Life Lessons from They Live

By Jin-yeong Yi

“This is how you create meaning. Recognize that life itself and your life are both sacred, and that no instant is anything but pure joy. Even the horrible moments have a certain epic quality to them, like a necessary part of the story. You need the greatest darkness before dawn in order to have dawn be breathtaking and inspiring. This means that in order to have good you need bad, and vice-versa. Most people focus on the bad because they feel bad about themselves. The first step is seeing the whole thing as an adventure.”

—Brett Stevens, “Life”

“If we accept life as not absolute, we see that we ourselves are not absolute, and that we should find a goal for which to aim which makes our daily struggles and eventual deaths pale in comparison to the meaning we find in life.”

—Spinoza Ray Prozak, “Crux”

I watched John Carpenter’s They Live for the third time last weekend. If you’ve seen it before, then you know that it’s a conspiracy theorist’s fantasy come true. (There are people who swear that the film accurately depicts the dark powers allegedly controlling the world from the shadows.) It might also be seen as John Carpenter’s Guide to Life.

For me, one of the most noteworthy aspects about the movie is the admirable attitude of the protagonist. In the beginning of the story, he stays positive in spite of the grim economic conditions and the fact that he doesn’t have a stable job or a home. When he finds himself enveloped in a massive extraterrestrial conspiracy, faced with extremely powerful foes that he has little hope of conquering, he gets discouraged at times, but he never despairs. He’s never bitter; he never asks himself, “Why me?” He only asks himself, “What’s my next move?” He recognizes that the universe owes him nothing and promises him nothing, and that if he wants something, it is up to him to pursue it. And when he’s mortally wounded and about to die, he accepts his fate, flipping the bird at the alien oligarchs he has defeated, a satisfied smile on his face. He lives like a badass and dies like a badass. His is the sort of courageous, heroic, life-affirming attitude that gloomy pessimists like me can learn a thing or two from.

Advertisements

Just Another Day in Shawshank

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Liberty of the people is not my liberty!”

—Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own

“You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say ‘Holden Caulfield’ on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say ‘Fuck you.’ I’m positive, in fact.”

—Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a sense of confinement on some level. Throughout each major phase of my life, that I was tied to an invisible leash was obvious enough. Like most people, I was introduced at an early age to the concept of having to be at a certain place at a certain time. First it was preschool and kindergarten. Then it was elementary school. Then it was junior high school and senior high school. Then came college. Then came my first job. Eventually it began to dawn on me that there would be no end to these impositions. But I still assumed that there was such a thing as freedom somewhere in the world, and I continued to cling onto the hope that I would somehow be able to attain it someday.

Then I had a revelation: that prison wasn’t limited to a particular place, that it interpenetrated every inch of the world around me, and extended far beyond what the eye could see. And just as quickly, it occurred to me that all political, religious, scientific, and artistic efforts to redeem the world were doomed to fail, because you just can’t redeem a prison. The only real redemption is escape.

Ever since I began to see the real world in its entirety as a vast prison, I’ve found it to be a tad easier to live in, at least in some ways. Human misery becomes comprehensible in this context. I no longer think of misfortune as something that “ought” not to occur, but as something that is all too normal and expected. It’s easier to get over a bad day when I consider that it was just another day in a metaphysical Shawshank.

Of course, some areas of this prison are far freer than others. On one end of the scale, you have the concentration camp, and on the other end, you have the Scandinavian prison/rehabilitation center. I was lucky enough to be born into an area much closer to the latter. Indeed, the title of this blog entry is somewhat misleading because where I live is a whole lot nicer than Shawshank State Penitentiary. Comparatively speaking, just being able to access the Internet and blog is in itself something that can be seen as an enviable privilege. Nevertheless, the fact remains that prison is prison, even if it boasts trimmed lawns, wide roads, supermarkets, wilderness parks, and a considerable number of personal liberties.

The tragic thing is that any sentence in this prison is necessarily a life sentence. This place is my cradle and it will most likely be my grave. There is no true freedom here, only transient illusions of it in the form of small consolations, like having a bottle of cold beer during a break from laboring on the prison rooftops under a scorching sun, or hearing The Marriage of Figaro streaming through the public address system during what was supposed to be just another dreary day of soul-killing routine.

Despite the overwhelming odds, I still have hope that I will be able to escape this prison one day. I have no idea how, considering that the walls and shackles are not physical things but an intrinsic aspect of the very mode of existence, but hope is its own justification. I hope to prove Holden wrong. I think he’d like that.

An Answer to Camus

By Jin-yeong Yi

“If we turn from contemplating the world as a whole, and, in particular, the generations of men as they live their little hour of mock-existence and then are swept away in rapid succession; if we turn from this, and look at life in its small details, as presented, say, in a comedy, how ridiculous it all seems! It is like a drop of water seen through a microscope, a single drop teeming with infusoria; or a speck of cheese full of mites invisible to the naked eye. How we laugh as they bustle about so eagerly, and struggle with one another in so tiny a space! And whether here, or in the little span of human life, this terrible activity produces a comic effect.

It is only in the microscope that our life looks so big. It is an indivisible point, drawn out and magnified by the powerful lenses of Time and Space.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Vanity of Existence”

“LIFE: To be born in imbecility, in the midst of pain and crisis to be the plaything of ignorance, error, need, sickness, wickedness, and passions; to return step by step to imbecility, from the time of lisping to that of doting; to live among knaves and charlatans of all kinds; to die between one man who takes your pulse and another who troubles your head; never to know where you come from, why you come and where you are going! That is what is called the most important gift of our parents and nature. Life.”

—Denis Diderot, L’Encyclopédie

What’s the purpose of life? What’s the point of living? As a nihilist, I do not believe that life has any intrinsic meaning or purpose. There are people who believe that, without intrinsic purpose, life is not worth living. I’d say that whether your life is worth living or not is up to you. The way I see it, it’s a question of feeling, not fact, and that desire is purpose enough.

For me, Camus’s question, “Why not commit suicide?” isn’t terribly difficult to answer. First of all, it is all but certain that the Grim Reaper will come for me eventually whether I want him to or not, and there’s no need for me to summon him ahead of schedule, at least not right now. If I have even half a reason to keep living, why not continue with my journey and see where it leads? I, for one, am interested in seeing how my story ends.

Another reason why I’m not in too much of a hurry to kill myself is that the disappointments of life have their impact lessened by my belief that experience as a unified whole is more important than happiness. Happiness comes and goes, while experience is for keeps.

So why live? I think each person must find their own answer. Here’s mine:

I live to learn, to improve myself, to experiment, to explore trails on which few have trodden, to overcome challenges, to reflect, to grow, to wonder, to enjoy, to laugh, to love and be loved, to be inspired, to create, to experience Beauty in its myriad forms, to dream and to accomplish my dreams, and to see just how far the rabbit hole goes. In a word, I live to live.