Our Like It Or Not Life 052911
A grim and yet up-beat sermonette from the Brother Fringe
“Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Willie Shakespeare, Hamlet
A philosophical discussion of the relative goodness or badness of life must necessarily include impalement. At first glance, that can be off-putting, but it is critical, in a discussion about degrees, to have benchmarks.
Reality can really suck, which is why so many people elect not to take it straight up. You can take it with a snort or a puff or a prayer, you can get pharma from your doc or karma from your guru, or you can indulge in groundless middle class optimism or academic pragmatism, but either way, few can stand flat footed and look life in the eye without blanching.
Impalement, as most people know, is a form of torture execution. We’re not talking about when Uncle Benny tripped over the dog on the way to the barbecue carrying that really big fork, we’re talking the purposeful death of another human being in one of the most prolonged and painful ways possible.
We wish and want and hope and often deal with God or fate and some wear mystical symbols or crystals or bear teeth or little stone animals to coax a greater reality into weaving the outcome we hope for. A logical positivist points out that things follow probabilities, often predictable probabilities. If you have this or that cancer, the probability of survival using such and such treatment is this or that percent. Whatever you pray for, the probabilities will win out.
But a pragmatist will point out that, statistically, some instances will violate the curve, will not fall on the probability. In short, there is indeed reason for hope on the scale of the individual. It might indeed help to pray and bargain. Sometimes life does work out as we wish.
Impalement involves the horrendous act of driving a stake through a person, generally with a large mallet or hammer, but sometimes with a weight, jack, or horses or oxen, though those are used much more often to simply pull a person apart. A terrible death to be sure, but relatively merciful compared to the 3 or more days a person can spend dying of impalement.
Into each life a little misery must fall. This isn’t a flaw of existence, it’s a like it or not fact of life. The meaning of our misfortune, to ourselves and to society changes quite a lot from culture to culture.
In our society, we strongly believe in the individual, meaning we are a little tiny bit less dependent on the opinions of others than societies which are wholly reliant on their church, political party, sports team (Go Manchester United) or what have you. That’s good in some ways, but in other ways, we suffer alone more than people of some other societies. When we die, our loss seems permanent and irreducible. Not all societies view life and death that way. Some have a more natural view, one that sees each of us as fortunate stewards, creatures blessed for a little while with the precious light of life, which, when we are done with it, is recycled again, just as our meat and bones and carbon atoms are recycled by the world in to new life (even stainless steel and concrete vaults don’t last forever; sooner or later we are all recycled). When you have that view of life, we are momentary manifestations of something larger; the end of life is easier to take. Our individualist view demands an individualist heaven where we are finally granted an interview with the creator, and then go on to live as a heavenly capitalist consumer. Some faiths provide the souls of the dead with endless adoration of the God, but most modern Christians tend to think of heaven as a giant Costco where everything is free, so you might as well have golden slippers.
The stake is driven blow by blow; sometimes to a song or spiritual writing, sometimes on the whim of the executioner, or the weariness of the man with the big hammer. Blow. By. Blow. The space in the body is already taken, the wooden stake has to move things to make room; you know what things.
Into each life a little rain must fall, according to Longfellow; in your life expect some trouble, Bobby McFerrin tells us. The Bible tells us we will be tested. There is no escaping reality.
But, it isn’t accurate to say we’re only dots on a Gaussian curve of distribution. Every moment of life, pleasant or not, is saturated with experience. We are alive, we feel, we have our place in the universe privileged to have life, and through our experience all of existence is informed, all of creation shares our elation or dismay. One cannot simplify our experience to numbers, or even God. Infinity is the number; existence is the Deity. What we make of our experience is to some degree up to us. Even suffering can be subjective, even ecstasy.
The number of people in history killed by impalement is amazingly few for such a blood thirsty species as ourselves. Even expanding terrible deaths to Roman strangling and Mezzo American crushing, most people don’t experience epic misery. Most of us experience common misfortune, which is brutal enough, but still well short of impalement. There is no diminishing loss and pain, but we can context it in human experience. On a whole, life is good!
So, cheer up!
In each life expect some trouble, but when you worry you make it double, don’t worry. Bobby McFerrin
Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula who fought the Ottamen Turks, and copied their penchant for skewering enemies. We're glad it's a practice that's out of fashion, and hope the Republicans don't bring it back.