I've always thought that real wisdom can be found in short quotes.
(Though it seems like slogans are usually a little too brief to
have true smarts.) I collect quotes in a journal I keep on
my PalmPilot (and I date my thoughts; looking back at past years'
entries helps me see how much I've been through, and prevents time
from passing through without a trace.) I've divided my skepticism-
and mortality-related quotes into 5 sections:
Some of these quotes are really brilliant, and without their viewpoints,
I might still be a nervous wreck.
"As they say in my country, the only thing that separates us from the
animals are mindless superstition and pointless ritual."
--Latka Gravas in "Taxi"
"Since God is silent, man is his own master; he must live in a
disenchanted world, submit everything to criticism,
and make his own way."
"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always
so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."
"Uncertainty in the pressure of vivid hopes and fears is painful,
but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of
comforting fairy tales." THE HOUND
That's not going to get better.
DYING MANDoesn't seem so.
THE HOUNDBad way to go. Haven't you had enough?
DYING MANOf what? ...I know. Time to go. Take matters into me own hands. The thought has occurred to me.
ARYASo why go on?
ARYANothing could be worse than this.
DYING MANMaybe nothing is worse than this.
ARYANothing isn't better, or worse, than anything. Nothing is just nothing.
"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."
--George Bernard Shaw
"Rationality tied to moral decency is the most powerful joint
instrument for good that our planet has ever known."
"I think art should be in the place in our culture where religion
used to be. Where magic used to be, there should be art."
"The question is complex and life is short."
--Protagoras on the existence of the gods
Meaning of Life
We are here for no purpose, unless we can invent one.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
"But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not
knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without
having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can
tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me."
There ain't no answer.
There ain't going to be any answer.
There never has been an answer.
There's the answer.
I play it cool
I dig all jive
That's the reason
I stay alive
As I live and learn
Is dig and be dug in return
Then I will tell you a great secret, Captain, perhaps the greatest
of all time. The molecules of your body are the same molecules that
make up this station, and the nebula outside-- that burn inside the
stars themselves. We are starstuff. We are the Universe made manifest,
trying to figure itself out.
-Delenn, Babylon 5
All the molecules in your body were formed inside stars. We are the
future of ancient stars.
-The 1997 Nobel Conference.
People and stars are made of the same stuff.
-Bill Nye the Science Guy
"The best break anybody ever gets is in bein' alive in the first place. An' you don't unnerstan' what a perfect deal it is until you realizes that you ain't gone be stuck with it forever, either."
--Porky Pine, in Walt Kelly's "Pogo".
"To feel that life is meaningless unless 'I' can be permanent is like having fallen desperately in love with an inch."
--Alan W. Watts, "The Wisdom of Insecurity"
"There is no certainty; there is only adventure. Even stars explode."
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"
"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars."
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn't have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
--from The Last Rites of the Bokononist faith
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Life is a search for the truth; and there is no truth
The most terrifying fact of the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death - however mutable man may be able to make them - our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
--Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 interview with Playboy
"The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live --
moreover, the only one."
--E. M. Cioran
People act as if death is contagious. It's not contagious, you know. Death is as natural as life. It's part of the deal we made.
It's natural to die. The fact that we make such a big hullabaloo over it all is because we don't see ourselves as part of nature. We think because we're human we're something above nature.
We're not. Everything that gets born, dies. Do you accept that?
All right. Now here's the payoff. Here is how we are different from those wonderful plants and animals. As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on--in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.
Death ends a life, not a relationship.
--Morrie Schwartz, quoted in Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie"
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)
A tireless French actress, Sarah went through more
than 1,000 lovers in her colorful life, many of them
famous writers and artists. She once observed, "It is by spending
oneself that one becomes rich." Sarah often slept in a rosewood
coffin lined with letters from her lovers.
--World Sexual Records
I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.
"Where was it ever promised us that life on this earth can ever be easy, free from conflict and uncertainty, devoid of anguish and wonder and pain? Those who seek the folly of unrelieved 'happiness'--who fear moods, who shun solitude, who do not know the diginity of occasional depression--can find bliss easily enough: in tranquilizing pills, or in senility. The purpose of life is not to be happy."
"I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it."
--Rita Mae Brown
"We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house."
"No why. Just here."
-John Cage, Life Magazine's "Why are we here"
There are no "facts"-- there is only the fact
that man, every man everywhere in the world,
is on his way to ordination. Some men take
the long route and some take the short route.
Every man is working out his own way and nobody
can be of help except by being kind, generous,
--Henry Miller, _Tropic of Capricorn_
"Please pay attention carefully, because this is the truest thing a stranger will ever say to you: In the face of such hopelessness as our eventual, unavoidable death, there is little sense in not at least TRYING to accomplish all of your wildest dreams in life."
-- Kevin Smith
"I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around,
and don't let anybody tell you any different."
"Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less
boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it."
"There's always a little bit of heaven, even in a disaster area."
"It's like Vegas. You're up, you're down, but in the end the house always wins. Doesn't mean you didn't have fun."
--The Devil in "Deconstructing Harry", Woody Allen
"I'm a good influence on everyone I meet-- but they don't realize until
decades later. That's what I keep telling myself."
--David Johnson, 98-6-17
"Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: This is the ideal life."
The next time you are contemplating a decision in which you are
debating whether or not to go for the gusto, ask yourself this
important question: "How long am I going to be dead?" With that
perspective, you can now make a free, fearless choice to do just
about any goddamned sneaky thing your devious little mind can
think up. Go ahead. Have your fun. You're welcome. Go on.
See you in hell.
--Matt Groening, "So You Want To Have A Shameful
Affair Yet Somehow Can't Justify It", Love Is Hell
"Looking back on your life,
what would you say satisfied you most?"
"...I'd say women."
--Interviewer and Man Ray
"There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval."
So, if happiness isn't being rich, then it's probably not being
middle class, which means you're just as likely to find it at
rock bottom, which doesn't require all the effort, and hell,
I'm already there.
--Jake, "Staggering Heights"
"Life can then little else supply
But a few good fucks and then we die"
"I've had a pretty good lesson in human nature. It's more important to try to surround yourself with people who can give you a little happiness, because you only pass through this life once, Jack. You don't come back for an encore."
Look, I really don't want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you're alive, you got to flap your arms and legs, you got to jump around a lot, you got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death. And therefore, as I see it, if you're quiet, you're not living. You've got to be noisy, or at least your thoughts should be noisy and colorful and lively."
"You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred."
"O Mighty King, remember now that only gods stay in eternal watch.
Humans come then go,
that is the way fate decreed on the Tablets of Destiny.
So someday you will depart, but till that distant day Sing, and dance.
Eat your fill of warm cooked food and cool jugs of beer.
Cherish the children your love gave life.
Bathe away life's dirt in warm drawn waters.
Pass the time in joy with your chosen wife.
On the Tablets of Destiny it is decreed
For you to enjoy short pleasures for your short days."
--Siduri, "Epic of Gilgamesh"
"All the things we value, however rare, however small, that give point or meaning to our lives -- the friendships, loves and absurdities; those soundscaped memories entwined with shared passions and glances that magically ensnare and enfold; the intoxications of wines and words, and wayward musings and music, with which we wrestle into misty slumbering nights, our senses revived by sparkling waters, much needed at dawn; the seascapes of wild waves, mysterious moonlights and images and widening skies that stretch the eyes -- do indeed all cease to exist; and curiously the most enchanting are oft those which we lose ourselves and also cease to be -- yet they, and we, existed at some time remains timelessly true, outside of all time."
--Peter Cave, from "Can a Robot be Human?", emphasis added.
"Life always has an unhappy ending, but you can have a lot of fun along the way, and everything doesn't have to be dripping in deep significance."
Struggle of Life
"I am not in favor of immortality. I believe death for humans is the way of getting rid of accumulated errors - as in trial and error. Without death, the old folks would start to gang up on the babies (the new trials). Immortality ---> immortal mistakes."
"Listen, when I was a kid, my mother said to me: 'Bruce, one day you're going to die. You're going to die if you worry or you don't worry.' I was brought up with that philosophy, so I don't worry."
"Man, as we know him, is a poor creature; but he is halfway between
an ape and a god and he is traveling in the right direction."
--Dean William R. Inge
"Death is the lot of us all, and the only way that the human race has ever conquered death is by treating it with contempt. By living every golden minute as if one had all Eternity..."
--Robert A. Heinlein
"We should think more about it, and accustom ourselves to the thought of death. We can't allow the fear of death to creep up on us unexpectedly. We have to make the fear familiar, and one way is to write about it. I don't think writing and thinking about death is characteristic only of old men. I think that if people began thinking about death sooner, they'd make fewer foolish mistakes."
"It's a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you're ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any."
Each day is a little life;
every waking and rising a little birth;
every fresh morning a little youth;
every going to rest and sleep a little dearth.
It's a shallow life that doesn't give a person a few scars.
--Mr. Blue, 99-10-26
All energy is borrowed, and someday you have to give it back.
It is not true that life is one damn thing after another --
it's one damn thing over and over.
-- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Of course, degeneration is programmed into our DNA: Nature seems to want
us to reproduce and then fall by the wayside. But your generation wants
to hang onto its youth into its 90s, on the theory that if you stay around
long enough maybe you can get your life together.
"After the game, the king and pawn go into the same box."
"I am not dying, not anymore than any of us are at any moment. We run, hopefully as fast as we can, and then everyone must stop. We can only choose how we handle the race."
"Your life would be very empty if you had nothing to regret."
--TWENTY PAST MIDNIGHT, 99-5-22
"Sisyphus has a sense of playfulness [...]
you have to look at it from the rock's point of view."
--Pointy Haired Boss, Dilbert (TV)
Today is the first day of the rest of your short, brutish
existence as a sentient creature before being snuffed
out into utter nothingness for all eternity.
On the death of a baby racoon: "It's either mean or it's arbitrary,
and either way I've got the heebie-jeebies."
"I'll never make that mistake again, reading the experts' opinions.
Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes,
and learn what not to do, and that's the end of you."
--Richard Feynman, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"
"What if it is for life's sake that we must die? In truth we are not individuals; and it is because we think ourselves such that death seems unforgivable. We are temporary organs of the race, cells in the body of life; we die and drop away that life may remain young and strong. If we were to live forever, growth would be stifled, and youth would find no room on earth. Death, like style, is the removal of rubbish, the circumcision of the superfluous. In the midst of death life renews itself immortally."
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything-- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
--Steve Jobs, Stanford's 2005 Commencement Address.
However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe--and I am dead serious when I say this--do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.
--Phillip K. Dick,
How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later
Logotherapy, keeping in mind the essential transitoriness of human existence, is not pessimistic but rather activistic. To express this point figuratively we might say: The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadmess that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? "No, thank you," he will think, "Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy."
--Victor Frankl, from "Man's Search for Meaning"
"Sure it mattered. When you get to my age you discover that everything mattered. Life isn't a series of good and bad choices. It's harder to steer it one way or the other than most people think. You just get pulled along. You look back and you wonder 'could I have changed the course of my life?' Maybe you could've ... but it would probably have taken a tremendous force of will."
--Old Man in Seth's "It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken"
A realistic expectation also demands our acceptance that one's allotted time on earth must be limited to an allowance consistent with the continuity of our species... We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions and trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died--in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.
--Dr. Sherwin Nuland
"I've always had sort of an ironic view of life. My belief system is that when this is over, it's over. That you don't look down from heaven and wait for your loved ones to join you. There may be some soul activity, but I'm not sure about that. But what I am sure about is that your molecules continue and in due time become something else. That's science.
And that works for me. So that if this is it, you better take it at its right proportion. That there are serious things, but most things are temporal and ephemeral, and you should cultivate that attitude. That joy and love and all the verities are what counts. So I try not to take too many things seriously, and if I find myself caught up in the seriousness of the moment, within a period of time, I'm able to cajole myself out of it."
--William Shatner, from the
History Channel documentary How "William Shatner Changed the World"
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
It's really amazing how incredibly fast life goes. Boom! You're born. You go through life, meeting troubles along the way, but you overcome those troubles, and you have a blast. And before you know it, you're dead. If that ain't beauty, I don't know what is.
"By our age, Billy, we should have come to terms with this stuff."
"I think so. It's like a nap, only you don't wake up and have to find your shoes."
--John Updike, in "Rabbit Remembered"
Death Ain't So Bad
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
--Kozan Ichikyo, on the morning of his death (February 12, 1360, at the age of 77.)
"Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not."
"Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome."
You've been dead before, remember. What was the first 15 billion years of the universe like for you?
--firstname.lastname@example.org, responding to my fear of missing out on the Universe after I die
"You may be gone tomorrow, but that doesn't mean that you weren't here today."
"Hey, what's the matter?"
"I'm sad because you're going to die."
"Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not so much as you think... ...When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you've told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway."
--Richard Feynman and Danny Hillis.
"If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture -- that is immortality enough for me."
"Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you."
"Spent the first two days home kind of free-falling from the meds / lack of meds and the paralyzing realization that nothing matters. Luckily that was followed by the motivating revelation that nothing matters."
"No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it's doing, but most of the time, we aren't either."
"After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next
great adventure. You know the Stone was really not such a
wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want!
The two things most human beings would choose above all--
the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely
those things that are worst for them."
--Dumbledore, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", J.K.Rowling
"I think dead is really a thing just like alive except you have less choices to make."
--Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig
"Death would be much more terrifying if it was actually possible to live forever"
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
--Roger Ebert, from a blog entry Go gentle into that good night
"You may look upon the future and behold: It will be boring."
"Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back."
--The Movie "Gladiator"
"How do you know I'd be afraid?" Lloyd said, "How do you know that
would be the last thing I'd feel?"
"I don't know that." Shwartz *tick-ticked*ed the pen. "You can never
know. That's what's terrible about death."
"Lots of things you don't know when you're alive. So what's the difference?"
Schwartz's fingers stopped, and he stared at Lloyd as though he had
seen him purely and for the first time.
--Thomas H. McNeely, from "Sheep"
"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
--George Bernard Shaw
"You are a beautiful person, Doctor. Clearheaded. Strong. But you seem always to be dragging your heart along the ground. From now on, little by little, you must prepare yourself to face death. If you devote all of your future energy to living, you will not be able to die well. You must begin to shift gears, a little at a time. Living and dying are, in a sense, of equal value."
--Haruki Murakami, "Thailand"
"I'll tell you a secret. Something they don't teach you in your temple. The Gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again."
--Achilles, the movie "Troy"
I often dream about falling. Such dreams are commonplace
to the ambitious or those who climb mountains. Lately I
dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock, but it
would not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped got a shrub,
but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the
abyss. Suddenly I realized that my fall was relative;
there was no bottom and no end. A feeling of pleasure
overcame me. I realized that what I embody, the principle
of life, cannot be destroyed. It is written into the
cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to
fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens,
I sang to the beauty of the starts and made my peace with the darkness.
--Heinz Pagels, physicist and quantum mechanics researcher before his death in a 1988 climbing accident
"Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything."
"As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death."
--Leonardo da Vinci
Tennessee Williams once wrote, "We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it." In a certain sense, the playwright was correct. Yes, but oh! What a view from that upstairs window! What Tennessee failed to mention was that if we look out of that window with an itchy curiosity and a passionate eye; with a generous spirit and a capacity for delight; and, yes, the language with which to support and enrich the things we see, then it DOESN'T MATTER that the house is burning down around us. It doesn't matter. Let the motherfucker blaze!
--Tom Robbins, "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates"
--Game of Thrones, "Mockingbird", when Arya and The Hound meet an older man, griveously wounded and bleeding out through his belly.
"Aging well is largely a process of recognizing what you don't need to worry about, one thing at a time, until, presumably, you winnow it down to life itself and find you can easily let that go too."
--Laura Miller in Slate
"My grandfather was a painter ... was looking at me and he said "Harry, there are two kinds of tired, there's good-tired, and there's bad-tired. Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people's battles, you lived other people's days, other peoples agendas, other people's dreams - and when it was all over there was very little "you" in there, and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn, you don't settle easy. Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you don't have to tell yourself, because you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy - you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say "take me away". Now, Harry, all my life I've painted... God I would've loved to be more successful, but I have painted and I have painted, and I am good-tired, and they can take me away."
--from Harry Chapin's Gold Medal collection
- Dead Man Talking: A Dialog with Tom Parmenter. In 2013, Tom Parmenter died. But, he got better. He lived - and is still living - a rich life, with journalism and music and his lovely wife Ann. In 2016 we met over dinner and had lovely conversation. I recorded it and had it transcribed.
- A cool Buzzfeed piece I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe... some great answers here, even if I think "purpose" is an emergent property, not something that has to be added from outside the system.
- David Cortesi has made the entire text of his book
Secular Wholeness online, including the chapter Dancing With Mister D. Cortesi offers a way for skeptics to find a kind of spirituality in their lives.
- People interested in this kind of topic may want to check out Regrets of the Dying... even if you have accepted the concept of death, there are certainly things you may wish you did during life -- do things now while you still have the chance!
- I considered using this photo by J.S. Drewnicki on the front page of this guide, but couldn't quite figure out how to rearrange the page. Still, it's the most evocative graveyard photo I've ever seen.
- This Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic emphasizes the idea that you're going to die, but you can squeeze a lot of lives in there.