I once made the mistake of being born, and for the next 50 years regretted it. Sure, I was unemployed, a university drop-out, a loner, troubled (a schizophrenic), but I wasn't stupid. I could see life for what it was. A trap, a trick, a hoax. An irrational thing demanding a rational response. A horror, as Kurtz said. Anyone could see it was meaningless. Nobody asks what the meaning of a rock is; a rock is just there. Why should you expect anything different for a person? Life is neither a good idea nor a bad idea. It just is, until it isn't anymore. And there is no real difference between the two, except for pain.
Fifty years. Fifty years of that. I figured the best I could hope for was to maintain my average rate of one girlfriend for three months every 25 years. And I did.
The thing is, at 53 I married my second girlfriend, stopped seeing my therapist, published a book, won an award, was short-listed for another, spent a month in a cabin in Tennessee, ended up with a dog, moved into an 18-foot-wide townhouse in a section of the city built on Prohibition rum-running, helped my mother-in-law move from hours away in another town to 10 minutes away in this one, gave up my disability insurance, acquired a used car (12 years) and an iPad 3 to write on, and made the grudging admission that all those people I had thought were idiots all along actually might have been right. Damned if I understand it, damned if I can explain it to you, and there is no way to make a sound philosophy out of it, but I can no longer deny the truth of experience: non-sequiturs work.
Non-sequitur means, literally, "does not follow," as in when a reporter asks a politician a question about the rising unemployment rate and he or she brags about how well the stock market is doing, or about how much they have cut taxes. The answer does not follow from the question.
Other examples: "what time is it?" you ask someone on the street, and they reply with by telling you that their feet hurt. "Do you think I'm pretty?" the girlfriend asks.
"That was a fine supper. You really outdid yourself," you reply.
Or I say, "Life is a meaningless empty hole of blackness, there is no God, and the human race is destined to go extinct. I should hang myself," and you say, "Come on, let's go to Timmy's and I'll buy you a coffee."
Did you not hear me? Life is suffering and there is no hope and the world would be better off if I was dead, if you were dead, if we all were dead -- if life had never got started -- I hate myself and wish I was never born. I am ugly and stupid and weak and scared and barely fit company for myself, let alone anyone else. In fact, if I wasn't physically attached to myself I'd want nothing to do with me. But everywhere I go, there I am. It's horrible. I cannot turn it off. I need death, I need to die. I need to kill myself. I will kill myself.
"Yes, fine. But I was telling you..."
Or I am fighting with myself as hard as I can, razor in hand, making little nicks in my arm, trying to control myself and not go further when suddenly I realize it is 8:30 and my favourite TV show is on. Ten minutes into watching it and the world is my friend again, life is fine, I think I'll make some tea. Why? How? What (probably horrible) truth does this imply about life? How can the answer to the problem of red be seven? How can the answer to the certainty of death, both individual and species- and planet-wide, be to check what your friends are doing on Facebook?
Here I am. Married, not suicidal. Calm, not terrified. Optimistic, not anxiety-ridden. Having sex, not cutting myself. Laughing so much more than being alive gives me any justification for laughing. Writing in print and not just in my head. Walking the damn dog. Me, feeding a dog at 5:30 in the morning. Me! WTF? I haven't wished for the annihilation of the world for two years now.
And what has brought about this change? Have I resolved the question of life after death? No. Is humanity suddenly going to escape extinction and still be here five billion years from now? 50 million? 500 years? 200? Not likely. The universe is 15 billion years old. It strains credulity to think we will be around even half that long. Has the problem of evil, man's inhumanity to man, women's inhumanity to men, men's inhumanity to women, has homelessness, the coldness of the universe, has the pointlessness of happiness or the ultimate and unanswerable failure of love in this life, always, even if only by old age and dementia, by death, has any of that changed, been resolved, eliminated, answered?
Yes, and the answer to all that inevitable, unanswerable, undeniable, inescapable, burdensome, soul destroying, hopeless emptiness and meaninglessness is... a non-sequitur. Go out to lunch. Pet the cat. Get a phone call. Walk the dog. Kiss someone. Lie in bed beside your partner and talk about what groceries to buy the next day. Open a window. Watch TV. Sing a song in your head. Sit beside your wife and drink coffee for an hour and a half each morning. Fall in love. Not even fall, just love. Not even love, just connect, only connect.
The annoying thing is that I never did figure it out. I tried, I lied on my couch and I argued with myself, I debated, struggled, turned the questions over and over in my mind, was obsessed in my mind, was desperate in my mind. And yet, as smart as I am, as sure as I was that I could do it, even where so many other people had failed throughout history, even I have to admit I never did get life to make any sense, to be reasonable, to find that key, that thought, idea, that makes all the questions and problems of being human fall click-click-click into place, like tumblers in a safe. I never found the meaning of life, or proof of God, or a reason to hope, or any way to make being alive not an irrational, unfortunate, tragic and unjust thing if looked at theoretically, the way I had looked at life my whole time: theoretically.
Turns out the problem of life is solved by living. Turns out the answer to the question is to do something. That now that I am, and yes, I'll say it, since I have no shame and no psychologist to say it for me, now that I am happy, I look back at 50 years and say for the amount of books I read, lectures attended, thinking done, unpublished words written, hours spent obsessing, for all of 50 years I can only look back at myself and say, "Tom, you sure are a slow learner."
But better late than never. Better something than nothing. The unlived life is not worth examining.
This is the third of five winning entries in the 2013 Winnipeg Free Press/ Writers' Collective Non-Fiction Contest. Earlier stories can be found at winnipegfreepress.com.