In our quest for happiness, much of our suffering comes from our desire for the world to make sense and to have answers so we can feel safe. I found this myself as I struggled with social anxiety and depression. You see people rushing around trying to make sense of the world and their lives, and it doesn’t come together, so they get upset and frustrated, disillusioned even as the world does live up to their expectations.
Our beliefs make sense (at least to us), so by twisting the world to fit into them, the world makes more sense. It’s our way of seeking some control over life. However, warping reality to fit our expectations means divorcing ourselves from reality.
But the kicker is the world doesn’t have to make sense or live up to our expectations because it has no obligation to us. To say that it does is to give into fear and insecurity; they become the driving forces of our logic, reason and our grasping for meaning. Further still, what happens when reality and our beliefs don’t match?
Uncertainty and the unknown we have a hard time dealing with, so we have this attitude that ‘the world has to make sense because we can’t bear the possibility it doesn’t.‘ or ‘I can’t bear the possibility of X; therefore, it has to be Y. I can’t bear my partner not fulfilling my needs; therefore, they’re obligated to do so, or I can’t bear even the idea there is no ultimate purpose to the cosmos, so there has to be. I can’t bear a messy world that doesn’t make sense, so it has to make sense. More on this later.
To many of us, what matters is only that which can be examined, measured, catalogued and stuffed into a system, a model, a theory, or a metaphor. The complex changing reality must squeezed to fit inside our simple ideas. It’s a fallacy of Reification or Hypostatisation. We twist, bend, and stretch reality to fit our ideas and beliefs, demanding that the world meet our desires. We ignore counter-evidence and even invent new ideas to get the other ideas to fit together so our beliefs make sense. We have become obsessed with tidiness, efficiency and knowing things to deal with the change and uncertainty we face.
This over-reliance on reason and thought results in avoiding our feelings instead of dealing with them. Our unwillingness to accept life’s mystery and messiness drives our desperate need to know, measure to grasp with the mind, then theorise and organise.
Instead of facing uncertainty and learning through taking risks and making mistakes, we crave knowledge and read books. We value knowing about the path instead of walking the path.
In my journey, a big problem was my social anxiety. I had to keep reading books to find answers. I kept reading because I didn’t consider nor could I accept there was no answer to my doubts and suffering. I had to learn to let go and face uncertainty instead of running from it.
All this effort to find answers, organise, and reason is a gentrification of reality. Clearing away all the ugliness, illogic, mess and uncertainty to live in an artificial sense of paradise. All this revolves around our insecure ego, our Self, which we place at the centre of the cosmos. If the world conflicts with our need for clarity, purpose, and meaning. The world has to be wrong because we must be in the right.
Self-obsessed, Self-absorbed, Self-conscious, Self-righteous.
I use the word Self deliberately here to gesture towards Buddhism and where this is going.
Going back to, ‘I can’t bear the possibility of X; therefore, it has to be Y.’ When I looked at this, through what I know of Buddhism, I could see something I recognised.
- ‘I can’t bear’ is unsatisfactoriness, dissatisfaction or Dukkha, our suffering.
- ‘the possibility of X’ is an Aversion towards what we don’t want or Dveṣa.
- ‘it has to be Y’ is Desire, for something we want, or Rāga.
- There is the ‘I’, or Delusion, Moha at the beginning, that is the Delusion of the enduring Self.
Moha, Dveṣa and Rāga are known as the Three Poisons in Theravada Buddhism and are what lead to suffering. So we have our neediness as the driver of suffering: the need to know, the need for order, the need for others to agree with us, the need for some grand purpose to existence, the need for certainty, safety, and clarity. All that neediness needs an answer.
It’s the Buddha’s lesson that arises in a paradox. The same neediness for clarity, happiness and peace of mind we strive for creates the conditions for the suffering we endure. Our desperate search and grasping for answers doesn’t lead to inner peace but inner turmoil. The Self looks for Itself; in trying to understand and care for the Self, the thinking mind runs in circles.
Acceptance means to let go of the answer and embrace some measure of uncertainty and mystery, to accept that perfect security and safety can be found in a changing world.
The world doesn’t have to make sense because it’s not obligated to us. To say it does is more an expression of neediness and insecurity, not a statement of truth. We place a very outstanding stock on things making sense. Yet, it is that very desire that gets us into trouble.
Our insecurity leads us on this path as we try to make sense of the world and address our suffering. But the belief in reason and knowledge gives us many of the problems we face. Life can’t be cleaned up and sanded down to fit inside our neat little boxes; it will always be messy, contradictory and mysterious.
This is the way. Accepting this truth paradoxically leads to happiness and liberation from suffering. The world does have to make sense, or to put it another way.
As soon as you accept that life doesn’t have to make sense, that’s when it starts making sense.Richard Collison