As I stood chopping vegetables (with deft flicks of my delicate wrist), I listened with great interest to a discussion on the radio about a 41-yr-old alcoholic man from the Netherlands who was granted the right to be euthanized under the country’s strict mercy killing law. “Enough is enough,” the man said with admirable resolve. On the day of his death, according to his brother, the man was surrounded by his family. He told jokes, smoked, ate ham sandwiches and drank beer before the doctor came to finally put him out of his misery.
Like most discussions, people were either ‘for’ and ‘against’ the man’s medically assisted death. There was no nuance or ambivalence. There was no recognition of the fact that 41 would have been a ripe old age to die once-upon-a-time (lived and experienced to the fullest). There was no admission that life would be unbearable for most people if they were left alone with their thoughts without anything to distract them. There was no exploration of the tyranny of conscience, the sham of Judeo-Christian morality, the scam of psittacine optimism. People were either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the man’s conscious decision to opt out of life. The twin towers of dichotomy underpinning Western thought, it seems, will never be brought down.
It was an especially pertinent and powerful story because it cut to the heart of our painfully contradictory attitudes towards life. Worse, it exposed us for the cowards and hypocrites that most of us are.
It is often said that we are in denial of death, that it remains the ultimate taboo. That, I believe, is not true. We simply cannot conceive of it. It is an abstraction, rather, that reflects our attitude to life. For some, death can’t come soon enough. For others, it is a comforting emergency exit. For the healthy minded, it is an inevitable reckoning to be met with equanimity. For many, sadly, it is a problem to be solved (cryogenically, for now).
I would argue that what haunts us most in life is not the fear of death but the fear that life has no meaning. The evidence is there, all around us, but we desperately try to convince ourselves otherwise. We lather everything with meaning, we thickly lay it on (popular books and films have to be “life-affirming”). We have inflated meaning to a point where it is a self-sustaining (though easily burstable) hyper-reality. Love, art, sport, health, work; we have accorded these things a metaphysical value. Because we spasmodically suspect how pointless it all is. We are still trying, more desperately than ever, to love our neighbours even though we can barely stand ourselves.
Historians will one day bookend these deranged times as a distinct epoch. They will likely characterize it by its revolutionary technology or environmental destructiveness. I would argue, however, that this should be regarded as the Age of Self-Diversion.
We would be banging our heads against the wall in boredom and despair if we were denied access to the main means of self-diversion: the internet, a phone, a computer, a television, a music player, a radio. Let’s go hypothetically further: imagine anything that runs on an external power source is gone, defunct, verboten.
For a day or two we might rationalise it as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘eye-opening’. But after a few weeks many of us would take to the sauce like ducks to water.
Nearly all of our ‘free time’ is geared towards self-diversion. And the reason for this is simple: to be human is to suffer. The history of humanity is a long, meandering exodus from suffering. Humanity, in so many ways, is an epic denial of itself.
Just because countless millions of people ritually depilate, wax and shave away their body hair does not mean that they are not hairy. Likewise, just because we spend so much time emotionally anesthetized by our electronic devices does not mean that we are not miserable.
Overwhelmed by distractions, we get tetchy, defensive. We dig in, fortify our positions with barbed opinions. We have little compassion for those who openly and freely suffer. Addiction is fine so long as it’s in the form of exercise, news, social media, gaming, work, shopping, TV shows, movies. But alcoholism and drug addiction are an unsightly sore on the body politic. We can politely pretend to sympathize with cancer because it is a discreet (even clichéd) manifestation of the malignancy of life. But we cannot abide any visceral reminders of the suffering bubbling away just below the surface.
It has become a staple of American movies to show the struggling hero/alcoholic attending group meetings alongside his fellow freedom fighters. In the mean-spirited spirit of the times, we outsource addiction to the private sector. Where it tries to resolve itself. In closed circles. Jesus Christ.
The hero/alcoholic is struggling against a laughably metaphysical foe (his “inner-demons”). No external agency. No collective responsibility. No philosophical musings on the nature of being human. Just laughable notions of staying “clean”. Life, and all its attendant burdens, now falls squarely on the (slender) shoulders of the individual. This includes the dreadful failings of a socio-economic system that breeds insecurity, abstracted misery, and loneliness. Within a culture that propagates impossible ideas of happiness predicated on consumption and self-evasion. No wonder so many people choose to consume alcohol as a beeline to self-oblivion.
In the movies, alcoholism is always depicted in extremis. It’s all ranting and raving, staggering around in a crazed stupor, passing out in a puddle. What about the steady drip-drip alcoholism that millions of others resort to? The Dutch Courage that so many need just to face life and feel normal in their own skin? Personally speaking, I’m a sipper, I infuse it drip by drip, but that has no dramatic value, no symbolic power. But what is life if not death by a thousand pinpricks?
People recoil from euthanasia and the misery that calls out for it because it betrays our desperately held belief that life is intrinsically meaningful. But life has no meaning other than the bluster we can muster to inflate ourselves with the hot air we need to erectly ambulate through the day. We blindly keep the elderly and infirm alive long past the point where life has a shred of meaning or dignity for them. We do so not because it is civilized (that is what we tell ourselves) but because the alternative is unthinkable. Life, at some point, which varies from person to person, loses all meaning. Life, at some point, becomes unbearable for everyone. We would all like to die aged 84 peacefully in our sleep. Few of us do.
My nan gave up the ghost at the age of 85. I guess her beloved soap operas finally lost all interest for her. She stopped taking food. When someone tried to spoon it into her mouth like she was a baby, she turned her face away. She effectively killed herself. Who wouldn’t in her vegetative state? Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek; that’s exactly what my god-fearing nan did when she couldn’t bear the indignity any more.
The Dutch man, like me, was wired differently to you, who loudly profess to loving life (while spending every waking moment evading it). Maybe in an earlier age we would have been mystics or Gnostics. But we live here and now, drip, drip…
A fascinating and revealing study, recently published in Science, found that a selection of university students would rather give themselves low-level electric shocks (painful enough that they initially said they would pay to stop them) than sit alone with their thoughts in an empty room for 15 minutes.
Life is maddeningly, infuriatingly complex. We feel it keenly, experience it on a loop. We are forced to ceaselessly interpret every little electric shock of disappointment, sadness and humiliation we feel. All the while doing battle with our tyrannical and cowardly conscience which was implanted into us like a biblical tracking device. It is morning now; I eagerly await the appointed hour in the evening when I can hear the beautiful sound of liquid filling a glass and feel the numbness washing over me in a wave of relief.
I applaud Holland for its courage. As for all those who condemn euthanasia for being immoral, suicide for being cowardly, and alcoholics for being weak-minded, I suggest you put down your smart phones and tablets (including the prescription variety), put aside your self-serving piety and moralizing, and see how well you far in an ocean of unmediated time. For that is where many of us drift, lost and shipwrecked, hoping against hope that there is some meaning to it all.