I never read Hamlet in high school or university. Honestly, I just assumed I was too stupid to understand it. Even now, attempts to crack the code and make sense of the subtext elude me.
Still, like many, I had heard this “to be or not to be” expression so often that I felt certain I understood what it meant until, of course, I looked into it and discovered, like Vizzini that the phrase did not mean what I thought it meant.
Whereas I had always assumed that the phrase was about rising up to your full potential or perhaps about living life to its fullest, a kind of 16th century, Andy Dufresne kind of speech, I was surprised to discover that Hamlet was actually riffing on the subject of suicide. More precisely, and I am no Shakesperian scholar, Hamlet’s soliloquy wrestle’s with the existential question of whether it would be preferable to end one’s suffering by ending one’s life.
I was thinking about life and death when I started this blog. I wasn’t suicidal; or at least not suicidal in the sense that Hamlet was discussing it, as a solution to suffering. I have felt that way — when I was younger and had been deeply depressed — but those dark feelings have largely faded with the passage of time and the passage of life.
Still, I found myself thinking about life and death, and my growing belief that most people seem to go on living because that is the default setting. Every morning we wake up because the biological systems that sustain life continue to function and, let’s be honest, we have no off-switch. And while I have read enough to at least have this vague idea that god or mother nature or science deprived us of an off-switch because it would undermine the whole propagation of the species thing, I also concluded that there are several other species on the planet whose end of life begins once that biological function had been fulfilled. So what makes us so special that we just keep on living?
I don’t have any answers to that question of course. I am not a scientist or a philosopher and you can fit what I know about the meaning of life into a small paper sandwich bag. But the more I considered the question, the more puzzled I became.
Why do we keep on living after procreating and raising our families? Is it really so heretical to think that maybe we should have a better reason to keep living than just that the body carries on? And if we can’t find any better reason, should we revisit the issue of suicide, not because we are suffering but because we aren’t? Isn’t suffering the point? And if you have done what you wanted to do, and you consider your race “won”, is it so horrible that you should want to just go out on that high note, when you are at your peak?