Our Collective Existential Situation in a Nutshell (In Case You Missed It)

Here’s the two-fold problem: (1) each of us is limited to a body we did not choose and that dies, and (2) science since Darwin has revealed living things to be machines that evolve by competition (the proteins in cells, for example, are nano-machines serving, directly and indirectly, the replication of “selfish genes”). The living world is tough; Tennyson’s “Nature red in tooth and claw” is about right. There’s just not a lot of singing of “Kumbaya” in the wild (except, of course, among Boy Scouts). Even the more social of animal species will fight among themselves, and pecking orders—hierarchies—are the norm, not the exception. Ask a chicken.

Neither the cosmos nor God (if God exists) are explaining this state of affairs to us; nor are the animals and plants; nor are the extraterrestrials (if they exist). If anybody knows anything, they’re not talking. Aside from our abstract-chattering species, the rest is silence. We are in an echo chamber.

Our existence thus appears contingent and we have no one to help us make sense of our brief and limited experience of life in a body with desires. There is no assisting scaffolding to help us arrive at some higher meaning. Even our desires are not of our choosing. (If we were cockroaches, we’d think tub mold is yummy.) We are therefore alienated both from our bodies and the rest of the cosmos, feeling like ghosts in the midst of a matrix of machines tiny and large, organic and inorganic, nature-made and man-made (because that’s basically the way it is). And we have no evidence-based story of our origins beyond “shit happens.” As physicist Steven Weinberg, in his Dreams of a Final Theory (1993), famously and succinctly put it, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

What to do?

Fill in the blanks, of course; make stuff up; improvise (and make it look to others and to ourselves like we’re not improvising). We are, after all, resourceful primates. Imagination and creative problem-solving are our trump cards against despair. We are restless not to live with hopelessness, anxiety, and pain, and we are good at finding ways to escape them. We don’t go gentle into any fragmented good nights; we get our lives into alignment with what we want; we bind things up; we make things tidy. Lying to ourselves and to others is a way to manage the hopelessness, anxiety, and pain that can so easily swamp us. And when all else fails, there’s always cognitive dissonance. We don’t stay alienated for long (at least we try not to).

Alienation is another way of talking about desire, and desire is about making things align; about making things whole. When things are whole, we’re not alienated. It’s only when our desires and our lives do not line up in the ways that we want them to that we feel alienated from our situation and attempt to put ourselves and our desires into harmony (in small and large ways).

We thus seek oneness between “what is and what is desired” in either of two ways: we grasp what we desire or we let our desires go, accepting things exactly as they are. This is Buddhism 101. We are the clenched fist or the open hand. Either way, we achieve at least temporary wholeness (“what is” aligned with “what is desired”). We achieve non-alienation.

But is the attempt to overcome alienation in a full and permanent way a cruel double-bind? In other words, is non-alienation—integration into a large and meaningful whole that is more than just the accumulations of particular and individual meanings—something we should let go of because it is simply not attainable? We go back and forth between our particular and individual meanings and being incorporated into larger meanings, but those larger meanings are, let’s face it, dubious at best. They are rarely grounded by good reasons or evidence.

Maybe we should be content with small victories against despair and give up the “Hail Mary” passes.

Below is a short list of the ways people try to get the cosmos lined up with their desires, thereby solving (temporarily) the ever-shadowing problem of “death and the machine.” Notice that there are small ways and large ways that we try to achieve wholeness (which is, again, the lining up of what is with what is desired). And also notice that these strategies for coping alternate back and forth between small and meaningful actions and large and meaningful actions.

Here’s what we do in manic alternations to achieve wholeness (or at least distraction): exercise; connect to the past through nostalgia; pursue novelty; read or write things; travel; become masterful at something; behave courageously; pursue art, beauty, or utopian politics; love; practice charity; work; obsess about lurking monsters (cancer, terrorists, demons, the political party you don’t like); seek oneness with nature; pursue entertainments; take drugs; lose oneself in conspiracy theories or consumerism; follow intuitions; start a business; give anxious focus to security (border patrol, home alarm systems, health care for all); seek approval and recognition from others; live simply and purely; make a family; dominate; produce; go to school; eat food; become an ardent and passionate nationalist or religious believer (or both); go into therapy; meditate; take a vow of silence; start or join a health fad; engage in unalienated labor by working with one’s hands; enter solitude; become an animal rights activist; own a pet. Whatever works.

If it all seems a bit desperate, it’s because it is desperate. Thoreau writes (in the first chapter of Walden) the following:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

Thoreau is mostly right, of course, except for that part about “the mass of men.” What he ought to have written is all men–all human beings–lead lives of quiet desperation. (That would include the saintly Thoreau.) To be born into this world is to be a chicken with your head cut off, running this way and that. And unless you’re quite deluded, you’re never wholly sure you’ve got it right; the problem of life solved.

So we’re all in the same sinking boat together and very far out to sea. In this one thing–your half-ass figuring out of what to do in an impossible situation–you can be quite certain, and comforted in the certainty, that you’re not alone. Welcome.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Our Collective Existential Situation in a Nutshell (In Case You Missed It)

  1. And they say nihilism is dark and depressing…. I say it’s life in it’s true vista that is. Nihilists just see the ‘painting’ for what it is.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hmm. I agree that the vista appears quite bleak and that, like Oedipus, it is tempting to pluck out one’s eyes in the face of so stark and painful a truth. But is nihilism the only reasonable conclusion to draw from an honest evaluation of our existential situation?

      When I think of nihilism, I think of Nietzsche. And when I think of Nietzsche, and the hard edged master morality contained in his great books, I also think of that horse–the one he encountered at the end of his (sane) life. The one that Nietzsche wept over.

      • Thinking of master morality, as do I, as I have done since before I had ever been introduced to Nietzsche… but you can’t talk to people about that unless they have an interest in it anyway. Too many confusing words for them to garner actual meaning…. the strength and bane of a writer’s worth are words. Those useless things you have to use when politeness requires you don’t grunt for most people.

        As for the Turin horse, one can only sympathize with Nietzsche on this, what sanity remains when the most violent and illogical species we know of is in charge of the planet, and we are they.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Obamacare’s rollout unsettled me as a liberal, and that’s a small thing as compare with the Earth’s ecological and economic complexity. We have large system effects on Earth as a species, but we’re very far from controlling complex systems. Nobody’s really in charge; nobody’s really got a reliable grip on the wheel of the things most important to us, unfortunately.

  2. colinhutton says:

    On the bright side, consider how lucky we are to live in societies and in an era with that variety of escapist options open to us. We can shoulder our rock up the mountain for as long only as it suits us. Having let it go, or had it slip from our grasp, we can, unlike Sisyphus, choose a different rock for our next labor.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Or let the rock roll over us and be done with it. As Terry Eagleton once said, “Pragmatism is different from hope.”

  3. Jared K. says:

    Hi Santi, how have you been? Hope you and your family are well.

    It is great to see you are still blogging and philosophizing!

    It was great to hear from you recently – I was just thinking of you and then saw your message the same day!

    So much in my life has changed over the past couple years. I would love to chat with you and catch up on things. If you have time, please do send an email to this new address I use? Hope to hear from you!

  4. andrewclunn says:

    A quick book recommendation. The Transhuman Wager. I had to add its philosophy to my short list of “ideologies that don’t run away from or ignore Nietzsche.” Also add me to the “long time no see” club.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’ll get the book based on your recommendation alone. Thanks for that. And it’s nice to hear from you. Hope you’re doing well. Over the winter break, I’ve been turning a room in my house into a library, which means lots of sawdust, hammering, and drilling. The book you recommended will be in it.

      • andrewclunn says:

        Pet projects are the best. Carpentry has this odd satisfaction of both intellectual and mental achievement with tangible results to show off and enjoy. A library is a wonderful endeavor, though I admit that over the past year I have become… an ebook convert (don’t judge me too harshly).

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I think of the ending of Voltaire’s Candide: “We must cultivate our garden.”

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