ONE of my childhood buddies died unexpectedly at the age of eighteen. That was many years ago, in Hamm, Germany. While alive, he was a known brawler, a brutish drunk, and a pot-head. His parents divorced, he dropped out of high school, had a lady who supported him, collected music on vinyl, did shoplifting for a while, and he always had this excruciating wish to die gloriously: “I won’t turn 30!” he once bragged, and: “I enlist in the army, if I have to!” His boldness, his fearlessness, and the unbending commitment toward his own ruin left a deep impression on me.
Lots of young men I knew quit. A Chinese MA candidate, barely twenty-two years of age, at the University of Edinburgh, once had dinner with us, then, two weeks later on the second day of Christmas, we heard news that he jumped off his 8-story dormitory building. “Tade yunqi bu hao,” they would say –his luck left him. His fate was cut and sealed in China already, where his overbearing parents had him prepared for a career in law, a decision that evidently crushed his soul. He probably didn’t even comprehend how he, the only-child of Chinese farmers, a burned-out, hopelessly damaged adolescent, could end up lying on the cold pavement of Richmond Place, in the capital of Scotland. His life made little sense to him -it was kaput.
Another fellow, a sturdy Scotsman, frequently got so boozed up, we thought his self-destruction had a rather cunning plot to it. He was intelligent, yet cared little about his safety, letting alone his health of which he seemed to have stashed away plenty. During a trip to Australia, however, he got himself the worst for a drink. Canned and wasted, he fell into a comatose state and refused to wake up when the fire alarm begged him to do so. “And if this hadn’t happened,” rumors said, “he would still be doing dangerous things.”
The list goes on. At Peking University, a doctoral candidate in his decisive, final year panicked over his flawed thesis and committed zisha. His desk in his tiny dorm room was allegedly plastered with those yellow motivational self-stickers –with quotes from successful people like US rapper 50 Cents’ “Get Rich or Die Tryin.” People say the candidate spent eight years in solitary, had no hygiene, no friends, and no reason to go on living. Other graduates attain more posthumous fame – like Hai Zi. He destroyed himself at the age of twenty-five; only to become one of Beijing’s most celebrated dead poets.
Literature, to be sure, is full with people dominated by self-destructive behavior. And it is certainly true that we admire people who died for a cause like, say, Socrates, Jesus, or Hannibal; we even worship thisclass of artists who single-mindedly minister to their doom, either by way of overwork and exhaustion, or from carrying soul-devouring, shameful secrets –Vincent Van Gogh, Novalis, and Nietzsche come to mind. And, yes, we also delight in building legends around performers and musicians who were evidently haunted by mania, depression, and severe addiction – James Dean, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Leslie Cheung, Marilyn Monroe, Yukio Mishima, or the late Philip Seymour Hoffman- to name but a few.
Death can be seen as climax or as the final act; alas, it all boils down to this: Do we want, metaphorically speaking, to die in battle when we were strongest, or do we prefer to run and wait for the Reaper to drive by our nursing home when we are at our weakest? Both are legitimate ends to Man.
All those people above, famous or not, often entertained unrealistic goals, had low self-esteem, severe mental problems, or they simply got lost in life. Most others hang on to it, though, as long as they still see an iota of hope, another gig they could achieve, another moment of bliss that will extend their welcome; they keep going on with life which Buddhist know is mostly about suffering. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher of existentialism, rather pessimistically interpreted all this as the unbound Will to Live; but the truth is, some people are just procrastinating a feverishly diabolical and incurable wish to die.
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