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Goodbye Grandpa

October 22, 2011

Earlier today my grandfather passed away.  It’s put me in a rather gloomy mood.  Whenever I reflect on death I get really depressed.  We live incredibly short lives.  There’s never any guarantee of tomorrow.

Many years ago I spent a lot of time reading philosophy.  I spend most of my time with science these days, but I used to read a lot of philosophy related to life, morals, and the mind.  I always best related to existentialist philosophers like Jean Paul Satre.  They don’t really try to offer an explanation for evil, nor all the terrible things that happen in this life.  I don’t think there is any meaning in such events.  Absurd things happen.  Terrible things happen.  Sad things happen.  It’s just the way life is, and assuming we don’t work to change the world, things will stay that way.

Existentialists have a doctrine they call “absurdism”.  I’m not a huge fan of using “isms”, but I went with the term anyway.  I was trying to think about how best to define it, so I just looked it up on Wikipedia and liked their definition:

Absurdism, therefore, is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information, including the vast unknown, makes certainty impossible.

– Wikipedia, Absurdism

The only tool us humans have available to use against this cold heartless universe is our powers of reason, but reason is very limited.  Our brains forget the things we learn, never seem to have enough information, and can only process so much at a time.  This leaves us vulnerable to all life’s complexities.  We have to try to figure things out and adjust our actions in such a way as to produce the best outcomes both for ourselves and to those around us.  However, the world is brutal, heartless, and near boundless in cruelty.  We’re stuck with absurdity.   I don’t think us humans will ever reach a level of absolute certainty, but things can be made better.

What does this have to do with death?  Well, death is absurd, as are many things in life.  We never know when or how we’re going to die.  We never know when or how our loved ones will die.  We never know when or how our friends will die.  But they will die, I assure you.  They’ll all die, and you will too.  I’m not the harbinger of pessimism, this is reality.

I’ve always have liked Albert Camus, an existentialist author.  He prescribed that we cope as best we can with all life’s absurdities.

… a person can choose to embrace his or her own absurd condition. According to Camus, one’s freedom – and the opportunity to give life meaning – lies in the recognition of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free. “To live without appeal,” as he puts it, is a philosophical move to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. The freedom of humans is thus established in a human’s natural ability and opportunity to create his own meaning and purpose; to decide (or think) for him- or herself. The individual becomes the most precious unit of existence, as he or she represents a set of unique ideals which can be characterized as an entire universe in its own right. In acknowledging the absurdity of seeking any inherent meaning, but continuing this search regardless, one can be happy, gradually developing his or her own meaning from the search alone.

– Wikipedia, Absurdism

None of this makes me feel any better about death, but I don’t think there’s anything cheerful about it.  Grandpa’s dead and I won’t ever get to see him again.  From time to time I still find solace reading my Bible, though I’m not a religious person.  I find Solomon, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, to have been a wise man.  Take this passage:

I also said to myself, “As for humans, [ … ] they are like the animals.  Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.  All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?

– The Holy Bible, Ecclesiastes Ch 3

Solomon gave the best advice as to how to live our lives during this stay on this planet:

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, [ … ].  Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

– The Holy Bible, Ecclesiastes Ch 9

I had planned to write about my experiences with grandpa during my life, but I ended up writing about the thoughts bouncing around in my head as I’ve been out for my walks. Forgive me, I’m not really in a cheerful mood right now.

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