‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’
We humans have a tendency to take our own suffering, angst and unhappiness and use it as a lens to colour the world we live in. It was something I first noticed in myself during my period of teenage angst, although I will readily admit I didn’t recognise the cause until after the fact. If I am unhappy or suffering, the world must be a terrible place, and this in turn creates a bias which subconsciously leads us to look for evidence to confirm our suspicions.
Above all, there must be a reason for our suffering, a protagonist upon whom to blame all our woes. If you are on the Right this villain is government and the way it imposes itself on human flourishing. If you are on the Left it is the evils of capitalism and the obscene wealth of the rich man. The awful truth is that suffering and unhappiness are intrinsic elements of what it is to be human- our moments of joy, contentment and happiness are brief respites against a burgeoning storm ever threatening to break, always lurking beyond the horizon and of which we are usually blissfully unaware.
The irony is it would seem that existential threat, the manufacture of crises, both personal and metaphorical, real or imagined, seems to be one of the only things which can distract us fully from our plight- which is probably why we have such a penchant for summoning them from nothing, and for creating a fictional world which bears no resemblance to the one we live in, with its general, gradual and incremental remittance of real human suffering in almost all its forms. Alas, for all our power to alleviate, progress cannot solve ennui, nor can it remedy the fact that most of us are inconsequential cogs in a vast machine, with little influence or earth-shattering contribution to the world around us.
We may have solved hunger, but for grief we can do nothing. We may have increased life expectancy to unprecedented levels, but we cannot remove the slow diminution which comes from entropy unleashed against our bodies, slowly enfeebling us, subject to worsening aches and pains, left grasping for ever-diminishing intellectual capacities, and ever fearful of a sudden precipitous decline far worse than the minor inconvenience of a now faulty memory or physical inconvenience.
We look to narratives to console us, to give us a reason why the world must occasionally be such a shitty place, but the truth is that narrative is probably the last place we should be looking if we really want to help ourselves. We need to recognise that for the most part, government is a substitute to remedy our own sense of inconsequentiality, it’s a proxy for the exercise of power and influence over others, to solve a problem which, for the most part, does not exist.
This is not to say that government is not necessary, or that it cannot help. But instead of asking the question how limited should government be, we should be asking how can we better deploy what to all intents and purposes are finite resources which have, at least in Europe, long since reached their rational limits? Meanwhile, in America few people realise that to confiscate all billionaire wealth (if such a thing were even possible), would only fund American government for six months. Such is the strength and potency of the narratives we construct to create the illusion that our own lack of power, influence, relevance and status must be the result of some evil ogre hoarding all such good things to itself. Unfortunately, despite the fact that in most instances the lump fallacy or zero sum has been proved wrong- when it comes to the attention economy and human relevance the Pareto distribution, much to the chagrin of millennials bemoaning the inherent inequality of music downloads, is very much in evidence- for every star, there are thousands of creatives who will die in obscurity.
Instead, if we really want to feel power, we should look to family, friends and community-even those virtual ones we create online. Impact and relevancy is to be found in the reciprocal, the simple warmth of a kind gesture and an occasional word of encouragement. Our world in not Manichean, a battle between good and bad people, much as many would have us believe it so. Instead, it’s battle against the indignity of existence, avoiding the temptation to sink into the moral quagmire of finally accepting one’s own irrelevancy, along with the desperate need to stoically gird oneself against the ever-looming storm.
The existential threat lies in ourselves, in avoiding the temptation to perceive the occasional nutjob we see on the other side of the political debate as in any way indicative of the group in its entirety. We are all too painfully aware of the ridiculous defamatory nature of stereotypes when they are applied to us, why can we not be more charitable and generous when looking at the opposing political tribe? Much as it may be annoying to admit it, belonging to any political tribe is replete with sunk costs- how many times have all of us winced at the sheer stupidity of some fool who is supposedly representative of our tribe or team. It’s why I am currently politically homeless- it’s liberated me from the inherent embarrassment of having idiots for leaders.
It is the acceptance which comes from finally accepting that as we grow older, an over fondness for coffee may cause anal fissures, that an ever increasing list of aging pains is our lot in life and we will never feel the same way we did when we were young. Even the past is an illusion- one which we selectively edit to remove all the grist and anxiety. And the future is a world we construct in which we would hopefully want to live if we were young again, unheedful of the fact that we still won’t have solved to real problem which confronts humanity in the modern age- that status, influence, relevancy and impact all really are zero sum, the lump fallacy. Overall, we should be content to live with relative obscurity and a lack of influence, to be known, liked and even occasionally admired by those we encounter along the way, and treat it all with the gallows humour it deserves, sipping the not-so-occasional whisky at the absurdity of it all.
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