Movies are the modern Homer, and Star Wars is steeped in mythic reaching for the sublime. One critical scene is when Luke was traveling down a Death Star corridor, being shot at, computers all around him to aid him, and remote commanders in his ear telling him what to do as he tried to launch that one torpedo that will destroy the Death Star and save the day. And despite all of these distractions, he folded up his head mounted display and disengaged the computer. He went into the Flow and trusted his instincts, thanks to the ghostly guidance of Obi Wan. The rest is history. Existential stuff at its best.
Staying on target is a matter of not falling in to the pitfalls of doubt, distraction, fear, angst and guilt. What Luke did is the analogy for life, a point not lost on Lucas.
So the goal in life, for me at least, is pretty obvious and hard coded in the bones of my being. I’ve mentioned it before – it is simply put:
Oh to reach the point of death and realize one has not lived at all.Thoreau
That’s pretty straightforward stuff. It is a sentiment shared by many – and shared frequently by me. Here’s a maxim attributed to various people over the years, with a slightly different twist:
Throughout your life you are climbing a ladder. You may get to the very top of the ladder, only to find it has not been leaning against the right wall.Various
And I am sparked by Heidegger’s “Call to Conscience“, the notion that for a person to be truly authentic, they must own the outcome of their life and pursue a life in which they will not reach the point of death and discover it is inauthentic. I’d give a direct quote from Heidegger, but he is so maddeningly obfuscasting in his language that you just can’t quote him intelligibly with common language. He does say at least that the Call of Conscience…
… is a silent call that silences the chatter of the world and brings me back to myselfHeidegger
Which in turn, harkens directly to another foundational quote for myself:
Perhaps love is the process of my leading you gently back to yourself.Exupery
Or put in Heideggerian terms, Love is me helping you fulfill your Call to Conscience.
While we are quoting, let’s not forget music. Jonathan Coulton touched upon authenticity when he wrote in Song For George:
Don’t live another day unless you make it countCoulton
There’s someone else that you’re supposed to be
There’s something deep inside of you that still wants out
And shame on you if you don’t set it free.
Lastly, there is one more quote to incorporate as a life goal in the pursuit of an authentic life, and that is the first one:
The unexamined life is not worth livingSocrates
I’ve struggled with a subtlety of his word choice because of my abhorrence to judgmental proselytizing, and thus I prefer a slightly less assertive version:
The examined life IS worth living
And finally, I’d be remiss if I do not mention at least in passing that these maxims are examples of the Grecian Urn, a concept I will soon introduce.
So Modicum Number 1 – I never realized just how similar these foundational quotes were and how much fun there is in the subtle distinctions between them. But let’s leave that as an exercise to the reader because I want to get back to Luke.
The above maxims are all good guideposts in the journey of life – and the endpoint on the horizon we are driving to. So let’s just take them all as “a given” in life, and a shared vision of what to strive for. It is a vision that asserts only from the standpoint of the end of the journey looking backwards we can assess if we have lived.
Unfortunately, that gives us only one shot at success, and no easy way to assess success other than by forcing at every moment to confront the readiness to die. Not the most uplifting method of living, granted.
I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.Gretzky
The vision from Luke includes shutting down all the distractions that are leading us astray. So let’s look at those distractions that are preventing us from leading an authentic (Heidegger), examined (Socrates), owned (Coulton) and fully lived (Thoreau) life. I’ve written on this topic before that focuses on the day to day – but for today’s Modicum, I’m focusing on those larger philosophical issues that lead us astray to the final end goal as described in the quotations above.
And more specifically, it is these much broader, existential issues that really present a stumbling block in having us have that morbid question be more consumable. These are the issues preventing us from asking, “Am I ready to die?”
To help us, I am going to quote from an article published on the NIH by a palliative care psychiatrist, who attempts to bridge classic philosophy texts to the real work of caring for the dying.
Here are the pitfalls:
- Existential Futility: or, “How is it possible to live, and retain that will to live, knowing that this is all finite, temporary? How does a human being live with the knowledge of death-in the face of death?”
- Existential Fear and Angst: and ultimately “how can one live such a life without being overcome, panicked, paralyzed, or overwhelmed with the meaningless of life, by the fear of death?”
- Existential Guilt: This is the notion that I could have done more, and that I missed opportunities or failed in some ways. This concept hits much closer to Thoreau and the above quotes. To explain Existential Guilt, I really liked this excerpt:
As psychiatrists we learn of guilt as a Freudian concept. We also laugh at stereotype jokes referring to Jewish guilt or Catholic guilt. Existential Guilt is quite different (despite the potential overlap with some elements of neurotic guilt). Existential guilt refers specifically to the concept that each of us has the (challenging if not impossible) task of creating a life, a life that is unique to us. A life that only we could have lived. And we need to and aspire to live this unique life to it’s fullest potential. We imagine our lives as an arc, a trajectory. In playwriting one refers to the “arc” of the character. We each imagine this arc of the trajectory of our lives in which various milestones, ambitions, goals, dreams are achieved. Growing up, getting an education, falling in love, creating a family, finding one’s passion, purpose and work in life, growing as a person in all of these areas, perhaps seeing children grow up and have children of their own, living to a ripe old age having lived a life full of “Meaning Moments” and having the ability to look back at a life lived and feel “I did good enough”. “I can accept the life that I lived.” But this is hardly ever fully achieved by most of us. We are fragile, vulnerable, imperfect human beings. Life is perilous. Internal and external events batter us or buoy us, and that trajectory we imagine should have been is often not the trajectory the unfolds. Even the greatest amongst us can feel the sense of “if only I could have done more.” As an example of Existential Guilt I often quote Albert Einstein’s last word’s on his deathbed, which were “if only I had known more mathematics”. Apparently the Theory of Relativity wasn’t a big enough achievement.Breitbart
Great stuff. And these are foundational to landmark philosophical texts, as the existentialists confront humanism in the post religious context. Sartre identifies Existential Angst as the core basis for being, and Heidegger lays out the argument for Existential Guilt.
But here was the Modicum of Thought #2 I realized on this subject. I seem to be bizarrely immune to these pitfalls. I view them as distractions. The existentialists focus on them as having a more primary rather than distracting role in life. And honestly, I’m beginning to realize that my viewpoint is somewhat unique among the people I know. Why?
So first off, here is how I negate them:
- Futility is irrelevant. If we only have this life no matter the sound and fury and it signifies nothing, then so what? That does negate the drive to keep the target in place. Perhaps the drive to lead a fulfilled life is a necessary expedient in order to make life livable, but is there a better alternative? No. So quit your complaining and own your life.
- Angst only derives from accepting the Futility. Again, we make the necessary expedience to assert Thoreau’s maxim if alone by the sheer joy of experiencing as much as we can, but in so doing Angst has no weight.
- Guilt is even easier to reject. Clearly, Guilt is a misinterpretation of the Lack presented to us by the Grecian Urn. The distance between us a fulfillment is ever present, and is governed by the rules of the Urn – namely that the more of a fulfilled life we lead, the more we realize that we lack the ability to lead a fulfilled life. But the lesson is in the commitment to the journey’s pursuit of the ability to perceive over the end goal’s attainment. (Yeah, I’ll need to put a post on the Urn soon)
Boom, existential issues are easy to circumvent. Luke is in the flow.
Being Towards Death
But wait… let’s linger on this… clearly, this circumvention is not the case for many.
I wonder if comfort with death is central to these negations. Comfort in dying takes the wind out of the sails, touching the observation above that acceptance of death is a prerequisite for negating the pitfalls. With that comfort, the pitfalls become mere distractions.
The existentialists certainly believe the confrontation of death to be central to adapting to Existential beliefs. For me, I can comfortably say that I am ready to embrace death. Furthermore, I feel that the decision to die is a decision we must all have the ability, the right, and the courage to make – and not have it left to inevitability and pray that it is not made by caprice.
So I’m a bit strange in this way. I feel that I truly could accept death, but still resist its clutches if I so desire when confronted by it on a battlefield not of my own choosing. This strange balance and somewhat contradictory viewpoints gives me the tools to negate the distractions in the manner above.
Is there anything else? My gut is telling me yes, but I haven’t rooted it out just yet.
Before leaving, I’d be remiss to what I am not immune to in pursuit of those maxims. Of irony, there is a far greater threat to putting the torpedo down the ventilation shaft, and it is an issue that the Existentialists surprisingly do not lament over (at least to making it a central tenet of struggle, noting Heidegger’s pursuit of authenticity). It’s the risk of not showing up in the first place. If Luke and his rebels are not fighting the fight to begin with, then the war is over before it began.
Not showing up can have several flavors:
- Stagnation’s slippery slope to Solidification.
- Premature Cognitive Commitment
And what makes these pitfalls dangerous is that there is no emotional upswell to push you out of the sand trap. In fact, you don’t even know you are in the sand trap. Again, read the ExtraOrdinary life.
As such, they can only be addressed by putting in massive red flags triggered by religious defended and analytically unbiased litmus tests to assess your life-engagement level. Human biases alone will overwhelm self-assessment, and the inertia of life towards entropy and comfort is an inescapable and persistent force.
So there is plenty here to swim in, but not today. But it was important to get these out for completeness. Courage is not just needed in the wake of death, but in showing up relentlessly for life.
And finally, this was all set up to finally put a nail in the coffin of morality and ethics. But that will need to wait for another modicum as I am still sorting it out. Until then, I’m off to do my daily check to make sure I am hurtling down that corridor.