How do you vaccinate against life. You could use a condom for starters or if you are Catholic and opposed to contraceptives then perhaps you could promote celibacy and advocate playing with little boys instead of producing them. But even if this strategy worked, I mean really worked, and all humans vaccinated themselves against life and died out (which they may anyway shortly) it would still be less than a spit in the bucket. Like fighting malaria with a slingshot.
Life is a whole lot more than human life. Go tell the mosquitoes and bacteria to stop breeding. No. Even a repeat of the Cambrian Dying-off in which 95% of life on earth got wiped out could not stamp out this disease completely. Those remaining 5% would do again what they did then, namely fill in the vacuum with even more species, and do it faster than before.
Let’s face it. There is no vaccine against life. At least not for the next 4 billion years or so.
OK, no vaccine. How about an antidote, a cure? If you can’t prevent a disease maybe you could cure it after it happened. But how do you go about curing a disease with 100% mortality rate? You can’t just reduce it to 69%. That might work for the AIDS virus which not everybody has, but not for Life, a viral epidemic encompassing every living organism on the face of the planet. Imagine you being one of those unlucky 69%, being told that some of your friends will live forever while you are doomed to die. That could put a serious dent into your golf game.
You can’t reduce the risk factor either. You can’t be 31% dead (though many people feel that way most workdays). No, sir. Physiologically speaking, if you are infected with life your prognosis is a death warrant, no exceptions… unless… Unless… the disease is vanquished, eradicated completely, once and for all, utterly wiped out like TB or Polio, and the threat hanging over us all is gone, vanished, vamoose. You heard me (Praise the Lord). Life eternal, here and now (Hallelujah). I must quickly add that unfortunately life may for the foreseeable future still be sexually transmitted (how distasteful) until a cleaner, more Christian way can be found, but the mortality rate certainly can be brought down to 0%.
A cure. Nobody dies, not in the cosmic sense at least. God is great.
All this is of course no big news if you have been paying attention. This is pretty well what we have been told for much of our existence, in every language, in every creed. Hindus go as far as to believe that even mosquitoes live forever, and one of them, for all we know, may reincarnate as Donald Rumsfeld. It makes little difference if you are a good Christian, a devout Muslim, or pray to your Versace handbag. The itinerary may vary. You may end up not coming back but moving on to sit at the feet of the Lord (what feet!!) or come back as lettuce, or merge with the All. The salient point is that you’ve been saved. YOU DON’T DIE!
Life = A sexually transmitted disease with 0% mortality rate, i.e. not a disease at all.
Phew! That was painless.
[a few blank pages]
And that pretty well concludes my book. Thank you for buying it.
©Copyright Peter Elyakim Taussig, 2012
This afternoon (at 2:18 PM to be precise) I thought about the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree for 48 days straight. I was driving back from grocery shopping at Price Choppers, which I doubt had anything to do with it, and this weird question popped into my head, made weirder still by the fact that I don’t ordinarily associate shopping at Price Choppers with spiritual questions, least of all with the Buddha.
Here is a transcript.
Maybe the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree for 48 days not to seek enlightenment but because he had nothing better to do and no reason to do it. Perhaps he was clinically depressed like me. Maybe having looked in vain for every conceivable purpose for life under the sun, he hoped to find it in the shade. Who knows, maybe he was just sick and tired of running around so he sat down until something better came along, and nothing did.
Imagine, 48 days!
Sometime during those interminable 48 days it must have occurred to him that he in fact he had the right answer all along, before he ever sat down under that goddamn tree; there really was no point to ANYTHING. I mean, if sitting under a tree for 48 days doing nothing doesn’t teach you the meaninglessness of life, what does?
Having had this brilliant realization, he got up.
Big mistake! Right away some spiritual groupies attached themselves to him, he became a busy sage, he started a big-ass religion, he became god. Busy, busy, busy. Oh for those blissful quiet days under that tree…
Poor Buddha -- had it all right when he sat down, got it all wrong when he got up.
The first track on my CD "101 Sound-bite Symphonies", representing the number 1, is entitled "One Nasty God". It consists of one horrific chord. Here is a verbal elaboration on the topic.
The first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other god but me”, kind of puts the Kabosh on the other nine. All these useful edicts, like not violating the Sabbath by going out and killing your neighbor to steal his wife and then lying about it to your parents and the police, lose their moral strength when the reason for following them is not common sense, or common decency, but some arbitrary command of a megalomaniacal god.
Here are some examples. Why, you may reasonably ask, can’t I say the word “God” without being smitten down like some cockroach (second commandment: Thou shalt not utter my name in vain"), or if I happen to be a sculptor I’ll be condemned to eternal damnation with all other sinners (third commandment: thou shalt not make thyself any graven image")? You may look in vain for some kind or reasoned explanation for these odd edicts but all you'll find in the bible is the gruff paternal “’cause I said so, goddamit!” (OK, not in those exact words but close enough).
What’s so great about monotheism anyway? I'll grant you, it’s more efficient. Keeping track of all those hundreds of Hindu gods and their concubines can get a bit unwieldy. You need a database to keep them straight. But efficiency isn’t everything. As plot lines go, the one-god scenario is a pretty dreary story when compared to the Hindu Mahabarat. Imagine the Greeks having to worship just Zeus, with his temper tantrums, and no one else. Not even Aphrodite or Eros. Their whole mythology summed up on a napkin. Efficient? Perhaps. But what a bore.
Let’s be honest. The only thing that has kept the Old Testament in circulation is not the cockamamie idea of an invisible nasty sky god. The secret of the Bible's staying power is al the violent and dirty stuff, all those slayings and crucifixions, and double-crossings, and let's not forget sex and fornication. The Yahweh bits are just an endless irritating repetition of the first commandment, “Me, me, and only me! ! If you as much as think of trying some other deity, you’re dead meat, you sods!”
And you know something, all that smiting and flooding and turning people into salt pillars and burning them alive with fire and brimstones is not even the worst of it. The thing that really gives me the creeps is when God, after one of his frequent rampages, grabs the survivor's face tight and pulls it towards His, and like Marlon Brando in the Godfather rasps: “I only do this for you son... because I love you”.
Ugh! enough to turn anyone into an idol worshiper.
There is a Jewish mystical belief that in every age there are 36 “hidden” Tzadiks, or righteous ones in the world (Lamd-vav Tzadikim Nistarim). These clandestine Tzadiks act as advocates of the universe, and protect it from being destroyed by God (who apparently has had second thoughts about his handiwork). If any of them dies another takes his place. As befit patriarchal Judaism there are obviously no women among them. The Jewish authors of this mystical belief must have arrived at the number 36 by multiplying 18, which in the Hebrew way of writing numbers also spells "life" (Hai).
The 36 Righteous Ones not only live their lives in obscurity, unrecognized by anyone, but in fact they themselves are not aware of their special status. In fact the Kabala holds that admitting to being one of the Lamd-Vav is the surest sign that the person is an imposter.
Since no one can be quite sure who these special people are, all we can do is guess. That speculation immediately increases the potential candidates a million fold or more. Take this a step further and anybody could be one of the 36 (“that asshole who’s driving in front of me at 30 mph in a 60 mph zone”). This kind of reasoning comes awfully close to the Hindu concept of everyone-is-divine, which is expressed in such greetings as “Namaste” or “Jai Bhagwan” both of which roughly translate as: “I bow to the divine within you”.
But what makes this concept so appealing to me is not the universal mutual respect among humans that it was supposed to engender (and never did) but rather the subversive notion that the ones we venerate (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses) are assuredly NOT amongst the 36 since they are anything but hidden or obscure. It’s also tempting to extrapolate the same paradigm to other fields such as the arts and philosophy. The “greatest” composer was not Beethoven but some self-taught musician who never had a work published or performed. The greatest playwright was not Shakespeare but some 16th century scribbler who wrote for himself and whose entire scribbled oeuvres was tossed on a bonfire at his death.
Take the idea a step further and you must conclude that what everyone agrees upon is most assuredly not true. When a book is a “best seller”, i.e. the largest number of people agree that it is worth buying, it is by this definition guaranteed to be at best just mediocre, an imposter pretending to be great.
I should mention that the original context of the Lamed-Vav probably had a much narrower and parochial intention. It is an article of faith in Judaism that the universe was created to serve people (see - Genesis), and that the best way to be grateful to God for his gift is to be a Jew. Non-Jews don’t need to worry though because they too will eventually see the light and follow the Torah, not right away perhaps, but certainly at the end of time, when all nations will come back to the one true god - the Jewish god Jehovah. From this perspective it makes sense that those 36 saints that make the world safe in the meantime would all be Jews, not some Goyim.
So, I am obviously taking liberties with the idea of the Lamd-vav. Which just goes to show that even a narrow, inward looking, superstition can sometimes have universal applications.
If you consider that for Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists (pretty well everybody) a belief in some form of personal existence beyond life is an article of faith, it follows that people like me, who hold that there is nothing on the other side, are a pitiful minority. You cannot separate the fear of dying from any argument about life after death. The will to survive is universal for all life forms, but only we, self-aware humans, can project ourselves into a future in which we will be no more. And the thought is terrifying.
It cannot be!
Luckily, in all of nature we alone have also the imagination to counter that depressing certainty with an alternate reality in which our individual existence somehow continues beyond our corporeal one.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Our capacity to conjure up hope against all evidence to the contrary is the saving grace of a consciousness usually employed to fabricate misery. “There is nothing good or bad”, says Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so”. Given the choice between two projections, two artificial constructs of our mind, that of a future annihilation and that of an eternal afterlife, why not pick the more pleasant fiction? The strongest argument for a belief in an afterlife is that it is harmless. Once you’re dead you are sure to find out either that you were right or else there won’t be a ‘you’ to find out otherwise.
So, why do I not grasp at this convenient palliative?
The reason has nothing to do with what happens or doesn’t happen after I die and everything to do with how I live my life while I have it. You see, everything has a price, even hope. A belief in a white-robed Jesus welcoming me with open arms, or a belief in some rearrangement of my molecules to form another human being is a sedative. It makes the dread of extinction seem more bearable. But in doing so it devalues the uniqueness of this life. By believing that death is not an end, only a transition, we cast this physical as just a prelude, a preparatory phase for something else, something better, or as merely one chapter out of many. To me, any such belief denigrades my existence. It robs my life of its uniqueness, of the remarkable realization that this me, good, bad, or indifferent, is a one-off, an experiment never-to-be-replicated, ever, anywhere.
I am not saying that believers are more cavalier with their lives (excluding suicide bombers and other psychopaths). Believing that death is not final does not necessarily make life less precious. But holding the opposite view, that there is nothing beyond, makes living every moment that much more intense. The awareness that I am dying irrevocably with every breath I take, moving inexorably towards complete oblivion makes every passing moment a once-only experience.
Things end. Stars die. Sure, their stuff survives, but they, as they were, are gone for good. We don’t concoct a myth of survival for the sun after it will go out in a few billion years. We accept the darkness that will follow as a fact.
As I float on my back in the middle of a pristine lake, the sun rays warming my belly, the experience, no -- the bliss, are that much intensified by the realization that we are both dying, the sun and I, albeit at different rates, and that this specific moment is irrevocable. The black nothingness that looms at the end of our respective times has no bearing on the magnificence of the experience. There is no need to make up stories about another life.
The sun has no afterlife.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)