Rest In Peace
September 23, 2010

Apologies for being AWOL for the past few days. It’s been a long, strange, and often difficult week.

Ten days ago, a friend of mine committed suicide by self-immolation. We weren’t super close. I mostly knew her through the high school classes we shared and our network of mutual friends. We hadn’t spoken in a year, and I guess I never knew she suffered from depression.

Anyway, the memorial service is tonight. Until now, I’ve held off on putting anything up on the blog for a number of reasons: at first because I didn’t want to be one of the first people to break the news, and then later because I prefer to deal with my feelings about these things privately. I also spent a great deal of time convincing myself I was less affected by it than I was, both out of some bizarre feeling of deference to her closer friends and because I needed to compartmentalize my feelings in order to get on with arranging for the big move. I leave for DC in two days. It’s an odd note on which to abandon Middletown—my home since I was two years old.

I do feel the need to say something, though. Because I think the common human reaction in these instances is to be appalled by the utter senselessness of the act, to ask why she did what she did. I’ve struggled with that question myself, although I understand on an intellectual level that it makes about as much sense as asking why someone might die from cancer. Yes, Nora made a decision in the most superficial, literal-minded sense. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, she didn’t really do this. She was the victim of a disease.

That’s not a particularly novel thought, but it bears repeating, especially when misconceptions about clinical depression are still so commonplace. There is no “sort of person” who would do this sort of thing, because depression can happen to anyone. There’s no more reason to it—no more conscious decision-making—than with any other illness. So if someone you know shows any of the symptoms, make sure they see someone who can provide a diagnosis, and, if necessary, treatment. And if you yourself have suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. Understand that while you may experience whatever you’re feeling as an inseparable part of your deepest self, that’s not the case. It’s something being inflicted on you, something that needs to be taken care of for your sake and the sake of your friends and family.

Our sense of self is so much more fragile and permeable than we like to think. Doubly so for our sense of another’s self. Incidents like this force us to confront that reality in a way we normally take great pains not to.

Rest in peace, Nora.


SCHAUMBURG, IL—In an ultimately futile act some have described as courageous and others have called a mere postponing of the inevitable, existentialist firefighter James Farber delayed three deaths Monday. Gotta love The Onion.
May 27, 2010

Existentialist Firefighter Delays 3 Deaths

Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, Martin Heidegger
May 16, 2010

Heidegger Action Figure
Image by Mads Boedker via Flickr

Lo and behold, just as I’m jumping back into the blogosphere I see that two prominent political bloggers are debating one of my favorite philosophical hobbyhorses.


To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.


“Facing it is our life’s task”? I can’t even conceive of that. I think about death sometimes, just like everyone, and sometimes these thoughts bother me more than other times. But thinking about it all the time? Casting it as uniquely central to the human condition? That’s almost incomprehensible to me. Wondering about our own finitude is one thing — I imagine we all do that from time to time — but why should this be elevated above the human ability to create art, science, mathematics, love, war, poetry, trade, government, or ethics — or the ability to wonder in the first place? Why is learning how to deal with our eventual death the defining characteristic of being human?

Drum says, “this attitude toward death surely sums up a vast chasm between the religious [Sullivan] and the nonreligious [Drum].” But as a fairly strident atheist, my own position is actually much closer to Sullivan’s, with one major caveat: I wouldn’t call awareness of death’s inevitability the defining characteristic of what it means to be human. It’s just a byproduct of the defining characteristic.

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