On Your 21st Birthday, You Drink Because You Can…

every birthday after that, you drink because you must.

Yes friends, the big 23, the wasteland years. Somebody somewhere sometimes must have made a mistake, because one day (just like any other, in that some were born and some were dying) 23 years ago, yours truly assumed this mortal coil and have been shuffling in it ever since, but for how much longer, well, no one can say for sure.

Don’t get me wrong; I used to be a little bit resentful about the fact of my existence. After all, I had no say in the matter—it was a choice hoisted upon me. Now, what kind of justice and fairness is that? After all, could not a plausible utilitarian argument be made that in the great scheme of things, my non-existence would’ve yielded greater welfare for both myself and society in general? And also, did Silenus not say that the best thing is to not have been born at all? But I digress.

In the end, I became reconciled with the accident of my existence. I especially like the word “accident,” because it reminds me of the first single from Hail to the Thief, when Thom Yorke sings that “we are accidents, waiting to happen.” I thought, why yes, that is indeed a very apt description of what an individual existence is. Well, having resolved the question of existence (or at least, pushed it aside for convenience, despite whatever objection Camus might have had), the next question, the Socratic one, the “BIG” question naturally followed: how should I live my life?

And in answering this question, two alternatives presented themselves to me. The first, an Aristotlean one, is one of excellence: that is, I could choose to live a life in which I excelled at something. The second, a moral one: that is, I could choose to live a moral life depending on on the ethical and meta-ethical theoretical frameworks (Christian, utilitarian, deontological, contractrarian, you name it) that I may choose to adopt. But it turns out, over the course of some ten years of on again, off again thinking, that I could not possibly live either alternative to any meaningful degree.

First, I realized that most people, myself included, simply do not possess the ability to excel at anything in any meaningful way. Most people are not geniuses: there are only so few Einsteins, Mahlers, Shakespeares, Van Goghs, and Nietzsches. I realized all too quickly that for most people, and definitely me, life is best described as an existence of mediocrity. Most of us simply do not possess talent enough to truly rise above the masses and become giants.

Second, I realized that to TRULY live a moral life (according to whatever ethical theories you adopt) is so demanding as to be nearly, if not totally, impossible. Sure, one can always play the philosophical game of modifying intuitions and reaching reflective equilibrium, but I’ve always found such moves to defeat the purpose of ethical theories: namely, to provide a set of ethical rules and standards by which to live. The various alternatives are too harsh for the ordinary human to accept: either one must bite the bullet and come to extremely counter-intuitive moral conclusions, or one must become a moral saint in Susan Wolf’s terms (you need a JSTOR subscription to read the full article). But the moral saint, counter-intuitively, is not something that we want to be to begin with.

So what else is left? That, friends, is what I have been contemplating for the last two years, and that contemplation continues. If I am unable to live either an excellent (in a technical sense) or a moral life in any significant way, then what else is there in life? One other alternative is turn to religion, but I’ve rejected that too.

Which leaves one other choice: hedonism. Which, if you think about it, is neither the worst or the best thing there is as far as life is concerned. But it is passable…for a while, and then the whole thing just sort of lose its appeal. Sure, everyone has had his share of hedonistic exploits in and immediately after college in my age bracket, and I will fully admit that on some days, hedonism represents the best (or if not the best then certain the easiest) way. Yet something struck me, something that I could plausibly call an epiphany, although to call it such might be over-dramatizing a bit.

‘Twas nearly a fortnight ago on a Friday before Cal played U of Maryland. The scene: bars near Dupont circle. The actors: a close friend who went to both high school and Berkeley with me, and his friends. The dramatic action: bar hopping around that area. We ended up in a bar whose name currently escapes me (although I do remember our lifting some pint glasses from there, and as I type, I’m drinking from that pint glass), and as in any bar on a Friday night, it was packed, loud as fuck, filled with sweaty people who are dressed up way too nicely for such a venue. In other words, the paradgimatic milieu of the post-college, 20-somethings with disposable income, happily liquored up, ready to hook up.

And of course they do, what with the dirty dancing, the bump-n-grind, and all that good shit. And I suppose it was all innocous in a way, but maybe it was because I was not sufficiently intoxicated, but watching all of these things unfold suddenly made me melancholy. It was a rather unexpected reaction on my part, and for a moment there, the entire catalog of The Hold Steady suddenly made more sense to me than it ever dit: it was positively illuminating. But this moment soon passed, like all moments do, and the next thing I knew, my friend and I were being forcibly kicked out of another bar. However, that is a story for some other time.

Point being: hedonism’s appeal has definitely left me. I am not denying that occasionally I will fully engage in it, but perhaps now I will engage with it ironically. After all the drinking is done, and all the shenanigans committed, what else is left?

And that is the essential, and perhaps only, question that matters: what else is there? What else is there for the expected 57 years remaining, assuming that I live to the average adult life expectancy of the ripe old age of 70? The answer lies in The Brothers Karamazov. Kurt Vonnegut was right: everything you ever need to know is in that book.

From Part II, Book Five, Chapter Three, titled “The Brothers Get Acquianted:”

“Some people need one thing, but we green youths need another, we need first of all to resolve the everlasting questions, that is what concerns us.”

Coincidentally, Ivan Karamazov is 23 when he said this in the book.

Still, another quote, this time from Beyond Good and Evil, section 32:

“The anger and reverence characteristic of youth seem to allow themselves no peace until they have falsified men and things in such a way that they can vent themselves on them – youth as such is something that falsifies and deceives. Later, when the youthful soul, tormented by disappointments, finally turns suspiciously on itself, still hot and savage even in its suspicion and pangs of conscience: how angry it is with itself now, how it impatiently rends itself, how it takes revenge for its long self-delusion, as if it had blinded itself deliberately! During this transition one punishes oneself by distrusting one’s feelings, one tortures one’s enthusiasm with doubts, indeed one feels that even a good conscience is a danger, as though a good conscience were a screening of oneself and a sign that one’s subtler honesty had grown weary; and above all one takes sides, takes sides on principle, against ‘youth’. – A decade later: and one grasps that all this too – was still youth!”

So please, do not harbor any hopes of progress, as youth is best spent thrashing wildly about in one’s own mind. This, all of this, is most likely (no, it is certainly) the product of self-delusion that tries to pass itself for “wisdom that comes with age and maturity.” But still, no one can disabuse me of my own illusions except for more time.

And I can already hear the objections. First, I have been drinking too much! On the contrary, I haven’t had a drink tonight at all. I would be much more euphoric had I been drinking, because unlike most people, I do not get morose and start talking about my trials and tribulations under the influence. Instead, I get incredibly giddy and starts to laugh at anything and everything.

Second, is there not even a goddamn lick of “happy” (or if not happy, then at least cheerful) thought in this fucking post? Of course there are! But those I save for myself.

Still, I am not going to lie: I’m glad to be alive, for what that’s worth.

Therefore, in conclusion, etc, etc, so on and so forth, I present you George Carlin (may he RIP)


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