On the Certainty that All Paths Lead To Oblivion

04Feb09

In which The Gay Recluse watches teevee.

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There are times when we cannot believe how long we’ve been alive, and concurrently, how long — assuming a regular life span — we still have to go. Though admittedly it’s a thought that most often arrives during an afternoon meeting at work, it also crosses our mind at random moments in the middle of winter, when everything seems frozen and permanent, or during an unpleasant commute, or waiting in the dentist’s office, or really any number of things we are required to do that offer nothing but the tedious certainty that life is really nothing more than a pit of quicksand in which we are slowly sinking. (Oddly this never happens when watching teevee — no matter how bad the show — which is both its gift and its curse.)

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It goes without saying that as we get older and accept more “responsibility,” we worry more than when we were younger. Money, our health, the health of our children the cats, the fear of dying in Washington Heights, the fear of not dying in Washington Heights; all of this and more relentlessly plagues our thoughts with an intensity we could not have imagined even ten years ago, which makes our future seem like a mountain that gets steeper and icier with every step forward, but which offers no possibility of retreat.

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During these moments of existential despair, we look back at the course of our life and it seems that every time we reached a fork in the road, we went in the wrong direction. Why did we do x, we wonder, when doing y — an option that would have been simpler — would have spared us so much hardship? Why — instead of using our natural talents — were we so intent on squandering every advantage? Why did we search out those who wished us nothing but harm and misery? (Why do we blog/Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook?) We think of others — lottery winners, acclaimed artists and writers, teevee stars, anyone who owns a 2br/2bth apt south of 96th Street on the west side — with seething jealousy, given what feels like a certainty that their lives are so much more pleasant and joyful than our own. How did it happen that so many people are younger and smarter (and richer) than us, when we used to be so good at math and scored in the 99th percentile on ever standardized test we ever took? Why did we spend 10 years in a band, when 1-2 would have more than sufficed?

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But this passes as we acknowledge an (admittedly delicious and decadent) inability to really do anything about anything. It’s like when we were in law school; the first semester we couldn’t believe that our entire grade would be based on one three-hour test (no quizzes, no mid-terms, nada), but by the second semester, we could not imagine ever going back to a system in which we would be tested more than once a semester.

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In this way only does life offer a common denominator: all memories (like dreams and perhaps even regrets) are created equal, and all paths lead to the same oblivion.

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6 Responses to “On the Certainty that All Paths Lead To Oblivion”

  1. Interesting, poetic post. And we ALL go thru it, Matt — those of us who prefer the (somewhat) examined life, at least. Re: (Oddly this never happens when watching teevee — no matter how bad the show — which is both its gift and its curse.) I don’t watch TeeVee but I do watch movies, and the same thing occurs. It’s because these media involve us in OTHER people’s lives, and we can escape from our own. (Even watching crappy newscasts has this effect. With a book, however, we can easily look away from the page for a moment — and reflect. TV and film do not lend themselves nearly as well to reflection.

  2. “There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish. The thing is to try to do as much as you can in the time that you have. Remember Scrooge, time is short, and suddenly, you’re not here any more.”
    — “Scrooge” (1970)

  3. 3 Brooks

    Another gay recluse in Washington Heights here, struggling daily with a nearly identical inner monologue.

    Years ago, while digging through used books at The Strand, a ’50s detective novel caught my eye. The plot synopsis on the back cover read: “It started in a sunny kitchen…and ended in a pool of blood!” Isn’t that a great metaphor for life?

    It all just is what it is. We fade in…lurch about…fade out…and don’t none of it make no nevermind. The source of our terrors is the gap between things as they are, and things as we wish they could be. The gap widens as we get older, unless we get clear and sane and steely about it.

    “Indispensable condition for spiritual fulfillment: to have always placed the wrong bet.”
    — E.M. Cioran

    Yes…..sigh.

    While waiting for sane, steely clarity to kick in, I’m hoping to win that $75,000,000 Powerball so that I, too, can live below 96th Street. (I moved to the Heights thirty years ago!)

    Love your writing. Hang in there, kiddo.

  4. 4 kirsten

    A few months ago I went to a taxes for artists session that was given by a man who switched from being a photographer to a CPA. We got to talking afterwards and he said that the grinding usesless of earning money via weddings and then low paying artistic gigs finally wore him down. He wanted a real life. “Sounds like a great idea,” I said. “But no,” he said, “look at you, you chose to stick it out with writing.” Without thinking about it I said, “This wasn’t a choice. I had no choice. In no way did I choose this–it chose me.” The thing is, if you had practiced law and made a lot of money but this chose you anyway, it would be waiting for you every day of your life–it would be at the foot of your bed in the morning and sitting on your chest in the evening. At least let yourself off the hook about choosing.

  5. 5 c.

    Commenter “Brooks” writes:

    “The source of our terrors is the gap between things as they are, and things as we wish they could be. The gap widens as we get older, unless we get clear and sane and steely about it.”

    How eloquent an observation on the conundrum of Expectations.

    And oh my, yes, how the gap has widened.

  6. “Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are,
    how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their
    character, profession, and successes, but they have the feeling that
    from this point on nothing much can change. It might even be fair to
    say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be
    found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could
    just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least
    of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of
    circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people;
    these events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in
    time. In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible
    morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already
    by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own
    life yet whose appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person
    had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for
    some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite
    differently. What is even more peculiar is that most people do not
    even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them, whose life
    has merged with their own, whose experiences now seem to be the
    expression of their own qualities, and whose fate is their own reward
    or misfortune. Something has done to them what flypaper does to a fly,
    catching it now by a tiny hair, now hampering a movement, gradually
    enveloping it until it is covered by a thick coating that only
    remotely suggests its original shape…” (Robert Musil)


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