I. ON LIFE AFTER DEATH
So I was taking a walk the other day. And I thought about death. Now, I’ve long ago made my peace with the reality that one day I won’t be around. To be quite honest, there’s comfort in such a certainty. In today’s uncertain times, having a constant does become necessary for retaining some sense of sanity. But I digress.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, Death defines so much of our lives, it blends into the fabric of perception itself. Our worldview is almost entirely built around our awareness– our fear of it. Our understanding of health, wealth, and especially, our beliefs. In Life After Death, heaven and hell, and the existence of God. Our desire to be remembered by those we love, or leaving behind something resembling an inspiring legacy. When faced with reminders of death, these choices, these worldviews are more often than not magnified and exacerbated. And this leads to some of our most consequential decisions, for better and worse.
“The idea of death, the fear of it, hounds the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity.”
Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death”
Humans are the only animal capable of conceptual thought. That’s allowed us to climb to the top of the food chain, invent the wheel and build massive concrete jungles. It has allowed for the creation of systems of government, economy, education and military. Humans have evolved past procreation as a survival necessity and inserted emotion and pleasure into the equation. It has also given way to ugliness in how our society functions. Racism, sexism, homophobia and, of course, capitalism. And, in our capacity for conceptual thought, death has firmly attached itself as the foundation for intense retention of each unique worldview, which circles back to a single concept: our mortality.
The Good Place and Damn. share a common starting point: the Death of their main protagonists. They also share the importance of choice. Bigger choices, like a moral philosophy to subscribe to, but also the smaller choices that help support that larger decision. However, they both also highlight the larger implications of each choice, the unintended consequences. Or undesired outcomes. And through it all, an existential crisis lurking under.
II. WICKEDNESS OR WEAKNESS?
In ‘Damn’, Kendrick travels a road with turns both triumphant and defeated, trusting and paranoid, full of hope or giving into nihilism. All underlined by uncertainty in the existence of God, and the decision to commit to a leap of faith, out of the path of wickedness into a path of weakness. One better aligned with his understanding of God’s will. That same will that in ‘Fear’, the standout track that details the thesis for the entire project, implies that even if Kendrick were to follow His word, and commit to a life of Good, of God, he will still be subjected to a literal lifetime of pain and suffering. Of seeing injustice in the world, one exclusive to people of color, the “true sons of Israel”. The game is, going by the text, to accept unearned punishment, to follow His command, to witness an increasingly corrupted world, all as a gamble on the existence of a God. and a Heaven.
It brings to mind the teachings of Blaise Pascal. Specifically, Pascal’s Wager, which proposes the argument for believing, or at least leaning towards belief, in God. In short, reason and intellect can’t decide whether God exists or not, so it makes sense to choose the option that would benefit you, if you’re correct. In the absence of concrete evidence, a pragmatic theology fills the void. Yes, there might not be a heaven but, what if there is? Should you not work towards getting there? Pascal’s Wager works on a blind bet, if there’s even the slightest chance that God exists and you chose not to believe it, Hell awaits.
Throughout DAMN, we see Kendrick go through bouts of Doubts, Affirmation, Temptation, Redemption all in an attempt to make sense of it all.
But, like Pascal suggested, it is through what is at first self-interested reasons for walking the ‘right’ path, that self-interest turns into an honest conviction. Faith, like some self-help books would suggest, works on Habituation as Salvation as the key to a good life. But, going back to ‘FEAR’, we find the question at the heart of Damn. If God exists, why would he allow so much suffering in his life, and in the world? To what reasonable end? Because of some mysterious command, leading to some elusive truth? It borders on Narcissism, if not outright Cruelty. It’s hard not to think of The Euthyprho Problem:
Is something good because God commands it? Or does he command it because it is Good?
Eleanor is dead. That’s the bad news, the good news is that Hey!, she’s in The Good Place. She learns how this eternal bliss works and who its inhabitants are. But then, it dawns on her: she’s not supposed to be here.
This is the basic setup to The Good Place, one of my favorite TV Shows and undoubtedly one of the best of the modern era. Eleanor is dead, made it to The Good Place through what she feels is a glitch in the points system and decides she can either turn herself in or try to earn her place here. She enlists the help of Chidi, a Moral Philosophy and Ethics professor, who reluctantly agrees to help her due to, of course, his strict code of ethics.
The Good Place begins by building on the premise that you can become a better person by learning all about philosophy. So the show centers its plots and characters from the 3 main theories of moral philosophy: Consequentialism– Actions must prioritize outcomes, Deontology– actions prioritize motives and Virtue Ethics — the practice of virtuous actions. These are the paths to being a truly good person. Choose your ethics.
The game-changing plot at the end of Season 1 is what really drives the true premise of the show: They were in the Bad Place all along, and Michael is the Demon Architect behind all of it. Where originally Eleanor and the rest were attempting to earn the right to -stay- in the (Fake) Good Place, now it becomes a question of whether they ever had a chance at making it to the real Good Place.
By Season 3, The Good Place has arrived at a truly existential dilemma, and a haunting revelation: It has been centuries since anyone has gotten to The Good Place. As humanity has evolved, and society become more complex, the moral gray area has become simply too big to maneuver out of. A rigid Points system is outdated and has become too unreliable for modern society.
But more importantly, Michael, now a part of Team Cockroach begins to understand the real flaw in the system: the misconception that we each have to do it all on our own. In modern society, it becomes less about achieving true morality alone, but doing it together. The question is not what can You do so You can be a good person, but what everyone can pitch in so we can all be better, together. What your impact is in your community and society. What we owe each other.
IV. WHAT WE OWE TO EACH OTHER
In both The Good Place and DAMN, Existentialism is the driving force of the narrative. The search for answers in a world devoid of them, making sense of senselessness, and the constant question of the point of it all, with death lurking perpetually. And in both works, a clear verdict is as difficult to reach as it is in our own lives, but they do try to reach for what could be considered answers. More importantly, they both have built-in narrative devices that allow our protagonists a chance at redemption, at second chances.
Life, in the simplest term, is about balance. It is as much about the motives behind your choices as well as the consequences that follow. And whether you believe in an afterlife or not, at the deepest level, the actions you take, choices you make and moral theory you subscribe to are inevitably about what life looks like after death. Reaching the Good Place by following your religious practice. Being remembered by those who know you and beyond, whether through your profession, charity, and impact on your community.
But the question of what is a good life can be much more simple:
(Judge: Do good because it’s good, not for moral dessert)
What happens when we die is simply not about us as individuals. Keanu Reeves, clearly an immortal being with an entire lifetime of love, pain and wisdom, summed this up in the most heartbreaking or heartwarming way, depending on how you perceive it:
“I know that the ones that love us will miss us very much.”
And that’s just it. Death happens whether we like it or not. But it’s bigger than us.
Socrates believed Death should be nothing to fear, as we simply don’t know what IT is, really.
For Socrates, Death could be dreamless sleep that we won’t wake up from. Or a passage to the different plane of existence. An afterlife. But in the absence of knowing what lies behind the end of our lives, we should in turn focus our concerns and efforts towards everything that precedes it.
While Existentialism is often linked to, well, Existential Crises, it can also mean something much more open. Death persists, so what’s the point of living? Where is the meaning? For someone like Albert Camus, the lack of a clear answer IS the answer. We make our own meaning. We define what a good life means to us.
It could mean a commitment to selfishness, or selflessness. Growth or decay. Wickedness or weakness.
But the important thing to remember is that the choices we make, the actions we take and how we value our morality ripples out into your immediate and extended circles.
So, if you want to be a virtuous person, a good person, consider that you want to be good because you want your family, friends, colleagues to be good people. Yes, this does mean working on a deep almost subconscious level of trust in one another. And a belief that everyone knows how to be good, even if they don’t know it themselves. It could even mean that there is a higher power that instilled in us these instincts of virtue. This moral compass. Yes, you can call it faith.
And you can immerse yourself in every philosophical theory of morality, or dedicate your life to a religious practice, but at the end of the day, true virtue, true morality is achieved at a much deeper, more human level. It is knowing what the rules of a society are but also how you feel about them. It is the realization that we are not alone in this. The value of our virtue is measured by consequences And actions, it is realized in our relationships. In the search of happiness. The pursuit of mindfulness and the desire to see the world as we would like it to see us. And in doing what you do, leaving the world a little better than how you found it.
Doing the right thing, not for the guarantee of some reward or surveillance from a higher being, but because life is hard enough as it is. Life sucks for everyone on some level, so why not try to make it suck less, together?