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Time is a Cruel, Cruel Thief
Editorial by 
May 31, 2010, 04:56:02
In case you have been living in a cave, there is a new game out on the Wii right now. It is called Super Mario Galaxy 2, and it is pretty darn amazing. But I don't have to tell you that, the rest of the Internet is doing a pretty good job of praising the game for me.

I want to speak about something else. It is difficult to put into words, but I am sure many of you have felt the same way. I want to speak about the fleeting nature of enjoyment. About that feeling that we often get when we are enjoying something so much that we want it to last indefinitely, and yet we know its days are numbered. And if we don't watch ourselves, we let ourselves hear every single tick of the clock, a sort of nervous itch in the background that tells us "sure you are having fun, but for how long?" In the case of a game like Super Mario Galaxy 2, this is a very concrete thing, represented by the stars. Every new star we acquire is one closer to the end, and most of us (at least, those of us who have played previous Mario games) know how many stars there are before we start. For example, I am already at 40 stars collected, 40 stars out of 120, or 1/3 of the total stars. And yes, I know there is more beyond that, but that isn't quite the point. I'd love to say I have no idea how much longer the game is, but the fact is, I already have a fair amount of how far into the game I am, and though I still have a decent chunk of game left, I can already see the end.

This isn't just about a video games. One of my favorite novels is a Ray Bradbury story called Dandelion Wine. I suppose you could call it a coming of age story, an unforgettable summer in the life of a 12 year old boy. A lot takes place over the course of the novel, but two things in particular have stuck with me. The first takes place early on in the summer, when the boy realizes something; that he is alive, truly alive. It is a brilliant moment and he is beaming with happiness. The second takes place soon after, an inevitable realization that naturally spawns from the first; the fact that one day he will die, and that every new day is one day closer to his death. And this is, of course, a difficult revelation for him to bear.

This is called a book. It's kind of like a video game, but the graphics aren't as good.

Now, lucky for me, my 12 year old life wasn't quite as dramatic. I'm not entirely sure when I realized that I was alive (if I ever did.) But last summer I turned 30, and 30 is an interesting age. I won't go into my whole life story, but there is a lot I had always planned on doing "in the future", and throughout my chaotic 20s the future was always, well, somewhere off in the future. I didn't really have to accept that I wasn't fulfilling my dreams and accomplishing my goals, because I still had time. And then I turned 30, and I came to a couple of realizations. One being that the future is now, and that I have left many of my dreams and goals somewhere in the past. But that is neither here nor there. The main realization I came to was the fact that, yes, I am going to die someday. And that it isn't some far off unmeasurable distance in the future either. I have lived 30 years, I have what... 40 or 50 more left? If I'm lucky.

So it appears that I have the same issue with life as a whole that I have with Super Mario Galaxy 2. I want to fully enjoy it, but I can't help but hear that clock ticking in the background. And each year that passes, each star that I collect, is one more closer to the end. I guess on the plus side, at least the end of Super Mario Galaxy 2 is just the end of one more game, and with Sin & Punishment: Star Successor and Metroid: Other M just around the corner, I'm not going to run out of games to play anytime soon. But what comes at the end of life? I suppose I will have to wait and see (or not see, depending.)

How do we come to terms with this realization? Damned if I know. Douglas Coupland writes a lot about this in Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, another of my favorite novels, but I'm not sure if he has any answers. He merely affirms that it's ok to be 30 and lost and confused. Or 40, or 50, or... well, you get the point.

There are no shortcuts to finding meaning or enjoyment in life. I'm not going to give you any answers, because I certainly don't have any. However, I will leave you with this. I can't say I'm the biggest fan of American Beauty, but the ending has always stuck with me:

Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain. And I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry, you will someday.

Maybe that is just another way of saying "stop counting the stars."

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Posted: 05/31/10, 04:56:02  - Edited by 
 on: 05/31/10, 05:02:00    
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That's deep, man. I definitely did not feel that while playing Mario Galaxy 2, lol. I was loving every second of it, and while I didn't want it to end, I didn't force myself to stop playing -- one, because I don't like doing that, and two, because I could not wait to see what they'd do for the final level/boss. So yeah.

As for life in general, well, I'm 11 years younger than you. Still in college. So I'd say the future is definitely not now. Not yet. I still haven't realized most of my dreams, I hope I will someday. I'm about to hit a milestone this coming October, but yeah, I can't wait to be 20. I don't know why ... I guess it brings along some false (or not) idea of freedom. I want it to come. I don't fear death, or at least I try not to. It's gonna happen, so I might as well get used to the idea and enjoy life as much as I can. It's pretty crazy to think, the ONLY thing we know 100% certain of our future is we will die at some point. EVERYTHING else, we don't know for sure.

Also I give that book a 7.9. The hell is up with those colors? It's all green. That company needs to hire a better art director.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 05:08:07
Well it's strange, I feel it for some games, not for others. I think with the Galaxy games it is the fact that they are divided up into these tiny little, very definable chunks. There are a certain amount of stars, a number which most of us know, and though there is some variety in length, most stars take what... 5 to 15 minutes to acquire? You pretty much almost always know exactly how far through the game you are at any given time. Combine that with the fact that the game is so good that you know you are going to get to the end and want more... well...

I hate that my mind is like this. I over-think everything.

About the book cover, I like the colors, but erm... I've read the book a couple of times and I don't get the hanging man in the tree. Unless it is some metaphor.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 05:11:41  - Edited by 
 on: 05/31/10, 05:12:45
I stopped worrying about "the end," of anything a while ago. Thinking about it is just another way to sap the enjoyment out of the time you do have. Everything and everyone has an end, so it's hardly a big deal.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 05:13:58
Zero said:
Well it's strange, I feel it for some games, not for others. I think with the Galaxy games it is the fact that they are divided up into these tiny little, very definable chunks. There are a certain amount of stars, a number which most of us know, and though there is some variety in length, most stars take what... 5 to 15 minutes to acquire? You pretty much almost always know exactly how far through the game you are at any given time. Combine that with the fact that the game is so good that you know you are going to get to the end and want more... well...

I hate that my mind is like this. I over-think everything.

About the book cover, I like the colors, but erm... I've read the book a couple of times and I don't get the hanging man in the tree. Unless it is some metaphor.
Yeah, you're probably over-thinking it. Or at least thinking about it more than I did. Like with my comment about the book. I was joking, responding to your "it's like a video game but the graphics aren't as good" comment, lol.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 05:18:14
I come into this thread hoping to see something about Thief the game series. I leave disappointed.

I don't worry about my death because I'm going to live forever. I already know this.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 05:33:46
Interesting connection, yes I like that alot. I have to say I don't think about dying like you do but I do think about what happens when you die. I mean seriously, WTF happens?

Like in my mind, even if you die, some part of you will be aware. Whether it's your soul/mind apart from your body or whatever. Know what I mean? Like if I died right now, heart stops, brain stops, everythings dead in me. So whats next? Nothingness? That can't be. If there is nothingness, you would be aware of it.

Sorry I'm rambling but it's just a very fascinating uncertainty. To think what happens after death is one of lifes biggest mysteries. Anyone have any stories or theories about what happens when you die?

(if I'm derailing your thread, let me know, I'll delete this)

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 09:45:14
From one interesting report I've heard (the guy had a heart problem, the treatment he underwent required his heart being stopped/restarted, he effectively died a few times), death is the opposite of losing awareness, you become hyperaware to the point you can no longer make a discrete thought, like holding the thought of some object in your head. Sentience is like a control cage, keeping the bludgeoning mallet of everything from smearing you into the rest of the universe.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 10:30:46
This always cheers me up:

I've sort of strayed from the Great American Life Path and it's nice to remember that it's all bullshit anyway.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 11:54:01  - Edited by 
 on: 05/31/10, 11:57:07
@Peppy-le-Fox, we've all experienced how it feels to be dead. The same way it felt before we were conceived.

The near death experiences some people talk about are the result of a cascade of electrical activity in the oxygen starved brain. That cascade can be experienced as a white light and a triggering of all of your life's memories of events and people.

@Zero, as long as the last third of my life isn't spent collecting Purple Coins I can cope with the ticking. -_^

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 12:24:51
@SimbabbadYes, he described that cascade surge that happens just before death. For after, I abuse the 'just like before conception' line too.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 14:59:26  - Edited by 
 on: 05/31/10, 15:13:52
Well, I'm 12 years older than you, and I've been through all of this at one time or another (most recently back in February, but not in a good way) and I've come to be able to just enjoy enjoyment, if that makes any sense. Maybe you still hear the ticking, but it doesn't really matter. For me, my perspective on this changed dramatically after we had children, because that's where your ticking moments go to. I hear it when I watch my daughter, knowing that she now carries the hopes and dreams of the entire family.

David V

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 16:02:25
I like American Beauty.

Anyway, thinking of your time left as "how little", as opposed to "how much", seems kind of pessimistic. I mean, you don't even know how much time there is, anyway. From the right (wrong?) perspective, almost every occurrence can be seen as tragic - like how almost every single person you pass on the street is someone that you will never meet again. But I sort of like that Epicurean thing - "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." (They're talking about Coke, right?)

That said, I have also been feeling that I should get off of my ass and try to actually realize some of my ambitions, rather than just live eternally in the moment.

But I don't fear death, because I am monstrously cynical and feel that I will never recapture the innocent, carefree bliss of my youth while the mantle of responsibility hangs over me. I'm more worried about other people dying.

I have to admit that, when it comes to gaming (or any sort of entertainment that I love), I probably don't finish as many things as I should (and buy way more than I need) because I always want something to look forward to. I sort of classify future events as "things to anticipate" and "things to dread". I try to always shift the balance strongly in favor of "anticipate". If people generally dread more than they anticipate, why would they even want to be alive? I'd never do it, but suicide seems like a perfectly logical response (solution?) to certain situations or states of mind.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 16:52:18  - Edited by 
 on: 05/31/10, 17:02:26
Pessimistic, yeah, I suppose. I always wonder how much of optimism and pessimism is really a choice though? Certain people will say "think happy thoughts, it works for me!" but just because it works for one person doesn't mean it will for another, everyone has different mechanisms in place in their brains. I don't think I arrived at pessimism over night, after all. I spent ages 18-28ish trying to hold on dearly to optimism, and doing a fairly good job of it despite having few reasons to be optimistic, but after life sort of repeatedly beat me down optimism began to feel... unrealistic? In fact, I don't even really think in terms of optimism and pessimism, more like "based on past experience, this is probably what I can expect."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not some eternal pessimist either. There is still a lot I'm enjoying right now, and a lot I'm looking forward to enjoying in the future. I'm probably more of an emotional roller coaster nowadays. Ups and downs, ups and downs. Maybe more downs than ups, but still some pretty nice ups.

By the way, even when I got the idea for this I thought to myself, is that too heavy for the Negative World? But I guess one thing I love about this place is you can write things like this and get some real responses.

Posted by 
 on: 05/31/10, 23:54:42  - Edited by 
 on: 05/31/10, 23:55:59
I already know that when I die I'm going to come back and haunt all my ex-girlfriends. So... I'm kinda looking forward to it.

Great post, btw. Really enjoyed reading it and I definitely understand where you're coming from. But... gotta go with the rest of the folks here and just say that it is what it is. Whether you rot away in oblivion or transcend this mortal coil into the ether or enter into the pearly gates of gaming, its'a comin', so no point in frettin'. :)

Posted by 
 on: 06/01/10, 00:00:26
Oh, I think people are generally optimistic or pessimistic by nature. Or easygoing or intense by nature. Or happy or sad by nature. Maybe they can change, but even their adaptability depends on their nature.

I'm not saying someone can (or should) suddenly become an optimist. I'm just saying that looking at the rest of your life as a ticking clock in reverse seems pessimistic. Instead of "this is how much time I have left!", it's T-minus whatever amount of years. Plus, you know, life is so arbitrary. You might die tomorrow. You might be able to upload your brain and live forever in digital form. That uncertainty makes worrying about it seem like a waste of time.

Posted by 
 on: 06/01/10, 00:17:38
But is your life half-lived or half-died?

Posted by 
 on: 06/01/10, 00:50:52
@anandxxx Nature maybe, but what about circumstances? I'm not really sure what is the root of all of my health issues, but they have been pretty difficult and ongoing for years without really much of any let-up. I often wonder if much of anyone would be all that optimistic if their bodies actually felt the way mine does day to day.

But then, the mind and body go hand in hand a bit (not in some goofy spiritual way). Maybe if I had a brighter attitude towards everything I'd be in less physical pain? Tough to say, but like I said, I DID hold onto fairly positive feelings for a long, long time before they were kind of beaten out of me.

Posted by 
 on: 06/01/10, 01:40:32

I've read that there are studies that show that people who are generally happy in life remain happy even after things like being paralyzed whereas people who are unhappy remain unhappy even after things like winning the lottery.

Posted by 
 on: 06/01/10, 01:46:55
Simbabbad said:
It doesn't matter. It'll eventually ends. And whether you think there's eternal life or void after that, it means that what came before it ultimately didn't matter. That's what is important and meaningful, the fact it's just for fun.
I think you misunderstood me, because that's pretty much my philosophy (and I wasn't satisfied with the way I explained what I was saying, anyway). I know that what will happen, will happen. I was just saying that your perspective can affect how you perceive it and deal with it. A glass half-empty/half-full thing. Like, if you think you're stronger than someone, you could think either "I'm stronger than him" or "He's weaker than me". It's essentially the same thing, but the choice you pick defines your character and attitude, you know? The way you think about the world.

And I definitely don't think that anyone can do anything, as long as they put their mind to it, but people who DON'T believe that usually won't achieve great things. Or achieve things beyond their means. Overachieve. And people who are overly pessimistic will usually underachieve. To be honest, I wish I were foolishly optimistic.

I love all that science of happiness stuff. It fascinates me.

I don't really know what to say to that. I believe that people grow up with certain natural tendencies, but I'm sure that circumstances can change them. I'm just generalizing, because the only person who really knows what's going on with you is you. And I don't really understand your condition at all, since I have no personal experience with anything like that (beyond having near-constant neck pain). But there is a definite link between a positive or negative attitude and the body's overall health or immune system, or whatever. I'm not saying a positive attitude would cure you 100%. Just that it would probably have better effects than a negative one.

Posted by 
 on: 06/01/10, 03:02:27  - Edited by 
 on: 06/01/10, 03:10:45
anandxxx said:
because the only person who really knows what's going on with you is you.

I wish!

Yeah of course taking a positive attitude is better than taking a negative one. And I think like, despite feeling beaten down a lot, the fact that I'm working and in grad school and just continuing to do what I need to do is probably a positive. Still, I think longterm, attitudes are selfish beasts. If we take on a positive attitude, we want to see positive results, and if it goes years and years without much to point to and call a positive result, it's tough to hold onto completely.

By "positive result" I suppose I mean physically feeling well. The kind of thing you can't just make happen with hard work, etc.

Anyway, I think I tend to feel better when I'm away from computers. So it's tough to show the full picture, since I haven't found a way to type how I feel without being in front of a computer... yet.

Posted by 
 on: 06/01/10, 18:49:14  - Edited by 
 on: 06/01/10, 18:50:52
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