As I stood chopping vegetables with deft flicks of the wrist, I listened with great interest to a discussion on the radio about a 41-year-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 lucidity. On the day of his death, according to his brother, the man told jokes, smoked, ate ham sandwiches and drank beer, surrounded by his family, until the doctor came to finally put him out of his misery.
It was, for me, an especially pertinent and powerful story because it cut to the heart of our painfully contradictory attitudes towards life. It exposed us for the cowards and hypocrites that most of are.
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.
You would soon be banging your head against the wall in boredom and despair if you 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 further: anything that runs on an external power source is gone, defunct, verboten.
For a day or two you might call it ‘mindfulness’ or ‘eye-opening’. But after a few weeks many of you would take to the sauce like a duck to water.
The vast majority of our economy, once you break it down, is geared towards self-diversion. And the reason for this is simple: to be human is to suffer. More so for some, less so for some (many are blessed with idiocy). But the history of humanity is one long exodus from suffering. It is, so to speak, 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 and kissing cousins of the nervy chimpanzee. Likewise, just because you spend so much time emotionally anaesthetised by your electronic devices does not mean that you 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, outwardly, 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 manifestation of pain. 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 (or his “inner-demons”). No external agency. No collective responsibility. No philosophical musings on the nature of being human. Just laughable notions of keeping “clean”. Life, and all its attendant burdens, now falls squarely on the slight 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?
It is often said that we are in denial of death: that it remains taboo. But that is not true. We simply cannot conceive of it, that is why it remains ever-aloof to us. I would argue that what haunts us most is the fear that life has no meaning. Of course, everyone desperately tries to convince themselves otherwise. They lather everything with meaning, they thickly lay it on. Books and films have to be “life-affirming.” Misery is only palatable when it is “gritty” or “rewarding”.
I like to refer to nature as both a laboratory and a factory. If that offends your sensibilities, just ask yourself where we got the blueprint for these things from.
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 life. 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. Good for her. I’m only sorry she had to take matters into her own hand (the other one was paralysed).
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, 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 (but 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.
I applaud the Netherlands 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 venture out into an emotional wasteland by yourself for 40 days and nights. For that is where many of us are forced to eke out our lives.