In moments of self-awareness, I feel antsy and restless; something is missing or off-kilter.
Sometimes it can be more specific as I try to solve a problem and feel I don’t know enough. If I read that book, watch the video, or listen to the podcasts, I can find the answer, the solution, the way out of that feeling.
That drive, and what causes it matter far more than we imagine.
Dukkha and the Last Word Mentality
It brings me to what we face every day, neediness for resolution. We don’t like things up in the air, the anticipation of an answer or lack of a solution can motivate us, but it can also be stress-inducing. It’s the unsatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction that the Buddha spoke of, Dukkha or suffering.
It drives us to finish that book, seek that answer and tick the task off our to-do. I call This drive or seeking closure to our problems the Last Word Mentality. It shows how much our behaviour is trying to deal with dissatisfaction or uncertainty and how much we crave certainty.
Think of some of the words that come up. Disorientate, Bewildered. When we go on holiday to an unfamiliar place, at first, it’s all foreign, overwhelming.
We cannot easily live with ambiguity and uncertainty, so we want the last words, the final answer. This needs or drive happens we look at our lives and the world, but also in the everyday niggles like our car not starting or a colleague not doing their job.
This dissatisfaction is not confined to the mind. Thoreau said, ‘The mass of men leads lives of quiet desperation.’ But here’s the thing; it’s not quiet. Such dissatisfaction and the drive it creates manifests in life and the world. We have scarred the planet with our desperation and neediness. The personal dissatisfaction we experience become the problems of this world and their solution.
Our insecurities become the scars in the landscape, the plastic in our oceans and rivers, the building we erect, the groups and institutions we organise. The world is written with our desperation. Whether it’s on each other, or the land itself. All to try and quell that feeling of desperation, fear, doubt, and perhaps most of all, loneliness.
I believe that culture is personal psychology writ large. Our own fears and hopes are collected together to form the fads, fashions, and building projects we see.
Our Nesting Instinct
As a result of this, we create and build to make structures that give us the safety and comfort we crave.
The history of the human race has revolved around this; we create houses of ideas, science, religion, art, and philosophy to feel safe inside; it’s our Nesting instinct. We forge communities of people and create institutions, law codes, and infrastructure.
In the case of being on holiday, we write stories and create maps. You refer back to them, the restaurant where you ate, the sights you saw, here you were chased by a cow, there you were drenched by a sudden downpour. We write meaning and structure into existence by weaving stories into the reality before us so it becomes familiar. Making such narrative maps allows us to place ourselves in them and gives us the certainty and safety that comes from knowing where we are.
Just as birds craft their nests or some mammals create burrows, we have evolved to find ways of creating comfort and safety for ourselves. One particular but overlooked nest are our ideas. There’s the science house, the art house, the religious house, and the philosophy house.
Or think of it as one big house with different rooms. We build literal and metaphorical houses to sit inside and make ourselves feel safe. It makes knowledge like a blanket wrapped around us.
The sciences tell us how the world works, and in so doing make us feel safe by giving us the idea we know what’s going on and we are in control. (Even though it’s largely an illusion). The humanities (philosophy, religion, anthropology, sociology etc) tells us how we work. These Ideas reassure us that we know who we are, and what to do. Or in the case of the art provide an escape from our finite and vulnerable lives, making us feel less alone.
Our self-identity is a bundle of these ideas that we appropriate from outside. We describe ourselves in terms of our job, the clothes we wear, the things we own, the friends we have. Our dreams values, fears and so much more.
In each case, the purpose of these possessions (ideas, values, beliefs, job etc) is that it helps insulate us from the vicissitudes of life. Helping us cope with the uncertainty we face. We are so desperate to avoid our own fragile, vulnerable and finite lives that we go to extreme lengths to avoid it.
All the work humanity does is driven by a need to belong, to feel safe and secure. You could call it the Grand Project of Humanity. We have to invent justice because life is unfair, we had to invent ideas about life after death because we don’t like the idea death is final. We had to invent art and literature that speaks of love, purpose and meaning because we live in a cosmos that doesn’t provide those things.
Perhaps necessity is the mother of all invention. We wrap around ourselves these comfort blankets of beliefs, knowledge, and society. Because facing the storm alone is difficult even impossible without them.
Letting go of certainty
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 the ancient times, the dark ages, the middle ages, the Enlightenment, the industrial era and the modern information era. The quest has never stopped; the Last Word Mentality has driven us.
Yet after all this searching for safety, we are still looking for it. It may be time to accept it may never be found.
Much of the problems we face are found in these fallen temples’ wreckage. For the right reason, we have torn down ideas that once kept us safe because, now we know such ideas were imaginary or false.
It goes to the idea of Neuraths boostrap 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 Neurath
An image of constant change that’s the metaphor for our situation; what’s left then is a species that doesn’t know what to do with itself. We’re unsure of our place in this world because we’ve found no bedrock to base it on.
The problem is not our knowledge, religions, and ideas but the misguided and absurd hope that uncertainty can be eliminated with them. We don’t face certainty well because we’ve never had a history of accepting, always tried to squash it, turn away from it.
It’s time we accepted that life may always be a mystery and that there are no grand answers. Instead, see science, art, and religion not as answering to the but as vehicles to navigate it. As a vehicle, it provides comfort and a means to travel, change, and engage with the cosmos. It is an interface like the metaphor of a surfer on a surfboard or Neurath’s bootstrap allegory (also ideas to help us navigate the problem).
Familiarity is what provides comfort, unfamiliarity, uncertainty and doubt. Like houses, we build these bodies of knowledge, society, religions and more to make us feel safe, or they are feathers in our nests.
The grand mission of humanity has been to make itself feel safer in an uncertain world. Philosophy, religion, and science are all houses of knowledge and ideas we can shelter within. All these ideas, knowledge and beliefs give us the narrative that we’re in control. We need this narrative because we are insecure and need to feel like we’re the master of our own fayed, even when the facts tell us otherwise.
We consume or create to fill the void inside. It’s a recognition that the quest for truth is the neediness for safety.
Our anxiety, worry, a restlessness means we’re always on the move, rushing here and there, never satisfied as we always race towards the Last Word, the final answer. We have this unwritten to-do list about the big and small questions life brings up.
What we need in this world more than ever are people who can handle uncertainty and ambiguity better; in some cases, that can mean there is no closure, no Last Word, and no answers. To live well is to know how to live with ambiguity and uncertainty, and we need more people who can do without descending into destructive egotism and insecurity.