Rehearsing and wagering

“Life is a rehearsal for death.” Such is a common sentiment open to infinite interpretations. The spiritual may argue that what we do must be governed by our end, a teleology of diurnal living, so that actions, thoughts, and plans must conform to a higher vision. One may argue that death undoes everything, and that we must prepare ourselves to renounce what we cling to because we are not that which we desire. At the same time, still others will simply call for a maximum of pleasure. But it is not life but death that evokes the totality of our persons, as Dylan Thomas puts it so tortuously.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Whether we are of “frail deeds” or not, the temptation to rage will be there because of the wound of consciousness. We will realize that no amount of rehearsing will have prepared us for the final act.

But some will argue that life is not a rehearsal for death and that God or the gods deliberately place us here to enjoy consciousness and the fruits of being human. Similarly, thoughtless people grasp for every particle of amusement in daily life and give no thought to death, anymore than they give thought to anything else. These promise us that they will certainly not rage — or they will rage the more loudly at the loss of what constituted their lives.

The whole issue seems premised on a version of Pascal’s wager, wherein we act in a certain way because we bet on the existence of God, not being able to afford the consequences of not believing if, after all, God does exist. Pascal argues not so much for the existence of God but for a specific behavior of God in punishing all who do not believe what Pascal believes. We assume that the issue is a theological one when in fact it is an ethical one. One may argue that regardless of theological belief, everything comes down to ethics.

Pascal may be deemed a “consequentialist.” The consequences we bring upon ourselves on earth (but primarily in the afterlife) are based not on ethics so much as belief, the notion being that no ethics are sufficient to override the content of belief.

The non-believer’s reply is that an ethical belief would be rewarded by an ethical God regardless of whether the person held this or that personal belief.

But Pascal is ready to trap the non-believer by insisting on the content of belief. He would condemn the non-believer’s lack of belief as overthrowing any good that they may ever have done. The non-believer loses the wager simply by not betting.

In this case, the non-believer is not simply an atheist or agnostic but also the “other-than” believer, for Pascal offered a rather narrow set of beliefs to which his interlocutor must adhere. The content of beliefs of the many cultures and societies in the world (of which Pascal would not even have heard) would probably have their own version of his wager — except that they would insist on a different set of beliefs. The wager extends culturally (not logically) in terms of content and detail, like betting on different objects under the shell or on different cards not even in the deck. But always the bet is weighed against the better, who must guess the hidden number or card or a letter in the mind of the host.

The “other-than” believers may simply be Pascal’s counterparts in another part of the world. Or they may be “maximalists.” If the latter, they intend to maximize their contentment on earth, either through pleasure or ethical behavior — to maximize utility or happiness irregardless of God, or rather, irregardless of the content of the particular person’s faith, irregardless of the particular person (or institution, etc.) which has set up the table and invites or coerces passersby to bet.

The whole notion of a wager is distasteful, with its odor of deception, greed, and fraud. Even if we wager with ourselves only, we still must take into account all the cultural and social input that we happen to have encountered in our circumscribed life. We must realize that we are basing everything on feelings. We cannot assimilate all the arguments of probability and philosophy if the wager comes down to how one feels. That is why we had best abstain from Pascal’s wager, any wager, for that matter. The deck is stacked, the cards are marked, and nothing we do changes the outcome. No one can claim to prove that anyone has won, and even if they could it would not change the odds.

The solitary knows that the careful scrutiny of thoughts and beliefs reveals the imprint of culture and society. Our experiences can make us pessimists or optimists but it does not matter what we think as much as whether we are aware of our feelings, our fears, our motives. The one who lures others to wager and the one lured by the thought of reward over punishment play contrived and unwholesome roles. Our moral point of view does not change the outcome of the wager because life is rigged in favor of not belief but death.

Life is, indeed, a rehearsal for death, but it is not a wager. Our own stubborn hearts, full of desire, pit life against death, winning against losing, reward against punishment. These equations are capable of destroying the imagination and distorting a relationship to the world and nature from which can spring a genuine ethic.

If we are always rehearsing, we are never engaged in the role and only wondering whether we are living yet. Yet when we stop rehearsing, then we must be responsible for everything. At that point we can change the phrase. Not “Life is a rehearsal for death” but “Life is a trajectory towards death.”

That latter sentiment will emphasize that the play is ongoing and has been for millennia. We don’t have to practice or know any lines. We have only to remain silent. We can be “minimalists.” For only in silence and solitude will we recognize what the stage really looks like, what the audience really wants, and whether we want to accept someone else’s script.