Tuesday, 14 March 2017
Life as a Dead Person
I remember watching an episode of Band of Brothers in which an officer, counselling a private afflicted with crippling fear, advises him to act as if he were already dead. He informs the frightened private that the disease afflicting him is not cowardice, but hope - that his lingering hope of survival is the real malignance paralysing his body. Because in many ways, hope is like oxygen. It's essential to life but, taken in excess, it becomes corrosive. Hope is the harbinger of fear, and the precursor to despair.
It's unsurprising, in a way - every culture that has a warrior and/or comitatus structure (and every major civilisation does), from the Vikings to the Saxons, the Samurai to the Wudang - has a version of this idea. On one level, it's a relatively crude way to manage fear - accepting death as not just inevitable, but as having already occurred somewhere in time, makes it impossible to conceive of actions (or inaction) to avoid it. On another level, though, it's a sophisticated tool for navigating life.
What a philosophy based on this idea removes is the anxiety and fear arising from hope. This is not to say that its adherents live lives of despair, or have an existence devoid of goals or aspirations - far from it. What is missing is that desperate emotional attachment to outcomes which is associated with a hopeful outlook. The excision of this element is, somewhat counter-intuitively, a highly effective catalyst of personal power. Put simply, it is much, much easier to strive, risk and labour, when the eventual outcome is seen as irrelevant. And the balance and calm with which these labours are conducted ironically makes it far more likely that they will be successful.
There are obvious downsides, of course. A mentality such as this takes a great deal of mental and physical discipline to maintain. There's also the fact that sound, practical goals like financial security, or personal or physical comfort, often dwindle drastically in importance. And there is the constant, if low-level irritation of being consistently misunderstood by people who believe that they are very much alive. It's an open question how important any of this is, as indeed it is questionable how important anything at all can possibly be. Nevertheless, I would argue that such a philosophy is worth considering. The freedom to act, the purity of action which can become possible, and absolute freedom from the pettier varieties of fear, all strike me as being ample recompense.