I’m a program in a sea of programs, and we are all opaque to ourselves and each other. It is rare when a chance event, or a concerted effort on our part seems to render our shells momentarily transparent, so that we think we know what is going on – but we are still forever blinded by reality. Interpreted in the right way, this is a very liberating thought – because it blunts the arrows of criticism that people shoot at others and themselves, it softens the blows we perceive life deals out. Things that upset us only do so because of the slavish way in which we take our self-constructed reality seriously. For example, the hypothetical lost promotion ends up eclipsing the much more significant fact that almost all middle-class people like us are constantly fed and relatively healthy. Likewise the lover’s rejection shadows the uplifting fact that our children, when we do have them, are much more likely to survive now then at any time during humanity’s history. And when we resent all the luxury items we can’t buy, we forget about all the essentials we can, not including the significant and life-changing luxuries of long-distance transport, books, the internet and mass media, tertiary education, modern medicine, and electricity, which are surely some of the most exciting things to have happened to humanity since the dawn of language.
There is so much to appreciate, so much to be grateful for, that it seems ludicrous to be upset by the transient upsets of our day to day lives. Our negativity, when we encounter it, is far from being borne of a dark and hateful world. Instead, it might well be that the genetic recipe evolution has devised for our brains – the way our bodies respond to stress, the way we evaluate our success compared to that of our peers, they way our experience of happiness seems to be less of an absolute measure of our wellbeing, like a barometer is of height, but a relative measure of how our actions have recently changed our situation, like a spirit-level – hasn’t been precisely fine-tuned to today’s world. It is fair to say that evolution stopped designing our brains a few tens of thousands of years ago. Nowadays, the fact that people pursue long-term careers, build aeroplanes in huge teams, run for president, and write long novels is almost an accidental benefit of the pursuit-of-status and creativity-stimulating routines that served us so well as hunter gatherers. What a soft, subtle joke that fate has played on us!
This isn’t meant to be a point about evolutionary psychology. It is meant to be a point about life. A reminder that the vagaries of our emotions, the self-constructed reality that either depresses or elates us, is an almost entirely virtual reality, one that can be re-rendered from thousands of different perspectives, no single one of which is any truer than the other – and that the idea that one is more ‘natural’ because it happens to be the one that life is imposing and that we are implicitly accepting, is of course totally bogus. Into this wide-open gap left behind by our rejection of a ‘natural’ reality, onto this blank page, our own definitions of status, of achievement, and happiness are waiting to be written. Perhaps that is the exciting thing about being alive in the modern era – the terms of our engagement with life, and with our instinctual programming, are suddenly up for grabs.