I found that most of our anxiety comes from the uncertainty of not knowing how things are going to turn out. Will I get a good score at the math test, or will I not? Will I get the promotion, or will I not? Will this paper be accepted, or will it not?
Of course, anxiety does not always take its roots in uncertainty. In some cases you can become unsettled by things that are certain to happen. Think of yourself in a situation where you are terribly ill and your doctor says that your death is inevitable, and that you will take leave of this world at so and so date, hour, and minute. How would you spend your time then when you know that it is certain that death is going to strike you? Wouldn’t you persistently repress for every minute of your remaining life the thought that you are going to die? Or better, think of yourself of possibly having a debilitating genetic disease, such as Huntington, and that you have the choice of undergoing a test that would establish whether you are sick or not. Would you then rather chose certainty over uncertainty in that case? Wouldn’t uncertainty at least offer the consolation that comes from hope?
But, our daily anxiety, anger, and worry does not come from such hugely significant events such as our death. Really, most of our thoughts are quite simple in their goals. In an ordinary day it is likely that you would think about the flavor of a specific food or drink, about the superiors and subordinates at your job, about clothes and music, about how you are going to accomplish a minor task, about the book you are reading, about how incompetent are drivers in this city, about having the desire to sleep, about how are you going to convey a trifling thought in a blogpost…the list is endless. Such thoughts are likely to bring a variety of emotions in us, some of which are hardly desirable. Epictetus offers a solution how we can decrease the influence of negative emotions:
The thief does not know wherein man’s good consists, but he thinks that it consist in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think. Must he not then come and take them away? When you show a cake to greedy persons, and swallow it all yourself, do you expect them not to snatch it from you? Do not provoke them; do not have a window; do not air your clothes. I also lately had an iron lamp placed by the side of my household gods; hearing a noise at the door, I ran down, and found that the lamp had been carried off. I reflected that he who had taken the lamp had done nothing strange. What then? To-morrow, I said, you will find an earthen lamp; for a man only loses that which he has. I have lost my garment. The reason is that you had a garment. I have a pain in my head. Have you any pain in your horns? Why then are you troubled? For we only lose those things, we have only pains about those things, which we possess. (Epictetus; Discourses)
The quote must be understood in the context of Epictetus’ work. Epictetus was a stoic philosopher, meaning that he not only taught philosophy, he lived it. An important principle that he emphasized continuously is that of not being victims of the things we think we possess. Epictetus mentioned that when you lose something that is in your possession, you feel a sensation of emptiness, and maybe anger. Hence a thief who steals a lamp, manages to hurt you not only materially but also spiritually. Epictetus’ advice is that we can subdue that anger by not attaching ourselves to our possessions. Of course, this is not done in a day. It is accomplished through rigorous training. Also, Epictetus mentions in his work that getting overly-involved in things that cannot be changed wouldn’t be of benefit to anyone After all, should you really be angry about a thief that you know will not be caught? Is that anger of any use when you cannot change anything?
Before I cause any unrest for those who are reading this post, I want you to know that the suicide note is not about me: It is about the person whose disaffected image you see on your left.
Mitchell Heisman died this September by shooting himself in front of a crowd of 20 people on the steps of Memorial Church of Harvard University. Before his unfortunate finale, he wrote a mortis manifesto of 1905 pages, outlining in it his views on philosophy, politics, history, religion, and science.
To some his legacy might seem superfluous ramblings, and they may consider his suicide as nothing more than a juvenile attempt to gain posthumous recognition. To be frank with you, I do not care what reasons or what despair brought him to consider ending his life. Thousands and millions die for the same reasons and through the same means as he did. Showing pittance for every death is beyond my capability. I do, however, commiserate with his family, to whom the shock of his death must be an unendurable suffering.
Let me reiterate something. This post will not be about the Mitchell Heisman. My interest is solely in his work: Suicide Note.
Suicide Note is a powerful manifesto filled with extensive compendiums on a variety of topics. I have by no means read it all, although I am committed to slowly tread my way through it. Nevertheless, from the modicum of peruses that I’ve done so far, I believe that this work is phenomenal. I know that to many his abstruse and highly convoluted way of writing might be inaccessible. There is a reason for that. He, unlike most scholarly writers, did not always build his arguments from scratch. He revealed his thinking readily by cutting down all the necessary introductions. Hence, if you read his views on nihilism, you first have to get acquainted with the works of the major existential philosophers that came before him in order to understand what is he writing about.
Below you will find some excerpts that I found intriguing:
Uncertain of uncertainty, skeptical of skepticism, it seems that the most important question is whether there is an important question. The only serious question is whether there is anything to take seriously. What has previously been considered of value or importance appears as only an expression of myth, bias…error. (pg. 22)
There is a very popular opinion that choosing life is inherently superior to choosing death. This belief that life is inherently preferable to death is one of the most widespread superstitions. This bias constitutes one of the most obstinate mythologies of the human species. (pg. 22)
If the rational life leads to the nihilistic life, what are the consequences of a living intelligence whose highest organizing “principle” is this hypothetical nothingness?
What would it mean, in concrete terms, to live a rational life according the insight of the nihilistic? What would be the ultimate consequence of applying the hypothesis of unmeaning to every belief, every thought, every action, every emotion, every purpose, and every goal? To nausea, to fear, to love, to terror? (pg. 34)
On Nurture/Nature Debate:
When the nature/nurture issue is applied to fish or horses, it is generally assumed that nature — by nature —plays a stronger role than nurture in determining their behavior. This implies that human nature — by nature — is less determined by nature. Humans, then, are less determined by nature because humans are superior to nature — by nature. (pg. 130)
(I will have to agree with critics who believe his writing is a tad esoteric. The repetition of nature in several occasions is unnecessary. His ideas are clear, however.)
All political problems can be solved by slapping bumper stickers of “freedom” over them. But what is left when “the individual” stops hiding behind these abstractions of freedom? What if someone were to make the ridiculous blunder of asking: How do we use our freedom? Are there duties or moral imperatives justified along with these freedoms? What is right way to live? Anyone making a pilgrimage to the destination of Anglo-Saxon political philosophy with such questions, asked in their fullness, must realize that he or she has arrived at the wrong place. (pg. 873)
The Website with his legacy: www.Suicidenote.info