The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
— TS Eliot, East Coker, the Four Quartets
I‘ve always been a daydreamer, and a bit of a misanthrope. It’s not that I don’t like people. I just find it hard to care about all the things they care about. I look out at the city with astonishment and joy, and I participate in social activities. But I feel like I’m living in a whole-world hospital, full of people with serious physical, emotional and situational illnesses. They’re doing their best, but I’m not inclined to want to spend a lot of time with them, since I can’t do anything for them, and I find their illnesses (as I found my own) exhausting, enervating, and unpleasant.
I imagine, as I look down at the people and cars scurrying around, that we’re eight billion bewildered monkeys, racing around mimicking each other desperately, in the hope that someone knows what they’re doing and how it came to this, and where it’s going. Eight billion monkeys totally conditioned by our biology and culture, doing the only things we can under the circumstances of the moment. All doing our best to cope with the illnesses that afflict and confront us everywhere. We know something is not right, but we’re helpless to understand or address it.
I never quite got with the program. From my earliest school years I just couldn’t relate to what other people said, did, or cared about. It just didn’t make sense. Why were they acting this way? They were like starving rats in a maze, or beaten zoo animals endlessly pacing their cages. They were cruel, angry, anxious, selfish, driven by jealousy, guilt, and shame. They were dreadfully unhealthy, and mostly unhappy.
So I just withdrew into a world of imaginary creatures that acted the way I thought everyone should — creatures that cared about what I cared about. I still interacted with other people, and sometimes really enjoyed those interactions, but they were mostly half-hearted and unpleasurable. I played out my own conditioning and then retreated as soon as possible into my own, very different, invented reality, one that made sense to me.
This looks familiar, vaguely familiar
Almost unreal yet it’s too soon to feel yet
Close to my soul and yet so far away
I’m going to go back there someday.
Sunrises, night falls; sometimes the sky calls
Is that a song there and do I belong there?
I’ve never been there but I know the way
I’m going to go back there someday.
Come and go with me; it’s more fun to share
We’ll both be completely at home in midair —
We’re flying not walking on featherless wings
We can hold on to love like invisible strings.
There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met
Part heaven, part space, or have I found my place?
You can just visit, but I plan to stay —
I’m going to go back there someday.
— Paul Williams (for The Muppet Movie), I’m Going to Go Back There Someday
No surprise that, now, much of my time is spent writing fiction, of one kind or another. I can imagine myself, and imagine others (joyful, curious comrades and playmates) with me, on a beach or in a forest or in a totally different world, as vivid as any ‘real’ thing.
As a child, I created a world of fictional characters, imaginary friends, people who were, to me, far more interesting than the ‘real’ people I had to interact with, since my fictional characters were healthy, wild creatures, not the domesticated, reactive, tense, damaged inmates of this global self-made prison we call civilization.
The list of ‘actual’ people I’d like to meet and invite to my ‘ideal dinner party’ has gradually been whittled down to a handful. I’d much rather have dinner with some of the fictional characters I’ve invented over the years — healthy, joyful, curious creatures that would never want to live in the ‘real’ world we have (in more ways than one) constructed.
I find most writers’ fiction to be hopelessly and depressingly unimaginative, wallowing as it does in the milieus and personas of our global hospital-prison. Why would anyone want to read, or watch, depictions of ghastly human struggle and suffering, with their absurd, impossible Hollywood deus ex machina endings? Perhaps they make others feel better and hopeful about their own situation, but they no longer have any appeal to me.
So if I want to spend time with people and animals and in places and times that I find joyful and interesting, I mostly have to make them up.
And I do. I turn the sound off on the screen and make up my own lines for what the characters are saying, which are generally more interesting and more fun than what the hack screenwriters provided. At tea houses and in restaurants I imagine fascinating stories and conversations for the other patrons. I’m rarely interested in knowing who they ‘really’ are or what they’re ‘really’ talking about.
Although I’ll probably never know for sure, my sense is that the 8 billion mutually-conditioned Homo monkeys on the planet, and the 100 billion others who have lived and died creating and struggling in civilization’s hospital-prison, have inherited the terrifying disease whose principal symptom is the chronic illusion of having a self that is somehow separate from everything else, and which then needs to be constantly protected and defended from everything else.
As I’ve written elsewhere (probably too often), I think this is a uniquely human affliction, the result of evolving a brain sophisticated enough to invent complicated models of what is happening in the ‘real’ world, and then, with encouragement from other afflicted humans, mistaking those models for actual reality.
It’s as if humans, as young children, suddenly went to sleep one day in an astonishing, full, already-complete world, and then woke up the next in an ersatz simulacrum of a world, a fake, incomplete model of the world, where nothing worked and nothing made sense. And then had to spend the rest of their lives trying, hopelessly, to make sense of it, when it isn’t even real.
And through this effort, we have created a dreadful, prosthetic, human world, the one I see outside my window, a mad world that has so utterly destroyed its ecosystems that it’s produced the massive and unstoppable extinction of most life on the planet.
So my invention of these other worlds, these alternative fictions of healthy, joyful, loving creatures living together in peace, is not about hope. I have no illusions that there is a path from today’s beautiful, terrible world to the ones I have invented. I am not expecting anything to ‘get better’, to unfold any way other than the only way it can. I will not be disappointed if the human experiment, as seems increasingly likely, ends badly.
If there is consolation in this, other than the fact that, despite the human carnage, this world is still an astonishing, wondrous place, it is that if our selves and the atomized world of their invention are truly just illusions, then it doesn’t matter what we do, or don’t do. It doesn’t matter whether we choose to live in endless struggle in the composite human fiction of the ‘real’ world, or in an alternative fiction that is far more pleasant.
Jeremy Bentham was an early exponent of the idea that we should in all things seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number (and as he was an animal rights advocate, that ‘number’ was not limited to just humans). My observation has been that this is far more than just a moral code — it essentially describes what evolutionarily underlies the conditioning of all life on the planet. It is Gaia’s modus operandi.
But seen through the veil of the dis-ease of the illusion of self and separation, the calculation of optimal pleasure and minimal pain has changed, for humans, from a holistic assessment (“what is healthiest for the organism that is ‘all-life-on-Earth'”), to one of the adding-up of individuals’ levels of pleasure (“what is optimal for the greatest number of individuals, weighted somehow by their relative importance”). That is an insane calculus.
My conditioning precludes me from being a NTHE‘er, at least not to the point of trying to crash civilization faster than it’s already doing itself.
Instead, my conditioning seems to be leading me to withdraw from the cacophony of that collapse, and instead sustain myself in the alternate fiction of a world that is so well attuned to the rhythms of all life on earth that it need not collapse, one that already maximizes the pleasure and minimizes the pain of all-life-on-Earth.
So I’m checking out of the hospital and the prison, where I was not equipped to be of much service anyway. I’m going back to that undivided, uncivilized, pleasure-filled, vaguely familiar place, with echoes of my earliest childhood where there was nothing that had to be done.
I’ve never been there, but I know the way.