I received some thoughtful feedback on my last post from a couple of people who believe that when Louis C.K. was talking about the empty place inside that everyone supposedly has, he was referring to “existential aloneness.” As one person said, “…the sadness of life is inherent in its mere existence.”
That point of view is not inevitable; it’s a human cultural invention. It’s the product of a particular line of thought, popularized by a certain set of dark and dreary existentialists, and it isn’t universal. Most people live their lives as if they will never die, never considering mortality till they’re on their deathbeds, and even people who are very much aware of the brevity of life don’t necessarily respond with sadness. While some people do—and some even with terror—others, like me, view the same reality with wonder and exhilaration.
So what accounts for these different points of view? I think they are the result of different causal chains, but the majority of people are uncomfortable with the idea that their thoughts and feelings have causes. They are quite happy with causal explanations that allow them to fly in airplanes and chat on the internet, but like to think of their minds as outside the causal web of the universe. I have found that nothing I have ever said has altered this point of view, so those who think their thoughts are free from causation should probably stop reading right here.
For those who agree with the Buddha that, “Everything arises from causes and conditions,” it becomes clear that understanding causes gives us options we wouldn’t have in the absence of such understanding.
I grew up in a Christian cocoon, and sad to say, it never occurred to me to question the beliefs I so confidently held until I was 17, when I happened to read a couple of books that convinced me those beliefs were ridiculous. I started looking around, and saw that most people are stuck with the religion and values they grew up with. That realization became a cause in my examining alternative value systems, and the things I learned became causes in my becoming who I am today.
I found that I had been sad, on occasion, because I thought sadness was inevitable in certain circumstances—like contemplating mortality. When I realized that this sadness was the result of a belief, I had the option of asking what the causes of this belief were, and was it the only possibility? Could I find causes that would produce a different belief that would be more fun, given the idea of “fun” that had evolved in my thinking to that point? The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one, and once I started questioning, I discovered very satisfying alternatives, mostly in Zen, although I’m not a Buddhist.
Another critic of my post proclaimed that, “it’s all for nothing; in the end we always lose,” but that point of view is also the reflection of particular attitudes toward life and death that are not inherent in either. It’s possible to take great joy in one’s accomplishments, even knowing that our planet is going to be uninhabitable in a few billion years. Death can be regarded as the natural end of a happy existence for which one can be grateful—sorrow is not required.
The belief that negative attitudes toward life are a given, embedded in the fabric of life itself, reminds me of the Zen story of an artist who paints a picture of hell, complete with evil demons and suffering humans, and when he’s finished, looks at it and recoils in horror. Our demons, our sadness, and our feelings of emptiness, are creations of our own imagination. They’re not written in stone, and if we subscribe to them, we are being victimized by views of limited scope, not by the “reality” of life.
Death is a reality, but it needn’t be a source of sad, empty feelings. My death will make room for another human being on the planet, and already I’m excited about the opportunities that blossoming new life will have, even though it, too, will end. Are flowers any less beautiful because they die?
(More on facing reality here.)