How to solve problems
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A voice was coming from somewhere. A gentle touch, a harder shaking, a desperate movement struck the old man. Who was disturbing him? In his home? How did the voice, the touch, the shaker - get into his house?
Fear. The old man opened his eyes, wide and hectic. He saw his son, but for this thought to calm him, his sleep had first to wear off. The old man shook himself, a jerking motion, to fling off the memories of last night. Why was he so hungover? His hard-trained instincts told him he would not like the answer anyway. So he didn't even try to ask what happened.
But why was his son here? Didn't he and his family leave yesterday?
"Hello Chris." The old man’s voice was nearly broken.
"Dad, what happened? I tried to ... oh man. God thanks, you are alive. I, I, ... I came back here, because you, you looked so sad the last few days. You were hiding it of course, but you couldn't even fool the kids this time."
The old man grumped. He looked outside, away. The rain was gone, the streets still black and moist, but here and there the concrete was turning grey and rough again.
"Dad. Look at me.”
The old man did not stop looking out the window. The sun had not yet crept high above the fjords' walls. So only the forest on top was shining bright, steaming under the sudden heat.
“We need to talk. I brought something with me: what do you think about going on a hike?"
The old man said nothing. What was his son thinking? Mustn't he know of how frail the elderly are? Was this some form of joke?
The old man giggled, looking out the small home's window. "Are you trying to be funny? You come here, for what exactly? To pity me? To tease me of how great life is? Is this one of your delusions of immortality again? It is quite the joke isn't it?" The old man laughed once, which took much strength from him. "It is all a great comedy, isn't it? When your mother and I found out about your plans to kill yourself, all those years ago, oh how much did we try to convince you of life’s worth. How much we tried. And now you stand before me, doing the same."
It was the son’s turn to be silent. He listened to his father, his expression unchanged throughout. Worry.
"You know," he said after a while, "I always had great respect for how you spoke so openly about my thoughts on suicide, not like mum. But now you and the alcohol are just trying to say mean things.” The son paused, unsure how he could turn around the conversation.
“I think you need a break, Dad. When was the last time you left the house, now that even your whisky gets delivered to your doorstep? Besides, wouldn't you like to see the top of our good old waterfall one last time?"
The old man wanted to laugh. What a ridiculous suggestion. But all he was capable of was a confused look. "I'm listening ..."
"I brought you a mobility suit from our university. It will carry your weight. Usually, we would combine this with medications, physical training, and a bunch of other stuff to help your body get young again, but this must do."
"I ... you know my decision."
"I do. And I cannot help those who do not wish for it. But you are not leaving us in this state of pity. Do it for me, if not for yourself."
The old man loosened his gaze away from the distance and looked at his son. That guy would never give up. Pride crept into the old man's consciousness, memories of facing the world and persisting. If only Marianne could — no, his mind would not go there. Not today.
"Well, then hook me up to your machine. How exciting, we are going on a hike! And bring me my old staff, it's probably somewhere in the woodshop."
The son could not overhear the sarcasm in his father’s voice.
That's how the old man had always imagined Baron Harkonnen, the fat, floating evil from Frank Herbert's Dune. He wasn't really floating, but a bunch of mechanical things were coming out from all over his body, lifting him up. There was absolutely no cool cyborg-slash-power-armor vibe to the construction, it looked more like an artistic clotheshorse. That someone hung a wrinkled, skinny old man on.
But it worked. He could move, even - how long hadn't he done that? - jump a little. The old man faced away from the car window, the reflection which had captured his self-image. He looked at his son, the fjord, the sun, the path ahead. What a beautiful day, he had to admit. A good day to leave.
They walked silently at first. The path felt familiar but distant to both of them. Every next corner they knew like words you just so barely can't remember. Up the fjord, along the turquoise, raging river, that was once left, once right of them. Always parallel, a good distance beneath. Swimming up the river with their feet. They crossed a bridge once or twice, taking a break there, taking a look back at the path, the river, the small city in the distance. The bright blue river flowing down below their feet, visible through the gaps the bridge left them to see.
It was the father who said the first words. "Thank you. This is what I needed. This, the beauty of it all, that's what life is about, right?" After a slight pause, he added: "But don't think your plan will work, Chris."
The son said nothing. He got moving again, continuing the walk. After a while he had to ask:
"I am curious though. What did you think my plan was?"
"Well, isn't it obvious? Teasing me, by allowing me to leave this world on such a beautiful day, at a place that I have the fondest memories of. And then talking me out of it on the way up. That's how I would have done it, back then. I actually tried this. We hiked up here too, do you remember?"
"I, however, every moment. The relationship with your mom was never the same afterward, you know. By the way, I never asked what, after all, made you decide against it? Was it your altruist friends? Sarah? No, that can't be, you only met her later, right? I guess it was some rational logic you convinced yourself to believe in at the end, right?"
The son laughed. "I wonder where I got that from. But you are right, it was a strange thing. The philosophers that got me into it were in the end, why I chose not to do it."
"How ironic. I always believed you were just primed to see the meaninglessness of everything, and so looked for others to confirm this. In all this time, making you receptive to nihilistic literature, this is what I feel most guilty about."
"I guess your heat-death-of-the-universe-bedtime-stories probably didn't help." The son was laughing again, his father following suit.
"But in all seriousness, you are right. I did look for confirming the meaninglessness of all this, all the absurdity, all the unjustified suffering. But I only realized years later why. It was not in order to embrace the emptiness but to escape from any moral consideration. I did not like the world and the choices in front of me so I thought to better not choose at all."
"Which is also a choice, I guess. And once you realized that, you chose anew?"
"Not quite, I don't even think I would agree with that. No, as I said, it was philosophy that brought me in and out of this. It was the simple question of Emil Cioran: Why now? Why not wait to kill yourself tomorrow, or in a few decades? If everything is absurd and life has no meaning, how can death have one?"
The old man, hanging down from his mechanical frame, slowly trotting forward, thinking. After a while he replied:
"I believe you. It fits what you would be doing, changing your life, just by reading a few words. But I am also seeing what you did there. I am old. I have a reason to do it sooner than later. Unless I take your medicine ..."
"Which you will not, yes, yes. Was I this annoying back then?"
"Oh yeah. We taught you well, maybe a little too much."
"But I still cannot beat you at your own game, while you are handicapped by degeneration. There must have been quite a few people afraid of you in your youth, heh?"
The father and son continued walking up the ravine. The river had become thinner and wilder, deprived of all the inflows they had passed. The vegetation was thicker here, the air heavy, full of mist. They could already hear it. The waterfall.
"And then what?" The father picked up the conversation again. "What did you do once you decided to live?"
"I guess I was confused about my reasoning back then, undecided between 'the world is meaningless' and 'existence is suffering'. But once I saw that I could live in a meaningless world, I decided to reduce suffering as much as possible. I don’t know if there is any logic in this. I was just ready for 'meaning to ensue', that’s how Victor Frankl would have put it. You know the rest, happily married, two kids, and the whole future in front of me."
"And they lived happily ever after."
The path was turning around a large boulder before it gave way to the sight. The waterfall was right there, in front of them. Larger than both of them remembered. Larger than they could see, the top hidden in clouds, hidden from this angle even by sheer size.
"What a sight, hm. Raining down for millennia. I cannot see a difference from when I was a child, only my memories and the human world have changed since then."
The son was barely listening, gazing at the cliffside facing them, dark and mossy. Without his mind moving away from the riverbed in front his body continued the conversation:
"Well, we managed to change quite a bit of the natural world in the meantime too, didn't we? But I guess you are right. Millennia. Unfathomable how we will feel, once we start to witness such changes now. It will be quite the experience to see the earth moving and rivers being born." He caught himself speaking, wondering if anyone even listened. His father seemed absent too, but then he heard him say "Yes, yes. You know what I think about such empty - "
The old man stopped himself, removing the shackles of attention, the hypnotic sight of falling water - and looked at his son.
“You do really mean it, do you? I once tried to understand your explanation, the one about why death can’t give life meaning.”
“Death can't give life meaning, for you can only have meaning if you exist.” came the reply, as monotone as the hissing soundscape around them.
“Right, that one. I did get it. And you were right, this sentence is often used in a way that confuses motivation and meaning. Death might not give you meaning, but it gives you a deadline.”
“So get your ass up. Pretty unhealthy form of motivation, if you’d ask me.”
“That might well be, but … isn’t it all, well … too rational? Would you actually come up with such a phrase, if you just lived your life? What you just said about ‘rivers being born’ do you actually feel it? Is it worth to suffer just for that?”
"Why not? I don’t have to suffer and can show my kids their first rise of a new island. Why would you not want that?"
The old man mumbled a "you know the answer”, then looked away, up and down, as if he’d lost something. “But we digress. Do you know how to get to the path up? They seem to have changed the markings. And besides, something is not quite right with the 'happily ever after' picture you just drew."
The son crossed the path they were on, over to a map standing on the other side. As he came back, he replied:
"No, I do not know the answer. But you do everything to avoid this topic, so I will give you this. Of course, nothing is quite much right with the story. You forgot the hard years of work on myself and the world in between. I wouldn't exactly call the last years easy peasy. And we are not even close to being done. We have to go there by the way."
It was not the most difficult route, and mostly through the shades of forests, which helped with the quite-warm-for-autumn sun. It went snailing up and up and up, always so that one could see the next curve right above oneself.
“I wish I had this suit back when you were a kid, there is nothing as heavy as a child that’s bored, but back to your endless journey for doing the most good. You know that we are infinitely proud of you. Why were you so harsh to yourself though? Did you know what you were getting into?"
"Not me, no. Those who started it, and me, were truly just trying to improve the way donations save and improve lives. We wanted to help as much as possible; to sort all the problems we were faced with and find the needle in all the solutions. But this question touches on everything. On truth, on goodness, on what we have to do, and on the future. Imagine realizing slavery is a bad idea a few hundred years ago - we had this every second week or so. The stakes just got higher and higher, the beings in need larger and larger and our uncertainty greater and greater. I am still astonished that there is still a we. Somehow the original question still remains to this day and - more remarkably - we somehow managed to find plenty of needles on the way. Remember how some of us - kind of accidentally - prevented the first roll-out of a highly unsafe Artificial Intelligence? Since then we solved most global health issues, made factory farming not worth the money, and helped here and there with getting rid of fossil fuels. But most importantly we kind of achieved what we set out to do: having a feedback loop between people that donate their time or money and those they are trying to help."
The father listened, what could he say? Finally, a question came to his mind. He knew how his son would answer, and he loved him for it. So just to hear it, he asked:
"But you are still not happy?"
"I have been happy throughout, Dad. Maybe I could have been more effective, if I were less happy; maybe I could have been more happy, if I had been less effective. Same thing. But we are not monks."
"You are just trying not to fool yourself, yeah, I know. I still don't get what is left. You really don't seem to get that life is a hike with a start and a finish. You can't build a philosophy that can never stop demanding things from you, right? Morality can't be a moving goalpost, for heaven's sake!"
"Why? You know that we disagree on this. But even so, we are far from reaching any fixed goal. The first digital consciousness has likely already been created, we don't even know. And some lunatic just brought animals to Mars, because Nature is natural and that can't be bad, right?? The matter in the universe is not yet set up in a way to maximize well-being. You being a prime example."
"Shots fired. Well that's why we are hiking up here, right? To liberate my body for any well-being machine to make use of."
"Wow. That was dark, even for you. Sometimes I wonder why I am even doing this."
They still climbed. One serpentine at a time. The forest was getting lighter, fewer and fewer trees liked this height, mostly birch was left. And the waterfall continued to roar, loud and steady, like it had been doing for millennia.
"But you knew all that, Dad. You know my life's story. Are you asking all these questions, just to pass the time? Or to avoid the unavoidable?"
The old man remained silent. His gaze was directed at his feet, seemingly fascinated by the machine that carried him forward, right foot, left foot.
"The unavoidable? You mean the part, where you convince me not to do it? Not to die in a few minutes? Not to end my life by my own hand, now that I still can? You have chosen your meaning in life to be the pursuit of truth, as a means to reach as much well-being as possible. This is an ‘optimisation problem without a solution’, how you would put it. Your meaning in life will always go on, so you will want to do the same. But mine does not."
"But why, Dad? Why? What is your meaning, that has ended? Why, why can’t you choose a new meaning? Pick any! There are so many out there, so many that go on!"
The son was screaming the last words. He didn't mean to, and it was more in order to be heard over the waterfall. They were close now to the top, a few more meters and they would be able to see the plane, the place from where the river sprung, the one that plunged into the depths right beside them.
"Mar ...n ..."
The voice of the old man was crackling, fading, being drowned out by the thunder all around them. The son had stopped walking mid-sentence, so he had to catch up. He followed in his father's robotic footsteps to the top. What he saw there was truly otherworldly. While inside the fjord one always assumed the surrounding mountains to be the highest ones. That there was just another valley on the other side. But this was deceptive. A fjord is a ravine, not a valley. Around them was a great plane, with lush forests, wide grasslands, windless lakes, and enormous snow-capped mountains in the distance. A new world. Complete. With only a slight crack, the gorge they were coming out of. As if awakened.
The son had hoped for this effect, but his old memories had deceived him of the scale. He looked at his father, who just stood there. Any other man would probably have had his mouth wide open. But his father was too proud for such a small gesture, even if the rest of his body expressed the same. The son stepped closer, slowly, as if not to disturb a wild animal. Carefully he reached for the controls of the mobility suit and removed a few holds. He wrapped an arm around his dad, to support him, slowly lowering both of them to the ground. With one foot he moved a lump of wood closer to them, so they could sit on top.
"It is Mum, right?"
His father still just sat there, gazing over the world.
"It is your meaning that you lost, right? The meaning to experience another. To love another. You cannot bear the thought of living without her. For this would make all the time you had with her shorter the longer you go on."
Maybe, just maybe, the son could have spotted a tear forming in his father's eyes. But it was only a hint, never reality.
"Have you thought about me? I would lose you forever. My grand-grand-grand-children would never meet you. They would never play with their weird grand-grand-grand-father, who still lived and could tell stories from the old world, this strange place, down in the canyon we just came from."
Silence befell the two, only the rumbling of water was shaking the air.
"Do you know what you are asking?"
"I can only imagine. Having to choose between a good past and an uncertain future. Having to choose between staying, keeping her alive through our thoughts and actions but risk forgetting her. And going, ending it, closing your arc on a certain and undisputable note. I can not know. Your generation is the first and last to make this decision."
The son paused for a moment.
"You were wrong about my plans though. I never intended to convince you, it is not my right. We can’t know the subjective well-being of others. We can only be there to support them once they make their decision. My plan was to tell you the story, the one you told me up here all those years ago. This hike is a metaphor. In life, we hike. Up a mountain. And the higher we are the more we can see. We see more mountains worth climbing. Science was never about truth but collecting questions. Politics is about finding more ways in which we could be wrong. The meaning of the universe is to provide infinite amounts of meaning. The next one is just another small hike away. That is what you told me. Quite pathetic, I come to think of it. This was all good and well. But not the reason I am alive."
"No. It was the last addition. A footnote in your original speech. 'And no matter what path you choose to hike on, son: remember, I will be there for you. Occasionally walking beside you, sometimes waiting patiently when you make a detour, and most of your later life just as a memory, but with you nonetheless.' This is why I am still here. Only if I die, will you not be with me, so I have to keep existing. This is what you asked of me, even if never so intended."
They got up eventually, on a silent agreement. The father turned around walking towards the waterfall. His son watched him approach the edge. He has made his peace, no matter the decision. He watched his father, tipping from one leg to the other, right before the cliff. He was doing something with the suit, the son couldn't see it from the back. And then he realized what his father was doing. Pissing down, all the way down. Goddammit. That memory would stay with him for a while.
They walked back, all the way towards the small town they had spent so much time of their life in. It was the middle of the night, with stars as bright as they can only be in the mountains when they finally reached it. Their family's hometown.
As his father was closing the door, the son had one last question:
"When will you kill yourself?"
The son gasped, a face of terror and angst. Maybe, just maybe his father could have spotted the playful smile of the acting. But it was only a hint, never reality.
"Don't worry, son. I will be with you for a while, searching for my meaning. Maybe I find a new one, maybe I understand how mine has not yet ended, or maybe the search itself becomes the way. And who knows, if we search together we might even find one together. But in the meantime and beyond I might as well give you the same answer. And always ask the world for one more day.”
My thanks go to Karen Fowler, Ben Wu, Stuart McWhinney, Marius Hoffmann, and Hella Farrell for giving such valuable feedback. And to all those who are making this story reality, thank you for putting in the hard work. See you when new rivers came along and the earth has moved.