If everything ends with death then meaning is impossible, and life is reduced to absurdity. It’s an idea that seems to fly in the face of the daily experience of many, or most, of us who apparently happily find meaning in many everyday things: in family, friends, work, pleasures — both crude (those old favourites like avarice, and gluttony, etc) and subtle (the pursuit of knowledge, new experiences, new landscapes, etc).
I think that Sartre et al would agree with Silo when he characterizes these as provisional or provisory meanings. In the 1980 interchange mentioned earlier, The Meaning of Life, that took place in Mexico City, Silo said said this about these temporary, ‘make due’, meanings:
…If you ask people what meaning life has for them, they will probably tell you that meaning in life is related to their families, or other people, or humanity, or some cause that, according to them, justifies their existence. And those provisional meanings will give them a direction and enable them to face life. But when problems arise with their loved ones, when they become disillusioned with that cause they embraced, when something changes with respect to that meaning they have chosen, then absurdity and disorientation will return to claim their prey.
…Of course, after the failure of one provisional meaning, there always remains the alternative of adopting a new provisional meaning, perhaps one opposite to the one that failed. As the years go by, then, people go from meaning to meaning, all traces of coherence obliterated, and in doing so they increase their contradictions and thus their suffering.
How does all this come together? What do I really understand about life, death and meaning? I’ve got to say it’s a bit of a mess. Leaving aside the medical, theological, and metaphysical aspects of death and focusing only on the psychological, we quickly see how difficult it is to think clearly about death. And why not!? That shouldn’t be surprising. It’s not only a psychologically, but also logically, fraught question.
It seems to me that the powerful emotions stirred by even the shadow of death would be cause enough to make it difficult to think clearly about this subject. It’s even possible that this kind of emotional reaction (and hence some form of awareness of mortality) may be not something exclusive to humans. Other animals also seem to react strongly to the death of others. Not only our close primate relatives, but other mammals, and even some birds are said to grieve and mourn their dead.
Of course, it’s hard enough to know what’s going on in oneself, let alone others, how much more so with other life forms; are they mourning, or just disturbed by an unusual occurrence? Are these reactions of fear or of confusion? And what exactly is the difference one way or another? Anyway, can’t I ask the same about human reactions in front of death?
Be that as it may. We know that for us there’s certainly a lot of intertwined issues. I have my beliefs and my fears, however well thought out, or however variable. I see that I find it difficult to separate the problem of old age from that of death. Just as I recognize that the whole subject is mixed up with that of illness and pain. There’s no doubt it’s a lot to untangle. But that’s only the beginning. As I dig into these questions and try to clarify my registers I find that there are even more fundamental difficulties that make it difficult for me to get a handle on all this.
For example, we might suffer because we imagine the suffering that our death would cause our loved ones. That seems pretty reasonable; I know the loss of a loved one can be devastating. And I imagine that my death will affect those closest to me the same way. But it seems less reasonable that one suffers because of imagining oneself dead. Consider what happens when I try to imagine my own death. Whether or not I’m emotionally engaged with that imagining I am aware of it somehow. For example, I may not be shaken by emotions when I imagine my dead body but I have to register it somehow (otherwise how would I be aware of it?). I think about it, I have an image and, muted or loud, a corresponding emotion. I have a register, a sensation that corresponds to that image (though perhaps my inner senses aren’t yet well attuned to those kinds of things).
Isn’t that all a bit strange? Thought, feeling and sensation are what life is about. Death seems to imply their absence but if I try to imagine myself dead I do so with my thoughts, feelings and sensations. Death by definition seems to mean my body is no longer functioning. Wouldn’t that mean I don’t have functioning senses? Not only are my external senses gone, but also my internal senses, those that give me a register of “me”. It seems I can’t quite imagine that: I can’t escape mixing the registers (of being alive, having sensation, etc) with a state where supposedly there are no registers. It seems that we’ve uncovered mechanisms (or a logic) that make it hard, if not impossible, to coherently imagine our own deaths.
No surprise than that it’s very difficult to sort all this out. Perhaps I even walk away imagining that there is no death because I’m unable to have an absence of register (the sensation of not having sensation, etc). Here we are not talking about a metaphysical exercise—it’s not a question of what the dead do or do not feel—but a psychological problem about representation and register.
Of course for the believers in heavens and hells of all types and variations, they claim they’ve got all this sorted — and who are we to doubt them? Very well, but it’s certainly fair to notice that there are firm believers in many different gods and many versions of the after life. For now, let’s just note that truth is not a function of the degree of my certainty in what I believe. That’s a subject we might return to later, but for now let’s keep things moving along.
One can find numerous passages and statements throughout his teaching where Silo repeatedly, clearly, and consistently pointed out the connection between our beliefs about death and the question of meaning. However, it strikes me that in practice he does so with a certain restraint. On one hand, he insists again and again that our beliefs about death are structurally and inevitably connected to the meaning we find or don’t find in our lives. On the other, he seems quite willing to let us off the hook. On more than one occasion I heard him explain that we shouldn’t mortify ourselves (or others) with topics like this that are difficult and can be very painful. He made it clear that, here as elsewhere, forcing things toward an end would only produce the contrary. So when we artfully avoided the issue, or simply turned the page and skipped lightly over this subject to others we found more palatable, he encouraged these other interests, only to remind us again later of this central knot. It was as if he is waiting for us to come around to a point where we are able to, or need to, take up this theme. He asked us to understand that that this was something which we and others had a lot of difficulty coming to terms with. He made it clear that forcing people (including ourselves) to confront these contradictory responses would not be helpful. Instead, he encourages all of us to approach these subjects on our own terms and at our own speed.
While some value dramatic gesture, mind-blowing experience, or brutal honesty, Silo proposed a path of careful meditation and humble search. In these matters there can be no artificiality, no pretence, no bull shit — and certainly no internal violence. We take a new step only once we feel our footing is secure. Our goal is to move in a certain direction, not to arrive at a determined point.
Though there’s much more we say about all this I will take a hint from Silo and move on… for now.