“Imagine” is a catchy tune about the pitfalls of religion and materialism, written by a guy who got filthy rich selling jangly three-minute pop songs about love and walruses and shit.
That sentence is a good summation of my bitterness as of late. I’m having a hard time enjoying much of anything, even ubiquitous peace anthems by former Beatles.
I turn on the TV. How’d some lousy sitcom actor get to be famous while I am sitting here in obscurity? I drive to the store. Why does this asshole driving next to me get to roll a Jag instead of this banged-up Prius?
This whole setup is horseshit. I’d like to speak to the manager of…the world? Sure. The whole damned WORLD.
Every so often, I snap out of it. I stop examining the world so closely. I just drive and bob my head along with the tune on the radio—assuming it’s not “Imagine.” But without fail, the skewed realization that I suck and others are beating me creeps into my line of sight.
Beating me at what? At life? Success? Being productive, happy members of society?
Yeah, something like that. Bunch of well-adjusted pricks.
I know, I know. Life isn’t a competition. Comparison is the thief of joy. Blah blah blah.
I mean, I get it. Intellectually, I understand there is no contest, and in the end, we all end up as worm food.
Chester A. Arthur was once the president of the United States—a singular achievement that only forty-five men and one quasi-sentient bag of manure have ever attained. But can you tell me much about Chester? I can, but you’ll have to give me a few minutes to read his Wikipedia entry.
But without even “researching,” I can tell you President Arthur decomposed in the ground just like his contemporary, Mr. Jethro A. Nonymous, who was not the president, and may not have even existed. Pretty sad, considering Mr. Nonymous’s last words were, “Please remember me, and don’t let my name become a dumb joke in some dickhead’s blog.”
Other than close family and friends, few will remember the vast majority of us when we’re gone. Slide forward fifty years (or one hundred years if you’re slightly more relevant to the masses than average), and literally no one will remember any of us.
So, what would be gained if I wrote a hit song, won at sports, starred in movies, or got published and paid for all of (gestures widely) this nonsense? In the short run, I’d get the prized accoutrement of the win: material wealth, the respect of people I’ve never met, and TMZ following me around. I could do without that last one, but the first two sound pretty cool.
But in the truly grandest of schemes, the answer is the same: winning at life gets you the same exact reward as losing at life. And unfortunately, that reward is a hot, soothing cup of jack squat. We are all just compost in waiting, and no amount of money or fame can stop it.
Feel better now? I’m a light-hearted existentialist, what can I say?
Still, if I’m being completely honest, I want the spoils of success now, and I want to be remembered fondly when I’m gone. I understand the first part; being rich, admired, celebrated, loved, and respected all feel really good. Well, I assume they do. I’ve only dabbled in most of them, to be fair. I keep telling people I’m a national treasure, at which point they sometimes hand me some loose change outside of 7-Eleven. I almost have enough for a Big Gulp now. #goals
But what of the second part—the “remembered fondly” idea? Why do I care how I’ll be remembered after I’ve departed this earthly scene? By definition, one only permanently exits this planet in a coffin. Or a spaceship, which seems significantly less likely than the traditional pine box. Unless, of course, you’re an eccentric billionaire, which I (checks bank balance, winces in pain) am not.
Remember me fondly, with furious anger, or not at all, and I won’t know the difference. I won’t know anything at all, namely due to my forthcoming moderate-to-severe existence deficit.
I think the illogical-yet-understandable desire to be remembered comes from a screwy little idiosyncrasy of our brains.
We only experience our lives in first person, so we default to an assumption that post-death “existence” will be the same. It’s admittedly hard not to view it that way, as we only know reality through the lens of being a participant.
Unchecked, I daydream a future—hopefully distant—where I’m still the star of my show. I’m “looking down” from a cloud or Heaven or somewhere, watching my world carry on without me. Sometimes when I’m feeling especially petty (read: most of the time), I look forward to haunting people. Given the chance, I fully intend to make you remember me by spookily batting knick-knacks off your mantel. Choose your knick-knackery with care.
Either way, our instinctive assumption is that we’ll each be active observers of the next phase. And my strong suspicion is that our assumption is wrong.
Growing up in southeast Texas, a “clever” catchphrase was often shared via t-shirt, bumper sticker, or church sign. Those are the only sanctioned methods of sharing one’s core philosophies in the Lone Star State. It went something like this: if you’re living like there’s no Heaven or Hell, you had better hope you’re right. The person who thought that up bookended the sentence with two self-congratulatory chuckles and a “boy, I tell you what.”
Ignoring the ever-present, thinly-veiled Southern schadenfreude that says, “my unconditionally-loving God is thankfully going to eternally fry you sons of bitches who are different than me,” I’d like to suggest a more accurate, less fucked-up likelihood:
If you’re living like there’s no Heaven or Hell, good on you. All we have is the time we have here.
And that’s the real good news, brethren and sistren.
If there is no spiritual aftershow for us to cheekily discuss what we all just witnessed literally minutes before, I can at least narrow down my bitterness a bit. I don’t have to carry the burden of what humanity will think of me once I’m gone. Instead, I can focus on being bitter for the ways I’m being shafted in the here and now.
And while I can’t fully control the happenstance around me, I guess I could actively work toward achieving more and envying less. I can work to become rich, famous, loved, admired, revered, and honored. And I could learn to detach myself from want, such that my happiness isn’t dependent on winning an imaginary competition in which I’m the only active participant.
Even though it’s unlikely I’ll be remembered a hundred years in the future, I can also work to produce as much good work as possible. That way, when some graduate student stumbles across this stuff, they can abandon their studies and start a cult based on my teachings. Note to future grad student: this is the sign you’ve been looking for! You’ve done it, [insert your name here]!
I kind of like this idea I just came up with: imagining there’s no heaven, no hell. Now we have to get the world to join us. It’s kind of like I’m a dreamer, but I’m hopefully not the only one.
Someone should really write a song about this.
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Need some more Hitting The Trifecta right now? Try this one: There Ain’t No Doubt, I Love This Land. Or how about this one? Deliver Us From Upheaval. You’ll like this one, too: “A Humble Recommendation” by Guest Author Johnny Quick.