As human animals, we are condemned to live with great ignorance in an unpredictably violent world. To compensate, most of us work hard to develop an extraordinary expertise to protect ourselves from considering our precarious existence. We work hard to pre-screen toxic thoughts. We rarely contemplate our own inevitable deaths, for example. We are often successful at protecting ourselves from real-life things that would terrify us if we dared to squarely consider them.
Once in a while, though, we get a terrifying glimpse of unvarnished reality. For instance, we sometimes suddenly realize that we are affixed to that Conveyor Belt of Life, a “belt” that inexorably moves us toward a time when we will be old if we’re lucky, then lifeless. Whenever this terrible thought brings shivers, we quickly change channels to consider something less macabre. Yet we are all strapped onto that Conveyor Belt, even our precious young children. In 150 years, everyone currently living on Earth will be dead. It is difficult to conjure up more disturbing thoughts.
What other toxic thoughts occur when our mental guard is down? How about the thought that we are not meaningfully different from each other. Or that the world is full of mobile intestinal tracts–walking talking intestinal tracts. Or that our bodies are rife with parasites. And that we are animals. Or that we are breathing, thinking meat, a point directly yet elegantly made by a touring entourage of corpses known as BodyWorlds. And here’s another toxic truth most of us dare not consider: that our social order is incredibly fragile, and that it is all too capable of suddenly turning to ignorance and violence (and see here) Here’s another toxic truth: we know very little about ourselves and our world. As Nietzsche said,
Just beyond experience!– Even great spirits have only their five fingers breadth of experience – just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.
Nietzsche (Daybreak, s. 564)
Because we so often practice shielding ourselves from such toxic thoughts, we become experts at concealing overwhelmingly obvious aspects of even our own bodies from ourselves. Nietzsche had a lot to say about this self-ignorance:
Does nature not conceal most things from him-even concerning his own body, in order to confine and lock him within a proud deceptive consciousness, aloof from the coils of the bowels, the rapid flow of the bloodstream, and the intricate quivering of the fibers! She threw away the key. And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and then suspect that man is sustained in the indifference of his ignorance by that which is pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous-as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger.
[The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, edited by Magnus and Higgins, page 30 (1996).]
About ten years ago, I wrote a paper analyzing numerous social phenomena from the viewpoint of limited human attentional capacities. It was an over-ambitious paper, but working on it triggered an epiphany for me: I realized that much high-level human behavior stemmed from low level routines and habits and that many high-level decisions resulted from limited attention (that is highly susceptible to manipulation) and fatigue. In other words, I realized the much human behavior could be explained in terms of attention. Here is that paper: heuristics_as_perceptual_strategy.doc
My friend Dea read this paper and reacted with horror. She didn’t want to consider that humans could be “reduced” to anything predictable or analyzable. She craved autonomy and freedom and she wanted to believe in old-fashioned versions of love, honor and courage. For her, one of the most toxic thoughts possible was that complex human behavior could someday be explained in terms of hormones or bouncing atoms.
I cling to the belief that we can still have all of the romantic and moral notions we love (and hate) about humanity, in addition to the things that science can tell us about ourselves. Dea strongly believed otherwise. She was uncomfortable with the terrifying glimpses that science offered to her. She didn’t want to consider that humans were limited in their freedom. Most of all, she didn’t want to consider humans to be machines of any sort.
Reality can be terrifying and even dangerous, especially when we let our guard down. Most freethinkers I know have some dark moments when everything about life seems to be just a bunch of “stuff” and where life seems to lack any coherent meaning. As we’ve often discussed at this website, those moments drive many people into the waiting arms of religious institutions, though not freethinkers. On the other hand, freethinkers have our own sets of comforting myths. We believe in things like freedom, justice and “the meaning of life.” All of us fortify our sanity with comforting myths.
But what happens when we get overloaded with raw reality, when life terrifies us to the point that our comforting myths are shredded? What do we do when we reach the point where we wonder whether we are even capable of making any sense of a world that appears to be spinning out of control?
I occasionally experience moments like this. During some of these moments, I’ve recalled an extraordinary article from salon.com: “How “Iris Chang” became a verb.” I’ve written about Iris Chang before. She was a terrific writer who committed suicide on November 9, 2004, after a depressive episode resulting from a nervous breakdown.
What had Iris Chang seen? She had deeply researched and written several books involving terrifying subjects. One of those books was The Rape of Nanking, a book I am in the process of reading. Another one of her books, The Chinese in America (2003), concerns the often abysmal treatment of Chinese people in America. In the Salon.com article, Paula Kamen writes that the extensive research Iris did peeled back the candied veneer of life and became dangerous:
She had made a major historical discovery: a hidden Nazi diary chronicling the massacres by the Japanese in China in new detail. In China, the WWII atrocities have long been a national nightmare, and they have received attention from historians and academics over the years. But it took Chang’s energy, will and engaging writing style to make the massacre come alive to a popular audience in the West. From reading her letters, I knew how hard she had worked on that book. She traveled through China on her own and challenged the U.S. government for long-classified documents. She was genuinely shocked at the atrocities she had exposed, and reacted with a pure, honest rage — like someone seeing evil for the very first time. She couldn’t understand the possibility of knowing about such things and not writing about them. Part of the power of her interviewing was that she had no filters to block out anything that was being said to her; I suspect she didn’t even know that people came with filters.
According to Kamen, it appears that the work Iris Chang did was too much for her to bear:
Over the next hour, I stumbled to ask her about what had happened. She talked about her overwhelming fears and anxieties, including being unable to face the magnitude — and the controversial nature — of the stories that she had uncovered. Her current vaguely described problems were “external,” she kept repeating, a result of her controversial research. They weren’t a result of the “internal,” that is, they weren’t all in her head. I asked her about what others in her life thought about the cause of this apparent depression. She paused and said, “They think it’s internal.”
Nietzsche often wrote on the nature of truth. For Nietzsche, truth was a matter of how much reality we can stand. He spoke of the danger and reward of questioning. For him, philosophizing was a demanding and dangerous endeavor that many people simply cannot endure.
Usually, our comforting myths keep away the demons. We posit deep meaning in trite things. Everything is OK as long as our baseball team wins the division. Or we are on top of the world as long as we own a sports car. We are invulnerable as long as others compliment us. We are gods as long as we get affection and attention from an attractive significant other. Life is wrapped around our finger as long as we up with a lot of money. Some of these comforting myths serve a lifetime, at least for those who don’t think too much.
For others, though, raw reality sneaks in too intensely or too often. Despite their best efforts to portray their lives as tidy, happy or meaningful, too much physical or mental pain leaks in. Maybe it’s because their bodies are breaking down. Or maybe it’s because they don’t “fit” in their worlds. Often it’s for reasons they can’t articulate. The result is often depression. Sometimes this depression is therapeutic.
In Why We Get Sick (1994), Randolph Nesse and George Williams argue that many forms of depression have an adaptive function. Even though depression may seem “completely useless,” it seems to serve a function. Nesse and Williams suggest that someone could someday test this theory by finding a safe drug that completely prevents normal sadness in large populations. They suspect that preventing sadness/depression completely would result in massive social dysfunction.
They write that sadness “somehow changes our behavior so as to stop current losses or prevent future ones.” Sadness causes us to slow down or stop what we are doing and to “take off the rose colored glasses in order to reassess our goals and strategies more objectively.” Depression slows us down, thereby protecting us from making major life changes impulsively. This description reminds me of the paralysis that happens during sleep so that we don’t cause injury by physically acting out our dreams.
As mentioned above, many people look to bureaucratic religions for quick and ready-made sets of rose-colored glasses. For many people, these canned prayers and rituals successfully fend off sadness and depression. Reaching for these canned sets of religious beliefs seems odd to me, given the flimsy-seeming myths and the grotesque implied threats embedded in the “loving” doctrines offered by bureaucratic religions.
Followers of organized religion spent much time clinging to these bureacratic quick fixes. They clamor for existential medicine capable of fending off the sorts of tragedies to which Iris Chang succumbed. I am suspicious, though. I suspect that organized religions only addresses symptoms rather than the underlying conditions.
It seems to me that each of us needs to get down to work to construct our own meaning of life. To do the job right takes courage, endurance, persistence, pain, and the willingness keep an open mind. It also takes some periods of sadness, sometimes extended sadness. I thus agree with Nesse and Williams that some types of depression are palliative. It is sometimes necessary to see unvarnished life in order to chart a new and meaningful course.
To avoid sadness by taking on anyone else’s canned “meaning” (including any sort of institutionalized mythology) is like trying to wear someone else’s clothes. Misfits are too likely. This is obvious to me when listening to most people explain their institutionalized religious beliefs. It is clear that most people do not affirmatively believe in their bureaucratic religious beliefs. Not really. Instead, they allow organized religions to dictate one-size-fits-all meaning. Although the pushers of bureaucratic religion would argue that religion like a reputable prescription drug, I am suspicious that it is too often too much like a street drug, good only for short-term happiness at the expense of long-term pain, disruption and ignorance.
What is the alternative to drinking the special Kool-Aid that bureaucratic religions offer? It’s doing the hard work to determine the meaning of one’s own life. As Nietzsche often wrote, doing this sometimes terrifying work is exhilarating:
We philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel illuminated by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, forebodings, expectation – finally the horizon seems clear again, even if not bright; finally our ships may set out again, set out to face any danger; every daring of the lover of knowledge is allowed again; the sea, our sea, lies open again,; maybe there has never been such an ‘open sea.’
[Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 343]
This idea of Nietzsche took deep root in me when I first read Nietzsche at the age of 20. The only way to contemplate and live ones life genuinely is to do one’s own philosophical work. To refuse to work on one’s own meaning of life is to buy into the biggest fallacy of most organized religions: that there is a capital “M” Meaning of Life, a single principle for describing the meaning of every person’s life. This fallacy suggests that strangers (i.e., strangers who are paid to work as clergy) know you well enough to speak for you.
The need to think through one’s own meaning of life is strewn with ironies. For instance, part of what makes life unwieldy, disruptive or even insane for many freethinkers is that we must deal with the ghoulish, garish, awkward, mass-produced protective coatings dispensed by so many organized religions to so many millions of people.
Another irony is that many people might not be able to survive life without the mass-produced “meaning” handed out by organized religions. These crude mass-produced mythologies “work” in the sense that they keep some people alive and sane. Consequently, it might be cruel to deprive them of the protection these mass-produced rituals and fables.
The biggest irony is this: Those of us who don’t buy into institutional mythologies must occasionally descend to painful and dangerous mental places in order to construct durable meaning for our lives. It appears that many of us occasionally need to expose ourselves to unvarnished life (at least occasionally) in order to immunize ourselves to it. For free-thinkers, then, a life that is contemplative and life-affirming can also be dangerous.