“The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one.”
— Sigmund Freud
In the film ‘The Invention of Lying’, an old woman lies in a hospital bed, terrified and clinging to life. Her son, seeing her fear, whispers through his tears, “Mum, you’re wrong about what happens when you die. It’s not an eternity of nothingness. You go to your favourite place in the whole world, and anyone you’ve ever loved and who’s ever loved you will be there, and you’ll be young again. There’s no pain. Just love and happiness. Say hello to Dad for me. Tell him I love him.” And, with a smile on her wrinkled face, the old woman passes.
We’re desperate for our lives to mean something. We’re so desperate for meaning we’re willing to graft it onto our bruised psyches. We’ll believe preposterous claims without any evidence, if doing so transforms our random experiences — two years of med school, a broken engagement and a toddler — into a tidy narrative. Two out of three Jamaicans believe they’re being watched by the celestial bouncer of the original Christmas party, and spend their lives trying to qualify for an all-access pass. Despite studies proving that prayer doesn’t work, two million of us ask God for guidance. It turns out we never really outgrow Santa Claus; we just pretend the untouched pile of milk and cookies isn’t there.
We’ll believe anything if it transforms our random experiences into a tidy narrative
But why? Why do we perform such elaborate mental origami, imagining people we cannot see and ignoring people we can? Because our fictions are more flattering than the truth of our existence, and we’re a notoriously insecure species. We start worrying as soon as we’re wheeled out of the nursery, and we don’t stop until we’re wheeled into the nursing home. We worry about our weight and our hair, and whether Sandra at the office has noticed we have too much of one and too little of the other, and how long we should wait before answering her text, and what we should say, and if she likes lobster, and why we bothered to ask her out in the first place. Forget joy, anger, grief and lust — our defining emotion is anxiety.
In fact, worrying is almost literally what makes us human. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we are ‘the only animal that thinks about the future’ (though new research reveals that apes also make basic plans). Our huge frontal lobes are whizzing, whirring worrying machines, which is why mid-century doctors lobotomized their neurotic patients — without the ability to contemplate tomorrow, today is a rather pleasant place to be.
Our adult fairy tales — post-mortem paradises featuring an all-star lineup of family and friends — are a transparent way to minimize our anxieties. Life is complex, with each choice potentially a pebble that heralds a landslide. Religious faith reduces all that to a binary decision: Does God approve? Alas, this still leaves us in disarray. Does he prefer us to be bankers or basket-weavers, live in New York or New Delhi, marry Lisa or Hannah? “We’re all here for a reason” is the cocaine of enlightenment, an attempt to skip the tedious, tortuous process of making mistakes and finding our way with a snort of uncut determinism.
We are a cosmic hiccup, the arbitrary result of billions of years of evolution
The truth is we are nothing more or less than rearranged stardust, a cosmic hiccup, the arbitrary result of billions of years of evolution, with an assist from a handful of meteors. We are weaker than the horse, slower than the dog, more fragile than the cow and more fussy than the pig. Yet we domesticated them all with our overinflated brains. We’re here by chance but not fortune; what we are is fixed, but what we become is not.
Yes, like other animals, we’re shackled to the imperatives of nutrition, rest and reproduction. But we’re also smart enough to add our own items to the list, and it’s insulting to our hard-won intelligence not to try. Surrender superstition and think. What constitutes a life well-lived? Nelson Mandela suggests the “difference we have made to the lives of others”, but there are many valid answers — travel, wisdom, hedonism, charity. The key is you get to decide, and for worrywarts like us, that’s the most reassuring thought of all.