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 2: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://wiseandshinezine.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
You can also email him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org