This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.
According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.
What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…
Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.
Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?
One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):
Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.
When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.
What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.
I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.
You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.
Siddhartha had a historically important revelation which he formalized and called ‘The Four Noble Truths’. The first of his Truths states that suffering exists. The second states that desire exists. We learn from Buddhist commentaries that desire gives rise to suffering. But Siddhartha, by placing suffering first, seems to imply that suffering is the cause of desire.
Desire arises from suffering. Suffering arises from desire.
When we were growing fetuses, we floated in a perfect world: the amniotic sac, warm, comforting, protective, where all our needs were met. Evidence suggests that existence in the womb is so pleasurable, it can be described as all-encompassing, endless pleasure — Oceanic Bliss. But as our foetal beings grow larger, the womb we are contained within gets tighter, cramped. Then comes the great trauma of birth which saddles each one of us*, for the rest of our lives, with suffering and desire, and it does so for the simple but monumental reason that the process of being born destroys our Oceanic Bliss. Forget all that Freudian stuff about sexual trauma screwing us up. The first cause of suffering is the fact that our perfect world of Oceanic Bliss is shattered, destroyed, replaced by a hard, harsh, cold and sometimes cruel environment.
Reacting to the suffering we feel, at being forced into a rough, intransigent world, inspires our first desire: we want to return to that state of Oceanic Bliss which existed before we were born. Desire is always and only the wish to escape suffering so as to return to Oceanic Bliss. But desire is always frustrated. Oceanic Bliss cannot be regained. Frustrated desire causes more suffering, and continued suffering causes more desire to escape suffering.
The ego thinks up all sorts of strategies to return us to Oceanic Bliss. All such strategies are doomed to fail. Firstly, there are too many variables in any situation for our minds to account for them all. Lacking complete knowledge, our imaginations cannot effectively compute real future outcomes for any of our plans. Even if we attain some positive outcome, it is never up to the standard of Oceanic Bliss.
Secondly, we make the mistake of thinking that working on the external world is the way to regain bliss. The fledgling ego keeps whacking away at the new, recalcitrant world in which it finds itself, trying to fix it, manipulate it, or coerce it into fulfilling its desire. Ask any mother how determined the child is to get its way. But none of our efforts ever really works. We never return to Oceanic Bliss. We may get momentary pleasures, but they are short-lived and always pale in comparison to our (subconscious) memory of life in the womb. When our seeking after bliss fails to give substantial results, we blame the external world. We complain, seek revenge or think up more plots and schemes. And if, out of exhaustion or despair, we give up blaming the world, we often blame ourselves, sometimes to such an extent that we seek a false relief in self-damage.
Imaginary Case #1: Suffering: Jack is such a jerk he pisses me off. →Externalized Desire: He’s better stop bothering me. →On the Road to more Suffering: I swear, if he keeps on, I’m going to kill him.
Case #2: Suffering: I’m so lonely. →Externalized Desire: If only Jonny would fall in love with me, we’d live happily ever after. →Suffering: Jonny turns out to be a snake, a drunk, a womanizer, a brutal troglodyte. →Externalized Desire: Oh, if only he’d go to AA, I’d be happy again. →Suffering: Why won’t he go to AA? It’s probably my fault because I don’t love him enough. →Externalized Desire: I’ll buy this lottery ticket and win a million dollars so I can leave him and live happily ever after. Then he’ll be sorry.
And so we live our lives, striving after a past that cannot become the future.
Note from above: * excepting for a relative few of us. See more about Buddhism.