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A mans dying wish and the repercussions of defying a sacred social institution

It is not merely a toy collection, he explains, but a way of exploring the meaning of life: The Star Wars narrative contains all of the major plot motifs of classic literature, and the action figures give reality to them. How I place action figures together on the shelf will evoke different thematic tensions based on their respective back stories. This fundamental of all philosophical questions comes in a variety of forms: Each of these questions focuses on a unique point.

The first, for example, asks whether there is an over-arching design or goal to human existence that might clarify our place in the grand scheme of things. The second asks whether some approaches to life are better than others. On this view, the universe that we live in now is just one in an endless series of universes that occurs one right after another, each being identical with the others, right down to the tiniest detail.

With our present universe, there are fixed laws of nature that determine how it unfolds, including everything about my own personal existence—how tall I am, who I married, the job that I have, and every word I ever uttered. Someday this universe will be destroyed by cosmic forces, and from its ashes a new universe will be formed. It too will be shaped by exactly the same laws of nature, and thus all events will unfold exactly the same, including my own life.

This cycle of universes will continue again and again, forever. Whether we believe the theory of the eternal return is not important. What Nietzsche asks, though, is how you would feel if it was true, and for eternity you would be reliving the exact same events in your life, over and over, in each successive universe. You are happy with this life, and you would have no problem living the identical life over and over. However, if the notion of the eternal return feels like a nightmare to you, then this suggests that you have serious issues with the meaning of life as you are right now.

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Psychological studies tell us that happiness declines in our 20s and returns around age 50. While many of these involve specific concerns, such as relationship issues or alcohol dependence, others are more general in nature. Philosophical discussions of the meaning of life are not meant to compete with self-help therapies. What exactly is behind the problem and which, if any, of the standard solutions are plausible? Many of the solutions come from ancient traditions—both religious and nonreligious.

But the best we can do here is consider some dominant themes of these traditions, along with some common criticisms of them. The criticisms we will look at are not refutations of those traditions, and advocates of those traditions have responses to them. Rather, the critiques serve more to help define their limits rather than to simply dismiss them.

Four ancient discussions are especially exceptional because of their insight and influence, and each describes a particular obstacle that stands in the way of a mans dying wish and the repercussions of defying a sacred social institution having a meaningful life. Gilgamesh, a brave and heroic king, just witnessed the death of his close friend and became distressed with the prospect that he too would someday die.

There has got to be some cure for death, he thought, and so he set out on a journey to discover it. Everyone he encountered on his travels, even animals, tried to discourage him from pursuing his plan, but he pressed on all the same.

He then found a famous man named Utnapishtim who had himself achieved immortality. Utnapishtim was the Mesopotamian Noah who survived the great flood. Warned by a goddess of the forthcoming deluge, Utnapishtim built a ship to save himself and his family; he was granted immortality as a reward for his efforts. Gilgamesh was shocked when he first set his eyes on Utnapishtim, who, while immortal, continued to age. The old man was now so decrepit that he could barely move.

Gilgamesh nevertheless asked for advice and Utnapishtim offered a suggestion: Gilgamesh could conquer death by staying awake for seven nights straight. Gilgamesh accepted the challenge, but unfortunately fell asleep as soon as he sat down. When awakened, he was prepared to return home without success. Gilgamesh ran to the ocean, and, with rocks tied to his feet, jumped in and sank to the bottom. He grabbed the spiky plant, untied the rocks and floated back to the surface.

Plant in hand, he joyfully set out on his return journey and when almost home he stopped to wash himself off in a stream, first placing the plant on the bank.

A mans dying wish and the repercussions of defying a sacred social institution

While bathing, though, an old snake slithered up to the plant, ate it, and immediately became young. It then slithered away. He arrived home in a state of depression, and, despite the efforts of his friends to cheer him up, he remained inconsolable. There are two morals of this story.

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The first and obvious one is that, as strongly as we desire to live forever, the inevitable truth is that we will all die. The second and more interesting moral is that we cannot easily accept our deaths and we may do some crazy things to cheat the grim reaper. While the epic of Gilgamesh is just a myth, this second moral has played out countless times in the real world.

In ancient China, some religious believers devoted themselves to conquering death through the strangest of techniques. One involved drinking chemical concoctions which would supposedly balance out the forces within the human body and thereby obstruct the process of dying. Ironically, many believers poisoned themselves to death through these experiments.

Eventually the believer would not need to breathe at all, and thereby become immortal. Today, there are organizations devoted to achieving physical immortality. Some recommend taking as many as 250 nutritional supplements a day. Others place hope in biological advances that will reverse the natural deterioration of human cells. Still others look forward to the day when our minds can become digitized, essentially making computerized versions of our present brain processes.

What should we think about these efforts to avoid dying? One of the more notable philosophical discussions of death is by German philosopher Martin Heidegger 1889-1976.

Death, according to Heidegger, is not really an event that happens to me, since it only involves the termination of all possible experiences that I might have. After all, it is impossible for me to experience my own death. Rather than thinking of death as an episode that takes place at the tail end of my life, I should instead view it as an integral part of who I am right now, and during each moment of my life in the future. I continually aim towards death and, even when I feel healthy, in a fundamental way I am really terminally ill.

It is like playing a game such as soccer where, embedded in every moment, there is the idea that time is running out. So, Heidegger says, if I ignore my persistent movement towards death, or resist it as Gilgamesh did, I am only deceiving myself and living in a substandard world of make-believe. By contrast, a proper understanding of death clearly lays down the basic rules of the game of life and thereby gives life form and purpose. If I could continually think of myself as on the path to death as Heidegger suggests, that might help me accept my mortality.

For one thing, the natural instinct to survive compels me to resist death at almost all costs, and this is something that I share with many creatures in the animal world. For another, I cannot psychologically conceive of the future without secretly injecting myself into a mans dying wish and the repercussions of defying a sacred social institution.

Even if I try to picture the world a thousand years down the road, I am still there as a ghostly spectator to the events I am imagining.

Whether I like it or not, I am inherently resistant to the idea of my non-existence.

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My natural human attitude towards death, then, may be to assume that I am immortal, and, at the same time, be horrified when I look in the mirror and see my body disintegrating before my eyes.

So, the desire for immortality and its accompanying despair, like Gilgamesh experienced, may simply be part of life. While there, he sees legendary people who are being punished for evils they committed when alive. Lying helplessly, two vultures pick at his liver; he swats them to shoo them away, but they keep returning. Another fellow is parched with thirst, but cannot succeed in reaching water. Wading in a lake up to his chin, whenever he stoops down to drink, it immediately dries up leaving only dusty ground.

He sees succulent fruit trees above him, but as soon as he reaches for their produce the wind sweeps the branches into the clouds. Then there is Sisyphus, a deceitful king who tricked the god of death and stayed alive longer than he should have. He finally died and went to Hades, but the punishment for his trickery was not a pleasant one. Day after day he pushes a huge stone up a hill, but, always losing energy as he nears the top, he lets it go and it rolls back down.

Homer describes the scene here: I saw Sisyphus at his endless task raising his gigantic stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over onto the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and, without pity, the stone would come thundering down again onto the plain below.

Then he would begin trying to push it up hill again, and the sweat ran off him and steam rose from his head. Jill works in a lawnmower manufacturing plant, and her job is to bolt lawnmower blades onto motors. She has thirty seconds to line up the pieces and attach them together.

As soon as one is done, another follows on its heels. To reduce monotony, the factory rotates Jill and other employees from one work station to another, but, after a few minutes, the routine kicks in.

Jill likes her co-workers and has no complaints against her supervisor. Still, at the end of the day, she feels that she may as well have been pushing a boulder up a hill. It is not just assembly line jobs that carry a sense of tedious futility. Accountants, teachers, doctors, and most skilled workers face early burnout. What we do in our spare time is often no more rewarding.

A good portion of the day is spent in monotonous domestic chores, cleaning, driving to and fro, shopping, personal hygiene.

Year after year, this seem as futile as assembling lawnmower blades. French philosopher Albert Camus 1913-1960 believed that the story of Sisyphus had another symbolic message. Camus called this the absurdity of life.

Human life, he argued, cannot be neatly dissected and understood by human reason in the same way that scientists might successfully analyze and understand chemical reactions. We strive to be happy, a mans dying wish and the repercussions of defying a sacred social institution instead are trapped in a life of futile efforts.

The problem is so bad that it might drive some to suicide.