Archives for posts with tag: existential ennui

“When you come to think of it,  almost all human behaviour and activity is not essentially any different from animal behaviour. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeros? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks 3000 years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential? The answer to that can be found in another question and that’s this: which is the most universal human characteristic? Fear or laziness?”

This is a quotation from the film Waking Life, and to me, it really explores what it means to be human. All these aspects of human life that we do in our day to day lives, even in our most exceptional days, can often be found in the animal kingdom. The film goes further in its observations of the relationship between our daily existence and the so-called lesser evolved beings:

“Excuse me.

‘Cuse me.

Hey, could we do that again? I know we haven’t met, but I don’t want to be an ant. I mean, it’s like we go through life with our antenna’s bouncing off one another, continuously on ant autopilot with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner. “Here’s your change.” “Paper or plastic?” “Credit or debit?” “Want ketchup with that?” I don’t want a straw; I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be an ant, you know?”

What it means to be human: our creativity, our intellect, our imagination, these are what separate us. For the most part, we do live our lives as an ant, with the good days being the ones where we get move slightly up the evolutionary ladder to sun ourselves on a rock like a lizard. The first quotation is actually somewhat optimistic because it assumes that all of us possess the same capacity to achieve human-level greatness, with only mental barriers keeping us from pursuing them. A more pessimistic outlook would be to assume that human beings simply aren’t as developed as we believe ourselves to be, save for the few aberrations that launch new cultural, social, and scientific paradigms who drive us forward.

Which is it? Are we lazy and afraid? Do we all have the drive to think, to create, to explore, but we don’t because we worry others might think it’s stupid? Or that no one will care? Or that we just can’t be bothered? Or do we just simply not have the capacity, and so we live our lives as bestial creatures content with mediocrity because that’s all we’re capable of? I don’t have the answer because I haven’t quite resolved the conflict between my cynicism and idealism just yet.

I don’t mean to suggest that our animal nature is inherently abhorrent. Some of our finer instincts are our more primal ones. But I think we need to prove our superiority; we need to justify our dominance over the planet. What I’m hoping for is that people will genuinely make the effort to explore their distinctive humanity and express that humanity, because fear and laziness are not an excuse to avoid the duty of our species.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. It was a fairly short relationship, but it was still long enough for her to develop feelings for this person, and the reason he gave for their breakup was somewhat vague. She felt that the relationship had been a good one, but since it ended for what she perceived to be little reason and she didn’t feel as though she could learn anything from the experience, she described it as completely meaningless. If it has no value after the fact, how could it have had value at all?

I want to cycle through a bunch of thought experiments, and I want you, dear reader, to think about these examples and decide their worth.

What has greater value? A person who gets married at 25, has a great, healthy relationship for 30 years, and then the marriage ends. It doesn’t matter how, maybe their partner dies or whatever, but then that person is alone and miserable for another 30 years and dies at the age of 85. Or: A person who has a relationship for two years, then is alone and miserable for one year, then a relationship for two years, then alone for one, etc. again from the age of 25 to 85. So that’s essentially 40 years of relationships to 20 years of isolated misery. Assume that these multiple, brief relationships are mostly healthy ones.

Next, let’s look at addiction. Say someone has been an addict for 20 years, and then after 40 years of sobriety they finally slip, and overdose and die. Compare this to someone who has been an addict for 40 years, then they sober up for 20 years, and then die a non-drug-related death.

Lastly, consider success. Say a person garners great success for themself fairly early on in their life, and then accomplishes little during the rest of it. Compare this person to someone who achieves great success near the end of their long, mediocre life. Assume equal amounts of success.

What value has temporality? I think most people would agree that the 30 year relationship has more value than the sum of 40 years worth of many relationships because more meaning can be built with a single partner. Children could be born and properly raised, many great trips could be shared, etc. It’s not necessarily the length of something that gives it its worth, but the value that one finds within it.

Secondly, the end of something doesn’t necessarily determine its worth either. I think the more obvious choice regarding the addict is that the length of the sobriety trumps a sober death. It is a tragic end to be sure, but I don’t believe that the end invalidates the 40 years of a healthy life that was lived prior to it. If the addict had been hit by a bus on their way to buy the drugs, and never got the chance to overdose, would that have invalidated his life? Of course not. The end of something cannot negate the meaning of something because all things must end. Even if, for example, one were to find out that their partner had been lying to them about an affair for years, that would still not negate any happiness one had felt because in that moment that happiness was real. Being miserable and betrayed now does not make you less happy when you initially felt it.

Meaning is in the moment. And whether that meaning continues or ends is irrelevant to the worth of that meaning when it takes place. We as humans, however, can only live in the present. And looking at it in the abstract, we might think that the greatness achieved at the beginning of one’s life is equal to greatness achieved at the end of one’s life, but you also have to remember that when Robin Williams killed himself, all the fond memories his fans had of him were from over a decade ago.

Living in the present means that we don’t normally appreciate the value of meaning that we once had. If someone tells me that I’m living in the past because I’m sulking over an ex-girlfriend or something, that is untrue. The joy of the past that I am currently focusing on is not living in the past because I’m miserable about it; not joyful. I am using my present moment as a judge of past meaning, even if, when taken in the abstract, we can see that that is not its true value.

Speaking of ex-girlfriends, I have one that grew up in poverty. One of the things she told me about poverty was that when things were good, even though frugality might make things a little easier financially later on, their family would still splurge a little bit because when things were bad later, they had those good times to look back on and appreciate. They chose to bank their meaning rather than their finances, and while it may not be conventional wisdom, they still survived and probably had more enriched lives because of it.

Can we extract ourselves from the present? Can we appreciate the past as it is meant to be appreciated, and recognize the infinite uncertainty of the future which could very well hold our greatest success? Well, we can certainly try.

I believe in Western culture we have become disillusioned with modernity. Not just the postmodernists who have long since abandoned the structured lifestyles, rigid individualism, and scientific order that make up our contemporary society, but subconsciously I believe we all have some amount of disenchantment with where our culture has ended up. As an escape from our existential malaise, likely without even meaning to, we jettison ourselves, not into the future, but into the past; when we still maintained a connection with the world and with each other.

In Ancient Greece, there was the Cult of Dionysus. The purpose of this cult was to abandon all inhibitions, and revert back into a natural state. This was achieved by drinking a lot of wine and dancing to music. Dionysus himself, the god of wine, was imagined as a Satyr. A Satyr is man with goat legs and goat horns, and he has a big ol’ dick too. The Satyr was the inspiration for the imagery of the Christian devil, but more on that later.

These were not rambunctious parties, where getting shit-faced and plowing some broad were the expected culmination of these events, but were ritualistic, religious experiences. They are often called the Dionysian Mysteries, as they were secretive events, where one had to go through an initiation in order to partake in the ritual. The point was to lose yourself; to release your soul from the material world, and reunite with the spirit.

As anyone with a passing disdain for Christianity will tell you, the proliferation of Christianity ruined the enlightenment that the Greeks had given to the world. Unfortunately for them, it was really the Romans who quashed the Dionysian Mysteries (then having evolved into the Bacchic Mysteries). However, the Christians certainly did not revive the ritual, and vilified Dionysus (remember how he’s Satan now?), leaving society in the realm of order and control.

Today we have our club scene and our raves. Pulsing music, dancing, intoxicants, primal yells, and sexuality are budding once again in our culture. While not as ritualistic as it once was, our desire to lose ourselves to our natural state is showing itself every weekend.

Of course, our desire to flee modernity into the past isn’t just limited to binge drinking and painful Sunday mornings. More mysteries have been lost than those of Dionysus, and those are the mysteries that every traveler seeks.

When we are at home, we know everything. We know the rules; science has explained pretty much most things worth knowing by this point, and this leads us to feel malcontent. When we travel, we are trying to experience the wonder that those in the past lived through every day. There was no understanding of rain or thunder, and gods were invented in order to explain them. Despite these explanations giving some amount of understanding, they were not cold, hard facts that once known could be filed away. The explanations gave just as much wonder as ignorance. Gods were fickle beings who were unpredictable and were prone to psychosis. The world was filled with uncertainty, mystery, and awe. In our lives today, we no longer possess these qualities.

Whenever we travel, however, we steal a fraction of what it might have been like to live in a world where wonder and awe were still in existence. Swimming with dolphins, marveling at the architecture of the Great Wall, desperately trying to survive the traffic of India, trying to communicate with the ticket guy in the subways of Paris… They are all incomprehensible to us, and that is why we seek them out. To fill our souls with wonder, to not understand how the world works. We immerse ourselves in environments, cultures, and situations that are foreign to us in order to experience something that we as a society have lost: enchantment.

Most religions of the world envision a paradise of primitivism. Gardens, usually. Christians have their Eden, the Islamic heaven is set in a garden, and Pure Land Buddhists believe that we can be reborn in a garden with Amitabha (or Amida, depending on how Japanese you are) Buddha, where achieving Nirvana will become much simpler. Eden is the prime example of humanity’s obsession with abandoning the structure of modernity and returning to a more natural state, as it was gaining the possession of the intellect that was the catalyst for our banishment from it.

Even in contemporary philosophy, we are stepping back from the long-held paradigm of objective, rational thought being the ideal, and we are entering into an era where experiential action is seen as paramount. To live authentically is to do things, not think about them. It is to abandon yourself to the moment, to embrace passionately every action that you take. Cling to your emotions over your calculating reason.

I understand the irony of Bros, ravers, and those super irritating people who are obsessed with “travel” being the paragons of my thesis. Our quest for primitivism is merely at its beginning, and our current methods of achieving wonderment are a second-rate reflection of the rituals of the past. However, we are starting to realize that we’ve lost something, and our mad grasps at regaining it are still in their infantile stages. Do we really need a connection to our natural state, or to lose ourselves in the moment, or to achieve a sense of awe at the world around us, now that science and modernity have explained away all the smoke from our eyes? I believe we do, and that is why we search for it.