Two nights ago my second son (ten years of age) asked my wife, just before falling asleep, to inquire if I liked the fact that time passes. Mercifully he didn’t expect her to come back with the answer immediately, but to posit it to me so I could mull it and share the results with him later, at a time of my convenience. Today’s post is my attempt at an answer.
First, let’s clarify right away that I do like it. Without time passing there is no phenomenal life (or rather, there is no life as a succession of perceived phenomena), there is no experience as experiencing things require a “flow of consciousness” in which such experiencing takes place (or may be it would be more accurate to say “in which such experiencing takes time”, temporal and spatial metaphors have an annoying tendency to get mixed and mangled and confused…) Hence if the alternative to a universe where time flows is a frozen universe where nothing at all happens because everything stays the same forever, I think we can all agree such hypothetical universe is much less preferable to our own.
But of course, that’s not what my son had in mind when he asked the question. What concerned him is that things may only go downhill (or are more likely than not to go downhill when you contemplate life from a quite comfy and elevated position) from the present, and he has repeatedly told us he would like not to grow up (neither him nor his brothers) and especially he would like us not to grow old. Seems to be something all my sons catch, as we occasionally joke about the sentence our elder regularly included in our nighttime prayer, asking the good lord not to allow anybody to “grow old or to die” (the good lord seems to have stubbornly ignored my son’s request, but I’m sure he has his reasons for such apparent cold heartedness)…
So what he really wanted was some reassurance that I find it OK to mature, and let time change us. That the ravages it occasionally causes in the form of infirmity, frailty, loss of vigor and, yes, ultimately death, are overall worth it. Quite a tall order, as I’ve let my readers in what I consider a dirty little secret of our age. What our dominant reason is rather pointing us towards is, in the immortal words of the old Greeks, that “not to be born is the best for man”. That life and its sorrows and griefs and pains are not in the end compensated by a superior amount of joy and delight and contentment. And of course, you don’t need to be an extremely subtle philosopher to pick that message. More apparently in the more economically developed countries, increasingly dominant majorities do indeed believe that life, on its final balance, is not worth it, and thus voting with their gonads not to extend it any farther.
Talk of a self-fulfilling prophecy! Because what I will tell my son is that I joyously, wholeheartedly, emphatically, clear-eyedly, playingly, mischievously, cantankerously, exaggeratedly, like the fact that time passes. And one of the main reasons is precisely him (and his brothers). But of course, such an answer is not valid for those of my contemporaries that have chosen not to reproduce, and thus by renouncing to experience one of the greater blessings that life can offer they are validating their previous belief that life itself is nothing to write home about, is a gigantic chore where the bad outweighs the good and “getting old and dying (alone) is not a secondary plot, but the main and only argument of the play” (in the terrible and pessimistic and rotund words of the Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, from his poem “I will not be young again”, which I’m going to translate here and now because what the heck:
That life is a serious matter,
One starts to understand only later,
Like all the youngsters I came
To sweep away with life and its obstacles.
I wanted to leave my mark
And depart to great applause
To get old, to die, were only
The dimensions of the theatre.
But time has passed
And the ugly truth becomes apparent
To get old, to die,
Is the only argument of the play)
What a concise and beautiful summary of the “ugly truth” that desiderative reason presents us with. In a life in which the only intelligible desire is to improve your social standing, to get old and to die is “the only argument of the play”. And of course, having kids may help for a little while, like having a “trophy wife”. You send them to incredibly expensive universities (like you pay for her plastic surgery), you boast with your friends of how well they are doing in life (if things go well, you give them enough social capital as to ensure they will increase on the amount of positional, non-shareable goods you will already bequeath them), and to that extent they bring some joy to your otherwise empty life, devoid of true value. But in the end they become independent beings, they stop contributing to your position in the social hierarchy (actually, they may start actively competing with you, and in a zero sum game their gain can only come at your loss), and indeed once they are all grown up and live by themselves there is only so much they can do to satisfy the only desire you have been taught to harbor…
Which is just another beautiful illustration of the noxiousness and overall undesirability of the dominant reason we have come to collectively embrace, that practically ensures that happiness won’t be part of our lot as long as we don’t substantially modify the shared rules that bind us together (because that’s what dominant reason does for us, as I’ve incessantly preached in countless previous posts).
Back to what I will tell my son (he already knows about desiderative reason and how we don’t share its main tenets with our fellow citizens, he was present when I expounded its pitfalls in my dissertation defense and, having talked about it with him a number of times he seems to have understood most of it), I’ll let him know that I enjoy, and relish the pass of time being fully aware of its drawbacks. I know that, at 46, I can only expect to grow physically weaker with every passing year (and that most of my personal records won’t be improved by me, ever). I know a few things that allow me to be optimistic about the pace at which such weakening shall proceed (as long as I can stay active, train judiciously and eat healthily -but without obsessing about it- I will be able to forestall most ailments for a long time to come… most but not all), but my skin will be thinner and more wrinkled, my hair will grow thinner and sparser (except in some unruly areas, like the eyebrows, the ears or the nose), my eyesight will falter and I’ll soon require eyeglasses, and probably my hearing will also worsen. My joints will stiffen a bit, and become even more creaky and less supple. Of more concern to me, my ideas will become somewhat more rigid, and I will be less tolerant of the opinions of others when it does not coincide with mine (and I will justify it saying that mine is much more informed and considered, given my greater intelligence and wisdom, hah!). Learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge will become more difficult, and probably I will not find the same excitement in it. All those things are intrinsically undesirable, and I am not exactly looking forward to them, but I still think they are a very sensible price to pay for the much greater joys that I expect to come alongside those somber developments.
What joys are those? First and foremost between them, seeing my kids grow, and become the fantastic human beings they have the potential to be. Witnessing them become unique, unrepeatable individuals. Letting them flourish and bestow their exuberance unto the world, a world that will be all the better thanks to them. I don’t know what form such flourishing may take, and I don’t want to interfere much with it. I’m not the kind of toxic father that somehow wants to get even with the world through his descendants, and pushes them remorselessly since they are toddlers to excel in some competitive endeavor or other where the lack of recognition of his own accomplishments caused him some kind of trauma that he expects to heal vicariously through his kids’ achievements. All I would like is for them to contribute to the creation of a “Kingdom of ends” (Kant’s words, a damn Kantian like me always ends up circling back to the sage of Könisberg’s concepts) where everybody is treated like an end in himself, and never as a means; where people worthy of happiness can indeed be happy; where everybody acts in ways they believe could be enshrined in universal laws, that they would autonomously give to themselves without fear of contradiction.
That is indeed how I try to educate them, so they grow up to contribute to a better world. I honestly don’t know how that better world may end up looking, and as I highly value freedom and choice as intrinsic goods I don’t think I need to give it to them fully defined, as they will surely need a lot of leeway to adjust to what they will find along the way. I don’t care much how they choose to shape that contribution, as I see my and her mother’s role as providing a good role model and giving them a modicum of security and tons upon tons of love and encouragement to pursue their interests and construct a worthy personality. Set some example that instantaneous gratification is not necessarily the best course, and that doing difficult things is most times more worthy, and leaves you with a sense of accomplishment that the easy pleasures can not match. But of course, what difficult things they do and in what easy pleasures they indulge nonetheless should be up to them (as long as it is not something blatantly self-destructive, that is).
I truly pity people like Aubrey de Gray or Ray Kurzweil, that make a fool of themselves trying to convince people (while who they are really and transparently trying to convince is themselves) that we are on the verge of enormous medical and technological breakthroughs that will allow us to live forever. Behind the confident braggadocio of every techno-optimist declaring his belief in the imminent conquest of immortality I can identify the old, and crumpled figure of Gilgamesh, terrified by the prospect of their own deaths. There is something unseemly and unmanly about such fear.
I’ll share another little piece of my inner life with my readers: every single work day I ride in a motorcycle to get to work, and back home. After thirty years riding, I’ve seen (and experienced first hand) my share of accidents, near accidents and scares. Two friends lost their lives in motorcycle crashes, so regularly getting on two wheels serves as a superb reminder of your own fragility and the ease and suddenness with which everything may end. Every single day, before putting on my helmet, I have the following dialogue in my head:
- This thing you're about to do is pretty dangerous… this could very well be the day when they finally get you for good
- Yup, it very well could be
- So are you ready for that? Are you willing once more to risk the road and the inattentive car drivers and the potholes and the oil spills? Ready to pay the ultimate price if push comes to shove?
- It’s been a good life, no regrets…
- Good then, let’s kick start this and may the lord be with us
And there I go. And when I’m back that night I’m grateful for having been given the chance to live one more day, to enjoy one more day of a loving wife whom I want to grow old with, caring together for three magnificent boys that will be our legacy, and make the world a better place than the one we found, as it is our responsibility to make the world a better place than the one our parents found when they in turn arrived in it.
Not to end in too ominous a note, what with all the talk about death and departing and such lofty ideals as making the reich der zwecke happen, I’ll note that we guys have it incomparably easier than gals. I can confidently look forward a maturity and old age where I am if not respected at least accepted however mother nature ends up shaping me, hoping it will be more or less something along the lines of:
Now my poor wife (poor not only for having to deal with the likes of me, but for being a woman in a society that imposes such differential burdens) may think that what society expects from her in the next three decades is to look something like this:
Man, if I were her I would be truly distressed by what I may had to do (or undergo) to meet such unrealistic expectations. She can at least rest assured that I’m gonna love her dearly no matter how much she departs from those (slightly unnatural) standards. She knows full well I find much sexier:
I’m just weird that way, and find attractive (may be the term sexy was misleading, sue me) character, intelligence, humor and a certain world-weariness that reflects a life lived to the full. Like the one I expect to live with my wife. Not a fullness that can be achieved by dining in expensive restaurants and traveling to exotic places (babies are too damn expensive!), but by being essentially unselfish, and yes, sacrificing the pursuit of happiness for something more elevated: being worthy of being so (pursuing happiness is self-defeating, anyways).