In this video, the insightful comedian Bill Hicks manages to magically capture the human condition by analogizing it to a ride at an amusement park.
“The world is like a ride at an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and around and around; it has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly colored and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for awhile. Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question: is this real, or is this just a ride?”
He goes on after this, but I can’t help but stop and contemplate being one of the latter, even though I haven’t been on it for a long time. Why are we on this ride? I see most people going about their daily lives, carrying out behaviors which, when I’ve tried to engage in them, just seem like distractions from asking why I’m on this ride. It’s as though, at some point in my life, I crossed a threshold of curiosity about existence from which there is no going back. Not only the why of what we are doing here on Earth, but the why of also following the path which primarily tends to embrace materialism, rather than one of the many other measures of wealth and success, such as knowledge, spirituality. Enjoying that ride has to involve following passions; perhaps when I embrace it–them–I’ll be so consumed by them that I’ll forget to continue asking why and just be fully lost in our beautiful human world, whatever it is.
After, he continues, “And we, kill those people.” Isn’t that kind of true though? There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the basic ideas that people like, say, Jesus, even Joseph Smith of Mormonism were espousing were fundamentally good ones. They just had a few wackier ones too. Great ideas like treating others as you wish to be treated, brotherhood and sisterhood, we just get distracted by the other ideas that sound so foreign or weird that we block out all the ones we think are good and sound. I ran into Scott again today, the man from the coffee shop wearing a jumpsuit, spouting ideas that at their surface make him seem like some traveler from another dimension. In the midst of his stranger ideas, for example that the inventor Nikola Tesla was from Venus and spoke Venetian, he had some beautiful ones.
Aside from his ideas that at the surface taken literally seem odd, Scott stated some simple, neat ones, too. He said that the most powerful good we can do to each other is to plant ideas in each others heads, ideas that have the power to shape the world; he said that when you see a movement in the world or a person, unstoppable and heading in one direction, we can hitch our wagon to it and let it take us with them.
People like Scott and many famous ones, people like Jesus, Zoroaster, the ones that seem way out there, are probably communicating in part through metaphors. We think we don’t talk through metaphors, but we still do, some more than others, because all of our symbols that preceded language are close enough to metaphors. We write in them, so doesn’t it make sense that many people still speak in them at times, some of them a lot of the time? We get so wrapped in the literal usage of words that we forget the underlying symbolic meaning of them.
People with strange thoughts verbalized, like Scott, they get laughed at because their view of the world is so far removed from the norm, yet all they are trying to do is tell their truth, often through metaphor, and bring good to humanity. If there is a visionary person among us right now, it’s probably someone like Elon Musk, and even he gets laughed at when throwing out some of his ideas. Ideas like building a world based on harnessing power from the sun or trying to build a colony of one million people on Mars by the middle of this century. Maybe we should be listening to the weird guy on the street corner yelling that the sky is about to fall if for no other reason than a good conversation.
Perhaps there is only one why to life as some religions tell people, perhaps there is no meaning at all, or perhaps there is no universal why and it’s a personal one. I am struggling to believe that last one and hope that we can find some kind of universality amongst humans, something that binds us, and it probably lies in some universal system of symbols inherent to all humans. At least, we better hope some kind of universal symbolic system exists, else how can we ever hope to unify humanity to explore space together?
Art of Mind
One of the great but also distracting things about the internet is that it just starts taking you down paths when you click links or hear an unfamiliar term and search for it. So that’s how I discovered that most of Francisco Goya’s paintings seem to capture conditions of the mind pretty damn well. I’m not much of an art guy, but knowing the context brings them into a lot more meaning, and Goya painted 14 mesmerizing yet bizarre paintings towards the end of his life.
This painting by Francisco de Goya, called The Dog, gets to that question of what, why, with a little fear of the shadow the dog seems to see, lurking in the mists surrounding reality.
In a series of two paintings, Goya painted a large humanoid at two different points in time. In the first painting, The Colossus, we seek a brave, forceful giant, stampeding through a countryside, sure and confident in himself, looking directly at the goal ahead. He is at the ready for absolutely anything that lies ahead, seemingly about ready to engage in combat with whatever it is he sees.
But in another depiction, The Giant, we see the giant, slouched over, caught in a sort of half-glance in our direction, half-shadowy face caught in another direction. He seems stuck looking back, perhaps at self-perceived judgments from others, perhaps distracted by the running thoughts in his head which seem to never stop, never fully in one place or the other, stuck in this sort, half-awareness. There is also this look of fear in his face too, what’s that about? What happened along the way that caused him to get there?
Monsters in our Psyche
Perhaps things like mental conditions left unattended for a long time, fear, addiction, and intense negative emotions like anger, jealousy and resentment can become monsters; actual monsters, the embodiment of what humans have always called ‘Evil’. Our conception of Evil as something exclusively religious is a strange one; rather, we should conceive of Evil as something that concerns the absolute nature of reality as Jordan Peterson says, something that consumes people.
This reminds me of an event that happened recently. I was sitting in my van in a parking garage and heard a beeping as you hear when the keychain lock button too many times. Then I heard it again. Soon, a woman appeared looking into each window, checking the locks, the back door. She pressed the button to lock it a few more times. This situation repeated a short while until she finally walked away, took one final glance back towards her car once she reached the stairs to go up, then decided to come back and check everything at her car one more time, with a few more presses of the lock button on her keychain as she finally walked away and up the stairs. I don’t mean to make light of her situation, but she was clearly beholden, consumed to the fear of her car being stolen or broken into. The unseen danger of possibly theft, for all intents and purposes, embodies the monster of her fear. This is how it works with fear, we give into it once, then the next time, and it continues on until we finally face it head on, take it out, or let it forever consume us in a spiral downward.
It might seem ridiculous to analogize this woman’s situation to Evil, to a growing total consumption, but that’s what her car and the locks have become in her mind. It starts by turning the head the other way from something we know we should face, thus making the choice to allow it to grow. Most conditions that come and go from human minds can be thought of as monsters. Some people with bi-polar even embrace the monster because they enjoy the manic highs so much.
Why am I even talking about this, you might ask? Because a fascinating psychologist, Jordan Peterson, posed the thought provoking possibility that, within each of us, rests a capacity for both great good and great evil. That without a strong moral system, there’s a good chance we would have turned the other cheek or even helped commit atrocity in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. If so many people so easily went astray in those places, can we take steps to make sure we don’t take those fatal steps should we be confronted with this choice in our lifetime. Jordan Peterson is trying to teach people through Youtube lectures to become fully instilled with such a moral system. My assertion is that Good and Evil do really exist, and that we can all come to some agreement that Good of humanity does exist, for example in the extreme situation of someone like this man:
Long before science came around, ancient cultures viewed these conditions of the mind as spirits or monsters that would take people over. Shaman were the ones able to successfully defend against and eventually utilize these Good and Evil spirits, whatever noun you want to call them, but many cultures also believed that these spirits existed in all of us, they just seemed to manifest at different times, and people would get together as a group or conduct rituals or consult experts to fight them off. They still do take people over, only now we use scientific terms to describe much of the same phenomena. They can become monsters only if we let them. There is a choice, the dilemma of human existence, between pursuing a worthy life irrespective of the fact that living life also entails an incredible amount of suffering and pain and fear and emotion, it’s a choice that boils down to Good vs. Evil. But it’s also a choice to help others, like that women who seems quite plainly in fear of the doors on her car not being locked. Perhaps I should have tried to allay her fears, but I didn’t try.
Most of human history is written in the context of these two ideas, they are in pretty much all of the oldest stories humans learned to tell, and it’s still our favorite type of story to tell over and over. Why would we continue to tell children bedtime stories that have happy endings, why do most kids seem to have these questions about who the bad guys and who the good guys are, and why are our most popular stories today ones that, at their essence, are simply about good and evil? Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, fairy tales, they are all embodiments of the oldest story, parables about how we can live life. And the story always goes more or less the same.
One of my favorite books is Man’s Search for Meaning, a true story by Viktor Frankl about some of the worst horrors humanity has ever created: the holocaust and concentration camps. In this story, Frankl talks at length about how prisoners in camps had more or less two choices to make: rising above the suffering in the camps by not becoming barbaric and savage, the choice Frankl made by using his medical skills to act as a kind of healer and inspiration to others, or the choice made by others, giving in and becoming what were known as ‘capos,’ the prisoners that tried to exploit and rule the lives of other prisoners, in service to the Nazi camp guards. One thing he was trying to demonstrate was that, even in that worst of human conditions, humanity is still offered a choice, a choice between Good or Evil. And buried within this choice is a third choice, the choice to give up, as many Jewish prisoners also understandably did, a result of the immense daily suffering they were subjected to. Good vs. Evil isn’t about religion, it’s about human nature, something deeply ingrained within us that makes us keep telling this same story.
Here’s a video from the series True Detective, yet another of these Good vs. Evil stories. Earlier in the story the two detectives are confronted with a choice. They who embodies numerous aspects of Evil, or turn their heads, the act of not making a choice, to not take individual responsibility and pursue the killer. At one point they are also confronted with the choice of becoming Evil too, as they both spiral downwards into their own personal domains of hell amidst the search for this serial killer. This clip is the ending of the show, it doesn’t really give away much, but it summarizes the basic nature of the story, the same story.
Hell, maybe it is just a ride.