The Paradox of Progress
The story of Buddha is well known. He was born into a palace and given every indulgence he could wish for. At the same time, he was shielded from the outside world. And yet, it wasn’t enough. He knew something was off. (Sound familiar?)
One day he went against his father’s wishes and ventured out of the palace. It was then that he saw, for the first time in his life, suffering and death. This unsettled him greatly and sent him on the path to enlightenment. To get there, he gave it all up.
He came to see that attachments were the reason people suffered.
This is us in the developed world. Metaphorically speaking, we have all been born into the palace. We have everything. We have more options than we’ve had before. The possibilities are endless.
We live in the most prosperous, safest period in human history. We’re all literate and well-educated. Violence and wars are at an all-time low. Racism, sexism, and discrimination are also at their lowest points in history. Far fewer people live below the poverty line. We’ve cured countless diseases.
The list goes on.
And yet, and yet, where do we go from here? Because the meaning we give our lives is based on a better tomorrow, is it not? Hope is based on a better future. If not for ourselves, then for our children – for our family, our community, our political party, our country, our fucking football team.
This is what it feels like.
It feels like we’re sitting on the apex of humanity. It feels like we’re at the top of the mountain looking down. At the very highest cruising level knowing all that’s left is our gradual or perhaps rapid descent to our inevitable demise.
The threat of nuclear war is the highest it’s been in decades. Extremism is on the rise across the political spectrum. The world is boiling. The environment is in free fall. Donald Trump is running for president again…
Here we are, sitting inside our palace walls. It feels like a swarm of flesh-eating zombies are clambering at the walls, ready to rush in and devour everything we know and love. But it’s not the walls that are cracking – we are.
Mark Manson calls this the paradox of progress. He says, “We are the safest and most prosperous humans in the history of the world, yet we are feeling more hopeless than ever before. The better things get, the more we seem to despair… And perhaps it can be summed up in one startling fact: the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you are to commit suicide.“
The Worm at the Core
But here’s the thing. (This is the part of the flight where I take a rapid nose dive off a cliff!)
We know we will lose it all. We know that we will die. All these things – the environment, the threat of nuclear war, the pandemic (the list goes on and on) are simply reminding us of this painful truth.
They’re bringing the existential worm at the core to the surface.
Last week I said that stalling is a result of losing meaning. That’s another way of saying we’ve lost hope. The problem is, we become attached not only to things but beliefs.
Why do we get attached to them, exactly? They’re just thoughts, right? I mean, all beliefs are just ideas, fundamentally. So why? Why are we so unwilling to hear the other side? Why are we all so utterly convinced that our point of view is the correct one?
We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all had that massive argument over nothing. We wake up the following day with egg on our face, wondering why we cared so much. Why we felt so strongly about something we realise, in the light of the next day, doesn’t matter.
This is why.
It’s because we know what the end result is. We know that death is inevitable. And because we know the end result, we feel that our lives must mean something.
We want to know, if we can’t live on that, at the very least, our religion can, or our political party, or our country, or even our football team. We need some part of us to live on.
When those things lose out, we can’t stand it. When the things we believe in are attacked or challenged, it feels like our very lives are at stake.
American philosopher William James dubbed this “the worm at the core” of the human condition.
Now, I like to call him Mr wormy head because this makes him feel less threatening. (Also, I have two young boys, so this is how I talk now.)
Mr wormy head is always there – residing deep beneath the surface. It’s at the very core of our psychology – at the deepest root. I can’t stress this next bit enough.
The way we keep him at bay is by instilling our lives with meaning.
This is the primary reason we give life meaning – even if most of us aren’t aware – to protect us from the knowledge that we will one day die. Not only that but to protect us from the knowledge that nothing we do ultimately matters.
The problem is that he likes to surface whenever we suffer a significant loss. Whenever our self-esteem takes a major hit. He senses when his prey is vulnerable. He tries to eat whatever remaining lift we have left for breakfast.
He’s a very naughty Mr wormy head. When he comes to the surface, he reminds us that nothing we say or do matters. That everyone we love will die, and everything we know will be swallowed up by the sun. He tells us we are nothing but an insignificant cosmic speck in the infinite expanse of time and space.
As I said, very naughty.
The natural conclusion when Mr wormy head starts to eat us from the inside out is that nothing matters at all. That because life is ultimately meaningless, there’s no point whatsoever. So why not sleep with my best friend’s wife? Why not shoot up a school full of children? Why not hang myself from a noose and end it all?
At its deepest darkest level, this is what it means to stall in life – why we become completely untethered from reality. It’s not only a lack of belief in oneself but everything. A lack of meaning, control, and belief all rolled into one nihilistic ball.
Not only does this cause us to stall, it causes us to give up altogether.
But to finish this admittedly depressing post with something to cling to, giving up isn’t the same as letting go.
When you give up, the reality is, you’re still not letting go.
(To be continued…)
This is part three of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
Part 1: Stalling: The Aerodynamics of Life
Part 2: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
You can also email him directly at: email@example.com
19 thoughts on “Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)”
Giving up isn’t the same as letting go….great core thought, thanks for the insight!
I’m pleased it resonated. Thank you Morgan 🙏
one observation, please. Meaning is a mission, hope is an aspiration or possibly a destination if you’re lucky. Meaning explains why you are in the plane. Hope is where you would like to land if you have enough fuel to get there and your gas gauge is broken.
Meaning is many things. It’s used to explain the world. It’s used to make value judgments. But most importantly meaning is designed to give us a why for living – a mission as you state. I would argue that mission – the thought of accomplishing it – gives you the hope or motivation needed to undertake that mission. You’re right there is an important difference though. To use your aeroplane analogy. The meaning is to take passengers safely from a to be. The hope is to achieve that goal. If we didn’t have hope we could achieve that goal we wouldn’t pursue that meaning. Thank you Vic. Great point.
Here’s the thing, at least in my “head”, though it is more of an entire entity thing. I think we understand that our entity could be running in more than one “space” in any moment. The key then, to “understanding” what we are about is to realize that in any moment of space and time an individual will make choices, or have choices made for them by circumstances. Those choices will impact what is going on such that we all do have a purpose beyond merely leaving something behind. Clearly way more on this, but just had to pop this out.
Everything is an inextricably interconnected. The smallest actions can have ripple effects that extend well beyond our limitless perceptions. That’s a great insight. Thank you for sharing your thoughts
I agree with both of you. As I wrote not long ago, we attract what we want to see in our lives, making us feel we are going deeper down the rabbit hole of this one-sided thought that agrees with our thoughts. I think it was a point explained on here too, we tend to look at things from our point of view and no one else. But I do believe if it is meant for a person to fulfill a dream of becoming a pilot, that it is for a reason. If a path to death or success is paved and we take it, most likely there is a reason, so that the entire picture still appears as so for that fraction of a moment. Who cares what we live behind, as long as we enjoyed the ride is my thought on it all. Great read and comments.
That’s right. We don’t want to challenge our beliefs because it brings the worm at the core to the surface. It’s not pleasant. Instead we look to confirm what we already know. In doing so we become more rigid in our thinking. More unaccepting and intolerant of those who hold different opinions. When we learn to let go of what we feel we must do – when we stop caring so much – everything falls into place. We just “know” what the right path for us is. It’s when we try to force that path that things take a dark turn. Wonderful thoughts. Thank you for adding them 🙏
I found Mark Manson’s theory to be very interesting. But then your whole post resonated. Looking forward to next week’s writing!
His theory makes a great deal of sense. The more we have, the more we have to lose. I’m pleased the post resonated. Thank you for saying so 🙂🙏
Happy to read that you are aware your article is depressing. But it is also thought provoking. I don’t know if it was a good idea reading it on a Friday afternoon. Luckily I go out later.
Sorry for the depressing post Cristiana. I plan to lift everyone up in the following posts! The way I see it, it’s a paradox. Life and suffering are inherently meaningless, but that’s precisely why we need meaning. To give us purpose – and to overcome. I also wonder whether meaning can be created from anything other than an inherently meaningless universe. Otherwise it would be given to us – and not ours to give. Hope you have a wonderful, meaningful weekend Cristiana! 🙏
Thank you David, sometimes is good to read depressing posts. Later, if something happy or funny happens to you, your spirit will be lifted up and you will appreciate more that present moment.
My hope is that the world will realize that the darker the days, the brighter the light. I am hanging on to some words from atreeoflight.org: “The age-old human tendency to hide and shade the truth is now being exposed. The dire consequences of untruth are impelling the soul to arise and search for what is real and true.” Souls are waking up to the Truth. Yay!
I do believe the greater the suffering the greater the potential for meaning. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Julia 🙏
AP, this post about fear of death being at the root of many of our anxieties is something I have never thought about in just that way before. It certainly makes sense to me. I am not particularly afraid of dying, but I do want to believe that my life has had some meaning, and I do want to leave a legacy.
We all do things to be remembered after we die, especially as we grow older. We record events in photos and share them with our families, we write to create something beautiful, to preserve memories, to record our thoughts. We give treasured mementos and family heirlooms to younger family members, and leave sentimental legacies in our wills…All of this does not prevent us from dying, but it just might help us to be remembered!
Hope all is well with you and your family! <3
Yes. It’s crucially important psychologically to instil our lives with meaning. The most meaningful thing we can do is help those we love. It’s those who feel their lives are meaningful that come to fear death. I think it helps to imagine death and see that we are continuation of everything that came before and will feed back into everything that comes after us. Thank you for commenting Cheryl. I hope you and yours are well too 🙏