Monday, November 1, 2010

Screwing ourselves

Now you're climbin' to the top of the company ladder
Hope it doesn't take too long

Can't you see there'll come a day when it won't matter

Come a day when you'll be gone

Boston, Peace of Mind

But Marge, what if we chose the wrong religion? Each week we just make God madder and madder.

Homer Simpson

Cheers is one of our all-time favorite shows. We recall one episode with particular fondness, in which some Cheers regulars pull a practical joke on a rival bar, then become so worried about retribution that they decide to punish themselves, hoping to mollify the other bar's owner. After coming to this momentous decision, they begin to chant "Screw ourselves! Screw ourselves!"

We believe this is a useful corollary for the absurd, for what can we make of the human propensity to worry, regret, and obsess over the fleeting vagaries that make up our life, other than that we are, in effect, screwing ourselves? Why, instead of greeting each moment as joyous, a gift to be treasured, do we regret the decisions we made earlier this week (or last decade), or fret over what will happen tomorrow...or when we "retire"?!? Why do our minds so relentlessly focus on anything other than the present? Why do we nod in agreement when Agent Smith, in The Matrix, claims that "human beings define their reality through suffering and misery"?

We must ask ourselves...why?

Well, to be honest, we don't have the answer. We imagine it has something (perhaps a great deal) to do with our biological predisposition to survive, as a peaceful individual staring up at the stars is far less likely to survive (to say nothing of reproduce) than one driven to compete with others for wealth, status, and the affections of the opposite sex.

But more important than this reality is what one can do with such knowledge. Upset about something at work? Don't be! Had an argument with your spouse? Who cares! (Or as Inigo put what?!?) We all inhabit our own little worlds ("a prison inside our heads," as David Foster Wallace once put it), and have the ability to live (and feel) as we choose, no matter the circumstances. This is often a difficult hurdle for people to overcome, as we are indeed pre-programmed to feel as if the insignificant events in our meaningless lives are not only important, but of extraordinary us!

Next time you encounter some setback or disappointing news, consider how your reaction would be different had it instead happened to your next door neighbor. Or someone across town. Or on the other side of the planet. Would a starving child in rural China really care about a difficult commute?

Or, consider how such news would be received by yourself...10 years ago. Would your teenage self really be upset at losing out on a promotion? Why should your reaction to events be tied not only into this ephemeral notion of the self, but of its current incarnation? (For those who are interested, this idea is called "temporal neutrality," and Derek Parfit has a fascinating discussion of it in his book Reasons and Persons.)

We are so wrapped up in the false importance of personal experience that we not only cannot see the forest for the trees, but are obsessed with lines in the bark. We worry about this, that, or the other thing, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of the importance of our worries, even as six billion others have their own critical concerns. Your own personal narrative, carefully constructed, cultivated, and nurtured over all these long years, is nothing but a seductive myth.

Happily, the likelihood of determinism notwithstanding, we at least have the illusion of control over our own emotions. Thus, every one of us can choose right now to lead a life free of worry and regret, in which we truly celebrate the miracle of each additional moment.

Or...we can keep right on screwing ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Everything you say is true, but I'm also reminded that Brad Delp (Boston's singer), like Hemingway, killed himself.

    Great blog, though I'm more metaphysical than materialistic in my views.