Stalling: The Paradox of Meaning

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

—Vladamir Nabokov.

“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” finds no answer.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Meaning is the antidote to an inherently meaningless existence.

We need meaning to give ourselves a psychological footing to stand on. We need meaning to make sense of an incomprehensible universe.

We need meaning to feel that life is worthwhile despite the fact it ends with our inevitable demise – that nothing matters in the grand cosmic scheme of things.

This is how we keep the existential worm at the core at bay. Meaning gives us the mental footing we need to prevent us from falling into the psychological abyss.

Our reason for living stems from a refusal to acknowledge our mortality.

Now, this isn’t some crazy idea I’ve pulled out of my pilots hat! (Although I have a few.)

Ernest Becker raised this point in his masterpiece of a book, The Denial of Death, claiming the why of human existence stems from a vital lie – man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality.

And it is a vital lie. Because we are biologically hardwired for survival and yet we know death is inevitable

Biologist Ajit Varki argued the overwhelming fear of death would “be a deadend evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness.” 

If we didn’t have a way to keep our mortal terror at bay we would be unable to take the necessary risks to survive – we would be unable to find the necessary motivation to carry on living.

Otherwise the worm would lurch forth from our subconscious and swallow us whole. 

To manage fear we must feel we are valuable members of a meaningful community.

Terror Management Theory is an empirically oriented offshoot of Becker’s position. Authors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski spent 25 years researching and testing Becker’s original hypothesis.

They presented the findings in their book, The Worm at the Core, showing conclusively that our unconscious fear of death and the desire to transcend it drives almost everything we do. 

They note to manage the knowledge of death humans call on two basic psychological resources:

“First, we need to sustain faith in our cultural worldview, which imbues our sense of reality with order, meaning, and permanence. The paths to literal and symbolic immortality laid out by our worldviews require us to feel that we are valuable members of our cultures. Hence, the second vital resource for managing terror is a feeling of personal significance, commonly known as self-esteem.”

They go onto say, “The twin motives of affirming the correctness of our world-views and demonstrating our personal worth combine to protect us from the uniquely human fear of inevitable death.

Modern psychology (and most of the self-help industry) is largely aimed at shoring up self esteem for this reason.

We have a massive problem with it in the modern world. Not just because we don’t value our own society anymore, but because the things our society values are fucked.

The cultural values of wealth and status in particular, and the humiliation of not having those things, are sources of anxiety for millions. It exacerbates the issue of heroic individualism – our desperate desire to measure up – that is causing us to all burnout and stall.

Not only do we need to feel good about ourselves, we need to see through ourselves.

But shoring up self-esteem is only part of the puzzle. I would argue this fixation on self-esteem is failing us on some fundamental level. It’s giving people relief – much needed relief, no doubt – but it’s not, ultimately, a cure.

It’s a bit like placing a bandaid on gunshot wound.

Unfortunately modern psychology often falls short of mentioning the worm at the core for fear of angering the hornets nest. I say we need to give the hornets nest a good fucking shake.

Even with the healthiest self esteem in the world, the worm is still buried deep beneath the surface. It’s still pulling the strings. While that’s better for the individual, arguably this is far more dangerous for the world at large.

The beliefs we use to protect us from our own fear of death become the things we are willing to die for.

Here’s where I flip the aircraft upside down and take the paradox of meaning to an even more absurd level.

We desperately need to understand that the meaning we give our lives is rooted in an existential fear of death. We need to understand where our need for meaning is truly coming from.

Otherwise we become incapable of challenging of our beliefs. We become incapable of updating them when we desperately need to.

Not only do we increase the risk of stalling, we run the risk of taking down an entire plane full of passengers with us – quite literally!

Now, the elephant in the existential room known as the universe here is God.

Atheists often deride a belief in God while failing to see the very real psychology security faith provides. Religious people suffer from depression and anxiety in far fewer numbers than non religious people.

The truth is God was an ingenious solution to what Buddha called the big problem of consciousness. 

The big problem of consciousness isn’t simply the knowledge we will die. The issue comes from taking the question of why to it’s natural conclusion. The eventual death of all things. Because nothing lasts forever. 

That includes the human race. 

Our cultures give us a sense of permanence that we crave, but that’s all it is. A sense. When you take the question of why to a cosmic level it finds no answer. Meaning falls away and all we are left with is a cold indifferent truly absurd universe. 

Here is where run the risk of throwing out the baby with the holy bathwater in the modern age. This is what greatly concerned Fredrick Nietche when prophesied about the death of God. Something that Viktor Frankl subsequently called the existential vacuum. 

God provided us with the belief that our lives meant something as a whole. It was encompassing. The big issue that nihilism presents – what I believe to be at the crux of the modern day mental health crisis – is that meaning of our lives becomes contingent. 

It’s contingent on you being a valuable member of your country, or community, or family. Of course theses things are important. They do give our lives a huge amount of necessary meaning. 

But the issue arises when we lose our job, when we get divorced or a family member dies. The issue comes when our health fails us – when we suffer a debilitating disease – because then what? 

If you can’t fufill your role as a valuable member of your community then what?

This is when the existential vacuum sucks the life out of us. This is when the worm eats whatever remaining life we have left for breakfast. 

Friedrich Nietzsche is regularly quoted as saying those who have a why can bear almost any how.

What if the only way to prevent the existential worm at the core from eating you alive is to give yourself up to something? Perhaps we need an unshakable why to counteract the crushing how of existence?

Now there’s a question to chew on.

One of the major things that people struggle with is the underlying sense that something is missing in their lives.

It’s just, they can’t put a finger on it. Even when they have everything on paper, they still feel something is off. The existential grumblings beneath the surface torment them. So much so they can’t even sit still for fear of having to confront it.

But confront it we must. As it turns out, the worm holds the fucking key.


This is part four 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

Part 3: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)

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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: anxiouspilot2@gmail.com

How To Make Love To Hate

“We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”

– MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

I’ve been thinking about hate recently. Not only because we’ve see so much of it this past year, but because I’ve felt some as well. Truthfully it got to a point preceding the US election where it broke me a little. 

I thought I was clear about where those feelings came from. What beliefs were driving my anger. But now that the waters have calmed, I can’t seem to shake this feeling that something else has been going on. Some deep-seated fear beneath the surface. 

So I thought I’d give the topic of hate a more thorough examination. In an attempt to understand its purpose. And from that understanding hopefully find in my heart to show it some compassion. So we can all learn how to make love to our hate.

First let me get you in the mood with some foreplay in the form of gentle stroking questions!

Foreplay

One thing that’s touted around the blogosphere as the panacea to all of our problems is universal compassion. It got me thinking (and laughing) that maybe I should write a post entitled, Why Universal Compassion Must Include Donald Trump. 

If I can get through that without reneging on the premise well, ladies and gentlemen, that would be something. Because honestly I can’t wrap my head around the idea. 

Are somethings not meant to be hated? The emotion exists for a reason right? The rational part of my brain figures it must have evolved to serve some kind of necessary function. At least, in very rare circumstances.

Let’s, for example, circle back several hundred years and place ourselves in a small rural English village with a plague-ridden wife and four malnourished children.

Now imagine a hoard of angry, horny, Vikings start pillaging the village by chopping your neighbour’s head off (you hated him anyway). 

Do you, a) abandon your family by running away, b) resign yourself to death and hold your family one last time, c) try to negotiate a civilised peace treaty (by agreeing to share your neighbour’s stuff) or, d) pick up your sword and fight?

Now let’s pretend your name is Uhtred, son of Uhtred, and that you pick up your sword. (I must watch less television.) What emotion do think would serve you best in a battle to the death?

Maybe I’ve inadvertently hit the G spot here?

When it comes to protecting yourself against someone (or something) who is attacking you, or those you love, perhaps hatred is meant to act as a last line of defence? Perhaps what drives our hate – at its deepest level – is a fear of death?

At this point my wife would tell me to slow down as she’s not quite there yet.

Anyway let’s get stuck into the main body (of this post) with some stuff I found on the internet.

Intercourse

After doing a bit of research into the relationship between hatred and death, I stumbled upon something that got me very excited (that wasn’t porn) called Terror Management Theory (or TMT).

TMT posits, “The inevitably of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural world-views — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value. TMT predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their world-views and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of death tends to shift people towards the right.”

I feel like I might have the G spot again!

If our cultural world-views are meant to act as a buffer against our own mortality, it stands to reason that a fear of death would cause us to hold onto them more tightly does it not?

What happens then, when those beliefs are challenged? Perhaps some of us might feel like our lives have been threatened? And what if people’s actual lives are threatened by something like a pandemic? Perhaps they’ll do everything they can to ensure that their beliefs survive in case they don’t? 

(If you want to learn about how TMT can be used to explain people’s different reactions to the pandemic I highly recommend giving this study a read.)

Now imagine, if you will, a facist nation invades your country forcing you to take up arms to defend it. How do you think that might affect your feelings toward your country? I’m guessing you’d concentrate on what it is you love. What it is you’re willing to defend and die for. 

Oh hello Nationalism!

Now consider how a rise in Islamophobia often follows terrorist attacks. Or how a rise in hate crimes against the Asian community follows when the former fear monger in chief dubs COVID the “Kung Flu.” Or how you binge watch all 5 seasons of The Wire and decide you can’t trust black people.

Oh hello Racism!

Of course this is a big problem. And it’s important to stress that while hate may serve to unite a country, or tribe, against a “common enemy”, hate always loses. Because hate begets hate. As war has proven throughout history. Unless you succeed in eliminating your perceived threat, then that hatred is only going to build. What’s worse is that hate won’t be resolved by eliminating that threat if you do (which is impossible when considering an entire race of people). And then what happens? Hate looks for a new target. And if it can’t find one, it turns on itself. (Insert caracatiure of Hitler shooting himself here.) 

This is why hate always loses. Not because love always wins, but because hate ends up destroying itself. That’s something I believe Trump never understood. He cultivated just as much hatred on the other side of the fence and it came back to haunt him. That’s exactly why the answer cannot be hate in return. (And suddenly the idea of universal compassion is starting to make more sense.)

At this point my wife would tell me to get to the point. And I would tell her that the secret to great love making is patience. And then she would tell me that girth is more important the length. And then I would cry myself to sleep… 

Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, let me wrap things up. I’m nearly there!

Climax

TMT also got me thinking about another stereotype. The idea that people become increasingly “set in their ways” the older they get. It occurs to me that this might have less to do with what people believe, then an inability to come to terms with their own mortality.

Not all people face death in the same manner of course. Many are happy in death. Even when suffering many remain at peace. They’re not bitter or resentful. They’re not consumed by hate. They don’t want to hurt others. 

This all begs the following question: If all our beliefs are designed to help us cope with the elephant in the room – our own mortality – and if a fear of death causes us to cling to those beliefs more tightly, then maybe that’s exactly where we need to start in order live in peace?

Now here’s my radical theory.

If hate is driven – at its deepest darkest core – by a fear of death, I believe that coming to terms with one’s mortality might be one way to resolve those feelings.

But how do you do that?

Here are a few ideas. Meditate on your own demise. Face the idea of your death head on. Talk about it. Plan your own funeral. Treat today like it’s your last because it may well be. 

The Stoics used to employ a technique called Negative Visualisation where you imagine losing what you value the most in life in order to help eradicate that fear. The idea is that it serves to lessen the emotional impact when difficult losses actually take place. The other hidden benefit is that it helps to cultivate a greater amount of gratitude for those things or people in our lives today.

Here’s one more idea: Cultivate as much meaning in your life as you possible can. Studies show that those who feel they are living a meaningful life are, paradoxically, less afraid of death. Other studies show that those who have lower self esteem (who believe their life isn’t meaningful) are more likely to harbour feelings of resentment. That means coming to terms with past traumas as well (something I mean to explore in my next post.)

So if you want to overcome your fear of death and let go of hate, volunteer to do some charity work. (Go figure!)

Anyway, ladies and gentleman, that’s it. My answer for how to make love to hate, is to fall in love with death. Maybe if we do, we’ll realise that life is too short to live for anything but love.


Further Reading/Sources: 

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You can see find more of AP2’s nonsensical world views and poor self-help advice here at: https://pointlessoverthinking.com