Some, like Tolstoy, have spent decades asking essential questions about being and nothingness; and, like him, come up empty. No amount of intellectual pursuit, no academic persistence, no logical rigor, no endless research will turn up anything new. Matters of faith are just that.
Tolstoy writing in A Confession admits that exhausted and exasperated by his intellectual search for God and meaning, he finally accepted faith as a natural, instinctive, universal belief.
He ends his memoir with a dream in which he is suspended between the abyss of sky and an abyss below:
What am I to do? What am I to do? I ask myself, and look upwards. Above, there is also an infinite space. I look into the immensity of sky and try to forget about the immensity below, and I really do forget it. The immensity below repels and frightens me; the immensity above attracts and strengthens me. I am still supported above the abyss by the last supports that have not yet slipped from under me; I know that I am hanging, but I look only upwards and my fear passes.
As happens in dreams, a voice says: "Notice this, this is it!" And I look more and more into the infinite above me and feel that I am becoming calm. I remember all that has happened, and remember how it all happened; how I moved my legs, how I hung down, how frightened I was, and how I was saved from fear by looking upwards.Others reaching the end of the line, as unenlightened as they were the day they were born but increasingly anxious over their ignorance and terrified of the eternal abyss coming up, do their best to stop thinking about it.
Easier said than done. Suspending cognition is difficult for even the most practiced sadhu, impossible for a 21st century American busy with grandchildren, enrichment courses, travel, and leisure – all as occupying and often as stressful as full-time employment.
Rabbit at Rest, John Updike’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel writes of Harry Angstrom’s final years. Rabbit is unsentimental about his life – he dislikes his grabbing, spoiled, whiney grandchildren; his clueless wife; and his dependent, immature, irresponsible son. He has no compassion for his thieving, drug-addicted boy; none for Janice who has gone through the same boring, routine, life of small-town Western Pennsylvania as he has but has soldiered through its confines and oppressiveness with dumb courage but courage nonetheless. None for his mother-in-law, colleagues, or golf partners in Florida. Grudging respect for having made it this far, but little more.
Harry asks no big questions and never delves into mystery. It is enough to see how his life started off with such promise and hope and has ended up with neither; and more importantly how everyone’s life is depressingly similar. There are brief moments of engagement – not emotional relationships, not even sexually satisfying ones, but interludes, rest stops along the highway.
Harry is Updike’s tragic hero because he is defiant. He refuses to give in to the sentimentality of love, marriage, children, success, and well-off later years. He refuses to change his life – to lose weight, to take care of his heart, to make amends, to make things all right in the end. A misanthropist, self-centered, and arrogant, he sees no reason to ‘reform’, to adjust his personality and character to suit others.
He asks no questions because he knows there are no answers. Life is indeed brutish, nasty, and short. Living with it and within it is no fun; the end is preordained. The only validation of human existence in a meaningless world, said Nietzsche, is the expression of pure will; and Rabbit Angstrom would have made the old German philosopher proud.
Keeping busy is the usual anodyne taken for end-of-life angst. Painting classes at the local community college, volunteering at Martha’s Table, supporting one cause or another, babysitting, travelling to Porto and Galicia, hiking the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, tending an organic garden, and refurbishing the den. If there is no time to think of Tolstoy’s abysses, then they don’t exist.
Of course they exist, and no one but an Indian sadhu can so train his mind to see, hear, touch, and smell without thinking; perception without meaning; existence without reflection. Most older men will at least once a day remember their age, grunt at the prospect of another day with no sex or even the possibility of it, and wonder if it is all worth it.
Some say that meditative pauses, while doing nothing to speed spiritual evolution or to provide mystical insights can at least manage the stress of looking at the abyss without panic.
And still others prefer to grind away at the most demanding intellectual pursuits – those requiring rigorous discipline, intense concentration, logic, structure, organization, and synthesis, especially if they are related to the question of what’s what. A bit like Tolstoy who, although he said he was frustrated by his intellectual pursuits, had to admit that he was at his most essential a profoundly rational being who could do nothing other than to search for answers.
All the above measures to avoid thinking about the coming abyss are a waste of time, of course. No amount of meditation in the Himalayas can achieve the perfection of the non-thinking wholeness of the sadhu. No amount of frenzied activity can possibly prevent small squeaks of existential anxiety in the morning. No amount of brain-wearying exegesis, mind-numbing synchronic, diachronic, and essential textual analysis can turn of the dimming light at the end of the tunnel.
The most intelligent men, according to Joseph Conrad, are those who, like Singleton in The Nigger of the Narcissus, do not think; whose demanding, brutal life of the seas allows no moment of reflection and no consideration of why or wherefore. It is those who think, reflect, and consider who are the unhappy ones. It is a curse, says Conrad, to imagine one’s end.
There must be those who simply don’t care about any of this. Que sera sera, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ Stoics, happy epicureans who could care less about what’s what or being too old before they are too schmart. The rest of us who, no matter what we do are still plagued by nagging existential doubts, would like to think such people really don’t exist. All fiction and fake news. Everybody past a certain age suffers from existential angst. It is an inescapable disease of the aging, and they like company.
Who knows? Everyone has a method and if it works, why not? Some friends have reported whole weeks without glimpsing the abyss; but I don’t believe that either. The closer one gets to the edge the more impossible it is to avoid looking over it.