Today I understand something very near the root of most of the things that make me unhappy: my immortality project is too big.
I am not unique in this of course. It's another way of saying that life is suffering. Recognizing it is the root of Buddhism, and not understanding it is the reason for most other religions. This thread and theWikipedia entry on the book mentioned, Denial of Death, are what led to these reflections.
I'm not sure what to say about it; the applicability is infinite in theory, and I'm not sure how I will act on this knowledge. I'm sick of telling little stories about my life and what made me who I am, and this would be the mother of them all, but I don't know what else to do with it. For starters, everything I discussed in my last post comes back to this; really, any self-reflection on my life comes back to this. I guess the task for me in the next phase of my life is to understand everything in terms of this idea, so that I can start to learn how to be happy.
I always come up with multiple explanations for my motivations, and multiple motivations for my actions. I've been uncertain whether this is because I am often wrong-- perhaps I believe what I want to believe at any given time, based on the context or the point I'm trying to make-- or whether it's because all the explanations are true to some degree, but without a better understanding of what's really going on inside my head, there's no way to express it accurately. I suppose a logical way to start would be to recall some of the things I've tried to explain in multiple ways, and interpret them in light of this new realization.
Before I do that, I suppose I must lay out the idea that I'm talking about. It seems tedious, and I have a lot of unanswered questions, but I will try. For starters, here's a quote from the Wikipedia article that I linked to earlier:
The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since man has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, man is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving his symbolic half. By embarking on what Becker refers to as an "immortality project" (or causa sui), in which he creates or becomes part of something which he feels will last forever, man feels he has "become" heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to his physical body that will die one day. This, in turn, gives man the feeling that his life has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.
I am obsessed with the idea of an immortality project to the degree that I am frequently paralyzed by fear of failure to achieve it. Of course, here I run up against another human universal: the inability to know the mind of others. I'm not sure that I can say "my desire to complete an immortality project is stronger than others', and that is a major reason for my unhappiness." I'm not even sure it matters, but it may well be that my desire is no stronger than others', and that my problem is that I lack the ability to obtain it. Or that my problem is that I am more accurate than most in recognizing the great odds against my achieving it. I suppose I feel that I am more obsessed with my immortality project than most people, though I acknowledge I have formed this conclusion without much thought.
I have discussed the kind of reading I used to focus on—the idea of someone discovering incredible powers or talents that allow them to change their lives and the world around them. I have previously called this “escapism,” but it’s probably better interpreted as an obsession with an easy, unearned immortality project. My vague desire to “change the world” or “save the world” is the very obvious manifestation of the search for a causa sui.
In writing this, I realize that I have made a further realization that makes my planned organization of this post impossible, and unfortunately the amount of editing that would be required to integrate this into the post in an organized way is more than I care to do. I was going to begin by describing the problem, including what I felt were the “developing stages” of my bloated and vague causa sui. I was then going to address specific behaviors or traits that were manifestations of this problem. But after writing what I have, I realize there is no difference between these two things, and at the same time have decided that perhaps my causa sui obsession is not unique in its magnitude after all. All of the things that I planned to point to as “the development” of the issue turn out to be merely expressions of it, no different from the list below (which I’d already started before I embarked on my introduction.
I will return to what is actually just a list of expressions of the problem, and delete the numbering that I had previously applied, and hope that the disorganization is forgivable!
I am envious of Aristotle to no end. He is still discussed in every high school in the world, and he died somewhere in the ballpark of 5,000 years ago. I’ve never admitted so plainly that it’s envy that I feel; instead, I’ve tried to frame it as admiration, respect, or appreciation. But I feel my envy more plainly and acutely when I read about someone who is an obvious prodigy—musical, mathematical, literary, athletically, etc. In fact, rather than accept that I am not a prodigy, I’ve managed to convince myself that I am a prodigy who has simply not applied himself because the problem is not worth solving. This way, I am free to believe that at some future point, when my causa sui comes flying by on gossamer wings, I’ll have no problem seizing it.
Sometimes I try and convince myself to make my life’s work about doing small things to help others. I believe this to be a good ideal, but it never sticks. Perhaps now I understand why. When I imagine living life in this way, the pictures and thoughts that come to my mind are those from movies, newspapers, books, and sermons of people who don’t want to be great and famous, but simply wish to brighten the world in small ways through their actions. But in all of those cases, of course, doing small things without regard to claiming credit for them has earned the individual immortality through whatever medium it is that I heard the story. During the times that I’ve attempted to pursue a life of doing small things to make the people around me happier, I’ve convinced myself that I’m not seeking immortality, but only happiness. But I’ve been lying to myself, and the truth is that on some level I hope that my small actions will be immortalized in someone’s writings or memory. And in truth, a life lived in that way is unlikely to lead to immortality. (This includes doing things anonymously, while hoping to see the story about the anonymous person who has done the thing. My name isn’t what matters; it’s the *idea* of me. In fact, these are even more desirable, because an anonymous me is ideal, and carries none of my own failings with it.)
I have a fear of "missing out" on anything. I never wanted to choose a career, because that meant saying "no" to hundreds of other possibilities. But sometimes I'm conflicted-- doesn't this imply that I would be happy doing any of those things? After all, if my problem is that I'm so enthusiastic about everything that I can't accept doing only one of them, at the very least I shouldn't hate doing any one of those things. This tendency plays out in smaller things as well-- I vividly recall being stressed that our class was splitting into groups during our field trip to the zoo, because I was afraid I would be in a group that didn't see everything. A question I've often been conflicted about is "would you rather be incredibly good at one thing, or good at lots of things?" And I've always answered the former, but always acted towards the latter. Now I understand: the former answer seems more likely to lead to immortality. However, in heading down that path, at some point I realize that I’m putting all of my eggs in one basket, and become scared. Instead, I try to keep all of my options open.
I’ve always wanted to be the first person to combine two specialties in a way that’s never been done before—that seems like a great way to become a “first” who will be remembered forever.
I hate work, because I hate investing my time towards someone else’s immortality project at the cost of my own. (In fact, I think this idea could be used effectively in the workplace; ideas like “empowerment” and Google’s 2/5 free time work only to the degree that they allow people to feel that they are contributing to their own immortality, but they are only acceptable to the company’s owners and operators if they contribute to *their* immortality instead.) I prize learning, and frequently embark on silly efforts to increase the depth and breadth of my understanding about everything in the world. I often conclude that I must read more; I’ve made weak attempts at learning more languages many times, and often feel guilty that I have not practiced Spanish as much as I should (though I do download podcasts and tune in to Spanish radio stations from time to time.) I’ve printed out maps of the world and blanked all the place names. I spend lots of time thinking about philosophy and the problems in the world, because I want to be the one that comes up with the ultimate philosophy that results in eutopia (for which I will forever be given credit.) I try to become knowledgeable about bikes and cars and computers, not because it is useful in my life but because this knowledge will contribute in some way to my quest of becoming someone who is so knowledgeable that he will be remembered for it.
I scoff at details that don’t aid in my causa sui, even if they are necessary for everyday functioning. I don’t value everyday functioning, I value only that vague future project that will immortalize the idea of me. And when people don’t seem to share this goal, they seem small-minded to me. In fact, the very idea that I don’t pay attention to detail will augment my stature and my greatness—it will be known that I didn’t need to pay attention to such things, and the images of the Great Immortals that I have in my head are often those of people whose genius was so great, people were willing to overlook their inattention to detail, and thus that trait is one that I want to have.
I’ve asked before whether the notion of happiness is compatible with the notions of equality and sustainability. I have been frightened to consider that maybe humans cannot be happy if they truly believe they are equal to everyone else, and that competitiveness and happiness are two sides of the same coin. This goes against what I want to believe, that we can be an altruistic society someday. It makes sense--we need to be competitive and to stand out in order to be immortal. But perhaps, in getting at the root of this issue, we can overcome it. Perhaps we are finally at a point where science is ready to solve the world’s greatest philosophical problem. Perhaps someone—maybe me—will achieve his causa sui for no reason, because the result will be to achieve for himself and for all of mankind some philosophical or biochemical approach for becoming comfortable with death and nonexistence, allowing them to focus on being happy instead.
I can see the reactions now. People recoil in horror from this idea. Did he just seriously suggest drugging people to the point that they don’t care about anything, even their own survival? Is he actually advocating for a society where people are *so complacent* that they would happily accept extinction? This is exactly the reaction one would expect. The idea is incredibly disturbing to anyone who is afraid of death and nonexistence. The emotional reaction is so strong that the “wrongness” of it is considered self-evident. The last sentence of the preceding paragraph would be used by many people as proof that everything before it is flawed, since it leads to a conclusion that is clearly incompatible with what they know to be true.
Brave New World is considered dystopian despite the fact that everyone is happy. I think many of us experience cognitive dissonance when contemplating on this idea; if happiness is my major goal, how can a world where most people are happy be considered dystopian? We offer many simple explanations— for example, we suggest that the happiness is an “artificial” happiness because it’s drug-induced, or that it is a happiness founded on ignorance, since only a select few know what is happening and those few are taking advantage of everyone else; in this view, knowledge is equally as desirable as happiness. But I think there’s a better reason that it’s dystopian: we are conditioned by society to condemn the characters who are running things and taking advantage of others, and therefore we cannot desire to have their place in the story. Everyone else in the story is sacrificing immortality for happiness, and I believe that is the root of why we view the book as dystopian.
I suppose my question is: is it really possible to overcome the fear of death? And this is the question I think scientific studies of human behavior can answer for us. If it is possible to overcome the fear of death, it is possible to free the mind to pursue happiness through selfless acts and simple indulgences, and to end the goal of out-competing others. An important aspect of the immortality project is that only so many people will ever be associated with a project. While a movies credits run for many minutes, very few people can name more than the producer, writer, director, and a handful of the lead actors for any given movie. So, part of immortality involves beating others down, and part of living without the desire for immortality is being able to take joy from the success of others. If there is a reliable method for overcoming the desire for immortality, the next step would be to remove the stigma from it. That step is certainly possible, although logistically absurdly difficult. I think the key point is that not desiring survival is not the same thing as becoming hopeless, feeling that life is no better than death, or willfully letting ourselves die; rather, it’s an acceptance of reality, and an acceptance that may actually lead to humans as a species becoming more sustainable and living longer. It’s an ironic fact that this point may be the most important selling point of the idea, when in fact it is impossible to value this point while accepting the idea itself. It can only be used to lead people to the idea, but using that method may actually make it harder to accept the idea itself.
Of course the other question is whether or not one can continue to have the motivation to spread this idea after it is understood. I think maybe it can, but it will be done in moderation rather than as a life's obsession. It can be done one person at a time, because it will bring joy to someone's life and therefore increase the joy of the teacher. I also worried for awhile that this idea would hinder science, but I've always felt that our technology was far enough ahead of our social conduct that slowing down science may not be a bad thing. Now that I am looking at it through this new lens, I feel that it would certainly slow down science, since many of the world's discoveries were made by an individual obsessed with achieving immortality. However, the same fact leads to a lot of "hiding" scientific advancement and actively hampering the work of others. A society not obsessed with immortality would certainly be less driven to advance scientific knowledge, but there would still be many people who would learn for the simple joy of learning, and would invent for the joy of sharing the invention (without any thought as to the immortality that the invention would bring.) And in the end, this might lead to even faster advancement in the sciences-- there would be no patents or copyrights, and standard would be chosen based on applicability rather than profitability (no one would oppose D/C power to preserve their cash flow, no one would build incompatible computers to keep others out of the market, no one would avoid discussing their ideas or data before publication out of the fear that someone else would publish first, etc.)
Phew, I’m done writing for now. I have details to attend to.
[update] It occurs to me that this (the last sentence of the Wikipedia quote) explains some of the views stressed by Buddhism too, and it also explains why some of those appeal to me and some don't. Of course my knowledge of Buddhism is tiny and comes from one section of one class my second year of undergraduate school, but there's an emphasis on "connectedness." It stressed that our molecules are and will remain part of something else and that our soul is and will become part of something else, and that the ultimate goal is to just stop being an individual and become part of everything or, in other words, become nothing. Being non-dualistic myself, I dismiss the spiritual aspects of this teaching, but like many other non-religious people, I do like the idea that my molecules will continue to be part of the world forever.