even if it isn’t the choice I would make for myself.

I think the trope enraged me because it eulogized a decision to acquiesce to death’s inevitable and final ushering for no other reason than the old person’s indifference to life. The old person could live longer; they simply choose not to because they don’t much see the point in living any longer. It seemed to me to be the ultimate betrayal of the very idea of life, in all of its stubborn glory. Death is not an undiscovered country; it is an insensibility to be resisted at all costs until the very moment of consumption and consummation.

However, now that I have made it to middle age, I have found that the trope no longer enrages me. The decision to acquiesce to death, however unpalatable such acquiescence  may be to me, even seems to make sense, once the nature of lived experience is rightly understood.

When I was younger, lived experience seemed much more concrete and enduring, even after it had already been lost under the wake of living, because the amount of lived experience I could remember seemed to be much more than the experience I had forgotten. Sure, I couldn’t remember every detail of waking life but, on the whole, it felt like my experiences lived on with me in my memories.

At forty-five, however, the ledger of memories and lived experience is not at all balanced. I have undeniably forgotten much more of my life than I can now remember. I can no longer pretend otherwise: experience is gone forever once it is lived and our very fallible and fleeting memories can’t preserve or resurrect it. In terms of the experience of lived experience, the only difference between living and death is that the now of living is experienced and the now of death is not. The past is as unknowable as the future, whatever the fantasy of memory might otherwise try to tell us.

Now that this insight has taken root, it has become much easier for me to imagine a time when I will be able to look forward into death and look back onto life and not really see that much difference in terms of the experience of lived experience. As a young person, the experience of now was a supernova that illuminated all horizons; today, it is a star bright enough for me to look back with fondness and forward with anticipation, despite the shadows growing all around me; looking out towards 80 or 90 (and, hopefully, 100 or 120), it is very easy to imagine that the experience of now might feel like a pale dim light in a universe of nothing stretching in all directions. If that is the case, persistence for the sake of persistence might not seem to really add or subtract from the final ledger; and acquiescence to an insensible future might not seem so different from an attachment to the insensible past. Maybe, just maybe, I will also be ready to close my eyes and slip away quietly.

But, let me say this now! If some future Sterling starts nattering on about going gently into that good night, he is a rogue and a fraud! Here me now and believe me later: attach every machine, do all the surgeries, and give me every drug; do whatever it takes to keep my faint ember of consciousness aglow, no matter the suffering I may endure. I expect future Sterling will feel the same; however, because younger Sterling would probably be enraged at my defence of the enraging trope, I shall err on the side of caution: let my will today bind his then. If future Sterling ever loses sight of the faint ember of his experience in the engulfing insensibility of past and future, give him a stiff rum or two and send him to bed. I’m sure he will be fine in the morning. He’s probably just had a bad day. Plus, if he has got to go, he will probably want to go quietly in his own bed, enveloped in  a nice light glow.

Losing my religion: the unknowable self and the myth of a well-ordered society

I suspect that you and I don’t really know anything.

Today, thanks to a lot of trial and error, we humans have a pretty good understanding of what we need to do to distinguish between plausible and implausible beliefs. If we run controlled double-blind and repeatable experiments that generate a sufficient amount of data of sufficient quality, we can use statistical methods to confidently identify those beliefs that are false and those that are plausibly true but still in need of further testing. Considered from this perspective, it seems pretty obvious to me that you and I don’t really know anything. Most of our beliefs have not been tested in this way. 

To start, almost all of our beliefs about the universe are taken on faith that the people doing the work of understanding the universe are doing it correctly. To be sure, this is probably a sensible approach for you and I to take. It certainly seems much more efficient to rely on a specialized community of inquirers to undertake this work, but it doesn’t change the fact that you and I don’t really know what the scientific community knows. Their well-tested beliefs are, for us, articles of faith, even if we can expect them to be much more reliable than the articles of faith generated by theologians interpreting ancient texts. And if this is true, it is true whenever we rely on others to formulate and test beliefs on our behalf. Beliefs that we don’t test ourselves are, for us, articles of faith. 

With that conclusion in mind, take a few minutes to catalogue all the beliefs that you have and rely on each day that are formulated for you and/or tested by others. If you are honest with yourself, I am pretty sure the list will be quite long. And while it is tempting to believe that we have good reason to rely on others for all of these beliefs, I’m willing to bet that you have not tested that belief either. I, for one, can admit that I have not tested it — and most of my other beliefs. I also feel pretty comfortable guessing that you and I are in the same boat. 

And this, I think, is the crucial consideration. We might be able to shrug off the fact that particle physics is for us a matter of faith, but I suspect it will be much more unsettling to realize that you and I never properly test a whole range of beliefs that fundamentally shape our sense of self, our identity, and our daily experience of living.

Consider: Am I happy or unhappy today? Am I happier or less happy than I was yesterday? Last week? Last year? Am I better off now than I was three years ago? Am I consistently making choices that support my well-being? Did I go to the right university? Was I right not to go to university? Am I in the right career? Are my goals for the future the right goals? Am I with the right partner? Would I have been happier with no children or more children? Am I the person I wanted to become? Who was I? Which of my memories are accurate? How accurate? And so on. For all of these questions and many more, there are objective and measurable answers. I’m also willing to bet that your answers to these kinds of questions are a mix of educated guesses, received wisdom, and Magic 8-Ball proclamations. 

To further complicate matters, it is very likely that some of these questions can’t ever be properly answered. We could, for example, carefully track our self-reported experiences of happiness over a long enough period of time to come up with some plausible theories about what makes us happy and then test those theories with more data. However, we probably will never be able to adequately test whether any particular life choice was the right one to make. There are no do-overs in life. As a result, we can’t even generate the data that would put us in a position to make a valid assessment. Furthermore, in the face of this certain uncertainty, it seems likely that we can’t even reliably assess these choices in the here and now because we don’t have the well-tested beliefs upon which to assess the expected outcomes. So, even if we want to evaluate our life choices before we make them (overlooking the important consideration that many people don’t), we don’t even have the correct data for that evaluation. 

One plausible way to sidestep these concerns is to simply stipulate a lower burden of proof for these kinds of beliefs. Perhaps, it doesn’t really matter if we have properly tested beliefs about our happiness, our favourite foods, or our career path. One might be happy to claim that the good life requires only that we can tell ourselves a convincing story in the here and now that we are happy, well-off and that the events of our lives brought us here. All’s well that we can describe as ending well! And while I suspect that this tactic might actually be the best explanation for our species’ reproductive success up to this point (i.e. that we have a curious ability to reimagine suffering as a net benefit), I remain suspicious of the notion that we should lower the burden of proof for these kinds of beliefs. A delusion is a delusion is a delusion, even if we can convince ourselves that we are happy about it. 

In the face of this uncertainty, however, I suspect the only appropriate conclusion is to give up on the notion that we can ever definitively know ourselves. We are constantly evolving animals that are bound in the flow of time and, as a result, there are beliefs about ourselves of which we can never properly test. We have to rely on hunches, received wisdom and wild guesses because we have no other option. It isn’t because we are inherently mystical or otherworldly. It is because we are constrained  by our temporal existence. The much larger and crucial delusion, I think, is the belief that we could know with certainty who we are and what we value. Once we give up on that idea, the notion that we don’t know ourselves with God-like certainty seems much less unsettling and becomes just another mundane limitation of human existence. 

And while this conclusion might be well and good on the personal level, it creates one teensy-weensy little issue when we turn our attention to society and its organization: the fundamental and essential assumption of a liberal democracy and a market economy is that you and I can know our own well-being and happiness, know it better than anyone else, and reason effectively about it. Thanks to research in neuroscience and behavioural psychology, we now know with some certainty that these assumptions are false. We are poor reasoners in general but especially about what we value. Additionally, many of our beliefs about our own well-being are demonstrably false (i.e. people remember happiness that they did not experience and forget pain that they did). So, if it is true that most of our beliefs are inadequately tested and that we can’t even make accurate judgments about what we value or think to be good, democracies and markets are, at best, arbitrarily organizing society and, at worst, guaranteed to do it poorly. Garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes. And to be clear, this is also true for authoritarian strong men, councils of nerds, and any other social-political system that depends on anyone looking deep within themselves to figure out who they are, what they value, or what they want to become. The root problem is the practical constraints of inquiry. There is no social architecture that will solve that problem for us.  

What then of politics, society, and its organization, if we can’t count on people knowing themselves with any certainty? 

First, I think we need to recognize and accept that our present-day social and political habits, institutions, and systems are largely the consequence of chance (akin to biological evolution), prone to constant change, and persist only as long we allow them to persist. They are an expression of our need to organize ourselves, they reflect the environment in which they developed, and they emerge like any other natural phenomenon. They can become better or worse (relative to a host of benchmarks), none of them will magically persist over time, and there is no reason to think that solutions from hundreds and even thousands of years ago will work for today’s challenges. We need to accept that society’s organization is an ever-evolving and accidental by-product of the on-going effort to solve many different, discrete and often intertwined problems. 

Second, I think we need to get out of the habit of appealing to any claims that rely on introspection alone, in the same way that we almost got out of the habit of appealing to claims about the one true God. There are a lot of well-tested and plausible beliefs that we can use to guide our efforts to organize ourselves and direct our problem-solving efforts. The challenge, of course, is that even well-tested beliefs don’t all necessarily point to the same conclusion and course of action. In those cases, we must resist the temptation to frame the debate in terms of largely unanswerable questions like “what’s best for me”, “who’s vision of the good life is correct,” or “who worships the right God.” Instead, we need to look to well-tested beliefs, run good experiments, and always account for all the costs and benefits of whatever approach we settle on in the here and now, recognizing that with new evidence we may need to adapt and change.  

Finally, for those of us who think that we should settle our disagreements based on well-tested beliefs rather than dubious claims grounded in introspection, we need to lead by example. I think this will primarily involve asking the right sort of questions when we disagree with others. For example, what well-tested evidence do we have for one conclusion or the other? What kind of evidence do we need to decide the matter? What experiments can we run to get the necessary evidence? We will also need to get in the habit of discounting our own beliefs, especially if they are based on nothing more than introspection or received wisdom. And this might actually be the toughest hurdle to overcome both personally and practically. It is very natural to become attached to our own bright ideas before they are properly tested. Once attached, it becomes much easier to discount the evidence against them. To further complicate matters, humans also seem to be too easily motivated to action by strongly-expressed convictions that align with preconceived notions, whether they are well-tested or not. Asking for evidence before action and expressing doubts about one’s own convictions might not resonate with the very people we need to sway. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, there is no easy general all-purpose way to solve this problem. People who want to motivate others to action will always need to strike the tricky balance between rhetoric and honest communication. We don’t need to be puritans about honest communication but we also shouldn’t use the human condition as an excuse to spin outright lies — even in the service of thoroughly tested beliefs.            

Descartes is often credited with kicking off modernity when he famously doubted the existence of everything but his own thinking mind. In the very many years since he reached his pithy and highly quotable conclusion, we have learned a lot more about the best methods of inquiry and have developed a well-tested and always evolving understanding of the world. More recently, thanks to those methods of inquiry and their application in neuroscience and behavioural psychology, it is becoming increasingly clear that we can’t know much of anything from introspection alone — including ourselves. There is nothing you, I, or Descartes can know with any certainty by looking inwards for answers. Unfortunately, we continue to rely on habits, institutions, and systems which presuppose that you or I have privileged and certain knowledge about our own well-being, values, and optimal outcomes. This may partly explain — in conjunction with other issues (hello, massive inequality) — why liberal democratic political systems that rely on free markets are in crisis these days.

It was fashionable in the late 20th century to talk as if we had escaped modernism, but postmodernism, I think, only takes Descartes’ modernism to its logical conclusion, while willfully overlooking the fact that we humans have become pretty good at understanding the world around us. To set ourselves on a new path, to really escape the gravity well of modernism, we need to set aside the Cartesian notion that the aim of inquiry is absolute certainty and that such certainly can be found through introspection. Instead, we need to accept that we really don’t know ourselves, whatever our heartfelt convictions might tell us, and look instead to well-tested beliefs to guide and organize our lives, both individually and collectively. 

Unreal city: a black hole of dazzling light

A picture of the unreal city at night.

I remember the moment, but I can’t place it in time.

We were returning to Waterloo from Toronto. It was night. The stream of lights heading east on the 401 was an endless milky way.

It struck me: behind each set of quivering headlights, there was at least one person. It struck me: on one side of this narrow strip of highway, heading east towards a moderately-sized metropolitan city, there was a galaxy of human experience, unique distinct breathing and, like me, living at the centre of its own universe. It struck me.

At high school in Ottawa, I remember it often felt like I was surrounded on all sides by unknown, colourless, cardboard people, who reappeared over and over again like the recycled backgrounds of a low-budget cartoon. Many years later and long after the moment of dread on the highway heading west from Toronto to Waterloo, it struck me: I was as colourless and unreal to the unknown others as they were to me.

I now live in Toronto, a city as unreal as Eliot’s. From my window, I see towers and towers of existences. When I walk to and from work, there is always a hornet’s nest of activity. When I shop within minutes of my home, I see faces that I know I will never see again. Like a shovel of dirt from a wild and healthy field, these few blocks of my existence are teeming with life.

If I reflect for too long on the scale of life in this city and on this planet, it obviates me. If I focus instead on the energy, colours and details of this urban microcosm, I am dazzled by it all, and happy to play the role of cardboard cutout to the unknown universes of life booming and buzzing around me.

Oh, unreal city, at the centre of a black hole where all light is trapped, could it be as dazzling as this?

The lottery of life: the not-so-secret to my (sort of) success

Believe it or not, I have spent much of my life not fully aware that fitting-in and ingratiating oneself to a group is the key to success.

I understood, of course, that currying favour was a thing that people did to succeed, but I probably thought (or hoped) that it wasn’t a necessary condition of success. It has finally truly dawned on me that social acceptance is the key driver of everything we humans do or don’t do, whether we are successful or not.

Because this now seems to me to be such an obvious and simple truth, I can’t help but wonder — out loud, of course — why it took me so long to figure it out. The answer to that question also now seems pretty obvious too: privilege.

I was able to overlook the very obvious and essential role of social acceptance in human achievement only because I am a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, settler male who is reasonably tall. Society is pretty much designed to accept people who look and talk like me. It is baked right into the system. To be accepted, I only need to exist. As a result, it was very easy for me to take it for granted. Like fish everywhere, I overlooked the very stuff I was awash in.

It also occurs to me that I have been able to play out my adolescent fantasy of being a L’etranger-philosopher-king-without-a-cause only because of that baked in social acceptance. I can “take risks,” “blaze my own path,” and “speak truth to power” precisely because I’m not really ever putting myself at risk. Society has always got my back.

At this point, I can imagine one totally reasonable response to this “discovery” and my decision to share it: “Well done, Dr. Privilege, you finally figured out what people have been telling you for decades. What do you want? A hero biscuit?”

I hope not. My aim here — I think — is to acknowledge the lottery that I have won simply by being born. I also want to flag the idea of privilege for people who might be similarly naive. If I overlooked the full impact of privilege in my life — and I am a reasonably well-attuned to issues of social justice — I’m sure that I’m not alone. We all have our blind spots, I suppose.

If the concept of privilege is new to you, this is a good introduction:

Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide

If the concept is familiar to you and you know some good introductory resources, please share them below. I am sure I have more to learn.

Another utterly mundane conclusion: my place in our history

Some of my ancestors were Irish, but I am not Irish.

Some of my ancestors were Indigenous, but I am not Indigenous.

That is the utterly mundane conclusion I have reached, after reflecting for some time on the history and heritage of my ancestors.

I may be a product of their genetic material, their choices, and their histories, but my identity is not their identity, and my community is not their community.

I am that I am because of the life I have lived and the communities I have been a part of, and I have never been a part of a Irish or an Indigenous community.

So what am I?

I am Canadian, I suppose. I was born in Canada. I am recognized by the state as Canadian, and other Canadians recognize me as Canadian. I have benefited tremendously from my membership in this community, and I have contributed to it as well.

True, I have no particular attachment to the Canadian community, broadly construed, or to what is sometimes said to be our Canadian identity, but my personal feelings are irrelevant.

Membership in a community isn’t determined by the feelings one has for it. It is determined by the relationships one forms and maintains. I may not feel any particular affinity for my community, but it does not change the fact that I am a part of it.

Until I am rejected by Canadians or accepted by some other community, I am Canadian, a settler, and all that it entails — for better and for worse.

Disco Polo Music: a reminder from Warsaw

I’m in Warsaw, Poland. A world apart. One more world apart. One of many.

I have discovered Disco Polo Music. I am entranced by its congenial, hyper-sexualized tribalism. It evades banality because it is paradigmatic, pure, and distilled.

A minority linguistic community created and championed this style of music because it mirrored and championed the minority linguistic community.

I am reminded: it is Disco Polo Music all the way day.

*

On the train from Berlin, I passed through lives and worlds and histories. Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions: full, complete and unencumbered by my existence.

As I watched the vast flat fields and imagined the millions of men and women who have marched east west, west east, and back again, I felt and knew and saw the futility of living a life in the hope of being a story in future histories.

I am reminded: writing is hubris — but so what? From the perspective of history, living is too.

*

Some time ago, I diligently journaled every day for a year. It was stream-of-conscious, pure and distilled.

Some time after, I reread it, hoping for insight. Instead, it was mundane, banal, repetitive.

At the time, I was disappointed. It amounted to so little. Now, I understand that it had provided an important insight.

Without the discipline of an audience, real or imagined, my thoughts, my mind, my identity, they are mundane, banal, repetitive.

I am reminded: there is no value without valuers and fame is its prophet.

*

I sometimes think that my conversion to atheism was the ultimate career-limiting move.

There is nothing I have written or thought or done that couldn’t have been dressed up in the clothing of theology — and, in so doing, groomed it for a vast community eager for meaning.

Even now, I could dress up my words, thoughts and ideas in the comforting clothes of theology. My actual beliefs are irrelevant to the meaning that others draw from my words. Writing in the name of God would be no more false or untrue than the plausible deniability of fiction and the implausible truth of non-fiction. It would be a lie no worse and no better than the lie at the heart of everything.

I am reminded: I am that I am.

In the mirror of history: a reflection of colonialism

220px-frankensteins_monster_boris_karloffNine months ago, I finally understood that I am one of the Adams of our planet’s colonial history. The penny dropped when I realized, thanks to an Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that the English first perfected the tricks of their colonial trade in Ireland long before they plagued the shores and lands of Turtle Island. Colonialism, I realized, defined and disfigured the lives of my ancestors on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the warp and woof of my identity too.

Today, I’m reflecting on this new self-understanding at the Rosemount Public Library in Hintonburg, a gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. I sit at the very same worktable where, twenty-eight years ago, I did my homework or read one of the very many books I borrowed from these shelves. The cozy children’s section seems to me to be almost unchanged. The front desk, the adult fiction and nonfiction stacks, and the worktables are located exactly where I remember them too. There are computers now instead of card catalogs and a few other concessions to the latest technologies, but the geography of this place is exactly as I remember it.  

From the age of ten to sixteen, Rosemount Public Library was my land and territory. It was in these book stacks that I found the words, ideas, and culture with which I would compose myself. I started in the children’s section, moved on to the young adult section, and eventually found myself, perhaps a little too quickly, in the adult section. I easily remember The Great Brain series, everything by Gordon Korman and Judy Bloom, the Dragonlance series, David Eddings, Michael Moorcock, Alan Dean Foster, The Chocolate Wars, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Not Wanted on the Voyage, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut. There are a host of other books and authors lost to my memory, but they are all preserved somewhere in the thicket of my identity.

Growing up, I thought of myself proudly as the “Great Canadian Mutt” because I was an uncertain mix of Irish, French, Algonquian, and, possibly, Scottish. Canadians, as any Canadian will tell you, don’t have much of anything like an assertive national identity. We have a few positive totems, like hockey, universal healthcare, and peacekeeping, but, for the most part, Canadians define themselves through negation. Not-American. Not-European. Not-as-bad. Not-as-radical. In a way, I thought of myself as the prototypical Canadian because I had no ties to any culture or history. I was a not-anything.

My pride evaporated and my identity was turned on its head when I read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a book I stumbled across during an online catalog search at the Rosemount Public Library. Thanks to that book, I realized that my white-washed, ahistorical, acultural, and English-speaking identity is the very aim of English colonialism and has been ever since Henry II first asked the Pope for permission to conquer the pagans of Ireland. The colonial wave that swelled in Ireland surged westward across an ocean and engulfed Turtle Island, clearing the lands of its peoples, languages, cultures, and communities.

Raised in the thick cultural vacuum of colonialism, I had thought of myself as the high watermark of our progressive liberal democracy because, despite being raised on welfare by a single and very unwell mother, I am well-educated and unencumbered by any particular culture or history. Now, I realize, thanks to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, that I am, in fact, the nadir of our colonial history. I have a language, a culture, and a history, but they tie me to no one and no one to me.

I am, nevertheless, white and assimilated, as the colonizer intended. I’m also a heterosexual cis male. The perks and privileges that come of my skin, gender, sexual orientation, and assimilated identity are tangible but, ultimately, empty — a sugary substitute for that which the colonizer has always intended to take from people like me. The ties of community that bind us — land, language, and a shared identity — also empower us to stand against those who are driven by domination and exploitation. Once the ties of community are severed, the acultural human is isolated, vulnerable, and, at best, a complacent and easily replaced cog in the colonial machine.

It’s fitting, I think, that I came to understand the true nature of my colonized identity through a history of the United States. Canadians have long resisted, cherished, and exploited the kid brother persona we have adopted for our national identity. We like to define Canada against our swaggering sibling to the south because it allows us to characterize ourselves as a peaceful middle power that took a less assertive and destructive path on our long colonial march from ocean to ocean to ocean. Admittedly, Canada’s genocidal habits have been slightly more subtle, but they have been as destructive, devastating, and detestable. Our collective capacity to ignore our shared colonial history is almost too much for me to believe, but I then remind myself that I was only able to see my own place in that history when I caught a glimpse of it reflected in the broken mirror of America’s colonial history. Some truths, it seems, can only be caught out of the corner of one’s eye.

I can’t overstate my gratitude to the Rosemount Public Library. It was and remains vital to the slow and steady excavation and reconstruction of my identity. I’m also certain, nevertheless, that it was and remains vital to my identity only because my family, broken by hundreds of years of colonial history, had no land, language, stories, or culture of their own to share with me. I also suspect that I am not the only person, young or old, who has found refuge, identity, and hope in the cultural commons of a public library like Rosemount. It is my hope, I guess, that some of them, after this glimpse into the broken mirror of my colonial history, might catch — out of the corner of their eye — a glimpse of the truth of their own place in our colonial history.