“With many the question of life’s worth is answered by a temperamental optimism that makes them incapable of believing that anything seriously evil can exist.”
So says William James in his essay “Is life worth living?”. He identifies a deafness for the craving for death by those who self-evidently want to live. Those those have the floor and I do not know how to express my wish of death without being met by distress or comfort. And I do not know which of these two is worst. Both are just shields against what reasons I would like to express for being this way, a way I have always been.
The discussion, then, never starts and therefore never ends. That in itself is unbearable – not having an ear means not being able to develop the language in which to speak about it. So, with James: “Let us search the lonely depths (..) together and see what answers in the last folds and recesses of things our question may find.”
James quotes Thomson:
And this sole chance was frustrate from my birth,
A mockery, a delusion; and my breath,
Of noble human life upon this earth
So racks me that I sigh for senseless death.
By diagnosing it as melancholy he misdiagnoses Thomson and sees in “Lo, you are free to end it when you will” a consolation where it is just a lament. The sigh is not born out of a pessimist senselessness but out of a feeling that “noble human life upon this earth” does matter but that one is not up to it. Oh were one free to end it when one willed one would not feel the crush of shutting up about what one wished.
Imagine wanting something – really wanting something – and not being able to say to the ones you love that you want it because expressing it would destroy that love. That, contra James, is not a metaphysical tedium vitae. It is an existential threat to who you are and to who you care for. It is a fight worth fighting which needs no religious answer whether it is comforting or incriminating.
Still, it is a fight that tires you out, that wears down the ones you love because they fight an invisible enemy, a thing that cannot even be spoken of. For James, this fight is what is making life worth living for but he fails to see that life, if it is a fight, is simply not livable. It is a question of temperament indeed but if your temperament is to have to fight for the things that come naturally to others there comes a time that you’re weary of the fight.
And then the question comes: is death the best move to save what you achieved and not jeopardize what those you love can still achieve? It is a question that deep in the depth of loneliness cannot be answered. James says it unwittingly so: “Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.” His answer is that the triumph is ahead of us but this is not necessarily so.
In fact, the idea that in a lifetime the future brings more than what the past had in store is nothing short of nonsensical. The gambler’s game should be perfused with the adagio: “Quit while you’re ahead.” , and life’s choices are gambles; without risk there is no living, but the odds can become stacked against fighting further for fighting’s sake – to fight for love is to lose love to fighting.
The received wisdom is as it is produced by James: “To the suicide, then, in his supposed world of multifarious and immoral Nature, you can appeal, & appeal in the name of the very evils that make his heart sick there, to wait and see his part of the battle out.” There all discussion stops because I fought my battles and I fought them well. I fought them for a reason and that reason is the moral one that makes me doubt to battle on. Who is to say what is my part in the battle? Those who do not see the battle in getting up? Those whose wisdom is that their self is so precious it should be prolonged regardless of the battle it is provoking in others? James is right in identifying life’s abstract worth in religious feeling, and Hume right that such feeling is superstition, a stifling superstition that keeps all of us captive in the fear of those who do not want to face this simple 5-letter word: “d e a t h”.
Life is worth living, James is right and I won’t deny that: “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.” My risk is to point out that – for those of us passionate about living – there is an hour that every minute of living threatens what you have lived for. So let us talk about that. Let us express it without being called either crazy or insane. For we are not without hope, our hope is for those we would leave behind and the freedom they get to fulfill whatever they can fulfill without that tired dragging of feet of us who cannot go on because we were not built to live long and are happy enough that at least we prospered.
The conundrum is there because those whom we love love us back and do not want us to depart. They will have our back even if we try to stab it and stab it again. It is love which keeps us here because the consequence of our death is pain. This need not be so, but is so nonetheless as long as you refuse to face the fact of a death wish as strong as steel. Think, and really entertain the thought, that your refusal leads to the despair of asking whether death is worth dying for. A poisonous question if ever there was one: damned if you live and damned if you die.
Wanting to die isn’t crazy, insanity comes from not being allowed to express it.