Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Being a Life-form

Watching David Attenborough shows hour after hour, getting really high. As I watch these wild animals going through their motions, I try to imagine what their inner lives might be like. A lemur eating a big, fat moth might feel an ecstasy like when I take a big bite of chocolate cake. A buck smashing his head against another's in a battle for females might feel the thrill of battle mixed with sexual lust. The band of howler monkeys singing their deafening chorus and performing outrageous threat displays against other bands might feel something like a mix of racial pride in their band and racial hatred toward all others.

(As I watch this particular frenzy, somewhat anthropomorphizing these crazed primates and thinking about how foolish they look, it occurs to me that there is one feeling that none of these animals would ever feel: shame. I wonder what it must be like to live a life driven by one's deepest passions, often most disagreeable passions such as hunger and fear, but never, ever to feel shame.)

The seal trying to escape the shark must feel a little bit of fear, but overall it must feel thrilled and and extremely, intensely focused. It cannot afford to feel panic. Panic causes emotional and creative shutdown. In a panic, one would immediately make mistakes or miss opportunities and be eaten right away. The only way to stay alive would be to really, really enjoy the experience at some level. Perhaps one would feel most alive when looking death right in the mouth like that.

I wonder about the pain a prey animal must feel. Some predators seem not to want the hassle of out-muscling their victims, and go for a quick kill. Many others rely on overpowering or tiring out their prey. When the end comes, it comes very slowly while the killers literally eat their prey alive. I wonder whether those dying animals feel pain. I think about the discomfort I feel when I try to hold my breath for a long time. I think about how long that discomfort would last if I were to deliberately strangle myself. I think about how long the dying wildebeest feels the lions tearing its muscles away from the bone. And I think about how it will feel to be in hell, unable to die.

I realize that it doesn't matter how long the pain lasts, and it doesn't matter whether the wildebeest can take the pain. It doesn't matter whether I can take the pain. The word unbearable is a terrible lie. It implies that suffering has a limit, though it has none. Suffering happens, no matter what. Whether it is more than I can take is fucking irrelevant. It can be more than I can take, it can be far, far more. That's a terrifying realization.


  1. Part of what it is with humans is that we have so much emotional struggle attached to pain, that other animals don't seem to have. We also fear pain and scheme to avoid it much more than any other species. We tend to avoid pain on much more than just instinct, which makes us afraid of pain that isn't even imminent, but could hypothetically happen. Of course, you know all this, but my point is maybe the creatures killed for food in the wild don't feel any emotional agony attached to that physical pain.

    And I think the word unbearable implies that there is suffering we cannot bear, ie. there is a limit to how much we can take (rather than there just being a limit to suffering as a whole, which as you said, there isn't). I think it implies there is a line between what we can take and what we cannot. Which agrees with what you said, that it is possible for there to be suffering more than we can take.

    I think I just stated the obvious in a way that doesn't make

  2. I've concluded that there is no way to make sense of life, and the best we can do is think. I appreciate you sharing your thinking with me.

    What I was really thinking about there at the end is that "more than I can take" is a phrase that I have not thought about enough. When I used to race, I would push myself into places of pain, but I could always decide what level of pain counted as "unbearable". Now I see that someone else could easily take me into a far, far worse place and I would have no choice. Not that it's a surprise, just that I haven't thought about it much until now.

    I especially appreciate your thoughts on how our gigantic brains add a layer of suffering in the form of psychological trauma. Maybe even the suffering a dying prey animal feels is easier than human suffering. I wish I'd been born a seal.

  3. I see what you were referring to now, and that makes a lot of sense. You can always control when to stop, but not if someone else has you captive. You know, because an "all loving god" likes to hold people captive and torture them.

    For all the benefits our brains provide, there have to be some downsides, and I guess what we've said here is definitely a downside.