Here's how to feel better about the mess you’re in
You wake up most mornings wondering whether you took a wrong turn somewhere back. You expected a smoother path than this.
You get up and on with your day, the difficult people you ended up stuck with, your hopes that cannot live yet won’t die, the no-win decisions you can neither make nor ignore. Should you stay or leave? Keep trying this or switch to some iffy alternative?
And then our world, tumbling, stumbling, not the world you thought would merrily roll along, a wonderful backdrop for happy lives ever after.
You’ve got your faith of course, but sometimes it feels like your lovers – so vivid, so uplifting at first, promising a reliable spark you could keep alive forever. But the sparks aren’t reliable. You yank on the pull cord again and again. The motor sputters. Maybe it needs a tune-up.
There are plenty of tune-ups on offer, the new secret that will keep the motor humming, the sparks flying. You’ve tried some. Despite the hype, you no longer bet on reliable sparks, not that you’re OK with that. You still want sparks every day and instead, you’re stuck sputtering along.
Some tune-ups diagnose the problem as your craving. Give up on sparks, find joy without sparks, be mindful like an animal, living in the present moment without thoughts and anxieties. But even that feels hollow. You remain a human who wants more sparks than you’re getting.
Most of us end up like that eventually, deeply romantic but, with time, also skeptics, even cynics. We have intense hopes that cannot live yet won’t die.
Here some context, not for finding a reliable spark but for tuning up to what is, putting your life in context. The context is scientific – natural, not supernatural spiritual magic, but not just nature as the outdoors, physics and biology – nature including you, how you feel and why.
Living is and will always be striving. Every organism ever must struggle for existence, trying to keep its selfhood going against the risk of dying. Selfhood is real. It’s not an illusion. Plenty of organisms have no idea they’re striving. No feelings, no consciousness, but still they’re working against the likelihood of failing. Like all creatures, you are looking to keep the spark of your life going instead of sputtering out.
Still, we humans are different. We have language, a precarious adaptation that makes human striving more anxious, more uncertain. See the human world in trouble? Language is at the root of that.
Language is the currency of all traits distinctly human – rationality and rationalization, foresight and delusion, pride and guilt, self-certainty and self-doubt, power sharing and power grabbing, trust and betrayal, integrity and hypocrisy, honesty and deception, self-awareness and self-aggrandizement. The list goes on, a very mixed bag of tricks that makes human reality much more hopeful and dreadful, predictable and unpredictable than what other organisms experience.
Muse a moment (as only a human can) at how language changes everything. For billions of years, life thoughtlessly adapting to reality, and then along comes us, languaged creatures, adapting to both reality and imagination, ours and other people’s, like being crew to a ship of visionary fools, skilled and drunken sailors one and all, spilling their swill on the deck, making it slippery for everyone around them.
Pavlov’s dog learns to associate sounds with food – Bell, taco, bell, taco – soon it makes the link. That’s not language. Language is a system, an infinite quantity of sounds we link to each other such that they can convey anything real or imaginary. No sequence of bells could ever convey War and Peace to a dog.
Words are ungrounded in the senses. The word “dog” neither smells, tastes, sounds, feels or looks like a dog. Children learn to ground their words by finger-pointing. Once they have a vocabulary their words can point to each other. “This boy I know from school.” That boy doesn’t have to be present or even real.
Grounding our words, in reality, is optional. You can talk about spinning the universe on the tip of your finger even though you can’t do it. You can tell yourself your faith or lover will keep sparks flying forever even though they won’t.
Through language, we can hope and fear and try to drown out fear with hope. You may find yourself surrounded by people who are drowning out their fears with delusional hope. Of all organisms, only people go mad, drunk on language-infested illusion.
This is your lot, to live as one among this languaged species, the one known species that, to survive must adapt to reality while under the optionally-ungrounded influence of language.
Language would always do this to a species. The “intelligent life” we’d find anywhere in the universe would be operating under the slippery influence of language. Chances are they’d be having days like yours too, and precarious fates like our human fate.
On the upside, your human life is a wondrous thing. Think how few atoms in the universe ever get to participate in a languaged life, a life that can contemplate all of the atoms in the universe or really anything real or imagined.
Cut yourself some slack. Don’t panic, it’s organic. Languaged life makes all of us humans a piece of work, magnificent, strained, maladapted to reality. Language is like turning on the lights, exposing the raw real world, and like gaining the ability to shut our eyes to it.
Our fate depends on which prevails: Using our languaged wits to adapt to reality or to reassure ourselves that we needn't.
A short video that puts our lives in context: