Saturday, July 11, 2009

Why not end it?

"I used to go [to the coast] alone to watch the sunset and contemplate suicide. I did not, however, commit suicide, because I wished to know more about mathematics."--Bertrand Russell

Once one recognizes the absurdity of life, the next logical step is to consider why (or whether) one should go on living. Indeed, Camus opened his epic "The Myth of Sisyphus" with a discussion of this very issue. As he put it: "Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering."

Ultimately, however, Camus came to the conclusion that one should go on living, if only to revel in one's recognition of life's intrinsic absurdity. We have obviously come to a similar answer, but it is worth digging a bit deeper. The issue with suicide is not, as most believe, a moral one. It matters not whether one has family that will be "left behind," or debts to pay, or a solid standing in the community. Rich or poor, sick or well, young or old...all are irrelevant. Instead, the issue to be considered is whether one wants to go on living...or not.

Interestingly, this is a more difficult question to answer than it first appears. Virtually all people would instinctively answer "Yes" if queried as to their desire to continue living. And yet who, other than the devoutly religious, has not at one time or another wished for the serenity of self-inflicted death?

The reason most do not follow through with such thoughts is part societal, part practical, and part inertia. Societal, because most believe it is indeed "wrong" to kill oneself; practical, because despite the fragility of life, there are few "easy" suicide options (many are the potential suicides who wonder whether the jump is high enough to kill...or simply break their back); and inertia, because, well, in the absence of some catalyst it is simply easier to go on living...

We view such reasoning as flawed in the extreme. To quote an old Rush song: "Even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." To choose to go on living is to choose not to commit suicide, but to us such a decision makes sense only when one is conscious of it. Bertrand Russell chose not to commit suicide because he wanted to know more of mathematics. We choose to go on living primarily because, having recognized the absurdity of life, we find it endlessly fascinating. Further, to recognize the meaninglessness of life is to cleanse yourself, once and for all, of worry and regret--an experience of pure, total, and permanent liberation.

Think of it this way--to recognize the absurdity of life is to free oneself of all pressures, be they societal, family, or spiritual. The absurd man realizes his "role" in life is no more consequential than an actor in a play, and can act accordingly. So perhaps the real question is: once you recognize the absurdity of life, why would you ever want to leave?


  1. Hi there,
    Bumped into this from the NYT Happy Times column. Your blog is quite an enjoyable read and quite timely for me since all I'm thinking about these past months is existentialism. After reading Byron Katie's book (I highly recommend her, she has been very helpful in understanding Nietzsche believe it or not, she is the modern absurd woman nonpareil) and much like Bertrand Rusell, I had a reckoning moment about ending my life when I was faced with the absurdity of it. I heartily said no, because I really enjoy being. I also had quiet a nice moment of facing the "what if this is all i ever get and i will be alone for the rest of my life". will i be able to enjoy it? I started laughing in the middle of the street.:))

  2. A link to her work. Has nice video samples or workshops:

  3. Elena-

    Thanks for the note - what a wonderful story. We were not aware of Byron Katie but she does seem quite absurd - in fact, we see much in her that reminds us of Krishnamurti.

  4. Hi Rick,
    The whole self-helpy edge can be off-putting at first but she has been quite a revelation. Her talk about death has been quite refreshing and enlivening :) But to be honest I haven't gone full absurd. There are days when I fall back on astrology as an empirically efficient guide in decision making that makes me wonder why we can gleam those damn celestial patterns in the first place...Cheers,E

  5. So all anger is meaningless, huh? Yeah, I suppose we should just roll over and let the powerful sociopaths among us take what they will.

    Then again, given that you've got a commenter who "fall[s] back on astrology as an empirically efficient guide in decision making," I think I'm wasting my time here trying to tell yet another bliss ninny to wake the fuck up and smell the coffee already.