The afterlife

Brandon marsh frost

I would love to be able to believe in God. I can see the advantages of the promise of an afterlife, the lure of goodies for ever as long as I obey a few simple rules in this life, we provided a way of living without having to think about myself, and meaning on a plate. I envy the faithful.
It is of course more difficult trying to live a good life if you have to work out what good is yourself from scratch. The Bible tells us what is good, and we just have to follow the good book. To be fair the Ten Commandments largely provide a short cut for a moral system, as stripped of their religiosity they are good sound ways of being good to others, or at least not harming them, based on the golden rule do unto others as you would like to be done by.
But it’s the meaning I envy religious people most. Meaning on a plate; ready meal meaning. The rest of us have to make do with having no meaning. But because I think there is no ultimate meaning, it doesn’t follow I think that there is no purpose. We could, for example, give ourselves maximum pleasure in life. The Greek philosopher Epicurus advocated finding pleasure in life, although his pleasures were rather more modest than stuffing ourselves with champagne and caviar; he sought the pleasures of friendship, freedom from fear, and peace. And we have to titrate short-term gain with long-term pain: I could rob a bank tomorrow, and in the unlikely event that I succeeded in coming away with a few pounds, blow them on a first-class flight to Sydney. Any pleasure gained from this escapade would be more than outweighed by the grimness of the inevitable twenty years or whatever in prison afterwards. In any case robbing a bank would violate my ethical system of trying to do unto others as I would be done by; if we all robbed banks we would soon be in a pretty pickle (and all in prison).
I often think psychopaths have been dealt a lucky hand in life. The ability to put themselves first and not worry about must be pretty wonderful. I on the other hand fret about every action and how it’s going to affect others. I’m still a pretty selfish person, but I worry. And how I worry about retribution.
The loss of God (to many of us) has of course led to some well known consequences. The existentialists in particular have thought and written about how we should think and live in a godless world where the only certainty is death, sooner or later. Like many other depressed and anxious people I am obsessed with death. If you have no hope of an afterlife then what we experience now and in our remaining days is all we can hope for. The philosopher Kierkegaard said that anxiety, angst, comes from within us, and our dread at the existential choices we have to make in the face of our fear of death. He said that confronting this fear expands the soul and fulfils the self – assuming we can resolve the fear and accept the ultimate meaninglessness of life.
“Learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it.” – Kierkegaard.
We have to accept that we will die, and that will be it. I find that idea very hard to accept. It’s unfair, but it seems that there’s nothing I can do about it. And although the idea of not existing is so incredibly painful, perhaps it’s only when I feel that pain that I feel truly alive.

 

Giving up

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Surely everyone who has ever been seriously depressed has felt at some time like just giving up. I don’t just mean committing suicide, although that is often not far from the backs of our minds; I merely mean throwing our hands up in despair and sitting on the ground, like rebellious toddlers, and refusing to take part in life anymore. Sometimes this feeling comes from some silly event. The other day I knocked over a glass of white wine. It wasn’t simply that I couldn’t face clearing it up, but the event was imbued with some great significance. I am reminded of the scene at the end of the movie 2001, when the ageing Bowman eats his solitary dinner and then knocks over the glass on his table with his cuff; that clearly means something (although I have never been quite sure what). My broken glass signified for me that everything is pointless; all things come to an end, usually rather quickly. I just wanted to sit down and cry. I had had enough.
Sometimes I do some mundane repetitive task and think there must be more to life than this. I know I’m thinking a cliché, and that in fact my life is relatively comfortable, interesting, and good, but that knowledge doesn’t help. Doing the rubbish, collecting the trash, can often bring me to total despair. Looking at the toilet thinking I should clean it again. It’s the again bit that gets me most. Emptying the dishwasher. Washing the bedding. I feel despair wash over myself as I think, not again. This daily routine is killing me. On a good day I will wonder how many more times I will have to empty the dishwasher or clean the toilet before I die; on a bad day I think I can’t face doing it one more time. It is all ultimately so pointless.
The final words in the great Kenneth Williams’ diaries were “Oh, what is the bloody point?”. It is still debated whether his death was suicide or an accidental overdose, but for me that last entry can have only one meaning.
When the world ends I will have a cold, so I won’t be able to treat even Armageddon with the concentration and focus it deserves. Big Things always happen when I feel unwell. The rest of the time it’s the accumulation of little things, the endless repetition of life, that gets me down. Doesn’t everyone worry that at the very best, when they brush their teeth they’re just going to have to do it again a few hours later, and at worst, this time might be the last that we ever do it? Or does everyday life just pass most people by?
When you’re depressed, every day seems the same. There’s no colour. There’s nothing to look forward to. What is the bloody point?

The war against sleep

phesanat phriend

 

I worry I sleep too much, particularly being depressed and having been so ill. I would like to get up cheerful and alert at 7.15 every day, but rarely manage to do so. If at all possible, I nap in the afternoon. I need at least eight and a half hours a day, and preferably nine, or even more. That’s a lot of my life asleep. And as I struggle out of bed, my first thoughts are wondering when I can next get back to it again.

When I was much younger, with two scientifically minded friends I tried a sleep deprivation experiment. We went for 40 hours without sleep – missing one night. The going is hardest in the few hours before the time you would naturally wake up. So come 5 am we felt pretty rotten. The worst symptom I remember was nausea, which fortunately seemed to be cured by a good old-fashioned fry-up at the normal time for breakfast. I don’t think I could get past 1 am now, I need my sleep so much.

A few years ago I came across the obituary of the British writer Colin Wilson in the Daily Telegraph. I was both slightly surprised, as though I had expected a greater fuss to be made of his death than a short obituary a few days after the event, and sad, because in spite of some of his strange musings on Atlantis and the paranormal, I thought he was an inspirational thinker and writer. He called himself a “new existentialist”, and wrote about how humans routinely underachieved in failing to fulfil their potential.

Wilson introduced me to the ideas of the Russian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff (d. 1949, birth date uncertain). Gurdjieff sported a Dali-esque moustache and had apparently perfected the useful technique of being able to give a woman an orgasm just by looking at her in the right way. He also argued that we spent much of our time “asleep” . By this he meant not just that we were in bed dozing away much of our lives, like me, but that we we living automatically, reacting to life without being fully aware (also like me). Colin Wilson talks of “the robot taking over” our lives.

These words strike a chord, and I know exactly what they mean by living automatically and the robot taking over. I am in this automatic, non-reflective state much of the time. I wake up, have breakfast, start work, have lunch, a rest, do yet more work, have a bath, have a glass of champagne, watch a movie, listen to music, read, go to bed, and then invariably have vivid violent dreams. And I repeat the next day. The robot lives my day; I am in a sense asleep even when I am awake. I am less clear what the alternative to being asleep is though. Of course it’s being awake, but what does being awake feel like? I do have moments of what are called in the literature “epiphany”, when I feel a surge of happiness and almost mystical oneness with the world. Being awake is I think being aware, and being aware of being aware. You’re aware of being alive and aware of being awake. You can place yourself in a context. Living properly is a war against sleep.

I remember a story told by Gurdjieff’s follower John G. Bennett. I have tried to find the exact quote, but have failed, so if you know where it came from (and perhaps can tell it more accurately), please let me know. Bennett describes how he had spoken to Gurdjieff, and then carried on with his life. The robot took over. Then a few weeks later something prompts him, and he comes to his senses again. He says something like “I realised that I had been asleep for two weeks, and then I woke up”. I know exactly what he means.

Input-output

Would a life spent just reading be one worth living? What about a life spent just listening to music? Or even one reading while listening to music? I find there’s a limit to the amount of time I can read. Being depressed, my concentration is poor, and I often find myself distracted while reading. I talked about the importance of focus on meaningful work such as reading as deep work last week. Reading properly takes time and effort, and there’s a limit to how much anyone can do in a day. I’d be interested to hear how long people typically spend reading each day, but I seem unable to manage more than a few hours in total. Even a “light novel” where the reviews say “I finished this in a morning” will take me a week.

I’ve always found reading to be very enjoyable. I remember when I was about ten my mother would tell me to go out and play, but really I wanted to stay in and read. I consumed a great deal of children’s fiction, and reading was what I most wanted to do. Some people my age might remembet the Puffin Club – in retrospect a clever marketing device to get us to consume more books, but I found it a revelation when I was young. Here was something that revered reading.
I learn a lot from reading. I am always entranced by the prospect of the hundreds of unread books on my shelves, and am continually discovering new authors and new books. I can tell I’m seriously depressed when even reading loses its enjoyment and allure. I can imagine a life with every spare moment spent reading – maybe doubling up, and reading while cooking, eating, and even exercising – would be enjoyable and satisfying. And yet … something would be missing.
Yin and yang, good and evil, black and white, Cheech and Chong – we like dualities. What’s the opposite of reading? Writing. What’s the opposite of listening to music? Making music. While reading is largely a passive activity where you consume someone else’s creation, when writing you create words that someone else will read (hopefully). But then a life spent writing would be impossible, for me at least, because I need to read to have something to write about – or at least to know what I am writing about. Sadly you can’t write academic books while just speculating on your inner turmoil. So there is a balance to be found with some writing and some reading. A morning spent writing from the early hours, then exercise, a walk, an appreciation of nature, a little nap, and then the rest of the day reading while listening to music – that would be a pretty satisfying day. A meaningful day. To consume isn’t enough – for me at least. I need to create as well. But people differ and perhaps you disagree; if so let me know below.

Deep time

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I have just finished reading Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, by the writer and study guru Cal Newport. The idea is a very interesting one, and although after you’ve read it you think “that’s obvious, I was trying to do that anyway”, the book is very clearly written and the case well argued. I recommend it.

Deep work is work that advances our meaningful goals. One could quibble in saying it’s not always obvious what’s meaningful, but I know deep down which goals are worth while pursuing and which are superficial. As far as work is concerned it’s writing, and that’s probably true of most academics (and most writers). Not all writing is deep: books, papers, and lectures (to some extent) are, but a report on what I’ve been doing recently isn’t – it’s just something I have to do. Deep goals need deep work, which is demanding and involves concentration, effort, and time. It involves, using the psychologist Csikszentmihályi’s term, getting into a state of flow. You don’t make much progress on writing a book unless you put aside some quality time, which means time free from distraction, and get on with getting those words out.

The problem is that distraction is all around us, even when we try to do deep work. The other day I noticed that my Kindle said “15 minutes left in book” (the book was Deep work in fact). So I sat down and tried to finish reading it, measuring how long it actually took. It took over 45 minutes! I kept on getting distracted, looking around me, my mind wandering, checking a few facts, standing up to stretch and wander around.

And writing is so much more difficult than reading. At our desk or laptop we are usually always connected to the internet, and what a distraction that can be. Checking email, looking at Twitter maybe, checking our messages, looking at Facebook, checking the news to see if anything interesting has happened in the last five minutes, checking a fact on what we’re writing and then getting distracted by another link – none of these distractions were around when Proust was writing. It is easy to start writing with the best intentions and then discover an hour later we’ve only managed a sentence. We do know that Arsenal haven’t bought a new striker and that Emily’s cat slept on the duvet last night looking cute.

So clearly some discipline is necessary when we’re trying to do deep work. Newport argues that we can learn to work deeply, just as we can acquire any other skill. We might be able to work deeply simply by resolution and determination. Some of us might need to log out of Twitter and Facebook to make it that much more difficult to check them. Some of us might need more drastic medicine and to switch off our internet connection or router. Some might even need to burn the router. Newport is against even checking facts as we write, putting them aside to dedicated time later.

Even when we can do it, deep work is tiring. When I was writing my book Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science, I think I was pretty disciplined. I would sit at my desk in the morning,, starting at 8, and from the hour not stop until I had written 500 words. On average these 500 words would take me 35-40 minutes. Then I would stretch, stand up, go to the loo, make coffee perhaps – and very quickly the top of the hour and come round and off I’d go on the next 500. I found this regime absolutely exhausting.

Newport argues that it’s not easy to do much more than four hours real deep work a day, and that’s my experience when writing Talking the talk. I doubt if I could do four contiguous hours; I would need a coffee break at least – time to catch up with the news and checking those facts. And often our jobs involve work that is necessary but not necessarily deep, so we need to reserve some time for shallow work.

It all sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s fiendishly difficult to do, for me at least. Now it’s time to check my email again.

A brush with death

Just before Christmas I nearly died.
One Saturday I was feeling fine – rather stressed, but physically fine. Sunday morning I couldn’t urinate. Sunday evening I was in hospital. Monday evening my temperature was soaring, my pulse racing, my blood pressure falling through the floor, and I wasn’t breathing well. I was in a stae of severe sepsis – what my mother calls “blood poisoning”. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the stage I reached has a mortality rate of 50%. Fortunately I recovered; my infection responded to the antibiotics, and I had wonderful care at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Recovery was slow, and I still don’t feel completely well.
It turns out that there is nothing like nearly dying to focus the mind on what you should do while you’re living. We’re all going to die sometime; if I’m lucky I might have another 40 years or so, although how many of those will be quality years is unclear. What should I do in the next 20 – 30 years? What do I need to do now so that when in the future I am on my death bed I will be able to lie back satisfied and think “yes, that was a worthwhile life”?
It wasn’t just this near death experience that made me think about the meaning of life, although it has focussed my mind on it. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with how I should live my life, and how I should spend my time.
Someone once said something like “No one ever said on their death bed ’I wish I had spent more time at the office’.” (I think it was the American rabbi Harold Kushner.) I suppose though it depends what sort of office you’re talking about. Hillary Clinton might well end up saying “I wish I’d spent more time in the Oval Office”. It depends on your job in having an extremely good job: I am an academic, a Professor of Psychology.
For many years I even said “I don’t make any distinction between my work and my life”. My reasoning was that (most) academics are pretty much working all the time. You go on vacation (or “take annual leave” as it has now become) and you read a psychology book – are you now working on holiday? You think about a problem in the bath, answer a student email while sipping a glass of wine at midnight, you read a short article Christmas Day while waiting for the turkey to cook – you see the problem about defining work, holiday, and non-work.
Unfortunately some of fun, for me at least, has gone out of the job, caused by increasing bureaucracy and attempts to quantify academics’ time with the noble aim of ensuring that the public aren’t being ripped off. Of course the public should be able to sleep safe in the knowledge that university dons are earning their pay, but you, the public, can rest asure that there isn’t a widespread problem: we aren’t on holiday for half the year, because there’s always research to do, new teaching to prepare, PhD students to supervise, and administration to catch up on. A recent article suggests that many academics work considerably more than 50 hours a week. And now we have to account for our time, by filling in forms and keeping track of what we do. Mechanisms with names like TRAC determine how government money is allocated on the basis of these timesheets. Workload models proliferate, mostly giving us 1768 hours a year to account for – even though we might work more than 2500 hours! And they all suffer from the problems above: what exactly is an academic’s work?
For these sorts of reasons I no longer think that my work is my life. And certainly my job isn’t. The life of an academic has changed over the last 30 years, largely for the worse I think, and it is now full of countless meetings, evaluation, meetings, and forms to fill out. I don’t find that part of the job much fun (and I doubt if I am alone).
So now I do distinguish between my job and my life. It’s still a great job and better than most others. And there are still many parts of the job I love (writing and teaching enthusiastic students, for example). But after a brush with death I cannot find meaning in my job alone.
The mortgage has to be paid, but is it possible to do so while living a meaningful life? And where is this meaning to be found?