Saturday, January 22, 2011

Some random musings on "forever"

When I lived in Denmark, a friend told me that no one there receives a prison sentence longer than fourteen years, regardless of their crime.  I've since learned that that's not true, but the idea still baffles and appeals to me, and that has nothing to do with the specific number.  It's because it suggests that a body of people have cumulatively decided that "forever" isn't a punishment, that a life sentence is inherently no longer about the perpetrator but instead about desires for revenge on the part of the victim, the victim's friends and family, and the greater society.  The thought of locking someone up and throwing away the key is immensely satisfying when they have done something to hurt you horribly.  I don't mean to be at all flippant about this, but it just seems to me that people have a cognitive disconnect when it comes to thinking about "forever" or even "for the rest of your life," and it gets in the way of our concepts of morality.  I don't think that anyone should commit or be committed to something forever, or for the rest of their lives, because there is no way for them or us to properly conceive of what that really means.  Our understanding of time just doesn't allow us to do so.

I'm relatively young, but not very young.  I realize that as you age, the years tend to run together and zip by in a way that would be literally incomprehensible to someone a decade or even a few years younger.  It doesn't seem like you have changed much between five years ago and today, even though the individual years between when you were fifteen and sixteen or even twenty-five and twenty-six seemed instead like eras.  Still, a person can change dramatically in the span of a single year-- any year.  Anyone who has watched their parents virtually turn into different people immediately after retirement, for example, is aware of this.  And yet from the inside, it seems like we've been basically the same person all along.  Naturally.  It would be very disconcerting if we didn't, because the sense of "me being me" would be lost.  It's common to hear someone say that she is no longer the person she used to be, but when saying that the person is almost always referring to a certain aspect of her character that has changed-- not that she went through a complete change in terms of who she is. And yet that's precisely what often happens.

I can't help but think of the reactions I've heard to Jesse Bering's theory about a cognitive constraint that prevents us from conceiving of the cessation of existence.  Basically, he argues, we believe in life after death because we are unable to conceive of being dead.  It's impossible to do so, because there is no way to be conscious of the fact of being unconscious.  The immediate response is "Of course we can!  Do we not dream when we sleep?"  Sure we do, but that's not real unconsciousness-- real unconsciousness would be awareness of nothing, not even dreams.  Real unconsciousness isn't sleep; it's a black-out. You feel nothing during it, but you can sure feel terrible afterward.  Even if you've done it, you haven't experienced it because experience during it is impossible.  In the same way, we think we can conceive of forever, or "for the rest of my life" or "for the rest of his/her life," but we really can't.  We can conceive of a really long time, because everyone has experienced a really long time, but that's as close to "forever" as dreaming is to death.

It's impossible to tell whether this conclusion is the product or the cause of many of my thoughts about justice and morality, but it is certainly connected either way.  It's why I consider the death penalty to be more compassionate than a sentence to life in prison, for example.  Make no mistake; I oppose the death penalty-- but I oppose life imprisonment more.  Given the chance to be Queen of the World for a day, I would abolish both but allow prisoners to opt for death at any point in their sentencing if they decided that was preferable.  But that would be a penalty they would have to carry out transparently and by themselves.  As horrible as the reasons for and means of committing suicide can be, I consider it a fundamental right, and perhaps if more people agreed with me on that, the means would become more humane for everyone involved.

I cringe when I hear people speak blithely-but-seriously about someone going to Hell, or even saying, as atheists often do, "I wish I believed in Hell so that he/she could burn in it."   Do you really?  Do you honestly wish that you believed there is a place where people will be tortured forever?   You aspire, in other words, to be the worst sadist imaginable and regret that you're not?  Because that's what wishing eternal torture on someone entails.  If you were a sadist-in-practice in this life and tortured someone on your basement in the most merciless way for thirty years, behaving like...I don't know, a Reaver from Firefly, it would be but a paper cut in comparison to an actual Hell.  Not even that, actually, because of course nothing can be compared to infinity.  How long would it take for your torture to become meaningless?  To become as much torture for the inflicter as for the inflictee?   A shorter time than I'd guess for people who like to invoke this lunatic notion, if they've even considered the idea in the first place.  And yet I'm not willing to convict them of sadism precisely because of that-- I don't think they have actually thought much about it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (one would hope)-- "I'll love you forever."  Really?  Are you sure about that?  Unconditional love is a nice-sounding idea, but loving someone who has decided after twenty years to become an ax murderering child rapist isn't exactly a positive character attribute even if you manage to achieve it...and there's no particular reason why you should, regardless of what Charles Manson's many female admirers would say.  I would posit, actually, that most if not all of them admire him precisely because of the acts that caused him to be imprisoned in the first place.  If he were to be released and decided to take up a career as a janitor in Montana, much if not all of the attraction would probably be lost.  Again, a personality change over time.  There's a good reason, I think, why such sentiments as "IIIIIIIII will always love yoooooooouuuuuu" are referred to as "sweet nothings."  They sound sweet but literally mean nothing, if you're doing it right.  There are a lot of stupid reasons to stop loving someone, certainly, but a heck of a lot of good reasons as well, and there's no way to know which ones of either variety are going to crop up until they do.  Surely if you love someone for who they are, you should continue to love them for who they are.  Right?

What prompted these thoughts?  Something very mundane, actually, but still important-- a discussion on whether people who have committed to a monogamous relationship are allowed to cheat, if something catastrophic happens which effectively kills any chance at romance.   Dan Savage's answer is "yes," if the cheating functions as a kind of pressure release valve which enables the sex-desiring partner to stick around.  But what got me thinking about "forever" was mainly the comment thread in which people discuss  what pledging your life to someone can and should mean.  As a Buddhist might point out, the only permanence is impermanence.  We're all changing all of the time, and that's a good thing.

There's a thought I try to keep in mind.  I debated getting it tattooed, but it's not exactly elegant wording-- clumsy as hell, actually-- so have decided against that.  Nevertheless, I try to live by it:
Life is short, so take it seriously.  But life is short, so don't take it too seriously.

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