Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)

The Paradox of Progress

The story of Buddha is well known. Born into a palace and given every indulgence he could possibly wish for, while, at the same time, shielded from the outside world. And yet, it wasn’t enough. He knew something was off. (Sound familiar?) 

So, he decided to go against his father’s wishes and venture out of the palace. It was then that he saw, for the first time in his life, suffering and death. This unsettled him greatly and sent him on the path to enlightenment. To get there he had to give it all up.

He came to see that all attachments – including to and of the self – were the reason people suffered. 

This is us, in the developed world. Metaphorically speaking we have all been born into the palace. We have everything. We have more options than we’ve had before. The possibilities are endless. (This is part of the problem too. There are too many options. We’re stuck in the supermarket spending our lives deciding which brand of ketchup to buy.)  

We live in the most prosperous, safest period in human history. We’re all literate, well educated. Violence and wars are at an all time low. Racism, sexism and discrimination are at their lowest points in history too. Far fewer people live below the poverty line. We’ve cured countless diseases. The list goes on.

And yet, and yet, where do we go from here? Because the meaning we give our lives is based on a better tomorrow is it not? Hope is based on a better future. If not for ourselves then for our children – for our family, our community, our political party, our country, our fucking football team. 

This is what it feels like.

It feels like we’re sitting on the apex of humanity. It feels like we’re at the top of the mountain looking down. At the very highest cruising level knowing all that’s left is our gradual or perhaps rapid descent to our inevitable demise. 

The threat of nuclear war is the highest it’s been in decades. Extremism is on the rise across the political spectrum. The world is boiling. The environment is in free-fall. Donald Trump is running for president again… 

Here we are, sat inside our palace walls. It feels like a swarm of flesh eating zombies are clambering at the walls ready to rush in and devour everything we know and love. But it’s not the walls that are cracking – we are. 

Mark Manson calls this the paradox of progress. He says, “We are the safest and most prosperous humans in the history of the world, yet we are feeling more hopeless than ever before. The better things get, the more we seem to despair… And perhaps it can be summed up in one startling fact: the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you are to commit suicide.”

The Worm at the Core 

But here’s the thing. (I suggest you tighten your seatbelts. This is the part of the flight where I take a rapid nose off a cliff!)

We know we will lose it all. We know that we will die. All these things – the environment, the threat of nuclear war, the pandemic (the list goes on and on and on) are simply reminding us of this painful truth.

They’re bringing the existential worm at the core to the surface. 

Las week I said that stalling is a result of losing meaning. That’s another way of saying we’ve lost hope. The problems is we become attached, not only to things, but beliefs.

Why do we get attached to them, exactly? They’re just thoughts right? I mean, all beliefs are just ideas, fundamentally. So why? Why are we so unwilling to hear the other side? Why are we all so utterly convinced that out point of view is the correct one? 

We’ve all been there right? We’ve all had that massive argument over nothing. We wake up the next morning with egg on our face wondering why it was we cared so much. Why we felt so strongly about something we know, in the light of the next day, doesn’t matter in the slightest.

This is why. It’s because we know what the end result is. We know that death is inevitable. And because we know the end result we feel that our lives must mean something.

We want to know, if we can’t live on that, at the very least, our religion can, or our political party, or our country, or even our football team. We need some part of us to live on. 

When those things lose out we can’t stand it. When the things we believe in are attacked or challenged, it feels like our very lives are at stake.

American philosopher William James dubbed this the “the worm at the core” of the human condition.

Now, I like to call him Mr wormy head because this makes him feel less threatening. (And also, I have two young boys so this is how I talk at the moment.)

Mr wormy head is always there – residing deep beneath the surface. It’s at the very core of our psychology – at the deepest root. The way we keep him at bay is by instilling our lives with meaning.

This is the primary reason we give life meaning – even if most of us aren’t aware – to protect us from the knowledge that we will one day die. Not only that, to protect us from the knowledge that nothing we do ultimately matters. 

The problem is, he likes to comes to surface any time we suffer a major loss. Whenever our self esteem takes a hit. He senses when his prey is vulnerable. He tries to eat whatever remaining lift we have left for breakfast. 

He’s a very naughty Mr wormy head. When he comes to surface he likes to remind us that nothing we say or do matters. That everyone we love will die and everything we know will be swallowed up by the sun. He tells us we are nothing but an insignificant cosmic speck in the infinite expanse of time and space. 

Like I said, very naughty. 

The natural conclusion when Mr wormy head starts to eat us from the inside out is that nothing matters at all. That because life is ultimately meaningless there’s no point whatsoever. So why not sleep with my best friends wife? Why not shoot up a school full of children? Why not hang myself from a noose and end it all? 

At it’s deepest darkest level this is what it means to stall in life – why we become completely untethered from reality. It’s not only a lack of belief in oneself but everything. It’s a lack of meaning, control and belief all rolled into one nihilistic ball. 

Not only does this cause us to stall, it causes us to give up completely.

But to finish this admittedly depressing post with something to cling to, giving up isn’t the same as letting go. When you give up on life, the reality is, you’re still not letting go.

(To be continued…)

This is part two of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.

Part 1: Stalling: The Aerodynamics of Life

Part 2: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift


You can find more of AP2’s writing here at:

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15 thoughts on “Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)

  • For some reason, once I turned 75, the thoughts of being 3/4 of a century old hit hard, and I’ve been pretty consistently conscious of my mortality. It’s made me determined to finish the tasks I feel to be important, to appreciate nature even more than I already do and to cut out the mediocre in my life and concentrate on those friends who bring (and receive) the most joy to and from our contact. Dogs and cats help, too. We just have to make the world around us as positive as we have the capacity to do. This might just save the world.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The closer we are to death, the closer we are to life. Understanding our mortality – bringing it to the forefront of our consciousness is a good thing. Otherwise it operates unconsciously – often in more sinister ways. Dogs and cats most definitely help. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. 🙏

      Liked by 3 people

  • It’s true that most people won’t leave behind monuments to their greatness or even be acknowledged, yet the MOST important thing we can leave behind? Love! If we have succeeded in loving those around us in a way they feel loved and supported, that is a life well-lived. What is the value of a massive bank account if one’s children hate us, or of having vast material wealth if people struggle to say something nice about us? (That doesn’t mean that leaving money to charities is a bad thing to do!)

    The paradox you speak of is so true. We create narratives in our minds about what success looks like in this day and age, then are shocked when others may be in opposition.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I would add striving to have some monument of ourselves – to have our names etched into the history books – to live on for eternity – is the root of all evil. To overcome the ultimately futility of it all we must see how precious and meaningful our lives currently are. Well said Tamara. Thank you for adding your thoughts 🙏


  • Mr Wormy Head sounds like an awful villain, despite the non-threatening and adorable name!

    There is a lot of truth in the observation that despite being the most advanced and prosperous developed world, we still feel a sense of lacking or hopelessness.

    I do agree part of it has to do with the worm eating us out from the inside – that feeling that we will lose it all one day.

    But thinking of the story of Buddha, I think part of the letting go process is recognizing what is real and what is important – love, family, friendships, joy – and these are the things that last when we are empty and wealthless and near our end. And being grateful for what we have.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s the trick. I believe the reason people get hung up on the idea that life is ultimately meaningless is because they don’t feel their lives currently are. Come back to present and be grateful for what is. Look to instil meaning and pursue what is meaningful today – that’s how we counter the worm. Thanks Ab 🙏

      Liked by 1 person

      • I follow you to the point where you basically state that because some individual’s life (and life in general) is meaningless, it’s OK to shoot up a school or whatever and end somebody else’s life. I just don’t get what that individual is really thinking re the others whose lives he/she is taking that makes it OK for him/her to do that. I get the bit, basically, about the other examples. Sleeping with someone you shouldn’t or killing yourself limits the damage more generally to those you know but I just can’t see what would extend that infliction of harm to people you don’t know and I’m not sure you want to help me make that leap. Maybe it’s related to the Buddhist thought, as I understand it, that all life is suffering?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I honestly think people use the idea that life is meaningless as an excuse to do what they like (which is an awful way to live). As for shooting up a school of children I think the truth is these people can’t actually accept the idea that nothing matters in the grand scheme of things. Those who do something like that are looking for notoriety – they want their names to live on – even if it’s for something as horrific as shooting up a school. They just tell themselves that everything is meaningless as an excuse, but subconsciously I don’t think they honestly believe it. Of course there has to be a certain amount of self-hatred/hatred of humanity in general tied to any act like that. Does that make sense?

        Liked by 1 person

  • “the worm at the core” of the human condition . . . once lamented by King Solomon, regarded as the wisest and wealthiest of men who wrote . . .

    “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Vanity of vanities…all is vanity. . . Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.” – Ecclesiastes 12:7-8, 13

    King Solomon’s, and every mortal’s plight, would find the only solution later in his lineage through One who hung on a cross to forever banish death and redeem all who accept Him.

    Keep Looking Up . . . His Best is Yet to Come!

    Liked by 1 person

  • I think growing older relieves us of some of the pressures of life. Most of life’s important decisions have already been made. Leaving a legacy becomes more of a focus. We want to help future generations understand life better and wish we could help them avoid some of our mistakes. Thank you, AP, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Hope you and your family are doing well. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • If we thought more about the world we want to leave behind for others instead of the one we want for ourselves I think we would all be happier/have a better world in which to dwell. Thank you Cheryl. I hope you and yours are too 🙏🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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