The Value of Life – What I’ve Been Doing
On my “About Page” I assert that life has meaning and purpose for me at least. I also assert that if you don’t think that it does have value, purpose, and meaning then you should either take your exit or at least take pains to stay out of the way for those who do find virtue in living.
To gain inspiration and to challenge my assumptions I’m virtually auditing a Yale course in philosophy from Shelly Kagan on death with the thought in mind that the unexamined life isn’t worth living as Socrates puts it. So, the posting is light while I virtually attend the lecture series and read the material in the syllabus. (Hopefully I’ll be able to locate much of it online.)
So mom if you are reading, do not worry even though this isn’t like the book on life and death that you once found in my room and worried about… that book was about life and death in the oriental game of Wei chi, this series really is about life and death. Do not worry, the subtle blend of philosophies that drive me are strong, and it would be remiss not to revisit why I hate Plato or re-challenge some of my notions, I will come out the other side stronger.
In my youth I had several near brushes with death, most of them foolishly created by me. Some of them involved daredevil stunts such as climbing the radio tower during a thunderstorm or sliding down a dam on a piece of cardboard.
Those are things I would never do today, because with each passing day the true value of life does become more apparent and that value has led me to caution as I’ve aged; I don’t think I have a hundred years to live but I want a hundred thousand years to live.
I don’t see an after life or God as having a high enough probability of existence to contemplate those as hopes, so I expect life ends when it ends and that what “I” am ceases to exist. No spirit, no soul lives on past the death of my corporeal form, and I’ve never seen convincing empirical proof that anyone Else’s does either.
How did I come to the conclusion that life has value? It was in one of my near brushes with death. It was New Year’s eve, and cold. Not cold like they think of cold in Buffalo or Chicago, but real cold, death creating cold, such as you find among the gravel moraines where plants and animals struggle to survive for another year of twisted painful existence during the depths of Winter in Alaska.
My friend and I were getting out of Winter, set on a mission to escape the island of Fairbanks gripped in it’s vast ocean of arctic snow with immense depths of cold in the clear dark skies above it. So New Year’s we got a wild hair, packed a few things, and started driving South down the Alcan highway in a beater Vega station wagon with a couple of jerry cans of Gas in the back.
About 250 miles down the road we noted that we wouldn’t be able to reach Tok with the gas we had filled up with so we stopped and poured one of the five gallon cans in, plenty to be sure in the efficient Vega to make Tok near the border of Canada and Alaska. While pouring the gas in I noticed the temperature had sunk even lower than the minus forty degrees it was hovering at in Fairbanks, and that the wind had really picked up. The heater in the car wasn’t keeping things very warm, and even on full blast there were rimes of frost circling every window.
We passed a stalled Semi a bit later, and pulled over to see if they needed an assist. They had reached help on their radio, and waved us off so we continued to Tok. About thirty miles outside the car stalled and would not restart. At first it was a drill for me, checking the cables, the plugs, the ignition coil… after several grindings of the starter and quite few attempts to get it started using a spray can of ether it became apparent that no gas was getting to the engine. The old jerry can of gas we poured in had sat too long, and water had formed in it.
That water was now ice plugging the gas line, and there wasn’t any way short of warming to a much greater temperature than -60 that the car would start again. We were on a frozen arctic plain with the wind howling, thirty miles from civilization in Tok with an effective wind chill of -90 or so.
My friend got a bit hysterical, talking about how we had to start a fire, how we had to build a shelter… he ran to the stunted growth of twisted bushes and scraggly twisted trees lining the tundra sagged road and started gathering wood in the howling wind.
Inside, I knew that would never work … the wind was too strong, no jury-rigged shelter would keep it out, and a fire would not keep us warm with the wind rushing by hard enough to lean into.
It was tearing, clawing, biting, pulling, — sucking warmth and life from us every second we stood in it. My friend had read “To Start a Fire” by Jack London as all children in Fairbanks do, and seemed bent on re-enacting it even so. No fire would serve to save our lives in that bitter clawing cold, at best we would alternately burn one side while frostbiting the other.
I gazed up at the stars to think what we should do, and I realized at that very moment that there were even greater depths of cold in those interstellar voids, that all heat and life and warmth, the very twinkles of stars that I was seeing, and the organization of the the iced and dirty pavement beneath my feet were all exceptions in the universe. They were natural, self ordered from the empty of chaos, but in the intergalactic void they were the un-natural and abnormal in the vast cosmos.
With order, heat, life, and warmth at such paucity and rarity in the universe it immediately became intensely valuable to me. At that moment, “I” as an individual was remade by that realization.
We survived only through reason and understanding of human physiology and thermodynamic physics. I grabbed my friend and shook him, marshaling my most convincing, calm, and confident voice I explained to him how we were going to live.
We opened the back of the car then, took off our winter parkas and snow pants, and opened our suitcases. We put on two extra pairs of socks, and our sweaters. We put on an extra pair of pants each. We then put our arctic gear back on, and climbed back into the car for shelter from the vicious razored wind. We ate cashews periodically and watched the frost thicken on the inside of the windows as the wind howled with great fury outside.
The arctic seems demonically inimical to life at times, but it’s not really, the arctic just is what it is and somehow that makes it even colder when you think on it.
Three hours later I saw the gleam of approaching light in the small hole I scraped in the frost on the windshield with my keys. So we survived, and I found that life has immense value.