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.

Destiny in a Meaningless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“All philosophies, while disagreeing about all else, agree on one thing—they all recognize the reality of death, its inevitability, even when recognizing, as some do, nothing real in the world. The most skeptical systems, doubting even doubt itself, bow down before the fact of the reality of death.”

—Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov

“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

“There is no place history is heading, except toward the maximum-entropy heat death of the universe.”

—Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Last month, there was a death in my extended family. The deceased was one of my cousins, who was an attorney and apparently very much looked up to by our nephews. I didn’t know him very well at all, but when I heard the eulogies, which described how he would always be there for the people in his life, I felt I understood why he was so beloved.

As far as I can remember, it was actually the first wake I’d ever attended. It was also the first time I’d seen a corpse in real life. Carefully prepared though he was, how cold and lifeless he still looked! My relatives and my mother were weeping uncontrollably and inconsolably, as if the world had come to an end. It all felt quite surreal, as if I were in a movie.

Afterwards, my family gathered at a large buffet where we had dinner in honor of the departed. I got a rare opportunity to chat with kin that I only saw about once a year, if not less.

When I left, I gave one of my late cousin’s brothers a small hug before heading to the parking lot. He was shattered; he looked like an abandoned child, homeless and lost in the cold of winter. Now that the celebration had ended and everyone was going their separate ways, there was going to be nothing left to distract them from their grief.

While I was in college I realized that living in this world was as futile as building sandcastles on the seashore. Now I see just how thoroughly succinct the metaphor is. We are living on borrowed time. Unless humankind finds a way to reverse the laws of thermodynamics, as Nikolai Fyodorov hoped, the day will eventually come when the race will go the way of the dinosaurs. Everything that this ambitious species will have built will eventually crumble to dust. Civilization, culture, art, learning, everything. Even the gold-gilded pages of history, which have given a number of people a sort of life beyond death, will disappear, and there will be no one to read them anyway. Every drop of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the name of the things that humans have found worth striving for and living for will fade away into nothingness along with the fruits of their efforts. The abyss will spare nothing and no one.

“Why, then,” one might ask, “should I care about any of this?”  As an atheist and a nihilist, I can offer very little in the way of comfort, unlike the preacher who confidently promises that every tear will eventually be wiped away by the hand of God. I certainly can’t offer “objective” reasons for caring about the future. Indeed, indifference is not invalid. It’s not wrong; it’s not even unreasonable. We don’t have to care. But by the same token, neither do we have to be apathetic. The choice is ours. And I choose to care.

Even if we don’t have all eternity, we do have the moment, the here and now. And we can choose to throw it away or make the most of it.

The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes advises:

“Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou taketh under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave wither thou goest.”[1]

Life is a lost battle from the very beginning, but for my part, I reject a hedonistic lifestyle simply because I find that excess leaves me feeling hollow and dissatisfied. What appeals to me personally is the idea of having goals, of having ends to work toward. With the right goals, not only the accomplishment of goals but also the process leading to accomplishment can make life feel worth living, with the hope of achievement giving meaning to the future, and the efforts toward achievement giving meaning to the present.

As easy as it is for me to take my time for granted and go by a vague assumption that tomorrow will always be there for me, I see wisdom in living each day as if it were my last, because for all I know, each day could be my last. As Corliss Lamont observed, “Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”[2]

I believe in actively pursuing knowledge and acquiring new skills, in bettering myself, even if I won’t last forever. I believe in helping others, even if they won’t last forever. I believe in having dreams and never giving them up, even with the yawning abyss of nothingness before me. I see wisdom in living prayerfully, reverently, setting my goals for the day and striving to accomplish them. To work hard so that, when it is time to sleep, I will be able to tell myself that I’ve spent the day well enough to deserve another–even if it’s not in the stars for me.

If there is one thing that can tip the scale between apathy and interest, it is love. Love for others, love for learning, love for everything one regards as noble and beautiful, even love for oneself. In other words, love for life.

I will let Shelly Kagan have the last word:

“The fact that billions and billions of years from now it’s all going to be the same doesn’t mean it’s all the same now.”

Notes

[1] The Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 (King James Version)

[2] Freedom of Choice Affirmed by Corliss Lamont

What is Freedom?

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Liberty? Why it doesn’t exist. There is no liberty in this world, just gilded cages.”

—Aldous Huxley

For me, the fundamental problem of life is not suffering or “sin.” The problem is unfreedom. From my perspective, this world is fundamentally a prison. Prison is not so much a place as a state, a state in which freedom is restricted in any way. In this sense, prison extends far beyond the gray walls of the buildings in which offenders of the law are confined. Schools are part of this prison. So are places of worship. So are offices. Supermarkets. Restaurants. Libraries. Movie theaters. Hospitals. Malls. Bars. Casinos. Airports. Roads. Beaches. Forests. Mountains. Tropical islands. Even home sweet home is, at the end of the day, a glorified jail cell. A free-range prison is still prison. No matter where we are or what we are doing in our waking lives, we are slaves to time and space, our imaginations shackled by the immutable decrees of nature.

This state of unfreedom is not limited to a particular geopolitical region or era. If the historical record speaks the truth, there was never any “Golden Age” in the past, and it seems most unlikely that there will ever be one in the future. While I am not indifferent to the earnest and unceasing efforts to improve the human condition, I recognize that the best I could hope for from the sum of all ideological, military, and scientific victories is a more comfortable incarceration. You can’t redeem a prison, even supposing that you manage to eradicate war, poverty, ignorance, and corruption and develop technology that is indistinguishable from magic. The invisible yet palpable metaphysical walls and shackles that deny us true freedom would still remain. The only real redemption is escape.

Along with everyone else, I am serving a prison sentence that will come to an end only when I die. Any sentence here is a life sentence. I recognize that in all likelihood nothing I do will ever change this. No matter how my fortunes change, those vicissitudes will always occur within the context of a metaphysical Shawshank. Even if all the world’s wealth were to fall into my lap tomorrow, the most I would be able to do is purchase a more luxurious corner of this prison in which I exist. I would be comfortable, but not free.

What is freedom? When we think of freedom, we often think of political rights or something along those lines, when real freedom would be existing in a state where there is no need to bother with politics in the first place. Indeed, per my definition, real freedom would mean existing in a state where there is no need to bother with anything at all, even the laws of nature. In other words, true freedom is being able to do anything you can imagine yourself doing–to be a God.

I don’t believe that we will ever know an existence outside of prison. But since hope, unlike belief, does not require justification, I continue to hope that liberation does not mean extinction, and that I and everyone else will one day live life as free men and women. I may be wishing for the impossible, but I don’t think I would be able to settle for anything less.

The Most Precious Pearl of Them All

By Jin-yeong Yi

“‘The person has two states: this one and the state of the other world. The third, intermediate, state is that of dreaming sleep. When he rests in the intermediate state, he sees both states: this one and the state of the other world. When he has gone by whatever way it is that one gains the state of the other world, he sees both evils and joys. When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
‘There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, nor enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.’”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

—The Bible, Matthew 6:19-21 (King James Version)

“The self is dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than any other thing, and deeper within. If someone were speaking of something other than the self as dear, and one were to say of him, ‘He will weep for what is dear to him’, one would very likely be right. One should worship only the self as dear: then what is dear to one is not perishable.”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“You are walking on the earth as in a dream. Our world is a dream within a dream; you must realize that to find God is the only goal, the only purpose, for which you are here. For Him alone you exist. Him you must find.”

—Paramahansa Yogananda

Here is a riddle for you: What is infinite in size, yet lighter than a feather; greater than all of the wealth in the world, but does not require a safe or a vault for safekeeping?

Do you want to know what it is? More importantly, do you want it for yourself? I will tell you where you can find it.

You do not need to gather any money for it, because it’s not for sale. If it were, not all the gold in the world would be able to buy it, because it is infinite in value. You do not need to risk your life on a long, arduous, and perilous quest for it. It is already within your possession. It is invisible to the naked eye, but it can be easily located. You’re sitting on it. Or, rather, it’s sitting on you. Or, rather, it’s sitting within you. Or better still, it’s a part of you. It has always been a part of you, because you were born with it, by virtue of being human.

It’s your mind.

Am I merely engaging in cheap rhetoric, playing with words, performing verbal card tricks? Let us take some time to examine it, and then you can decide for yourself.

Your knowledge, your thoughts, your memories, your emotions, your desires, your hopes, your dreams–all of these treasures are stored inside of the vault of your mind. Are there many things in this world that you would trade these away for?

Your mind is also a sanctuary. It is your only real refuge from the incessant noise of the so-called “real world.” You can’t find absolute stillness in even the most luxurious vacation resorts, but you can find it in the penetralia of your mind when you go to bed each night. It is the only place in the world that you truly have to yourself.

Your mind is a palace, a palace of the most majestic kind. All the royal edifices that have been created by human hands, as beautiful as they are, look like tawdry playhouses by comparison. The palace that is your mind is not merely vast–it is boundless, fathomless. If you have the necessary knowledge, your palace can be whatever you wish it to be, for you have the power to mold it according to your will. If you do not know how to use your power, you can learn. When you are within your palace, seated upon your throne, fully in control of your native powers, the greatest kings and emperors look like pitiful paupers by comparison. For you are nothing less than a God.

More than anything else, your mind is a universe. It’s your universe, and it is for you to rule, and yet how much larger it is than you! How mysterious it is, how much there is to discover! You will never finish exploring it, not even after billions of years. Its riches and marvels will never be exhausted. It is the only place where all of your wishes are granted, the only place where all of your dreams come true, the only place where your life is a fairy tale.

Perhaps best of all, this treasure of treasures is always with you, no matter where you happen to be on the three-dimensional plane of reality. “Home is where the heart is,” because your mind is your home. You will never need to fret about losing it, because it will exist and be yours for as long as you live.

So why obsess about attaining wealth? You already have the greatest wealth.

Why obsess about attaining power? You already have the greatest power.

Why obsess about attaining a home? You already have the greatest home.

All you need to do is unlock them from the treasure-house that is your mind.

The Transcendental Longing

By Jin-yeong Yi

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

—Morpheus, The Matrix

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

—Henry David Thoreau

“Calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

“‘The person has two states: this one and the state of the other world. The third, intermediate, state is that of dreaming sleep. When he rests in the intermediate state, he sees both states: this one and the state of the other world. When he has gone by whatever way it is that one gains the state of the other world, he sees both evils and joys. When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
‘There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, nor enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.’”

The Upanishads

As I mentioned in a previous entry, one of the biggest discoveries of my life was that freedom doesn’t exist in this world. And never have I felt so strongly about this as I have this December, the month that is supposed to be my favorite time of the year. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never felt so aware of how much of a slave I am to reality.

I am a superlatively greedy person. Believe it. No amount of material possessions or even positive experiences could ever satiate me, because my desires are infinite. I am so greedy, in fact, that not even the entire universe, to say nothing of the entire world, would be able to satisfy me. If there is something that would be able to satisfy me, it would be something that perhaps will forever be beyond my reach: unlimited freedom, the state of being bound by nothing except the limits of my imagination.

The situation of my niece, who is in her final year as a toddler, illustrates the point for me. On Christmas Eve, while I was sitting in the kitchen having dinner, I heard her and her father (my brother-in-law) in the other room arguing for the hundredth time. She was throwing a tantrum because she didn’t want to dress for Christmas dinner. As her father was an attorney and a lover of literature equipped a strong command of the English language, she was naturally losing the contest of wills. As I listened to her miserable, defeated wails, I thought about how the world made so much more sense if I looked at the whole of it as a prison. My adventurous niece, so full of vitality and curiosity, was only beginning to discover just how limited her freedom really was.

In my view, the real trouble with the human condition actually has nothing to do with economics, politics, law, race, religion, science, art, culture, or the 1,001 other issues that we discuss and debate ad infinitum. The trouble is a vast conspiracy. Not a conspiracy of man, but a conspiracy of nature. It is what placed each and every one of us in a prison that we cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. This prison is not a particular society, or a country, or even a planet. It’s not the “Matrix.” It’s the real world itself. It’s a place where we’re trapped in vessels of crude matter that are always at the mercy of forces that are pitiless, capricious, and indifferent. It’s a place where we are forced to waste decades of our lives struggling to collect pieces of fancy paper and metal tokens; where we are forced to push and shove each other out of the way for that job, that house, that girl/guy, or that parking spot. It’s a place where we are forced to wait in long lines. It’s a place where we’re always being dragged down by the needs and expectations of others. It’s a place where we are forever slaves to time, always having to be at a certain place at a certain point on a sequence-cycle of numbers. It’s a place where we are forced to live in constant anxiety and fear. It’s a place that refuses to bend to our wills, to be moved by our desires. It’s a place where we know how to fly, but were never given wings. It’s a place that promises so much and makes good on so little of it, perpetually setting us up for frustration, failure, disappointment, and regret.

This is why I think that it is meaningless to complain or be bitter that my life in the real world is not what I’d hoped it would be, because it would be like an inmate complaining or being bitter that his life in prison is not what he’d hoped it would be. In both cases, it is silly to have had expectations. There are redeeming things about the real world, of course, in the same way there are redeeming things about prison, but that doesn’t change the nature of the place. The real world is a prison. Not just this society or even this planet as a whole—this entire universe is a prison. And all of us are inmates.

The real world is beyond help. It has always been, and always shall be. No ideology, no religion, no politics, no science, no art, no music, or any other form of human ingenuity can ever save this place, because to save it would mean to change the fundamental nature of it. The only option, if one exists, is to escape.

Personally, the knowledge of my situation gives me hope. If I didn’t know that I was in prison, I would never have thought to look for a way out. I look at the lifeless stone walls around me, and my mind whispers that I just might be able to escape. I look up at the starry heavens through barred windows, and my spirit shouts out that one day, I will.