On Dying Alone

Deep in the most thickly populated part of a metropolitan suburb, the police break down the front door of an old single-bedroom apartment. The neighbors had reported an increasingly fetid odor coming from it – an odor that now hits the cops like an olfactory tsunami.

We’ve all smelled it to different degrees while driving down anonymous country roads and highways. It is the smell that announces that organic life of some kind or the other has recently reached the end of the cycle and is shaking hands with Mother Nature again. There is no antiseptically sanitized version of this process in nature – decomposition is decomposition, period. It stinks, it’s messy and it does NOT make for good dinner-table conversation.


They find the source of the stink lying on an old metal cot, dead as the dodo but alive with a rather energetic colony of maggots. We will not talk about maggots here right now – they have their place in the larger scheme of things, and there is a time and place to talk of maggots, but this isn’t it. I’m trying to make a point about the guy UNDER the maggots here – the guy who everyone in the apartment building knew as ‘that strange recluse in 3C’. He had lived in his seedy little flat for something like fifteen years, but may as well have not existed for all the impact he had on the neighborhood. Let’s call him Bill.

Bill was not an antisocial sort, but he mostly kept to himself. He would greet those who greeted him, help search for a lost dog when required, contribute to the small charity drives that the building’s unrealistic idealists undertook from time to time… but he kept to himself. Nobody knew where he came from, if he had ever been married, what his life was all about – nothing. He asked for no information and sure as hell never gave any.

Now he was dead, and they’d have to fumigate the entire second floor because he hadn’t been considerate enough to inform the building superintendent well in time of his intention to kick the bucket, and to make provisions for his removal.

Never mind how Bill died – suicide, stroke, what does it matter? He was dead, and there was no foul play involved. My point here is that he died alone, and it seems fairly certain that he knew that it would happen precisely in this way.

Sounds familiar? It should. You read about such stuff in the tabloids almost every day. Some poor old (and sometimes not-so-old) blighter or blightress is found moldering away in his or her home, and the neighbors have something juicy to talk about for a while (once the stink has been addressed, of course). I’ve only been around for a little over five decades, but I’m pretty sure that folks had been dying alone long before my dad first noticed that my mom had some pretty appealing curves to her and decided to do something about it.

So why does it happen? Why are some people alone enough to DIE alone? Don’t we have a population problem? Aren’t there more people around than there should ideally be? Is there any shortage of company if we really WANT it? No, there isn’t – and that may be the key reason why certain folks prefer their own company over that of others.

Many call me negative about people, but I’d like to state here that I’m not, really. I firmly believe that we were designed flawlessly in every respect. We all started out as perfect players in the drama called Human Life – it’s just that we hopelessly buggered up the game. We added stuff where nothing should ever have been added, subtracted where there was simply no scope for subtraction, fixed what wasn’t broken and wound up as fallen angels cooking in a Hell of our own making.

Yes, we were designed as social animals, but then we discovered ‘individualism’ – that celebrated concept which states that the best of the species do NOT conform. Right from the start, we toe the line only to the extent required to get all the goodies of social life – but then strive to ‘be different from the rest’.

Since it is not really feasible to be REALLY different in this massive cauldron of human life we’ve launched, we find the most puerile ways of differentiating ourselves. We become MCPs, feminists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and stuff like that and start barking at everyone else, or we simply draw a febrile line around ourselves and call it our ‘space’. We state our personal ‘rules of engagement’ and make as big a deal of them as possible. We require our friends, spouses and associates to change enough in our presence to conform to our personal image of ourselves as unique human beings – much as they would have to in the presence of a ‘child with special needs’.

That’s all very nice and charming – sort of like kids playing ‘House’, kidding themselves that they really do own a physical or metaphysical corner of this teeming planet. The fact, however, is that we’re ALL at odds with the planet to begin with, and we lost our ability to live on it with true dignity long ago. I genuinely feel that the last time anyone at all led a perfectly normal life – in the way it was meant to be – was around the time when we still lived in caves.

So here we are today, touting our ‘unique’ differentiators and – paradoxically – pitying the folks that die alone in their bachelor/spinster apartments. With the staggering loads of attitude, baggage, traumas and ambitions that we expect everyone else to dance attendance to, aren’t we ALL actually working real hard to be as alone as possible?

I try to see it from the urban hermit’s point of view, and must say I see rather clearly. Out there is nothing but a huge mess of humans waiting to tell you why what you’re thinking, doing and eating is wrong and why you should change your ways. They will not miss a chance to tell you why you must pay court to their individual peculiarities if you want to befriend, marry or employ them. They drag a formidable machine bristling with rules of engagement behind them, and the urban hermit has very likely tried to operate that machine many times in the past, getting mangled each time.

However, he has an alternative – unlock that single-bedroom apartment, walk in and close the door behind him. No people, so no rules of engagement. Behind that closed door, he feels the pressures of this artificially embellished world drop off his shoulders. He is free to be what he truly is – sloppy and ill-mannered, his face bereft of false smiles, his soul free from the bondage of pretended regret over some misdemeanor or the other. He is NOT relating to ANYONE, he is not engaging – and therefore he is free.

And if he dies that way, would it be more appropriate to pity him for his pathetic solitude, or to envy him for having the courage to face the final fact of 21st human life – that we have modified and individualized ourselves beyond all hope of relating to each other anyway? At least he was not pretending that there is any hope at all.


My valued friend, I am complete
Don’t add to me, or take away
You, who sit in judgment’s seat
On behalf of the moral elite
And think you know a better way.

There’ve been a thousand instances
I’ve faced the Critic’s Crew
I’ve heard each kind of remonstrance
And faced each disapproving glance
Now show me something new…

Don’t ask me what I think of you
I’d only spoil your day
It’s sad, of course – your hot wind blew
When I was trying to stay cool
But hot wind finally blows away.

Hell is full of folks like you
Each one has cursed and died
Go on and curse – there’re blessings too
Maybe you should learn a few
Invest a bit on Heaven’s side……

Let’s thank God for each point of view
This world would be a bore
If we resolved our differences
And united in our nothingness
To agree for evermore…

The Purpose Of Life – Yes, Again!!

Enough has been written on this subject to wallpaper every square inch of the planet if the printouts were laid out edge to edge. The Internet space this material occupies could, if put to more fruitful use, host enough information to the true nature of politics to put that revered business model out of the running forever.

And yet, there are no answers – only vague suppositions, amateur conjecture, the dubious assurances given in the Bible, Koran and Torah, and the impotently dry intellectualism of philosophers and latter-day pop gurus. Nobody has really been able to tell us, with immutable logic and indubitable power of conviction, why we crawl across the planet.

No, I don’t have the answer either – but I have two eyes, a like number of ears and a backside that learns reasonably well from experience. Even with limited knowledge, the power of observation and deduction can carry one pretty far. In fact, because everyone has at least a modicum of these faculties, we all know at least SOME baseline facts about the nature and purpose of human life. The problem is that they’re so unpalatable that we look for better explanations.

The best (and worst) I can do here is to stand on my soapbox and spill these facts out in broad daylight. Nobody will thank me for doing this, and I consider it fortunate that I’m NOT here for gratitude. Now, to the subject.

The last office I worked in had a creaky old lift, traveling in which was always new incentive to reflect on whether one’s life insurance policy was still paid up and current. The walls of this death contraption were generously plastered with stickers, posters and scribbles that promoted some product, service or school of thought or the other. One of these, half torn away but still faintly legible, simply stated:


“WHAT?!?” you scream. “HAPPY?!?! How mercenary! How shallow! How utterly bereft of social spirit! We are here to HELP EACH OTHER!! To make this world a BETTER PLACE TO LIVE IN!!!”

Yeah, right. Okay, your time is up. Gimme my soapbox back.

Let us examine some facts here, shall we? Yes, yes, I know it will hurt, but hey… you can’t expect a perpetual ride through La-La Land, now can you? There have to be way stations, right? Places where we can alight and have a quick cup of hot Realitea before we embark on our cocooned journey again.

Now stop whining. The facts:

* Nobody achieves anything of true universal importance in his or her lifetime
* Suffering achieves no purpose other than to displace happiness
* Nobody’s watching, applauding or preparing a Welcome Cart on the other side
* There IS no other side

I have no real reasons to give you, but I strongly suspect that whoever put that sticker up was right. We are, indeed, here to be happy, simply because being sad is such an inferior option. However, the pursuit of happiness is traditionally equated with hedonism. ‘Hedonist’ is NOT a qualification that most of us would want on our visiting cards. So, even though each of us definitely DOES want more than our share of the good times, we make sure that there’s enough misery in our lives to soothe our uneasy conscience.

Let’s define misery. No, forget the Oxford dictionary, I mean let’s really DEFINE misery here, okay? No farting around with semantics, just the bare bones. Misery is the state in which our wants are not met, and those that were being met before are also compromised. That’s misery. Misery is also other people, but only to the extent that OTHERS get what THEY want and we don’t.

Pretty self-centered, huh?

Did you just mention the bleeding-heart social activist who is miserable because his PEOPLE (or maybe not even HIS people) are being deprived of their rights? Gimme a break. The man may be crazy now, but he wasn’t born that way. He had this harebrained stance implanted into him by his parents, in school or perhaps in the Army. His natural state is as selfish as yours and mine. Anyone whose heart bleeds for others is merely on a sanctified ego trip. And even THIS person is looking for a state of personal happiness, even though he or she erroneously believes that this state is somehow linked with the happiness of others. We are here for ourselves, period.

Closer home, we are often tempted to believe that our purpose on this earth is to serve our family and fulfill their needs. Another ego trip – we just want to get a healthy chomp of the feeling of personal achievement that doing this provides us with. Examined closely, it would logically seem that we would be happier WITHOUT those appendages that we added or were added to us somewhere along the way – if we had never met that doe-eyed beauty, scraped that orphan off the road or taken that doggie home. After all, it’s not as if anyone is desperately UNHAPPY until he/she is married or accepted into the local Lions chapter. It just so happened that we did, thereby inheriting a whole new slew of complications on the final journey towards personal happiness.

Now let’s go to the original model of the human being. No, I don’t mean the protozoa crawling out of the primordial ooze. Not THAT far back, okay? Let’s examine the blighter who recently descended from the trees and found that this cave actually beats that nasty old tree hollow when it rains, shines or freezes over. Did I hear a Christian anti-evolutionist squawk back there? Put a sock in it and read your Bible, okay? We’re talking REAL LIFE here, not your grade of nebulous candy floss. Hey, barkeep, give that poor numbskull a double shot of Holy Water and make him shut up.

I have understandably not met such a recent descendee myself (though I DO get a brief glimpse of him when a traveling relative lands up at my doorstep, asking if he can crash out here for the night.) However, I do believe that the kind of brains going round then were pretty rudimentary, and therefore not too hard to pick. Simple motives.

What did it take to make a caveman happy? No philosophy about the meaning and purpose of life there. Get fed, get laid, keep warm/cold/dry, biff that fuckhead from the next cave on the head if he comes sniffing around your mate, and a swim in the river would go down pretty well, too. Bingo, happiness. Purpose of life achieved in full – let’s file that report! No concerns about the state of the nation, the absence of a red Ferrari or the fact he can’t pay for bambino’s summer camp this year. Just because we’re complicated matters of personal happiness beyond all salvage today doesn’t mean that it is no longer what we want, and what we live for.

Yes, we’re here to be happy, but there is a problem there. Happiness is a highly subjective term, considering that some folks are happiest when someone is whipping their hide to shreds while they’re chained to a post. In fact, some folks are only happy when they’re in the midst of a state that most other humans would pay considerable amounts of moolah to avoid.

Yup, happiness is subjective. By the same coin, so is sadness. Some folks are only sad when they’re in a space that others would equate with happiness. These worthies find the state of being without problems intolerable. If none exist, they bend over backwards and sideways to create problems. You get the picture – happiness and sadness are subjective, and YOUR take on them is by no means the global standard.

Okay, now for your original objection. We are here to help each other, is it? Why are we here to do that? Does our help somehow change the equation? You’re going to die, and so will the dude you’re helping. His life’s purpose is the same as yours – to be happy, period. No more and no less. So now you’re going to fulfill HIS purpose is life, are you?

Even if your help somehow results in him becoming the president of your country some day, everybody in this country is going to die too. You may not have noticed it, but human life comes with a limited shelf life. Whether or not you help someone else or not, that fact will not change. So, what precisely ARE you achieving? Totting up credits in Heaven for yourself? Well, even if that’s the case, you’re still being selfish, aren’t you?

The purpose of human life is to make this world a better place to live in, you say? Playing God again, are we? This planet is going to hell in a handcart. Nobody on it is going to make a dime of a difference in the Universal context. My guess is that in a thousand years or less, it will be no more than a smoldering cinder cluttering up space. Nobody will have got off it long enough to impact any larger scheme of things. The Earth is essentially a doomed, localized infection, of absolutely no significance to God’s plans for the Big Picture.

So, don’t worry and be happy, already. You’re running out of time.