Demeaning of Life

November 30, 2007 at 4:45 am 6 comments

“How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?” — Woody Allen

I was reflecting – well, reflecting’s overstating the case a little; it’s not like I was sat in the lotus position, engaging in deep contemplation – on the phrase “He who dies with the most toys, wins”, which is an anonymous commentary on the nature of capitalism. Capitalism as a means of salvation.

Humans are a weird species, able to believe they need salvation and at the same time able to poke logical holes in every offer of it they find. Actually, most people don’t bother to poke holes in their chosen means of salvation, they just run with it, possibly with their fingers in their metaphorical ears, going “La! La! La!” whenever anyone tries to disabuse them of their delusions. There’s about two billion Christians out there and there’s so many holes in that particular vision of salvation that you could use it as bubblewrap – and that’s what most of them seem to do.

Me, I’ve always been a popper of bubblewrap. I’m not alone in this. Some capitalist makes the crack about dying with the most toys and someone else comes along and points out that they can’t take it with them. You might have lots of toys, but you still die. All beliefs in salvation are fragile like that. The Catholic Church maintained, until 1966, a list of banned books – a kind of institutional “La! La! La!” and good Catholics shouldn’t be reading heretical works, anyway.

I’m getting quite close to restating Freeman’s Commentary on Ginsberg’s Theorem here. Ginsberg’s Theorem is a kind of Murphy’s Law of thermodynamics, authored by some untracable guy called Ginsberg somewhen before the mid-seventies. It’s passed into ‘net folklore. In essense, it’s a restatement of the laws of thermodynamics. (Don’t act suprised – anyone using the internet in the seventies was, by definition, a geek.)

You’re probably familiar with the laws of thermodynamics, in the sense that you know there’s a thing called thermodynamics and that science has laws about it. Unless you’re a physicist or a geek, you’re unlikely to know what these laws are. Fortunately, Ginsberg’s a bit more readable than the original:

1. You can’t win. (You can’t create energy, you can only change it into different forms.)
2. You can’t break even. (Entropy increases.)
3. You can’t get out of the game. (You can’t ever get to absolute zero.)

Freeman is more easily traced than Ginsberg. His commentary is that “Every major philosophy that attempts to make life seem meaningful is based on the negation of one part of Ginsberg’s Theorem.”

1. Capitalism is based on the assumption that you can win.
2. Socialism is based on the assumption that you can break even.
3. Mysticism is based on the assumption that you can quit the game.

Of course, this is all light-hearted humour and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But the underlying concerns are fairly real. There’s tons of philosophies that attempt to make life meaningful and to anyone who doesn’t intentionally ignore basic reason when it concerns their cherished beliefs, they all seem to be flawed.

It all seems to come down to “live like this and things will work out”. Get enough toys and be happy. Share enough wealth and be happy. Live according to the rules in this book and if you’re not happy, well, you will be when you’re floating in the air in perfect, incorruptible bodies, looking down at the sinners.

Depression takes away your ability to believe in things. For a long time, I was caught up in the idea that that depression made me smart (or I was depressed because I was smart) because everyone else was busy being deluded about God and money and so on, and I knew better than everyone else. But you can be smart and deluded that there’s some meaning to life. More than half the world believes in a big beard in the sky and not all of them are on the wrong side of the bell-curve. And a lot of Christians who get depressed end up having trouble keeping their faith (see this for example). The ability to believe, to subscribe to these comfortable delusions, is another thing that depression steals from us.

When I’ve been hypomanic I’ve tended to get caught up in existentialism. Not the boo-hoo, God is dead, there is no meaning variety of my depressions, but the idea that everyone is responsible for making their own meaning to life. And, being hypomanic, it was easy to make my own meanings. I was overflowing with them. But it all pretty much boiled down to, fuck the world, I’m awesome.

And when I’m feeling normal, I don’t really believe anything, not because I’m unable to, but because I’ve spent so long picking holes in everything that could serve as a meaning. The sex-advice columnist Dan Savage often advocates lying in relationships, because no relationship could withstand total honesty. I think the same is true of people’s relationship with the world. If you’re too set on seeing the world as it is and refuse to accept any of the easy lies about it, then it becomes difficult to live with. I don’t know if the idea of some kind of salvation, whether spiritual or material, is necessary to be a normal human (even the vaguer ones like “try to do things right, work reasonably hard and things will probably work out somehow”), but it kind of seems so.

And how exactly do you go about re-establishing a working relationship with the world when you’ve been at war with it for years?

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. exactscience  |  November 30, 2007 at 8:34 am

    You go one person at a time?

    Maybe we don’t need salvation. I am anticipating a good breakfast and maybe I’ll catch a good film.

    The world is what you make it. I imagine us in a venn diagram type situation, we may overlap in our experiences but most of us retain something that is unique to ourself – no overlap.

    I could ramble and be inarticulate about this topic for ages. Go watch House for debates on the topic, my coffee smells wonderful so I am away

  • 2. borderlinecrazy  |  December 1, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    I really identified with this post (and enjoyed the banter). When I was really depressed in college, I read a LOT of existential philosophy and felt I had excellent reasons for being depressed. I still think a lot of that is valid, actually. The question of “How do you pick up and move on after you’ve decided the world is crap” I had to answer over about a decade of fighting the question and finally deciding I didn’t need to know the answer. Perhaps it’s just useful denial. It does me not good to go around wrestling with such problems because I can do nothing about it.

  • 3. darkentries  |  December 1, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    musical memes

    The wigster has tagged me once again (I still have the 8 random facts in my drafts…only 5 more to go) but this time its related to music, so requires virtually no brain power. Which is nice.
    Something to do with picking a tune that inspires you t…

  • 4. Margaret  |  December 4, 2007 at 12:03 am

    I liked this post and the questions you ask. Sometimes however many holes you pick in something, it somehow resists your attempts to destroy it. I cannot conceive of a faith that isn’t questioning, nor can I conceive of wanting to believe in something that could not withstand my questioning. I’ve very recently started going to church again after several years of not going. I cannot deny the enormous sense of peace I find in the evening services. I’m not sure I’ll ever have enough conviction to say “I believe”, but that peace seems to fill the holes as quickly as I make them.

  • 5. experimental chimp  |  December 5, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    exactscience: See – there’s that existentialist thing again. You make your own meanings. Which is a problem, because although I can manage that for a while, I can’t sustain it.

    borderlinecrazy: Thanks. Maybe I need to develop my denial skills…

    darkentries: I’ll get around to this eventually.

    Margaret: I’m ridiculously good at picking holes in things. It’s my one true talent. I’m glad you’ve found something that gives you that feeling of peace; unfortunately I don’t think it’s a way that I could follow.

  • 6. ajay  |  December 6, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    hi chimp. i love your blog. i love how you write in your blog.
    i have been floating around the mental health services for some time now, and seem only to have found more and more reasons and methods to punch holes in psychologists and psychiatrists. the problem is, after i have exacted my oh so clever deconstructive abilites on their theoretical frameworks and practical methodologies, i generally am referred onwards, and continue to limp around the mental health services spitting nails about the lack of help i am receiving when i have done such a stellar job of alientating myself. in short, i try to play the game, but when it comes to it, i behave as if the only directive i have is ‘execute a one person war on the philosophy of psychiatric medicine’. i should explain what i think the game is but this is your blog not mine and i should get a room!y, as it happens, i have actually now met a psychiatrist and a psychologist i do like. but i did play the game, and as there is a high possiblity i have some kind of autistic spectrum disorder, i am now in contact with some specialists, who do actually feel, well more specialised.
    chimp, i began meaning to cheer, because you articulated so beautifully the struggle with existentialism, i really identified with what you said, and your clarity is a gift. i found your site after typing in human givens, as i have just narrowly escaped the clutches of a hgi practicioner. i loved the debate, i digress, as i am prone to, and i realise that the aforementioned is a headachey chesnut. i really enjoyed the quality of the debate though, and if it is in anyway interesting or relevant to you, i appreciate your blog, and the personality you convey through it. thanks chimp. i am not prone to flights of sycophancy, but then again, maybe i am. so well done you and where do i buy a tee shirt. big up!

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Hi, I'm James. I'm a 26 year old guy from England with bipolar disorder (currently well controlled). I also have a circadian rhythm sleep disorder (not so well controlled). This blog has charted my journey from mental illness, through diagnosis and, recently, into recovery. It's not always easy, but then, what is?

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As of 12th September 2008 it has been forty five weeks since I quit smoking. So in another seven weeks it'll have been a whole year.

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