Reflections on an older post

I began this blog with a remark:

It was a great moment of enlightenment on my part when I realized that it would have been better for me to have died when I was 24 or thereabouts. But I didn’t, and here I am now.

I had another, more difficult, post planned for today, but preparatory to that post I would like to unpack that remark a bit.

As readers of the Thaumatophile Manifesto can readily infer, I went through a very bad patch in my life between roughly the ages of 24 and 31. Let’s call these Faustus’s Dark Times, a grim time of both professional and personal failure, a time when I couldn’t get either a girlfriend or a permanent, full-time job in a field I had worked very hard to prepare myself for. I didn’t kill myself (obviously), although there were points where I came close. My sanity was kept intact by my inability to rid myself of the false belief that the causes of my misery would eventually abate. I wasn’t smart enough to see through Nature’s Dirty Trick #2* — the optimism bias or belief that things will get better in the future. (“Sure, I failed to get an academic position this year, but next year I’ll have a book out and there will be a whole new job search. Surely I’ll get a job then, and move to a whole new place, and then I’ll meet someone wonderful, and…” Such are the deluded scripts we write for ourselves in our heads.)

Nature’s Dirty Trick #2 might have kept my head together during these times, and it might have kept me going. What makes it such a dirty trick is that it probably caused me more suffering in the end than it prevented. Falling for it meant not only that I had to endure loneliness and deprivation of both income and status relative to my peers — things that would have been bad enough on their own — but that I also got to have the special experience — repeated over and over again in those years — of dashed hopes as well.

Things are not so bad now — the Dark Times appear to be over — but I am left with this thought: on any method of aggregation of the good and bad things in my life that starts with the start of my existence and runs up until the present moment, and includes the Dark Times, I find myself with a healthy balance on the negative side.** There have been good things in my life (the bulk of them before the age of 24), and there are some good things right now. Perhaps over the last few years things have been (only slightly) positive. But the Dark Times are such a large negative that I think on the whole my life would come out negative. That’s how bad things were. The thing (or set of things) in future life that would have to come along that might outweigh or make up for the Dark Times would have to be of a magnitude so large as to be grossly improbable.

And what is more (and perhaps, more depressing), is that when I project forward into my life in the future, I don’t see this balance changing. Looking at actuarial tables, the ages of my antecedents, and so forth, I come up with a statistical expectation of several more decades of life. But I find the likelihood of anything really good in those coming decades to be minimal. It could happen, but its likelihood would be like buying a winning lottery ticket — nothing to bet on. More likely by far is that things will start with they are and get worse as I age. Because that is what I see happening to other people older than myself: progressive debility and enfeeblement and accumulating health problems (since my last post on the matter, I have already accumulated a few of my own), a process that accelerates and worsens as time goes by. The people I know to whom this is happening do not complain much. They try to put a brave face on the matter. No doubt they are as vulnerable to nature’s dirty tricks as I am, and so don’t want to protest their lives for fear that the alternatives are worse. But anyone can tell that they are suffering, and more so as time goes on. That’s a fate in which I will almost certainly share, as long as I go on living.

I thus stand by my judgment that it would have been better for me to have died (painlessly, peaceably) at the age of 24, even if I go on living now.

*Nature’s Dirty Trick #1 is a the belief (profound and apparently exceptional people) that death is something very terrible and very much to be feared. Back to main text.

**I take the view, defended by Ben Bradley, that the most sensible way to do this is a aggregative as well as hedonistic. See Ben Bradley, Well-Being and Death. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Although since apparently unlike Bradley I think that life is more suffering than not, I am inclined to that it might be best to live as short a life as possible, rather than as long a life as possible. Back to main text.

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