The Chaos of the world and our Nesting Instinct

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened

Michel de Montaigne

Throughout our lives, we grapple with uncertainty and the unknown; these elements imbue life with its rewards and stresses. One of the most profound themes defining our existence is our approach to coping with this uncertainty.

I will explain by looking at our confrontation with the uncertain begins on a profoundly personal level, revealing itself through our daily choices, fears, and hopes. Then, expand upon this microcosm of experience to see its reflection in a larger, universal struggle of humanity.

In exploring how we cope with the unknown, from the individual to the global stage, we uncover a rich tapestry of human resilience and innovation.

Our Nesting Instinct

Our history reveals a persistent thread or theme: a constant fight against uncertainty and the unknown.

There’s a problem in that the certainty we crave has remained elusive. Our history is a long search for answers, from our caveman ancestors through ancient times, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Era, and the modern information era.

Every day, we face the need for resolution and closure when facing problems. We dislike uncertainty, ambiguity, or unresolved issues. This drive or desire to seek closure to our problems is what I call the “Last Word Mentality.” It shows how much our behaviour stems from trying to deal with dissatisfaction or uncertainty, seeking that answer and ticking a task off our to-do list. (Also showing that perhaps necessity is the mother of all invention.)

We cannot easily live with ambiguity and uncertainty, so we want the last word, the final answer. While the unresolved issue motivates us to act, it can also cause persistent stress. This dissatisfaction or suffering is what the Buddha referred to as Dukkha.

This dissatisfaction is not limited to individuals. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘The mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation.’ But here’s the thing: it’s not quiet. Such dissatisfaction and desire manifest in life and the world at large. We have scarred the planet with our desperation and neediness. Our dissatisfaction becomes the world’s problems and attempted solutions.

Our insecurities become the scars on the landscape, the plastic polluting our waters, the buildings we construct, and the groups and institutions we organize. The world reflects our desperation, our attempts to quell feelings of desperation, fear, doubt, and loneliness. It’s our ‘Nesting instinct‘ give form into , the ‘Grand Project of Humanity’, to eliminate uncertainty.

Culture is personal psychology writ large. Our fears and hopes are collected together to form the fads, fashions, and building projects we see.

Many of our problems today, some believe, are to be found in fallen temples like religion, science, and philosophy, I’m not so sure. As I show above, we in the West, expected to see religion, philosophy, or science to give us the answers. It hasn’t worked because the world is not obligated to make sense, The uncertainty may have retreated, but it has never disappeared. There is no bedrock, this is the death of God, as Nietzsche claimed.

We’re unsure of our place in this world, and what’s left is a species that doesn’t know what to do with itself. We have torn down these temples that once kept us safe because now we know such ideas can’t give us the certainty we crave. there is no bedrock of certainty to stand upon. The problem is not our knowledge, religions, and ideas but the misguided and absurd hope that uncertainty can be eliminated through them, there are no grand answers or Secret Ingredients to life. Our expectations are unrealistic, needy, and self-centred.

We don’t face certainty well because we’ve never had a history of accepting it, and we’ve always tried to squash it and turn away from it. Instead of continuing the trend of a destructive and desperate search for safety, maybe it is better to accept that life will never be certain.

It’s time we accepted that life will always be a mystery, and that  Instead, look at science, art, and religion not as solving uncertainty but as vehicles to navigate it.

Neurath’s Ship

This brings me to the comparison of two metaphors. The traditional Western one is that of a house sitting upon bedrock. The house, being our religious, philosophical beliefs and knowledge, is the result of this nesting instinct and desire for safety.

It refers to Neurath’s bootstrap or boat. It’s a simile that describes our situation.

‘We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.’

Otto Von Neurath

It’s an image of humanity that uses uses the vehicle or boat of culture: religion, science, philosophy not as a path towards certainty, but as a path to accepting it there can’t be. The crews lives and dies, the ship is always being rebuilt, and they sail upon an ocean of change. It’s an image that accepts that life always undergoes change just as Buddhism says and our desperation for certainty is why we suffer.

The dream of humanity was one massive creative project to create certainty and comfort. We constantly search for the Last Word or the final answer. We have built houses, made cars, created knowledge and beliefs. This has lead to all the philosophy, science religions and art we have created. One big house of culture sitting on bedrock to give us the the feeling that things make sense, that we know what’s going on.

As we have discovered it hasn’t worked out like that, we have learned along the way our journey is driven more by a desire for comfort than an unquenchable thirst for fact or truth. What happened is the bottom fell out of the project, the bedrock of certainty never materialised. Further more such insecurity and endeavour has create many of the problems we see in the world today.

By accepting that there is no bedrock to existence, no ‘last word’ or perfect certainty that we can face life better, engage with it more fully, and enjoy it more.

The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience …. A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it. 

Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

The belief was, ‘Life has to make sense’, but the uncomfortable truth is the world doesn’t have to meet our needs or make sense. Now more than ever, we need individuals, organizations, and countries that can gracefully navigate the world of uncertainty and ambiguity without succumbing to egoism and insecurity.

While our instinct to nest and seek safety is understandable, it is also important to remember that the world is constantly changing; there are no guarantees. Therefore, we need to create a new Grand Project of Humanity where we use our beliefs and knowledge to navigate thrive in a complex and ever-changing world.

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