Nakedness

The old apes rose up and began to walk with their heads held high. They wandered far through lush, cool forests and found at its edge an open savannah ripe with meat to hunt and food to forage.

They quickly found their thick fur far too heavy in the glaring heat and sweltering sun of this new land, and survival here became uncertain. But our ancestral line is a blessed one, and nature—through environmental pressure and sexual selection—found a way to keep their large brains, the jewel of our species, cool.

The thick fur receded. The skin beneath became exposed and darkened, and sweat began to pour from their bodies.

These apes became naked, and it was good.

“To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. ( The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.
To be naked is to be without disguise.
To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own skin, the hairs of one’s own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

We are not alone on this earth in having bare skin, but we are undoubtedly the most aware of it. In nature, no other animal is as preoccupied with how much of the body is shown, and how much must be covered up as we are. We alone experience the shame, the exhilaration, and the outrage over the exposed bodies of others and of our own. We may not be the only ones born so nude, but we alone experience our nakedness.

Among the primates, our closest relatives in nature, we alone lost our fur when—we believe—the genes that determined hairlessness, and the linked genes affecting the number of sweat glands, began to be selected for in warmer climates.

Now, Each of us comes into this world uncovered, and our first sensations are the bonding that occurs when our skin first meets the skin of another. This first skin to skin bonding is critical for our emotional well-being and the way our skin is treated and our nakedness acknowledged during the coming formative years affects us for the rest of our lives.

Depending on your culture, when you were born, and how you were raised you will have a different feeling about your nakedness. You may cover yourself from head to toe, by choice or by law or you may live somewhere where covering is impractical, uncomfortable, and unnecessary. You may live somewhere in which the social norms and laws don’t agree with your own level of inhibition. In those places nakedness can become a protest, a resistance, a revolution.

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”

The Bible, Genesis 3:7

I’m not sure if anyone knows which came first, the need to cover up or the taboo of exposed skin.

As we moved out of Africa and off of the sweltering savannah, we once again needed protection. The fur could not be grown back, but we had our minds. We no longer had to wait on nature, we could compensate and enhance, and we started with clothing. We took the hides and fur of our kills and made simple cloaks and coverings to keep us warm and to keep us hidden.

Our ancestors, the ones who stepped out onto the savannah, while critical to our future existence, they were not us. They would not recognize what they saw if they could look into our eyes. The ones who chose to cover up, they carried the true seed of humanity.

I would argue they made us more us than any form of humanoid to come after. Even the Neanderthals, with their simple cloaks, they knew us too. For what we had in common was the elements and the desire to overcome them, but we had over them was the desire to make more out of our coverings.

“It’s the invention of clothes, not nature, that made “private parts” private.”

— Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Adam and Eve if they existed, may have found they were naked when they ate from the tree of knowledge but what need was there to hide their bodies from each other?

Beyond the need to protect the body and the skin from harm, why is there such a pervasive feeling of shame when it comes to exposure? The story of Adam and Eve’s shameful awakening perpetuates an idea that with the loss of ignorance and innocence must come modesty and that nakedness is an evil. Clothing became a way to control the masses.

As society spread and culture grew more complex clothing became a clue to who you were, where you were from, where you stood in rank and relation to your peers, to the rest of the tribe. The more we spit, came together, mixed, warred, and grew, our clothing changed to reflect who we were becoming.

Your clothing could indicate what beliefs you held, what Gods you worshiped, and to which king you were loyal. Clothing could tell someone if you were married or not. It could tell you if someone was a servant or citizen, and if they were an “us” or a “them,” to let live or to dispatch to their death. Clothing has become a way to place us firmly in a niche and to keep us there. The naked ceased to have a place at all and nakedness became invisibility.

We’ve come a long way since those simple fig leaf coverings and cloaks, haven’t we?

And now what is nakedness to us? In western cultures particularly, after so much indoctrinated objectification and shame, the nakedness of others is no longer seen as a person’s natural or normal state. Seeing the bare skin of another human being elicits strong emotions and reaction. We may feel lust, disgust, shame, or envy. We may feel disturbed and filled with rage. The nude figure is susceptible to lust and objectification now and is often displayed as an art, which is only another kind of decoration and disguise meant to provoke. Nakedness has become a message, just another kind of clothing.

Now the loss of clothing has become a loss of identity, of ego, of self, a specific humiliation. Physical nakedness is both an exposure and a loss of social standing leaving you feeling lost and afraid. Few among us could suffer being so seen in front of our tribe. The skin, the real gateway to the human soul, must be protected.

Our skin, its color, the scars, the calluses, the softness, it’s all part of who we are and where we have been. The skin, the largest and most exposed organ, displays our whole being. Nothing is hidden. So, much like the ego, a facade must be created to cover what is fragile. What is underneath must be protected with layers of illusion and lies a protective “identity” has to be displayed like a shield. So whether through covering up, or by alteration, a new nakedness is placed over the first, and forgotten.

But our attempts to cover only reveal us further, not so much for who we are as individuals, clothing lies the way that language does, but it reveals who we are together. Even in cultures where nakedness is mundane, there is ornamentation, an alteration of the skin in some way with paint, tattoo, scarification, piercing, and more, and more extreme.

“Nakedness has no color: this can come as news only to those who have never covered, or been covered by, another naked human being.”

— James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

To be truly naked even with only ourselves is an exhilarating and titillating experience. To be so naked with another person takes a great leap and a risk. When we lost our fur, we became defenseless against nature. We also became defenseless against one another.

Our fur protected us from all sorts of disease and danger. Our skin has made advances, but no one can deny the trade-off has been only barely in our favor. Parasites and bacteria have an easier time, and we are defenseless against the teeth and claws of our predators. Worse, what protection do we have against the bare touch of another human being? Nothing so weaken us as nakedness pressed against nakedness.

And this is the human experience. We are not alone in our exposure to nature, but we are the only animal brought to such heartache, fear, desire, or rage over the touch or the lack thereof, of another person’s skin. We may cover and alter our skin, we may shame ourselves and others, and we may use, abuse, and objectify the nude, but there is no doubt what we crave to feel our own skin freely and to feel the skin of another with no loss of dignity and no threat of obligation.

We’ve forgotten what we gained when we lost our protective fur. We gained direct contact with our world. There is nothing between us and the sun, the grass, the rain, and the wind. There is nothing at all between us and pure pain and pleasure. There is also nothing between us and one another. We have access to the closest intimacy and with it comes terror and fragility.

With it comes the greatest rewards and the kind of suffering that runs from the epidermis straight to the heart.

***

Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a virtual cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter N under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence.” I am aware that the challenge is over and that I have failed to finish on time, but I am determined not to fail to finish at all. 

Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash

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Meaning

“The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”

― Albert Camus

Humans, cursed as we are to be so aware, can’t help looking back, far into the past in search of the beginning, and to looking forward, far into the future, in search of a pattern, a purpose, and a meaning.

Why is there a universe? Why is there an Earth, so warm and blue? What is life? Why does life of this kind exist instead of another kind? Why are there human beings? Why am I? What is the purpose of it all?

We’ve been asking these questions for centuries. People from every culture, all genders, the powerful, the meek, the wise and the uneducated have asked. The rich, the poor, black, white, and all shades in between, some we’ve heard of, some silenced, and some forgotten have asked. People wondering publicly and the rest of us have contemplated privately the same question, and no one has been able to provide evidence for one answer over any other.

Even our religious institutions, with all their grand myths, and rules, and ways to live offer no concrete answers from the Gods. Their ends are too lofty for the human mind, so those supposedly close to them say. Their means cannot be deciphered.

There used to be easier answers. There was a time when our ancestors, who we’d never recognize as our kin now but held the seeds of our consciousness then, had only to live to make more life. Their purpose was to procreate, to pass down genetic material.

Later people began to reason and found grander reasons to live. They cried live, for your family, for your tribe, for your nation! Live for a cause, and die for it too, and you will find glory. Live with a sense of duty and justice, worship your God and serve your Kings and honor will be bestowed upon you. Your name will be preserved in history. You will live among the stars, among the heroes, among the greats. You will matter.

But, those ideals no longer suffice. In a world where there are no longer Kings to serve, and Gods can no longer be found or forced to answer for our existence, we’re left with no direction and find ourselves drawn toward the latest drama, the shiniest screens, and get rich quick schemes. How long will those ideals do?

“The purpose of life is to stay alive. Watch any animal in nature–all it tries to do is stay alive. It doesn’t care about beliefs or philosophy. Whenever any animal’s behavior puts it out of touch with the realities of its existence, it becomes exinct.”

― Michael Crichton, Congo

The question now is whether or not we should go on fretting over any purpose or meaning at all? Or should we let go of questions that have no answers? Maybe we should we return to our roots with the animals and live only to survive and to pass on our DNA? Maybe what matters is only what pleasure this moment can bring until the moment that brings death.

Science has given us far bleaker prospects. Science, technology, reason, they have exposed the inner workers of the Gods and shown their hands empty and when the Gods serve no purpose humans are left without meaning. The curtain has been drawn back to reveal, a mirror. When we look for meaning, we are simply looking for ourselves.

In the absence of any other minds, we alone have the power to decree life’s meaning. We are the new Gods!

But, of course, that isn’t good enough. What do we do with all this choice and fear? What do we do with all this longing? They’ve left us no comfort for that.

We are looking for large answers here. We’re starved for profundities where we’ve been served shallow and trivialities up until now. We want to make a difference simply by virtue of our existence. If to be or not to be amount to the same, why choose to be at all?

“Life has a meaning but do not set out to find out. Just live it out.”

― Bangambiki Habyarimana, Pearls Of Eternity

A better question, one that offers more insight, more control, more satisfaction might be “What is the meaning of my life?” for that is the only question we have any hope of finding answers for. The universe is silent, and the Gods have gone, there is only us. There is only you.

The truth is that the truth is whatever we say it is. We are the only ones for whom the truth matters anyway right? The grand design, by default due to lack of competition, will be our design. The ends are ours, and the means entirely up to us.

The truth is, we’ve been deciding it all along anyway. We’ve compartmentalized the responsibility of decision and design to the Gods and other humans we’ve worshiped as such, but we knew, we knew, that they were doing what we couldn’t, taking control of the illusion and deciding our course and reason. The truth is that power can be taken back by each of us whenever we choose and as soon as we are ready.

That is the beauty of the illusion; we get to design the game and play along too. We can write the story and still be a part of the plot twists and surprise endings. We can create a meaning that aligns with our own innate natures, interests, and desires rather than fight against them.

The responsibility is overwhelming, sure, but if you keep a small part of yourself outside of it but still aware of the ultimate truth, that it doesn’t really matter anyway, then you can survive that bleak reality. Better still, you can thrive in it.

So, don’t shy away from the immensity of the task. Do not cower within your smallness. Don’t let the silence of the universe or the longing inside of you where God used to be deter or depress you. The meaning of your life and the answers you find when you confront such questions are where your real life begins.

Begin at the beginning. The simplest answer can be the most profound. The purpose of your existence is to exist. The meaning of your life is to live your life. This is why to be is better than not to be. There is no purpose to be found where nothing can be experienced.

So, just live. Move your life where you would like it to be and spread it out as widely as you’d like. Your purpose is just to be, everything else comes after and, oh, there can be so much more after.

The absence of meaning is not to be dwelled on. It is nothing to carry on about or fight against. The absence of meaning is an invitation to freedom. Seize it!

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

― Albert Camus

***

Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a virtual cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter M under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence.” I am aware that the challenge is over and that I have failed to finish on time, but I am determined not to fail to finish at all. 

Photo by Joe Jansen on Unsplash

 

A to Z Reflections: Part I // I’m Writing It the Long Way

Yes, that’s right, this is part one of my Blogging A to Z Challenge “Reflections” posts.

See, I’m not actually finished with the challenge yet, but instead of quitting after the race is over, I’m just going to go on running even as the other participants head home. I still have just over half the alphabet to go but I thought I’d at least share my thoughts so far, and, being sure I will have further thoughts after I cross the finish line, I’ll write “Part II” on the theme itself in a few weeks.

And still, even after all that, I’m want to take the challenge a step further, and with extensive editing, some additional creative writing, and a little art, I’d like make something real out of all that work, something I can hold in my hands. Something you can hold in yours too, and I’ll share my thoughts on that in “Part III.”

So far all I can share is my thoughts on the process. Writing, all kinds of writing, are a daily lesson not just in the craft itself, but in reflection, introspection, observation, and self-awareness. Writing teaches you how you feel about a lot of things and writing every day, or trying to write every day teaches you a lot about yourself too.

I’ve known for a long time that the kind of writing I naturally gravitate toward is a very slow kind of writing. I’ve known this, but I’ve worked hard to try to change it. I’ve read a ton of advice and tried a ton of strategies to “get ahead of myself” and even on good days when I spend every free second I have on words, I still can only get through a half a post at most.

My writing process is made up mostly of reading, gathering facts, ideas, and inspiration. I also enjoy brainstorming and drafting by hand. I like for writing to feel more like an assignment, a task, a very serious endeavor. I’m not sure that will ever change but I know that if I want to it, I have to start by trusting the process first. Maybe I have to just go with it for a while and write the way that feels right to me?

I also realized I’m still not a very good writer, but it’s okay! I wouldn’t expect to be a very good writer yet. I work a full-time job, and I don’t read nearly as much as I should. What I mean to say is, I’m not a good writer because I lack the capacity to be a good writer. I’m not a good writer because I don’t do the things I need to do to be a good writer one day.

I’m aware that I am long-winded and repetitive. I want to learn to either keep my word count but say what I want more clearly, so that I might say more, or, if I have less to say, learn to say it in fewer words and save us all the time. I’m sure I make a ton of grammar and spelling mistakes, many I catch only after hitting “publish.” Maybe my readers would be willing to read my posts with a more critical eye and share my mistakes with me?

Finally, I learned that blogging is hard to prioritize for a writer like me, a writer who has only barely begun to solidify their relationship with the craft. I have very little to show for all of my effort except what I have here on this little unknown and, I feel, unimportant corner of the World Wide Web. It’s hard to feel important when you can see the looks people give you when you talk to them about what you do.

Of course, I know it is only me projecting my own insecurities into the minds of others. In my mind, people only understand one way of writing. I expect that they are disappointed not to hear I am on my way to publishing a book, or a poetry collection, or that I have many articles in popular magazines. I’m sure they want to hear that I’ve written something they have read or something they might want to read someday, or now if I happen to have a draft to share?

I often think blogging isn’t real writing, this challenge reminded me that it most certainly is if I believe it is. If it’s important to me, it is important. My opinion is the only option that matters on the subject, well, and the opinion of my readers of course.

Which brings me to the last thing this challenge taught me this year, I am not very good at engagement.

If there was anything I felt disappointed in myself for or wish I could have done better, it would be commenting and sharing. I’m trying not to beat myself up too much over it. I did the challenge for me. My writing is for me first, always, and with being so sick lately and with work getting in the way, I had to protect my writing time by making cuts to other areas.

I did read every comment posted here, and I replied to many. I still plan to reply to the rest. I’m finding the time to comment on other blogs too. I know engagement is critical here and I know that I give up a lot by not making it a priority. There is still time to make those connections since the master list will be up for some time longer. I will do better.

There are other bloggers I follow and admire who don’t even allow comments on their blogs and instead move to social media to engage their readers. I like that idea considering places like Twitter and Instagram are places I spend most of my time, but I’m sure no one likes little old me enough to open another tab and type their thoughts into yet another text box.

As for the challenge itself, I have very little to complain about. The hosts do a great job of keeping the participants motivated and on track. I only wish the lists provided for each letter stayed open a little longer so that other bloggers like me who fall behind can still share our work with the others. I still plan to participate every year that I can at the very least come up with a theme and a subject for all 26 posts.

I hope you all will continue to follow along while I make my way, slowly but surely, to the finish line. I love my theme, and I have no plans to give up before I’ve written every post I promised myself I would.

Thank you all for your support so far, for every kind or encouraging word. Congrats to everyone who signed up for the challenge, whether you wrote all 26 posts or none, I’m proud of you for at least trying and I want you to know that is enough.

See you soon for the rest of the alphabet!

***

Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a virtual cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge Reflections link-up. Check out my theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence,” and my posts for the 2018 challenge so far, and, please, follow along for the rest! Even though I failed to finish on time, I am determined not to fail to finish at all. 

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

Loneliness

“I stretch my loneliness out from eternity to eternity.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. by Robert Bly, from Selected Poems

One ant, a single bee, an abandoned antelope, and a lone wolf doesn’t amount to very much on their own, and neither does a socially isolated human being.

Some animals have evolved to rely on another set of eyes, another set of hands and minds, to keep safe, find more food, and to raise their young, to receive comfort, care, and guidance. Such a strategy has proven beneficial in the course of our evolution too.

We need strong social ties between every member of our clan and us to help us survive, and when those ties weaken we feel lost, we feel down, we grieve, and we hurt for our place among our people. This separation plunges us into darkness, and we will do anything to get out again.

Think of community as a sort of addiction, a medicine, a supplement to keep us alive, aware, and a part of life and our surroundings. We are addicted to communicating, to mutual intimacy and the exchange of ideas, grievances, and interests. We long to feel safe, seen, cared for, understood, useful, wanted, and connected.

Everyone feels lonely sometimes. Even those among us with big families, lovers, successful professions, money, friends, marriages, kids, even those of us who have achieved fame and secured a place in history, even they feel lonely sometimes.

How could we not? With such a rich inner life and such depth of identity, desire, wisdom, curiosity, and pain and no way to fully convey or share all that we are with another, how could we not lay awake at night wishing for a warm body to take it all away? How could we not long for a friend who might make us laugh, and to hear our pains? How could we not wish to know that at least we are thought of when we aren’t around or that our presence makes some measurable difference while we are here? What is life for if it isn’t for any of those things?

If having a community is an addiction, loneliness is a sort of withdrawal, a symptom, a warning signal of social disruption and spiritual dysfunction. It’s uncomfortable, painful, and we go to great lengths to avoid it. It manifests in a mind that has been cut loose and sent adrift, a mind that has become vulnerable. Loneliness is our reminder to seek out the safety of our tribe again. It’s the solution evolution found to keep us together. Loneliness made other people are our homes.

“Be silent in that solitude, Which is not loneliness —”

— Edgar Allan Poe, Spirits of the Dead

Of course, alone and lonely are not the same things. Sometimes we like to be alone. Sometimes we need to be. Time on our own, to be with ourselves and to shed the expectations and judgment of society is good for our mental health and an important part of our self-care. When we want to be alone, we do not feel lonely. Loneliness is the perception of being socially isolated and alienated when we don’t wish to be. We might be surrounded by people, but if our connections and interactions aren’t meaningful to us, we might as well be the only person on the planet.

We all know what it is but though evolution may have provided the instinct to keep us together the process failed to provide instruction. We want to communicate, but how? We want to connect, but nothing seems to be working.

Neuroscience and psychology have provided perspective by proving that the pain is real, not just mentally making us more fearful, more anxious, and more depressed, but physically making us more susceptible to disease with raised levels of stress hormones, inflammation, and a decreased immune response. Loneliness is not just an emotional malady, it is a physical one, and it most certainly can be fatal.

Science has been able to provide some insight but little balm for the pain. People forget, loneliness isn’t solved by simply surrounding yourself with more people. Despite our rising numbers and ever denser living conditions in our cities, despite the internet and all we to love and hate in common we still feel so alone. We still have no friends, no one to confide in, no one to let us know that while we may be alone inside of ourselves and doomed to be misunderstood for our entire existence, we are at least not alone in the feeling and frustration. We are not alone in our loneliness.

The problem is we expect people to come to us when we are lonely, but the answer is the opposite, we have to go to others. We have to seek out or place and purpose among a tribe of people who will make us feel understood, important, and loved. We have to go out and search for community and when we find it, we have to give of ourselves rather than take what we find and expect to fulfill our longing. Volunteer, share your story, listen to the stories of others, learn something, teach something, get out in the world, or call someone if you can’t and have the world brought to you, reach out, get therapy. When you need people, go to people.

And that is all well and good, and that will all make it better, but the real problem, the problem we won’t name, is that loneliness is a pain with no cure. It’s a chronic condition prone to frequent flare-ups and no matter what the doctors prescribe, it will eventually fail.

“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”

— Orson Welles

Loneliness is our natural state and everything else is an effort to escape it, not the other way around. We are not naturally connected creatures, we are naturally longing for connection. We are not particularly good at seeing each other, we are only longing to be seen.

What is best to do is to accept it. What is best to do is to stop being afraid of it. Your pain is natural, common, an expected part of human existence. Loneliness is universal and it is that pain which connects us all. That is what we fail to see in each other, the utter loneliness. Look into the eyes of everyone you meet and you will see it there, that terrifying solitude mirroring your own back at you.

It isn’t easy to maintain relationships. It isn’t easy to keep those relationships meaningful. It isn’t easy to be secure in those relationships either. We all feel lonely and we feel it all the time, deep down. It can’t be cured, but it can be eased, you only have to seek out the pain in others and reveal your own too.

“When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.”

― Tennessee Williams, Camino Real

***

Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter L under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence.” I am aware that the challenge is over and that I have failed to finish on time, but I am determined not to fail to finish at all. 

Photo by Avgust Chech on Unsplash

Kinds

“The human mind was set up to categorize, generalize. It makes life so much simpler.”

― Laura Lippman

And humans opened their mind’s eye for the first time, and their power of observation went to work on all they beheld. We saw all that was within and all that was without and desired it all for ourselves, he went about gathering all he could and collecting it back in his home, but with only two hands and his home always on the move, we could not carry or control much. This was not enough, nothing is ever enough, and we went to work finding a new way to claim this world.

Humans perfected the power of categorization, and when our vision fell to any object or concept, whether in our world or in reality, humans gave it a name and with every name came a place, an identity, a meaning, and a purpose and each thing of every variety was collected and stored in “kinds”.

Blue is given a name and a place in relation to red. Cheetah is given a name, and its place near the lion is clear. The Theory of Relativity, the Andromeda Galaxy, π, coffee, Zeus, the Redwood Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge were all given names, placed in boxes according to their kind and laid out in clear and clever patterns. Each one on a web and each one part of a continuum that gave away its connection to all others on each side.

I too was given a name, a place, a purpose, and I learned the names of all the people I knew too. I marked their differences and all the ways they were the same and placed them in boxes of my own according to their kind. Then I gave myself my name, marked my own box, and underneath wrote it’s meaning. I placed myself and my box, smartly labeled, and put it precisely where I was told it should be. Now my name means me and I know what kind I am.

“We categorize as we do because we have the brains and bodies we have and because we interact in the world as we do.”

― George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought

If humans have any superpower, it is surely in categorization. We recognize things by what they are like, and what they are not like. We can recognize, label, and recall thousands, maybe millions, of things, far more I would wager than any other life form on this planet. We have to!

Being hunter-gatherer types who must be able to distinguish food from not food. We are also a particularly fragile species lacking much physical prowess compared to our predictors, so we have to be able to recognize what kind of danger we are facing and use our intelligence to outwit it. And of course, being a social species we have to be able to recognize our tribe from our enemies, our friends from foes, and kin from strangers.

Categorization is our power, and we are so good at it. We walk through the world, doing our everyday thing and living our little lives and all the while, as reliable as breathing, as regular as your heartbeat, your mind is bringing in little bits of information through each of your sense and passing it to the brain to be sorted and stored. All those different kinds of things are examined, their qualities compared and each put in their place across a smooth gradient on the cortex, like kinds with like kinds.

Categorization feels good. It’s our favorite thing to do, a shared hobby of all races, genders, class. We’ve been doing it since long before we looked like we do now, at least as far back as our shared ancestor with the rest of the apes. Were not the only one with the ability, but we are certainly the only ones with the talent and passion. In our world, everything has a name and place. Without categorization the ability to recognize what kind of thing we are seeing, feeling, imagining, describing, without comparison, sorting, storing, and recall by name, description, and past experience, we would never have come so far.

Our world is impossibly complex and often quite dangerous, it helps to have a system that can quickly process what kind of thing you are looking at and react appropriately. Categorization helps us make sense of a world where quick decisions have to be made, and a large amount of information has to be processed. It’s also a pretty reliable system for helping us get through situations that we may have not faced by providing a reference and a good guess. If you’ve seen a brown bear, you’ll have some idea of how to respond to a polar bear. If you’ve seen a mountain lion, you know that a tiger is dangerous.

“No doubt one of the reasons human cognition is so powerful is because we have language in our brains, which exponentially increases the ability to categorize information, to chunk. A whole culture, for instance, can be implied by a name.”

― Joseph E. LeDoux

The system even works whether you have seen a past kind of thing or not. It works because we have language—or maybe we have language because the system works? Categorization and words seem to go hand in hand, a locked loop of information processing each enhancing the other, and with the power of both we can tell stories, share information, give advice and warn against danger, but sometimes the system is overzealous. Sometimes it works too well and not as intended.

If someone you have categorized as the kind of person you can trust tells you that you cannot trust black people, or women, or democrats, your first instinct is to believe them. You categorize people and situations you haven’t experienced yet, and once people have been sorted and labeled it’s tough for us to reevaluate, reliable, and resort and while the entire system is highly subjective, like all human illusions, there are real-world consequences. Labeling people by kinds and reacting to them as such has been the cause of much suffering from the dawn of human societies.

We have labels for what a man is supposed to be, what a woman is supposed to look like, how black people behave, what jobs a 60-year-old is capable of learning, what opportunities a poor person deserves, whether or not Muslims can be Americans. Our labels and categories help us understand our world, but they also put limits on it too. We aren’t good at seeing the shades, the subtlety, or continuity. We aren’t good at seeing the variation between two individual examples of a thing. We are uncomfortable with what doesn’t fit, and if the difference cannot be forced into compliance it will be ignored, and if it cannot be ignored it will be banished, and if it cannot be banished, it must be eradicated. We will defend out categorization to the death and go to our own deaths trying to prove it.

There must be no challenge to the system. Everything must fit neatly into its box to be neatly understood because if even one thing lies outside of our understanding, anything can be anything and anything can be unknown and that we cannot abide.

There is no escaping categorization. Even to decide you have no labels, no name, no kind, even that is a label in and of itself. We can’t help it and to deny this reality is to deny our reality. Trying to delude yourself into believing you can stop seeing things as kinds, as their labels and associated connotations and expected characterization is to cover one illusion with another, even bigger falsehood.

What’s best for you is to be aware of what you are doing and to understand that everything you have named, sorted, and labeled could be wrong. What is best for you is to keep your system flexible and to not be too surprised when you come up against things, and people, and ideas, that don’t fit so nicely. It might make you a little uncomfortable or afraid, but you can still label away without shame. All you need to do is get more boxes and learn to let go of old labels. All you need to do is understand that there are far more kinds of things, people, and idea in the world then we can fathom.

We, as a people, we have a strong need to categorize everything. We put labels on everything and it’s a totally understandable need because we are animals and we need to understand order and where to fit in.

— Armin van Buuren

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter K under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Featured photo by Ahmed Carter on Unsplash

Justice

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”

— Aristotle

Life is unfair, so they say.

Some people are lucky, they have wealth, health, beauty, talent, intelligence. They were born to parents who loved them in all the right ways and communities and circumstances that allow them to put all that good luck to good use, and then there are some people just have to suffer through life with less, a whole lot less.

You are born with a losing genetic lottery ticket, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, in the wrong body. You have parents who came from parents who came from parents with bad luck too, and they’ve gone and passed it on down to you. You never have enough of anything, not food, money, or love. You grow up hard, and people hurt you for no reason other than they can. They never let you be. They take what little you have, and nothing is ever done about it. The world is shitting on you. A rain cloud follows you wherever you go. Nothing is ever easy, and nothing ever happens to anyone else.

There is a profound imbalance between what you have, what you deserve, and what everyone else seems to get so easily. It isn’t right, but is it unfair? If it is unfair, who or what makes it so? Is it your fault, other people, the government, God?

When we are talking justice, we aren’t just talking about the modern judicial system meant to prosecute and punish criminals. When we talk about justice, what we are really talking about what is fair, and what is fair has many different meanings to many people. What does equality look like? Does everyone have the same things, or does everyone have what they personally want and need? When a crime is committed how do we set the world right again? Retribution, restoration, rehabilitation?

Justice doesn’t just exist between criminals and law-abiding citizens. It exists between business owners and their customers. It exists in the workplace, in schools, between lovers, neighbors, and friends. It exists between the government and its people, between countries, between races, and genders, class, and age. It is the shape of our society. It’s in everything we do.

We treat others the way we are treated. We treat others the way we want to be treated. We seek a resolution to our pain, by giving others the punishment they deserve, and we seek to make right the wrongs around us by restoring the dignity and peace of others as we judge fit. Between us and everyone around us is a scale and the constant tipping and desire to rebalance those drives much of our lives.

It isn’t just us either. Apes and other primates, dogs, elephants, and other life forms on this planet have an innate sense of what is fair, but it isn’t a rational sense. Not even in humans. Injustice anywhere, but especially injustice personally experiences, arouses deep and intense emotional reaction from us. Unfortunately, those reactions are often exhausting and short-lived.

Justice is exhausting. It’s everywhere, it’s complicated, it requires us to employ empathy and to change, and humans loathe to change. In order to rouse us to face injustice, we have to feel as if we are being, or could be, personally victimized.

We have to put ourselves in the shoes of others and imagine what we would do, need, or want if we weren’t us, but them instead. If we had been born to different circumstances, learned differently, raised differently. What might you need if you were born with a disability, to parents with no education, and in a country that hated you for your skin or your gender? What crime might you commit if you had never known love?

But how do we agree what is right? Who decides? This is the question that has plagued us since we became aware of our social nature. Humans need to live harmoniously, and the requires leaders who can keep us safe, fed, sheltered, and cooperative. Cooperation requires rules and those rules have to foster fairness or what you will have is chaos and revolt. So, why can’t we ever get it right? Why do our instincts elude us? It all seems so simple, if we want fairness, we must act fairly, and if there are those who don’t we must move to act against them, but what if that unjust someone is you?

“There is no justice among men.”

— Nicholas II of Russia

If there is a system of justice in a place that gives us a believable illusion of fairness, we find it very hard to act, even if we aren’t benefitting from the system but especially if we are or hope we will. Justice, we come to believe, is merely everyone doing what they are told to do regardless of what we want or what is right. It’s not making waves. It’s taking your lumps and being happy with what you have, even if what you have is nothing at all. Justice is keeping your head down and waiting until it’s your turn to get over on everyone else. Justice is a tool, it is strategic.

What is fair has to be balanced against our greed, but as sad as that is, that is how I know that deep down, people are good. It’s how I know that we are capable of being far fairer than we are. I know this because the moment a person is out of excuses, and there is nowhere left for them to look to, we suddenly find it in us to do what is right. When we are forced to face inequality, we are forced, through our own guilt and innate sense of what it right, to rectify it, and we do it every single time.

We will fight to the death for what we know is right, as long as we are made to know it. We will protest, revolt, and go to war for others once there is no way to escape our own guilt by not acting, but the moment we can step back into our own lives, as soon as we can stop feeling so much for them, so much like them, we forget.

And that is why life is unfair because there has never been sufficient enough effort made to make it so. We try, time and time again, but the truth is the effort cannot be sustained. Humans are not built to act fairly 100% of the time. We are opportunistic creatures and will weave elaborate justifications for inequality we create and perpetuate to get ahead.

So, life is unfair, but not because of God or the laws of the universe made it so,  it’s unfair because inequality benefitted human evolution at some point and now we struggle to overcome ourselves.

Now we have to suffer generation after generation for so little progress. We have to do the exhausting and endless work of hurting each other, then healing each other, distributing and redistributing wealth and compassion, then punishing and rehabilitating ourselves for getting it wrong again and again and again.

We do it because we must. For every impulse to harm, there is also one to help, and for all our destruction and cruelty, there is in us a dream of a blind, universal justice where every human knows their place, has what they need, and never knows indignity. A world where the scales in our minds weighing right and wrong, have and have not, are always in perfect balance.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter J under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Photo by Andy Omvik on Unsplash

Illusion

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

— Albert Einstein

Wherever humans exist, things are not what they seem. Illusion taints every aspect of the human experience. It’s in everything we do, and feel, and think. It is in the way things taste, the way time flows, what we believe is valuable, beautiful, right, and wrong. Illusion goes as deep as free will and to the very core of who you believe you are.

An illusion is what is left when our experiences do not match up with the true state of the world, and it is where ever our thoughts and emotions do not match up with reality. The objective perspective eludes us because the world cannot be experienced outside of our minds. For human beings, the outside world is filtered through our senses and our bodies flaws, through our emotions and biases, then colored, categorized, and served up to us in a version we can understand.

To be plagued with illusion is a universal condition, every mind is different, everyone’s body is different too. The specific illusions each of us perceives varies from person to person.

What you see and feel, physically and mentally can never be shared, and can never be accurately conveyed. Even if they can, they can never be fully believed or verified. How do I know that the red you see is the same as the red that I see? Things have form outside of our mind, true, and it is also true things have form outside of our gaze, but they do not look like anything.

“If a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The cause of sound surely exists without the human nervous system to carry it from the vibration of air molecules to the brain, but does sound exist? What else is only in our heads?

“Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the Weather.”

— Bill Hicks

The taste of honey, the smell of a rose, the cry of a newborn baby, and the pain of a broken bone are illusions, but what about love? What about fear? What about justice and the right to free speech? What about money, or the happiness we think it will bring? What about the past? Does the number two exist? Does π? Is it all just one big shared hallucination? Does it even matter?

These are questions philosophers, scientists, and men of deep spiritually have been asking for centuries, and while the data is piling up, the answers are as far away as ever. How can we know that any inference or interpretation isn’t simply another trick of the mind? How can we be sure there isn’t another false reality underneath each fact? We can’t. Reality is not for us it is not a state we can enter.

Luckily, humans are very good at creating elaborate and persistent false illusions. These lies lead to the richness of our experience. Without them, life would be quite boring indeed.

Our world is a complex web of interpretations, on top of opinions, on top of incomplete data, on top of subjectivity masquerading as universal truth. We have created an entire world of values, customs, emotions, language, sciences, philosophies, social structures, and taboos painted over the world around us. Illusions on top of illusions. It’s all made up, and somehow it still feels real. It all feels right and true. It feels like it all came into being before us, we discovered it rather than created it, and that these truths will endure long after we are gone. That’s part of the illusion too.

Your identity and the control that you think you have over what you do is the greatest illusion of all. You are simply an effect created by a mind stitching together the past it remembers and the future it hopes for. You are simply the face of a larger collective making decisions and moving you through the world and this life. Most of what goes on in your mind is kept from you entirely.

Information is passed to the subconscious first. Meetings are held behind closed doors, buttons are pushed, levers are pulled, choices are made, and only at the very end are you brought in, and you, like every other human, are duped into thinking it was all you all along. Another deception.

“Is not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody.”

— Angela Carter

So what though? So what if it’s all in our heads? It exists in all our heads the same and doesn’t that make it all real too, in a way. I mean, knowing money and marriage and morality is made up doesn’t change a thing, does it? Does it?

There is a kind of truth in our illusions too, a human truth, the only truth that really matters to us. Our world may be an illusion but it’s the one we have to live in whether we like it or not, the subjective viewpoint cannot be escaped, and rationality and hard science will only get us so far. We can’t fight our nature. We cannot escape the human condition.

What we have done is taken reality and superimposed our own world on top of it and that world may only be around as long as us, but as long as we are here we have to live in it, and it comes with its own rigid rules. We still have cause and effect. We can still predict outcomes based on data and observation. Much of what is true in one life, at one time, in one place, is consistent in all lives, in all times, and in all places. The human world is a science all its own with its own method and reason, laws and theories.

Our illusions are our reality. They are real, and they are persistent and consistent. They are useful. Our illusions help us move confidently in the world and to tell the truth some of them are quite beautiful and elegant. We ought to be proud.

“Illusion is the first of all pleasures.”

— Voltaire

You may hear people, especially old philosophers who wrote old books, tell you to get rid of your illusions. I’m here to tell you that you can keep them. They are who you are after all. And anyway there can be no other way for us to live without them. Without the way we see the world, experience space, time, and ourselves, there is no us. If we lost them in our place, another species would exist that looked like us but was not us at all. The human world that exists in our minds is the only world we have, will have.

Life is too short to try to escape the inescapable. You cannot win the battle against illusion, and you shouldn’t want to either. My advice is to be the most human you can be, and that means accepting that the world in your head isn’t reality, and the reality you know isn’t even yours to control. Give up trying to be so damn objective and go experience all the illusions you can.

Try on new ones and discard the ones you don’t find quite as satisfying or helpful. Share them, trade them, lay them out side by side, stack one on top of another, combine them and tear them apart. Hold tight to whatever feels the most real to you. Not that the choice is really yours to make anyway, is it?

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Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Written for the A to Z Blogging Challenge: Letter I under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash