At work today we talked over the course of the afternoon on a relatively straightforward question: would you rather spend life in prison without the possibility of parole, or die?
For me the choice required no meditation at all:
I say this having no experience of prison, nor of sexual assault, nor indeed violence of any kind. The moral calculus struck me as simple: there's life, and death. Life of any kind, so long as I had my faculties, would be preferable to death. Of course for the purposes of the discussion I didn't consider the wellbeing of the other people in my life (and there was a tacit understanding that such considerations needn't play into our thinking on this hypothetical). 'As long as I have a pencil and paper,' I actually said at one point, 'I'm fine.'
Which strikes me now, after an episode of NYPD Blue and a small amount of rum and a conversation with my brother, as kind of sad. But I stand by it, as I must.
I don't believe in an afterlife. At least now I don't; I have before, and for all I know I may come to believe in Heaven or something like it later on. My mother believed strongly in Heaven, and though I can't rationalize this hypocrisy, I believe that in some sense that's where she is today: you get what you pay for, in a way, and my mother's belief in the eternal closeness of righteous souls to a forgiving God is a strong payment toward everlasting life. I know academically that this is, to me, ridiculous on face. But I take comfort from this filip in my personal belief system, and it's our imperfections in any case that render us human. Call them grace notes if that helps you understand: those that make a melody something other than an exercise in proportion. (I'm listening now to Wayne Shorter blowing over Miles Davis's 'Prince of Darkness'; it seems happenstance wants to help me make this final point. What else could it be? And now the rhythm section simmers and steams around Herbie Hancock's spacious, patient solo. We're such lucky creatures.)
Arthur Silber has written eloquently about suicide - the choice of a free actor to end his or her life - as a final expression of personal liberty and autonomy. I don't buy his argument, though I'm moved by it; I've moved away from my earlier feelings on the subject, that suicide is merely selfish, as I've learned (secondhand and at further remove) that some pain simply can't be endured, that some lives simply aren't worth seeing through. My roommate left MIT in late 1999, and on my 21st birthday I found out he had killed himself the previous week; at the time I thought he was a self-centered asshole for robbing his friends and loved ones of his life. I now see that he wasn't living for us, could not do so and be true to himself. But I still feel anger about his choice. I no longer feel it was merely selfish. But you'll never convince me it wasn't foolish, a mistake. He might have mastered himself. He might have reached out to someone new. Perhaps he didn't know how...
That thinking won't get me anywhere. In any case: my boy killed himself and now he simply isn't. That's part of the problem: what could possibly be worse than nothing? How can no-you be worse than any alternative, any positive being? How can you not want the world? How can you not lust after it? I don't know pain. But how can you not fear death and hate the motherfucker? What kind of spiritual poverty must you feel to embrace an end to everyone around you? Because that's what it is: death in your eyes to everything on your absent God's earth. Death is the renunciation of an accidental gift. That life is itself without some external gift of meaning is no reason to abandon it. No one's watching but your friends and family, and they'll die too (give it 60, 70 years - maybe less). You'll come to have meant something as nothing but text. But for fuck's sake, how can you fear life so much that you prefer emptiness to pain?
Here's the thing: of the nine or ten people talking on the subject, half chose death.
Maybe we just work in a boring office.
But that is to me unbelievable. Pen and paper. Sunlight on upturned shining face, the memory of Ella Fitzgerald singing, the taste of cremita remembered, the sound a lover made, the feel of your own feet striking the living ground, for Christ's sake! All of it! Who would trade this for anything? And we might add: there's nothing to trade it for, and no one to trade with, and nothing after this. Notwithstanding the moral imperative to treasure the life God gave you, and so forth - we have a thing in common. Only one thing.
- I can't go on like this.
- That's what you think.
Prison might be a kind of living death but let's stick with it, people, and with any luck some liberal governor will see to you it your ass gets streetside for good behaviour after 15-25 if you send him a nice letter and mention your dead Mom. That's how the world works, I hear, and the system is for gaming if you can't win the other way.