If U2’s Zooropa is Ecclesiastes, then Pop is the Book of Job. ‘I’m alone in this world, laments St. Paul of Tallaght on Wake Up Dead Man, ‘and a fucked-up world it is too.’
…And how doth the wise man die even as the fool! So I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun was grievous unto me: for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Where is voice of the cosmic author in the whirlwind of 24-hour news and Sky boxsets? What is the god-damn point? You live, you do your shitty job, you get fatter and older, then you die. That’s it. Get over it. Order yourself a deep-pan Margherita and dough balls, get it Deliverooed, grab a couple of tinnies, then catch up on Series 4 of Sneaky Pete.
Prescriptions for anti-depressants in the UK now almost rival those for antibiotics. Our misery keeps the global drugs giants in business. We are taking so many anti-depressants that they are leaking from our shit and piss into the food chain in the oceans causing shrimps to swim toward the light instead of away from it, making it more likely they get eaten by predators. So if you want to chill out, ditch the spliff and get yourself a seafood paella.
Those of us living in the English-speaking world are now twice as mentally ill as we were in the 1970’s. In Britain, we are twice as mentally ill as our mainland western European neighbours. Researchers in Britain and America have found that relative cheerfulness follows a U-shaped curve, peaking at the beginning and end of our lives, and sinking in between. Something is happening, deep inside of us.
Based on extensive research of one person, I’m going to argue that the wellbeing and happiness of the human-race is based on four pillars: physical, noological, social and emotional health.
Physical health is generated by the body, noological health by the meaning we take from existence, social health comes from our interaction with others, and emotional health is derived from the most important relationships that underpin our day-to-day wellbeing and happiness. These four pillars of are attacked and undermined by feelings of hopelessness, meaninglessness, helplessness and worthlessness.
Assailed by self-doubt amidst the deification of superior celebrity beings, let down by the god of Religion who vanishes into a fog of delusion and Church scandal, fearful of global recession, terrified of the bomb in the shopping mall, scared witless by this week’s killer epidemic, isolated amidst a fractured society, caught by the heal and just one step ahead of an endlessly revolving corporate redundancy programme, we invest our hopes and ego in our children and unwittingly pass on our anxieties on to them. Gradually, we come to realise that we lack both the courage to live and the courage to die. All is vanity and striving after the wind.
In order to flee from the limiting belief that we are helpless in this world we come to crave certainty. In order to evade those dark moments when we feel life to be meaningless we embrace unbelief and despair – it is better not to believe than be disappointed by a god who allows human pain. Feelings of loneliness, anger and loss of hope in our fellow human beings feed a growing withdrawal from life. The sense that we are worthless nourishes what Freud described as the Pleasure Principle. Any kind of heightened sensation: sexual, emotional, chemical, the thrill of closing a deal, momentarily insulates us from our deepest darkest fear: non-existence.
Amidst the chaos of life, we grasp for the withered hand of the Will to Power, the snake oil cure for our existential anxiety. Feelings of helplessness become the will to certainty, worthlessness becomes a will to sensation, hopelessness becomes a will to negation, and meaninglessness becomes a will to despair.
The Will to Certainty (W2C) deals with life’s shades of grey by making them black or white. Within the W2C we find the fixed response, the fixed identity, righteousness, control, rules, procedures, routine, and low mental involvement. Life is easier if you surrender your freedom to be free. If you give up on you, and instead come to define yourself through a political, economic, religious, corporate, ethnic, sports club, or national identity, then you no longer need to feel uncertain or helpless. You are part of a greater whole, and who you like and who you hate is part of the wider package that you will buy into. Certainty is future proof.
The Will to Negation (W2N) looks at the world and sees the chaos, the lies and the hypocrisy that form the very core of our existence. The W2N is fed by the terror of the abyss inside. The abyss is the black hole of unmaking. The compulsion is to fall right in, to negate the self, or to throw back at society some form of retribution that underlines the fragility and moral vacuity of our lives. For the loner, his feelings of failure lead to a sense of isolation, isolation feeds anger, anger crystallises into a hatred of successful women, and then comes the urge to stalk, and to kill. Hatred is our flexible friend; we can hate a specific person, lifestyles, genders, tribes, nations, or just ourselves. The same choice inspires the terrorist who bombs packed trains and pop concerts, and the young man who shoots up a school before turning the gun on himself. Both want to see the world burn. Both want to spew forth the molten rage they feel inside of their soul.
We fool ourselves that extremists are driven by religion and politics. These are handy excuses for a society that does not want to face up to the stark reality of absolute binary good and evil. These are convenient excuses for a society that shirks the responsibility to create a unified sense of meaning. Killers lie to themselves when they claim to be acting in the name of a god, or a greater cause. Instead, they stand terrified by the absence of meaning they perceive in themselves, and in the world around them. There is no tension, no push back, only the abyss. Their act of negation is a strategy to affirm their failing sense of self. Now I’m somebody. Now I’m not afraid. We are either defined by the W2P or the W2L. It is as simple as that. And you and I lie to our-selves as well. When we read in the newspapers that someone has opened fire in a university canteen, or murdered their parents in their bed, we want reassurance that the perpetrators are sick, that they are different, that they have a defined psychological condition. What we don’t want to hear is that they are the same as us. Because if they are the same, and if there is only a choice separating us, then what the hell does that mean for me?
The Will to Despair (W2D) faces the ultimate futility of existence and passes through unbelief to find that the only meaning is that there is no meaning. There is no god, there is no super-ordinate meaning, God is dead, or rather he never was, there is no salvation, no eternal soul, and death really is the end. So, get over it my friend and start living. At this point we are all invited to claim whatever meaning we feel is appropriate and to make life as beautiful as we possibly can. For Albert Camus, the realisation that the universe is absurd led him to the conclusion that the absurd man is he who will not delude himself with false hope and false faith.
For Friedrich Nietzsche, self-actualisation is born of the courageous soul who will not bend the knee in cowardice and supplication to an imaginary god. For Nietzsche, it is the courage to stand above the abyss of despair without surrender that defines the individual. Life may be unfair, but, like the toss of a coin, it is nothing personal, we all have a chance. The brave are those who take their chances and multiply their luck without ever believing in divine providence. Probability and delicious icy cold mathematics set the context, but it is the human will that suffers and perseveres that creates the truly lasting achievements and the grand monuments to having been alive. Inside of the Will to Despair I believe in me, that’s reality.
The Will to Sensation (W2S) is the reality of a modern consumerist lifestyle; recreational drugs, television, hedonist sex, shopping, food. Desire leads to self-condemnation, to guilt and regret, which in turn reinforces desire. Some argue that the answer is to stop feeling guilty, to become desire itself. Others become trapped in a cycle of self-indulgence and self-loathing.
Surely the pictures painted of the W2C, W2N, W2D and the W2S are exaggerated for effect… aren’t they? Surely most normal, everyday people will never ever come close to these extremes?
The insidious reality of the W2P is that it works its way into our everyday lives from small beginnings, widening the crack until it begins to take over. The W2C starts with an attempt to gain control over fate – ISA’s, pensions, home security, a nice new 4*4 so you’re a foot higher on the road than everyone else, I’m right you’re wrong, and somehow, gradually, you stop listening to other people and develop positions. The W2N starts to take hold when we dwell on simmering unresolved grievances; anger towards a spouse, towards God, school, parents, or some other authority figure. And from there we take small baby steps each day towards separation and isolation. The W2S is compulsion, it is the dulling of our joy in living to the point where we become reactive slaves, slaves to a guilty conscience, slaves to the moment, slaves to our right to slavery, addicts looking for the next fix of whatever it is that is eating us away from the inside. The W2D is the enthronement of doubt and cynicism over trust … we live in an age of endemic scepticism.
“No age has been more skill-full than our own in producing myths of the understanding, an age that produces myths and at the same time wants to eradicate all myths.”
Kierkegaard wrote that sentence in the nineteenth century. I wonder how he would view our modern myths of the understanding; our age of satellite TV, multi-screen cinemas, I Pods, and internet ready mobile phones. You and I live in a consumer technocracy that sells us Ubermensch superhero myth movies at the same time as it eradicates the myth of faith. One is fantastic entertainment, the other fantastical nonsense.
The eternal conflict of the W2L versus W2P is reflected throughout our art. Batman is the vigilante adherent of the W2C, the Joker is the W2N force of chaos, and Two Face is the representation of the W2D. In The Lord of the Rings, Shelob wants the W2S sweet-meats, the Nazgul are the embodiment of the W2D, Saruman loses hope in men and elves and embraces the W2N, whist the Orcs are tortured Elves corrupted by Sauron into becoming his W2C foot-soldiers of fear – don’t get me started on Star Wars and Harry Potter – we cheer for the good guys and boo the baddies. Morality is simple in a film. Somehow it becomes relative when we apply it to ourselves.
Look around you: the TV news, the advertisements on the internet and on billboards, at movie posters, company profit statements… the Will to Power is in the ascendency, corrupting, beguiling, destroying, undoing, raping, killing, abusing, taking over the planet.
Our job is to rebuild.
The W2P is all around us, pervasive, persuasive, and Christ help me, it’s in me too. A great man, the Buddha, taught four noble truths. The first truth is that our existence is dukkha. The second is that our misery is self-chosen. The third truth is that we can chose otherwise. The fourth noble truth is the Eightfold Path from misery: belief, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, thought and meditation. I find a significant correlation between the Eightfold Path and the four values of strength, faith, hope and love that underpin the Will to Love.
As negation is a denial of the social, hope is connection with others. As despair is affirmation of the individual’s self-pride, noological health is a connection with a greater purpose. As certainty walls itself away from all that is nebulous, strength walks on into an uncertain adventure. As sensation wills to its own needs and desires, love speaks of others first. The W2P separates, the W2L connects, it minimises distance. Hope is of the earth and of the growing things, faith is light, love is water, and strength is the rock.
Wherever I go, I keep tripping over strength, faith, hope and love at work as values and as actualities. Wherever I go, I see the anti-values of helplessness, meaninglessness, hopelessness and worthlessness at work as values and actualities. One set is eternally building, whilst the other is working hard to tear it all down again.
In his book The Concept of Anxiety, Soren Kierkegaard writes that ‘anxiety is freedom’s possibility.’ That’s a beautiful idea, man. Anxiety as freedom’s possibility is the reminder that we are here to make choices and to act on the world around us. And it is this ‘itchy twitchy get the fuck out and do something’ feeling, that, without some form of creative expression, becomes the shapeless unhappiness, the lingering depression and the shapeless worries that we so desperately want to run from, hide from and medicate against.
The point that I’m labouring to make is that power is not the only response to existential anxiety. Power is the thirst for dead waters. Let us recognise the will to power for what it is: suffering. Love is the spring of immaculate waters. Love flows. Love unblocks. Love nourishes. Love is just as real, just as tangible. The only problem with love is it comes with no guarantees.
No guarantees at all.