This article has been brewing for a while now. Roughly 20 years in fact. Likely you clicked this link expecting something about how we shouldn’t let fear dictate our actions, or about the dangers of ignorance fuelling suspicion of the ‘other’, or maybe about the role of fear in the human psyche and the importance of acknowledging its value to us, while controlling its irrationalities.
All worthy topics, some of which I’ve covered before. But that’s not the topic for today. I’m taking you a hell of a lot deeper than that.
Likely you’ve been there. However briefly or no matter how fast you retreated from it, you know the fear I’m talking about – the fear that creeps in at a random 3am and kills even the chance of sleep. The gentle despair that turns a lazy Sunday afternoon into a walking nightmare. The thing that can tip a raucous night on the town into sobbing maudlin drunkenness in a virtual instant. The question that snakes into your head in times of distress, times of anxiety, times of loss and threatens to undo you on a pretty fundamental level.
One question: What’s the fucking point?
Why am I here? What am I doing with my life? Am I doing the right things, making the right choices? Could I be making better choices? How the hell would I know either way?
Around and around and around, torturing you, tearing at the foundations of the life you live, the things you care about, your god damn will to live. And the longer it goes the closer you feel yourself drawing near to some sort of edge, teetering on the lip of some sort of gaping void of meaning…
Some never seem to be touched by this sort of existential dread, any while most feel its touch on occasion (particularly after one-too-many vodkas) they deal with it one way or another as fast as possible (likely involving quite a few more vodkas). Not me. I was born with a mind for meaning, which in less wanky, self-congratulatory terms means I got a brain that won’t shut up under almost any circumstances. Questions, constant god damn questions rattling around in there – and under circumstances like that, the fear of meaning (or lack thereof) is always there. Looming. And screwing up my day.
Where does it come from, this horrific sense of ultimate fear? Is it a result of modern society? Disconnect from our communities and loneliness? Some vestige of our primate past, designed to keep us alive at any cost to happiness?
Sadly, I don’t think so. All these answers imply that our fears are baseless, figments of our imaginations, to be ignored and rejected.
The truth is so much worse. And yet, as with all truth, there is hope to be found in it.
Consider, if you will, the development of a human being’s morals. Almost without exception the foundations are laid in childhood, both by explicit teachings by parents and authority figures, and through experience of the world around us. As you grow you start to sort through the mass of data being fed to you – some ideas stick, others don’t, and different individuals come to different conclusions from the same experiences. But overwhelmingly what is ‘normal’ in our childhood tends to define what we consider to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Thus is laid the foundations for our ethical decision-making frameworks and odds are good you will never, ever undo them completely.
But we’re far from done yet, because there is nothing that defines adolescence so much as a rejection of authority, parental guidance and the social norms that surround us. Granted, we rarely take it as far as rejecting everything we’ve been taught and usually stick to breaking the higher levels of behaviour and explicit rules – minor laws, specific ‘bad’ behaviours, conventions and traditions like not putting your elbows on the table, and other more abstract norms such as dress codes and etiquette. Nonetheless, this period in our lives often involves exposure to amazing and exciting new ideas that challenge our existing frameworks and, better yet, challenge the frameworks of our parents and other authority figures. And so we reject some old beliefs and adopt some new ones, often changing them several times over our teens and early adulthood before settling into a more mature, broad set of beliefs that we think better reflect the complexity of the world. Or at least that make us feel more comfortable about that complexity.
But the fear never goes away, does it? Even the most worldly, the most educated, the most intelligent of people feel its touch – in fact they might feel it all the more frequently for those qualities!
You know why?
Because it’s all a lie.
And if you allowed yourself to take a long, hard, unflinching analysis of your belief system, no matter how worldly, no matter how informed, you will find the same thing. Every. Single. Time.
A complete and total void of meaning.
This is the ultimate attraction and the ultimate peril of a deontological, or rules-based, approach to ethics – no matter how enlightened, how complex, how informed your set of rules are, they will always, ALWAYS be constructs, and nothing more. They will never be complex or detailed enough to reflect reality accurately. They will never be able to predict and help you deal with situations you have never encountered before. And no matter how hard you look, you will never, EVER find any solid, enduring, absolute proof that they are right.
As I’ve written before, this is the ultimate failing of every religion – they claim to have perfect answers delivered from the singular authority of creation itself. And yet those rules are, without exception, painfully simplistic and have so many obvious gaping holes in their logic and obvious examples of exceptions, that they become laughable in any serious application.
“Turn the other cheek” to an aggressor? What, even if they threaten the safety of your children? Should we have turned the other cheek to the Nazis and the holocaust?
Don’t even get me started on this arrogant nonsense. Go take a tour through Syria, you simplistic arsehole.
And so, despite or perhaps because of any intelligence and worldliness you possess, you are left with the inescapable reality that everything you hold dear, everything you rely on to make decisions, to provide meaning in your life, and to hold on to in the darkest moments, is based on nothing more than your belief in it. And in those dark moments of life, filled with stress, loss, or just the space to reflect, we find that sense of a terrible void. Waiting for us. And much to our horror, we discover that is real, far more real in fact than the ground we thought we were standing upon.
Have you ever laughed at someone for running from reality? For holding, preaching, defending a belief or idea so obviously, comically false that you couldn’t even be all that angry at them? Anti-vaxxers maybe? Or perhaps you went and saw The Book of Mormon? Or that perennial punching bag, the Westboro Baptist Church? Or maybe those kooky Scientologists? Or how about this guy for a laugh?
Dude’s name is Giorgio A. Tsoukalos for the record, and he had a history in promoting bodybuilding and the friggin’ Gran Prix of all things before he became a meme.
Were you wrong to disagree with them? Hell no, those belief systems are blatantly, hilariously false and easily proven as such (come at me bro). But perhaps you can better empathise with their flight from reality when you realise that you do precisely the same thing every time you take a bit too deep a look under you own belief system, and rediscover the gaping void beneath it. Who are you to mock when your reaction to existential dread is to flee right back into the arms of your comforting constructs, the same as (if slightly more nuanced than) those nutters we all love to mock?
So what’s the take away message here? You deepest fears are completely justified and anything other than a life consumed by existential panic is a lie? Am I really promoting the same Nihilism I have explicitly rejected on here numerous times before?
No. I promised you hope on the other side of terrible truth and here it is; there is a source of meaning to be found beyond that terrible void beneath all our rules. That source is consequence.
There is no rule inscribed into the universe or handed down from on high that dictates that hurting others is a ‘bad thing’ that will inevitably meet with justice. There is no solid, definitive foundation even for the idea of justice, beyond what we choose to pretend. Simply look upon all those terrible, violent people in the world who profited from their violence and died happily in their beds for proof of that.
Not yet, at least.
Incidentally if you don’t think repealing healthcare from millions of people counts as violence, you might want to check out some US hospital bills and reconsider your definition.
But what there is, what can definitively be proven to exist, are consequences for those acts of violence. And consequences of those consequences, spreading out through society like ripples, altering and influencing the conditions we live in, the things we experience and the quality of life we collective experience. Some actions have consequences that improve that situation. Some make things worse. And more often than not, actions have some positive consequences and some negative, and the justice of them can only be measured against other potential actions with slightly different balances of both.
Long-time readers will be realising by this point (or well before this, I’m not exactly being subtle here) that I’ve just described Utilitarianism, the alternative to rules-based Deontological systems. And while you may have recognised this system easily enough, embracing it as your guiding approach to life is another kettle of fish entirely – because to embrace this new source of meaning, you need to willingly step out into that void beneath your rules-based beliefs and accept that this terrible, awesome void is both real and right. There is no certainty to be found in life, only circumstances we must seek to understand and deal with as intelligently, justly and informedly as possible.
That right there is the nature of reality. I understand why we seek to retreat from it, and I definitely understand the appeal of a clear, solid set of rules to live by – don’t think I don’t crave the same. But pretending such rules exist, let alone that we know them well enough to rely on them in all things, is nothing more than fantasy. And in a reality of such incredibly nuance and complexity, they can and will lead you astray from truth, justice and worst of all, meaning.
This may not be the uplifting message I hoped to leave you with, but in it is a sort of beauty – because what is a human if not a human if not a creature built to strive?