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

Advertisements

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

 

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

***

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.

***

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?

***

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

Humiliation

“Oh, humiliation is poisonous. It’s one of the deepest pains of being human.”

— Pierce Brosnan

Like all negative emotions, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation seem to be concentrated in our species. We are, as far as we can tell, most aware of ourselves and so are most aware of our place compared to others, and most sensitive to what we look like when viewed through their eyes.

Shame, guilt, and embarrassment are all shades of our special kind of suffering, but it’s humiliation that we fear the most. Shame is internal, secret, it hurts but that hurt is ours alone. Guilt maybe public, but it is counteracted by the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. Embarrassment is temporary, and if the victim is strong and well humored enough the episode may actually bring them closer to their peers.

But humiliation is something altogether different. It puts you beyond redemption and out of cohesion with society. It is a shame that has been brought out into the public sphere. It’s guilt without forgiveness. It is the dark side of embarrassment that dwells in loneliness.

Humiliation is a forcible removal of your pride. It is a public lowering of your social station through “intimidation, physical or mental mistreatment or trickery, or by embarrassment” usually as a result of a person perceived to have “committed a socially or legally unacceptable act.” It is the loss of your ability to say who you are. It is as if your very identity has been taken and spoiled. It’s an intense emotion, and it hurts the deepest parts of us.

Of the negative emotions, humiliation may be the hardest for us to cope with because it is out of our control. It’s up to others when our isolation will end.

Even if we were to forgive and accept ourselves for the transgression and consider ourselves ready to reclaim our place in society, others might not. It is up to other people whether we can live comfortably as who we are and what we have done, and there may be nothing at all we can do to persuade them. We may be forever cut off from our place in our communities and that causes great pain and loneliness in us.

“Avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy.”

— John Guare

Humiliation is the price we pay for protection and security. It is the price we pay for shared responsibility and fate. It’s a deterrent to taboo and destructive behavior as well as a reassurance to others that their cultural beliefs, rituals, and rules are working to keep the community going. Humiliation has been so helpful to our survival that it became embedded in the human condition. Humiliation shaped us, together.

 

Humiliation has made us who we are and—in a cruel and twisted way—made us stronger, but it has had some pretty severe side effects. Of the negative emotions, humiliation may be the most intense and damaging of all.

A person who suffers a public shaming can go on to suffer depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, anger, and private shame. These people seethe with rage and long for revenge, or they turn their anger inward and find they can no longer face themselves. Cut off from their communities and denied the opportunity to redeem and reclaim their status leads them to feelings of hopelessness and desperation. They will do anything to have any status at all rather than none.

We go to great lengths to avoid humiliation. We lie, to ourselves and everyone we meet. We make our mistakes, our flaws, and our greatest shame our deepest secrets, we let them fester and grow because to be filled with such self-loathing is preferable to the hate we might find in another’s eyes. We’ll do anything to avoid humiliation, even kill.

People die every day for someone’s humiliation. Whole wars have been started, massacres carried out, and families obliterated over regular old human humiliation.

“Public humiliation comes to us all, and never so surely as when we’re just a little bit pleased with ourselves and feel, just for once, that everything is going our way.”

— Kate Reardon

We suffer because we fail to see humiliation as a natural, essential, or universal emotion. We simply never consider that we will find ourselves feeling it. Humiliation, we think, is always deserved and, we think, we would never break the kind of social rules that warrant the embarrassment and ostracization. Humiliation, we know, as a means to an end, a tool to control others and only others are ever deserving of being controlled.

We suffer because we forget not just that the feeling of humiliation is in all of us, but the desire to inflict humiliation is in us too. We loathe to feel it ourselves but are quick to wield it against others for the pettiest reasons. Those people who lower others this way to gain a higher place in the hierarchy gain nothing by taking humanity from others. Those people have lost who they are and become a slave to their need for control.

We suffer because we allow our pride, the flip side of humiliation, to grow far too large. We inflate our place in this world and believe too strongly in its permanence.

There are other, more abstract kinds of humiliation, ones I believe can be positive forces in human life, should we have the forethought to see it that way. They are of spiritual humiliations, the lowering of the human status as a species, often only individually, but the time will come soon, I think, when we will feel it collectively.

This Earth, this rocky planet third from the sun, our only home and hope, will remind us that we have conquered nothing and are despite our technology and intelligence are at the mercy of forces we provoke with our ignorance, neglect, and arrogance. We will be lowered by climate change, by dwindling resources, by disease. I only hope the humiliation won’t come too late to save us.

And of course, the universe reminds each of us in time of our powerlessness too. We’re reminded that for all our bravado and grandiosity we are still quite fragile beings, some of the weakest on the planet even, and that at the end comes for us all. When it does, we’ll have nothing but regret and longing, just before we have nothing at all. The truth of who we are is one giant humiliation, and the worst part is we do not let ourselves feel this humiliation enough or for any of the right reasons.

Humiliation is the beginning of an honest examination of ourselves and if we can avoid bitterness, anger, and everlasting shame over it. Through humiliation, we find humility and humanity. We find out that the identity we hold so tightly to was but an illusion, easily shattered and stolen. Humiliation pulls back the curtain, tests the ego, and reveals the true self underneath. If we can hold on, we can find a new place in our world, one that suits us much better and offers peace, finally, from deception and fear.

“One improves by learning to be productively ashamed of who one currently is.”

Alain de Botton

***

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 H under the theme “Bleak Realities of Human Existence

Photo by lucas clarysse on Unsplash