Since the day you emerged into this bizarre, sparkling universe, you’ve been conditioned to think in certain ways.
And that’s damn wonderful a lot of the time. It’s arguably a blessing that our minds learn to auto-dismiss certain notions—like, say, walking off of that cliff or stabbing Uncle Melvin with a butter knife—and auto-accept others.
But it’s also problematic. Because, well, our minds are gullible—sufficiently gullible, at least, to spend the first decade or seven of our lives unconsciously internalizing the dominant ways of thinking of our culture.
From our earliest years, we are surrounded by the worldviews of our parents, our education systems, our economic systems, our governments, our media, our religious institutions, and myriad other sources of foundational values and ideas. Depending on one’s culture, this situation eventually results in significant suffering, as we’ll see. And arguably this would not be the case if, at a young age, we were instructed to view all of these sources as reliant on fallible, human ideologies, but this is almost never the case.
Incentives for Claiming to Know the “Truth”
At least in the United States, my home country, most of these entities are portrayed, or portray themselves, as possessing and delivering the capital-T Truth. The media often portrays itself as a “No Spin Zone” and delivers only firm, declarative statements; the government purports to understand what is most beneficial “for the people”; religion has access to the “word of God”; schools teach “the facts”; mama “knows best,” etc. All of this contributes to a sense that those before us figured everything out, that we need not ask questions. The “Truth” has already been filed away.
There are strong incentives, for both individuals and institutions, to claim to hold or to genuinely believe they hold a monopoly on the “Truth.” One of those incentives is to protect themselves, their fellow citizens, and their loved ones from the unknown, or the unknowable. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
Culture is like an operating system that provides default answers to all of life’s questions to protect us from the inevitable insecurity and anxiety that arise when we admit that we know very little about what is actually going on—about what we are, why we’re here, what we should do, etc. I would not be so bold as to suggest that this is never a good thing. Culture can aid us, I think, by providing stabilizing structure where none would otherwise exist. And some cultural values are surely worthy, human-friendly ones. However, in emphasizing a specific set of values, most cultures (particularly dominator cultures) seem to become dogmatic—i.e. seem to reach a point where they do not recognize other ways of seeing and thinking and living than their own predominant prescriptions. For anyone curious about the truth of our condition or about alternative modi operandi, this can become an absurdly limiting and oppressive state of affairs.
Another incentive for sources to claim to possess the “Truth” has to do with rhetoric, persuasion. In an age of expert opinions and fifty million channels of information, the “Truth” gets people to listen. And everyone wants an audience, wants to propagate their worldview for its own sake or for other ends. Convincing people to do and believe what you want them to do and believe is supremely dependent on presenting yourself or your organization as wise, enlightened, certain.
No One Has the Answers
But, as you are hopefully aware, the “Truth” changes, depending on who you ask. It differs wildly from continent to continent, culture to culture, institution to institution, family to family, individual to individual. There are infinite variations on the “Truth.”
It may follow that truth is utterly subjective, but I’ll save the nihilism discussion for another day. What’s imperative to realize, here and now, is that one culture’s truth is another culture’s fiction; and to consider, furthermore, that much of what has been presented to you as “True” might be an agenda-driven house of cards—a collection of misguided, propagandistic faux-facts, some of which lead to despair if left unchallenged.
I don’t mean to pull a wide-eyed “What if I told you?” stunt à la the Matrix Morpheus meme. This is just food for thought, and again, this is not to say that culturally inherited perspectives and structures can never be useful, meaningful, life-stabilizing, social-cohesion mechanisms. I think they often are. But I humbly submit to you that an idea of inconceivable purchase—especially in terms of un-learning certain insidious culturally inherited worldviews—is the idea that no one has the answers. If we’re honest (which might be a good idea sometimes), every person, every culture, and every institution tells a story, and everyone’s story is, at root, relative to their point of view and way of life. Including mine, so don’t take me too seriously.
When you start to think in this way, you become much more curious and critical. You begin to take personal responsibility for separating the strawberries from the smegma—for deciding which ideas are worthwhile and which are malignant. Presuming you see value in this undertaking, let me suggest to you (in cute, easily processable listicle-blurbs) that the following six ideas—ideas prevalent in (though not exclusive to) the West—are at best unsound and at worst, utterly destructive.
Idea #1: Uncertainty can and should be eliminated from existence.
“Only mystery allows us to live, only mystery.”
— Federico García Lorca
From our earliest years of schooling, there is a rhetoric of certainty wafting in the air, a notion of control over knowledge and over events. Year after year, the system has already determined what’s best for us: first grade to second grade to third grade, et al. Life has an order, an obvious trajectory. Schools, experts, and scientists seem, conveniently, to have “the facts”—everything we need to know about the universe and everything we need to know to “succeed” (slippery linguistic sign, that one).
By the time we’re 15 or 16, we’re well-aware of a traditional life-path narrative in which people go to college, find a nice job, work their way up in the world, get married, have kids, buy a house, settle down, retire, die. At the same time, we’re beginning to be bombarded with terms like “career path,” “next step,” “plan your future,” etc. etc., all of which serve to further cement in us the notion that it is desirable and possible to “figure out” our lives, to schedule them down to the smallest detail, to eliminate uncertainty.
Eventually, though, this narrative breaks down. We eat some strange fungi or get fired or read too much philosophy or break our pelvis or miss a flight or gaze too long at the stars or our dog dies, and it becomes (perhaps distressingly) clear that things are not so certain. Existence forever evades compartmentalization, and countless events, both micro and macro in scale, occur despite our expectations otherwise. Innumerable questions defy our understanding. Our efforts to impose certainty and control onto the universe are attempts to avoid countenancing the inevitable fear that comes with acknowledging our own physical and perceptual limitations.
This fear seems to cause many people to need certainty—to insist that they or someone else (priests, scientists, etc.) understands How Things Are in some kind of absolute way. I see this as tragic. It’s as if these people want to take kaleidoscopic, inscrutable, inarticulable existence and put it in some kind of hermetically sealed canister in order to feel proud that it’s been contained and dissected thoroughly. From my perspective, this attitude eliminates or severely paralyzes one’s ability to really see the living mystery that surrounds us all the time and to feel what is, I think, the greatest of feelings—profound astonishment and awe at the fact of one’s own existence.
Ultimately, we cannot escape the unknown. It will eventually return to engulf, torment, and cripple us if we have long suppressed it. For some time, I’ve aimed to adopt an attitude I dub “dancing with uncertainty.” Rather than feeling that I need to know anything, I have aimed to embrace that I am immersed in and inseparable from a colossal, mysterious unfolding of being and don’t really know what will occur tomorrow, let alone in five years. I admit that I don’t understand this whole “life” thing, and from that admission emerges humility, wonder, curiosity, and an openness to novelty and possibility. I heed the poet Rilke’s words: “Live the questions.”
Idea #2: You deserve to feel great all the time, and you can.
“This is Bob. Bob is doing well. Very well indeed. That’s because not long ago with just a quick phone call Bob realized that he could have something better in his life.”
You may have recognized the above ad-copy as that of Enzyte, “Natural Male Enhancement,” and were unwittingly prompted to imagine “Bob,” that disturbingly perky boner-boosting poster boy and his eerily exaggerated inhuman perma-smile. “Bob” is a prime (if a bit extreme) example of an archetype that is widely propagated by advertisers, self-help “gurus,” and the hokey, think-positive people who you unfollowed on Facebook for incessantly posting “Just Be Happy Now” memes.
The archetype is that of the ever-smiling person—the complete and totally realized human who has discovered happiness and now just feels so damn good that they can hardly stand it. In a culture that places an inestimable premium on individual happiness, it’s comforting to believe that such an ideal can be realized. It’s also quite lucrative to sell people an image of themselves attaining the ideal.
But beneath the glamorous, ever-grinning archetype is a serpentine subtextual message, a message that can quite literally make you feel as if something is terribly wrong with you. The message is that happiness consists in never feeling depressed, lonely, scared, anxious, or downright shitty. That if we just buy the product or adopt the right mentality, perpetual Best Days Ever are within reach. But is such a vision really tenable or the substance of agenda-driven fantasy? My vote: the latter.
Perhaps “happiness,” if the word means anything at all, means accepting whatever circumstances or emotions arise. To be human is to experience a vast spectrum of emotion, and there will always be an ebb and flow. Remembering to approach all happenings with an attitude of “this too shall pass” is more valuable than a warehouse full of consumer quick-fixes.
Furthermore, as many a thinker has argued, our pain can be an essential catalyst toward resilience, self-knowledge, and compassion. Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Viktor Frankl, a renowned psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, thought that in our suffering we could discover profound meaning. Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, Rilke, and other writers, poets, and philosophers have likewise held deep convictions about the metamorphoses and purposes to be found in misery. So, in sum, if you feel like hell, chill. You’re human. Be with those feelings; see what they might mean to you and know that they’re temporary.
Idea #3: You should be afraid.
“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. […] This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”
— Terence McKenna
In numerous ways, society implicitly communicates to us that the world is a harsh and frightening place. As mentioned above, we’re implored to meticulously design our future, to plan the “secure” career—the sure bet, the foolproof strategy. Risky, bold, or unpopular decisions are thus necessarily presented to us as avoidable traps. Caution is portrayed as the only way to ensure success. Anything that thousands or millions of other people aren’t already doing is likely to be met with unease from our parents, counselors, coaches, and advisors.
Moreover, the entirety of the outside world becomes something to fear if one invests in mass-media narratives (something all too easy to do, consciously or unconsciously). Every other news story is a sexual assault or homicide or bombing or school shooting or shocking accident. The news is over-saturated with exceptionally enraging, fear-inducing, and unsettling stories. This pattern communicates an inaccurate image of a world where death and danger lurk in every shadowed alley. That’s not to say that there isn’t a whole lot of frankly fucked up garbage happening in this world. There is, and we should keep our wits about us, have compassion for all, and care about helping to develop more effective systems and a sense of global solidarity.
But the point is that the media skews our perception, exaggerating stories for shock value and subtly conditioning us to expect highly improbable events to affect us. We’re taught to look out at the world and see tragedies rather than possibilities. This situation and other sources of fear become further reasons to take the cautious life-path that is advertised to us in schools and acted out all around us by the majority of citizens.
But when fear dictates our lives, we almost inevitably avoid things that beckon to us. Often times, the things that you really want to do—the stand-up comedy bit, the backpacking trip abroad, the music project, etc.—are petrifying. God forbid, we might not get the result we want or be laughed at by other people. This fear prevents most of us from “doing our thing”—i.e. expressing ourselves openly and honestly in our lives/actions, flowing intelligently with our nature. I have my fair share of fears and anxieties, but I refuse to be reduced and controlled by them—I let them be and try always to do the personally meaningful things that arise organically within me. To invoke Vonnegut once more: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”
Idea #4: The products can fix you.
“It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”
— David Foster Wallace
The subtext of 99% of advertising for consumer products is this: “You’re inadequate, ugly, uncool, no fun, average, predictable, prudish, and inessential, but our product can fix you.“ As Wallace points out in the above quote, advertisements are designed to foster in us a sense of anxiety about some aspect of our lives, to give us a sense that something is missing, but that the emptiness can be dispelled “for just $19.95!.”
This is the rhetoric of consumerist culture, and goddammit it is effective. I mean, look around you. People are working endless hours, week after week, year after year, just to throw it all away on a TV with imperceptibly higher resolution, an upgrade for their perfectly functional cell phone, silicone body parts and liposuction, a new wardrobe that won’t be “stylish” by next year, janky and extraneous gadgetry, plastic fruit, lawn ornaments, ShamWows, skin creams, throw pillows, diet pills, and infinite other bits of trivial bullshit.
The obvious point is that if any of this rubbish actually rectified the void that people try so desperately to remove from their lives, they’d stop buying. But they don’t—because making a purchase is simple and addictive and because the jolt of relief and satisfaction that arises from purchasing is fleeting as it is liberating. Rather than being any sort of real solution, consumption is merely a cyclic distraction. No amount of external accumulation can resolve internal issues and conflicts. These things require time, reflection, introspection, and a willingness to countenance unsexy truths about ourselves/life. It’s no surprise that most people try to escape this oft-uncomfortable work.
Idea #5: There are “good” people and there are “bad” people.
We all remember hearing things like “Be a good girl, Wilma.” or “Don’t be a naughty little boy, Sigmund.” From a young age, we were introduced to a set of ethical rules—rules which determined whether a person was “good” or “bad.” Most of the stories we grew up with, whether in the form of movies or books, contained morally unambiguous characters—that is, heroes and villains, the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”
Furthermore, those of us who were indoctrinated into certain Western religious institutions were taught that the species Homo sapiens is inherently sinful, and that some “good” people go to a Heaven while other “bad” people burn for eternity in Hell. In the US, at least, criminals are typically viewed not as fallible humans who made a mistake, but as irrevocably evil men who deserve decades-long prison sentences or capital punishment, rather than a second chance or rehabilitation.
This dichotomy of “good” and “bad” is firmly established in Western culture. It burrows deep into our fundamental conception of the world, generating guilt, shame, and doubt regarding our actions. I don’t deny that people are shitheads at times. Some of us do downright hideous things, and all of us make regrettable errors and end up hurting ourselves and other people we would rather not have hurt. The problem with a cultural dichotomy of “good” and “bad” is that it suggests to us that any one ephemeral mistake could have lifelong consequences, could prove that we are just downright “bad” people.
Though I personally feel we should hold ourselves largely accountable for our actions (while viewing ourselves and others with compassion), we must recognize that numerous factors beyond our control contribute to our mental state and impulses at any given time. As humans, it is a given that we will falter at some point. “The deck is stacked against us,” I often say. We will fuck up, but we will also do generous, loving things. These two poles arise mutually within us, and one allows us to experience the other, and vice versa. We are neither purely “good” nor purely “bad.” Kahlil Gibran knew this when he wrote:
“You are good in countless ways, and you
are not evil when you are not good,
You are only loitering and sluggard.
Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness
to the turtles.”
Judging someone else to be a “bad” person is an exercise in subtle self-aggrandizement, and conversely, dwelling in excessive guilt or shame over our mistakes is entirely counterproductive. As Albert Ellis once pointed out, the most effective way to express remorse for our actions is to acknowledge that what we did was misguided and then to focus on doing better now—in the moment we can still influence.
The other thing to consider is that both “good” and “bad” might be wholly native to the human experience and not objectively real. Existence may well be amoral, as Zen, Taoism, and other schools of thought suggest. This is one of those arguably unanswerable questions I mentioned earlier. Either way, I take the position that a basic moral compass—something as simple as compassion deriving from a recognition of mutual suffering—is an indispensable component of a meaningful human life. I humbly submit that we ought to aim for kindness and understanding, remembering that all people are human, just like us.
[Edit: Since writing this post a couple years ago, I’ve refactored my views on this point. While I do think it is important to meditate on the idea that no one is inherently “good” or “bad,” and while I do think the terms by which we place people into moral categories are far too black and white, my current view is that “good” and “evil” are still useful categories. For all intents and purposes, the majority of people who are just trying to live out their lives in peace and pursue their particular vision of happiness are good people. And for all intents and purposes, terrorists, violent sociopaths, ethnic cleansers, and the like—people who wish to kill others for some arbitrary reason—are evil people. Perhaps some of these latter people could be reformed, but I do believe some people are too far gone or devoid of empathy to become decent human beings. In my view it’s important to realize that such people do exist in this world.]
Idea #6: You are better than “them.”
We humans naturally form our identities by contrasting ourselves with that which appears different from us. We call ourselves “artists” or “athletes” because not every person is creatively expressive or adept at sports. If everyone was, the terms “artist” and “athlete” would lose their meaning and simply be subsumed into our “human” identity—the identity we form by contrasting our physiology with that of other animals. Curiously, all of our individual identities and even our collective “human” identity are rendered illusory when we examine ourselves at the atomic or subatomic level—at this fundamental level, everything is the same—but most of us don’t focus on this most of the time. Which is okay, because it’s fun and interesting to lose oneself in the game of human identity and social existence, wherein distinctions between people are indispensable for order and civil behavior. But I digress.
Groups—distinct parcels of people often set in opposition to one another—provide an ideal opportunity for the sorts of contrasts that we rely on for a sense of identity. For this reason and others, we in the Western world endlessly divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups. We’re jocks, hipsters, nerds, feminists, Vikings fans, environmentalists, atheists, Republicans, stoners, frat guys, bikers, vegetarians, transcendental idealists, et al.
Unfortunately, this group-based social dynamic is a slippery slope to narcissism and animosity. A healthy amount of pride in a given community identity can silently morph into an elitist sense of superiority and a desire to spite relevant out-groups or people generally who are not “in the club.” These types of attitudes have historically been and remain a mainstay in religious organizations, political parties, races, and social classes, as well as in countless other niche-groups such as the “popular” kids in a high school or a segment of health enthusiasts on the Internet or NRA members or all of the professors in a given department at a university.
Ironically, if it weren’t for all of the people that are different from you or I, we would be rendered indistinguishable from one another, retain no shape to call our own, and the whole game of human identity would be kaput. As I said above, we create our identities by contrasting ourselves with that which we are not, so maybe we ought to be thankful for those unlike us. On a deeper level, we might realize that our personal differences are illusory and temporary. We invent endless differences in an ongoing game of human drama when, at root, we are all members of the same species living on a tiny rock in a mysterious void. Beyond that, we’re all sentient beings. And beyond that, we’re all star-stuff, energy, subatomic particles.
Deciding that “we” are better than “them” has been a fatal error throughout human history leading to innumerable wars, genocides, and other unspeakable acts of brutality. We ought to aim to define ourselves first and foremost as the same fundamental stuff in an unknowable existence and realize that everything else is a little human game that we’re playing.
In sum, beware of dysfunctional cultural operating systems. Cool? Cool.
I’ll leave you with this passage—which echoes my introductory sentiments and distills the crux of this piece—from the philosopher Robert Anton Wilson:
“It’s important to abolish the unconscious dogmatism that makes people think their way of looking at reality is the only sane way of viewing the world. My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything. If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. It’s only possible to see people when one is able to see the world as others see it.”