The Comforting Brutality of Existence

Introduction & First Stimulus

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to
: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.”

– Hamlet, in ‘Hamlet’, Act III Scene I

This article is not for the faint of heart. By that I mean: the subject of this article is going to be quite unnerving, but the harshness of the matters discussed should be shown to be enjoyed and revered, not hidden from. But, by means of a disclaimer, this article will discuss sensitive matters – if you are easily offended, or are not in a shored-up mindset, then I suggest you bookmark and read this article another time.

Let us begin our discussion with a stimulus. Literature is normally my go to; let’s choose Hamlet. Most people know the quote, ‘to be or not to be, that is the question’. Skimming over the literary interpretations, the main meaning of this phrase (and speech that follows) is the questioning of suicide. Hamlet wonders, is it better to stay alive, or to die – literally to be, meaning to exist.

The problem of suicide has plagued humanity since its very conception. Countries have attempted to outlaw it (resulting in some very bizarre circumstances). Indeed, Albert Camus, in his seminal work, the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ states that the only real question of Philosophy is suicide. Shakespeare, through Hamlet as his mouthpiece, pithily puts the question of suicide to the audience: should we suffer through the ‘slings and arrows’ of existence (in that life is inherently painful), or simply end it all?

This sounds rather one-sided: life, although it is brutal, is potentially a better alternative to the other…that being death. Hamlet aptly points out that he does not know what awaits him when he slips the binds of existence and enters the void. For all he knows, or indeed, we know there could be an afterlife, of which the pleasantness is certainly unknown. An old idiom then springs to mind which may aid us in the decision: better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t. Hence, we (most of the time) choose to stay alive, despite the cruelness of the world.

So, life is a cruel mistress, but we reluctantly suffer her punishment as we fear who, or what, might dominate and punish us if we spurn her control. However, I am reluctant to stop here: to declare that life is awful and painful, but we must live it out of fear for the next world, is simply not good enough.

The reason why it is not good enough, is because there are moments in our lives where the fear of the void is superseded by the pain, suffering, and hatred of one’s present existence. This is the most dangerous state for an individual, and such a state should be feared, not just by the vessel, but those around them. For this is the state of mind in which ultimate destruction can brew – whether that be self-destruction, or external destruction, or indeed, a combination.

Hypothetical Example & Stimulus

Imagine in your minds, a man dressed in a suit. He leaves the office, and heads to Canary Wharf tube station. His tie is loose around his neck, sweat drips from his forehead, and his feet ache with the effects of a long day’s work.

He’s an investment banker. Recently, his girlfriend of five years left him and took his dog. He’s been missing targets at work and has been passed over for promotion twice. His mother has early onset dementia, and his father has passed away from a heart attack.

Despite this, he has been trying really hard at work. But he has been trying too hard – he is tired, and keeps making mistakes. Today, he made a really big mistake that was a very expensive error. He thinks he is worthless, and that he will be fired. He feels like he has no one to turn to, no family, and no pleasures in his life. Anything would be better than this…

He enters the station and stands at the platform. Now he realises why they put barriers along the platform edge. In this state of mind, he knows that he would welcome whatever the void would bring over his present suffering. But, with a pane of glass in between him and the tracks – he has to delay such a decision. ‘Maybe tomorrow…’ he thinks.

The Need For a Compulsion to Live

“Now, Tommy’s a good father
Two sons and a daughter
But he wakes up and he asks himself:
“Why even bother?”
If he cannot feed his family
The wage he’s paid’s insanity
Every day he’s dealing with a new calamity
Lost his old occupation
But it wasn’t immigration
It was a machine, automation that replaced him
Politicians left him, corruption since the recession
So he grabs his Smith and Wesson, says he’ll teach ’em all the lesson […]”

– Grandson, in ‘Stick Up’

Can you see, from the hypothetical example above, how one might be easily driven to suicide and the hatred of one’s own existence? It is all too easy for life to line up calamitous events and have them coincide at once.

And with a Mike Tyson-esque combination to the head and body, life can easily bring us to our knees. So, we need some kind of impetus to not just take a knee and run down the clock, or worse, throw in the towel.

But, such impetus to carry on living must be realistic, sustainable, and unwavering. We cannot afford to create a flimsy answer when peoples’ lives are at stake.

Answers like, ‘your family will miss you’, are sub-par; we must find an impetus that works from within, and makes you want to keep on living for you. Sub-par answers, like the one supplied above, would not help our man in the hypothetical example.

Nature & Vibrations

There is a wonderful pop-culture philosopher, whose lectures I listen to on a daily basis (not least because his voice is like audible butter). The person in question is the dearly departed Alan Watts. Now, before I discuss his work, I want to provide a disclaimer. A lot of what Watts says can be viewed as effete and so it would be unwise to take his literature/lectures as gospel. Indeed, he himself was a raging alcoholic and psychedelic-drug enthusiast. Yet, some of his points are quite salient and useful in forming an argument for life.

In one of his lectures, ‘The Tao of Philosophy 3: Coincidence of Opposites’, Watts discusses what he believes to be a fundamental in the metaphysics of the universe. Watts believes that life is simply a collection of vibrations (that is to say oscillations), or more exactly put, vibrations within vibrations, within vibrations.

So if I may start by insulting your intelligence with what is called the most elementary lesson: the thing that we should have learned before we learned one, two, three and A, B, C, but somehow was overlooked. Now, this lesson is quite simply this: that any experience that we have through our senses—whether of sound, or of light, or of touch—is a vibration. And a vibration has two aspects: one called on,
 and the other called off.

Vibrations seem to be propagated in waves, and every wave system has crests and it has troughs. And so life is a system of now you see it, now you don’t. And these two aspects always go together

– Alan Watts, In ‘ The Tao of Philosophy 3: Coincidence of Opposites’

This is a more philosophical and exact way of phrasing an often trotted-out phrase: life is full of ups and downs. I have always hated that phrase for its vagueness. However, using this description provided by Watts, the exact message of the phrase can be extracted and propagated. But, before we do that, let’s explore what Watts means.

Take for example, a stone that one might find in a forest. Why can you not put your finger through the stone? The question might seem silly, but seriously try to answer it. ‘Well‘, you might say, ‘it is solid‘. Indeed! It is solid. And what, if I might take you back to GCSE Physics and Chemistry, constitutes a solid? ‘Well, a solid is a collection of atoms or molecules that are held together in a fixed lattice. The particles vibrate vigorously together and stay together as a result of strong attractive forces.‘ Excellent! So, the stone is simply just a collection of ‘bits’ that are vibrating too strongly and vigorously for us to weasel our finger through. Hence, we cannot poke our finger through a stone.

But now consider a liquid, or indeed a gas. We can put our fingers through those because the vibrations are not as strong, the particles are not pulling their brethren as closely together. Everything, is simply just a collection of vibrations, or more aptly put, osculations: movement left and then right, movement up and then down, on and then off. Indeed, this is how our brains work: the firing of electrical impulses along our nervous system. Our brain either reads no impulse, or an impulse; on or off. And a computer does the same, and we call this binary; ones or zeros.

Scale of Magnification

So, I hope I have demonstrated Watts’ principle that everything is a vibration. Let us run with this idea, that everything is simply an oscillation: a series of ons and offs. Well, these ons and offs happen at different levels of magnification. We have discussed the oscillations at an atomic level, but now lets zoom out to the microscopic level, then the natural eye level, and then the telescopic level. Everything is a series of ones and zeros: indeed, your life is one big oscillation, you live through your one, and when you die you have your zero.

Now, we come here—right at the start—to an extremely important principle, which is the different points of view you get when you change your level of magnification. That is to say, you can look at something with a microscope and see it a certain way, you can look at it with a naked eye and see it in a certain way, you look at it with a telescope and you see it in another way. Now, which level of magnification is the correct one? Well, obviously, they’re all correct, but they’re just different points of view. You can, for example, look at a newspaper photograph under a magnifying glass and where, with the naked eye, you will see a human face, with a magnifying glass you will just see a profusion of dots rather meaninglessly scattered. But as you stand away from that collection of dots, which all seem to be separate and apart from each other, they suddenly arrange themselves into a pattern. And you see that these individual dots add up to some kind of sense.

Now you’ll see at once, from this illustration, that maybe you—when you take a myopic view of yourself, as most of us do—but you may add up to some kind of sense that is not apparent to you in your ordinary consciousness. When we examine our bloodstreams under a microscope we see there’s one hell of a fight going on. All sorts of microorganisms are chewing each other up. And if we got overly fascinated with our view of our own bloodstreams in the microscope we should start taking sides, which would be fatal. Because the health of our organism depends on the continuance of this battle. What is, in other words, conflict at one level of magnification is harmony at a higher level. Now could it possibly be, therefore, that we—with all our problems, conflicts, neuroses, sicknesses, political outrages, wars, tortures and everything that goes on in human life—are a state of conflict which can be seen in a larger perspective as a situation of harmony?

Alan Watts, In ‘The Myopic View of The World’

The quote above, in my opinion, is beautiful. Watts describes how conflict is required for harmony – but, also eruditely points out that the conflict and harmony occur on differing magnifications. Conflict between countries can amount in continental, or even global peace (since WWII, we have lived in the most peaceful period in human history).

Another example, as Watts describes, our body is under a perpetual fight to keep us alive, but it is this very fight, our white blood cells battling alien bodies that keeps us alive. If we suddenly stopped losing white blood cells in battle, and the count escalated to abnormal levels, one is now in danger of blood cancer. We cannot definitively say that white blood cells are ‘the good guys’ – both disease and white blood cells most be had together in balance, as having one side win outright would be disastrous for the body.

Another, perhaps darker example, would be WWII itself. The war itself was brutal, and its effects horrific and disgusting. However, without it, humanity would not have had such a huge technological advancement, of which we have drastically benefited from in the modern era. For example, the pressurised cabin was invented for fighter pilots at high altitudes, which we now use in commercial flights. And who could forget the beloved Alan Turing, who developed the world’s first computer (to crack the Nazi’s enigma code), the long descendant of which I am using to write this article.

Playing Your Part

Pale Blue Dot

We are now edging towards some kind of explanation and acceptance of the conflict in our lives. Out of pain, suffering, and destruction, eventually comes harmony and progress. But, how does this help us in our quotidian existence and suffering?

The answer is tricky and not as easy to accept as one might imagine.

It is a fact that we, as individuals, exist on a near atomic level in reference to the rest of the universe. There is a wonderful image of Earth, taken by the Voyager 1 space probe that shows the smallness and insignificance of Earth, known as the Pale Blue Dot. Now think about how small and insignificant we are a species on Earth. And now think about yourself, an individual, gallivanting around this tiny rock, in a small solar system, in a small galaxy, in one hell of a large universe. To understand this scale (believe me, you really can’t imagine it), click here.

I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon.
I have one life, and it is short and unimportant…
But thanks to recent scientific advances I get to live twice as long as my great great great great uncleses and auntses.

– Tim Minchin, ‘Storm’

Your problems, are virtually nothing, compared to the expanse of the universe. That is not to say that they don’t matter – they matter a great deal. But, you must put it into perspective and realise the enormity of the universe. Stars are exploding and reforming in shapes and sizes you cannot even begin to comprehend. The universe is one huge organism that is vibrating in itself, and, put bluntly, you (in the scale of things) are essentially one tiny sub-atomic particle that vibrates within it.

BUT, and this is the crucial bit – no matter how small you are, you are still required. The universe needs you, because you are part of it. You are what makes part of the universe up, even if the part you make up is less than one yocto-cubic meter in magnitude (< 10¯24 ).

Imagine yourself like a quark, a sub subatomic particle of an atom. A quark is smaller than human comprehension, and we are like that in the scale of the universe. However, quarks exist, and are needed for the subatomic particles, and the subatomic particles are needed for the bigger atoms. In this way, we are needed as part of the planet Earth, and Earth is needed to form our solar system, and our solar system is needed to form our galaxy, and so on.

A quark is unable to ask why it is needed, it just is required to support the next level of magnification up. In much the same way, we are required for the same reasons. There are no ifs, and no buts. There are things that are much bigger than us in the universe, and we are needed to support them. A star that goes supernova cannot say, ‘but it wasn’t my time to go’ – it simply does what it must. And, though the star has died, it scatters throughout the universe the building blocks for other phenomena – some of which imbued us with life. In each of us, there are deceased planets, stars, moons, and rocks; we live off them and our existence has relied on them.

And so you see, the star that once was alive (and was on), then died (turned off), and then formed into a new being, us, and was turned on again. Much like when we die, becoming a zero, and are buried in the ground, nature’s fauna consume us and turn us back into a one from a zero.

Cyclical Reincarnation

The universe experiences great oscillations, and within them, smaller oscillations occur, and smaller and smaller, until the scale at which humanity is observable is reached, and even then, the oscillations continue at smaller levels. But, your problems contribute to the vibrations on the human scale of magnitude. Your ups and downs all serve to further the oscillation of humanity, which in turn, supports the next level of oscillation up.

Your purpose, as it were, is to suffer the ups and downs of life, no matter what they are, and keep on vibrating, keep oscillating, until your time naturally comes to turn you to a zero. But don’t fear! You may be a zero in your mind when death arrives, but your journey has only just begun, and nature will soon turn you back to a one, and so the cycle continues.

Your life is worth more than you might imagine, and I doubt one can even comprehend it. God is often looked to, to provide a purpose.

Indeed, it is why suicide is always rejected in religious texts: you must not kill yourself, for God created you, you are part of God’s plan, and the life God has given you is a sacred blessing that must not be spurned.

If you look to God for this teaching, I take no issue and encourage the thought. But, I have described the same thing, but have simply replaced the notion of God, with nature and her forces. Nature has brought you into existence, you must play your part within her, and when your role is complete, she will absorb you back into her, ready to be reborn into a new role.

Concluding Thoughts

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward

Sylvester Stallone, In ‘Rocky’

There is little more to be said on my part, thought the discussion in a wider sense is far from complete. My only parting wish is that one dwells on this topic. It is only sombre or morbid if one chooses to make it so. I think Mexico has the right idea with their ‘Day of the Dead‘ – we should celebrate life and death together, for they are inherently inseparable.

Humanity should not only keep living, but also keep dying, and then living again. The ups and downs within life, and of the life cycle, is integral to the thing-in-itself. Suicide is the response when one wants a side to win, when one wants to dispose of the troughs of life and return to a state of peaks. This is simply not possible in the course of nature, and, when humankind cannot tolerate this fact, suicide becomes the apparent answer to rebel.

But, as shown, it is not a rebellion, but rather an irrational response to the way things are, that is to say that things are sometimes supposed to be awful. But, the trick is to take pleasure in that, and realise that nature is encouraging you to play your role. Take the ups, with the downs, and relish your life and death. Life may, on occasion, be a cruel mistress, but nature is always beautiful.

I will leave you with a poem that my Mother once showed me. It has allowed me to keep on moving forward, regardless of whether or not I am on a peak or in a trough. Thank you, Mum.

If there is no-one responding to your call – then go on all alone,
If no-one speaks (to you), don’t think you are unfortunate, if non-one speaks (to you),
If everyone turns away, if everyone fears (to speak), then with an open heart without hesitation speak your mind alone,
If everyone walks away, O unlucky one, everyone walks away,
If no-one looks back towards the (your) unpredictable path, then with thorn pricked (of the path) bloodied feet, walk alone,
If no-one heeds your call – then walk alone,
If no-one shines a light (on the path), O unlucky one,
If the dark night brings a storm at the door – then let the lightning ignite the light in you alone to shine on the path
If no-one heeds your call – then walk alone.

– Rabindranath Tagore, In ‘Ekla Chalo Re’ (English Trans.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s