The Weirdest of Animals
Human beings are by far the weirdest of all God’s creatures. I say this with all due respect to the wild and extravagant diversity of the animal kingdom, much of which, regrettably, I remain woefully ignorant. The species of our world are truly bewildering both in number and variety, and their capacity to astonish and confound seems virtually limitless. But we are by far the strangest of the bunch.
Today’s evidence for human weirdness comes via an article in the National Post called “Is microdosing LSD a solution to the ‘crisis of meaning’ in modern life?” One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at such a headline. The image of people plodding off into carefully calibrated LSD trips to take the edge off their lack of meaning seems somehow comical to me, one level. But of course, it’s also alarmingly sad. This is what we’ve come to as a species? No more heroic existential quests or deep convictions arrived at via ecstasy and suffering, no more mining the deep shafts of historical wisdom, no more denial of self as a route to divine encounter for us. We’ll microdose our way to “mental health,” thanks very much. According to one of the Canadian researchers quoted in the article, microdosing “has become like a new religion—one based not on a god but on a desire for self-enhancement.” Well, yes, I suppose they’ve at least got the terminology mostly right. A religious quest, this certainly is.
This is not the first I’ve heard of this potential “solution” to the crisis of meaning in modern life. Johann Hari brings it up as a possibility in his otherwise excellent and timely diagnostic of our cultural moment, Lost Connections. At the time I sort of laughed it off as a kind of fringe notion, not to be taken seriously by, well, serious people. Evidently, I overestimated our species (something I am rarely accused of). Research dollars are being invested, GoFundMe pages are being dutifully set up (a $100 donation gets you a snappy “Psychedelic Scientist” T-shirt!). Scientists are hard at work. We will soon be furnished with the evidence required to answer the question of whether or not microdosing on LSD is the, ahem, solution to our crisis of meaning.
But as weird as all this is (or seems to me, at any rate), it’s not really the weirdness I’m thinking of today. Weirder than microdosing our way to meaning is the reality that lies behind this religious quest. What’s weirdest about human beings is that we need meaning at all, that the absence of meaning is deemed a “crisis” requiring a “solution” in the first place. What’s weird is that we can’t seem to do without meaning. What’s weird is that we don’t seem to notice how weird this is.
If, as the popular story goes, the march of history is that of a gradual and inevitable unshackling of humanity from the illusions that have long plagued and divided us, a slow but necessary realization that we’re not really so special, that we’re really no more than matter in motion on a chunk of rock hurtling purposelessly toward cosmic extinction, that the gods, myths, and morals that we’ve invented to motivate, pacify and placate ourselves with over the years are just so many fairy tales, then why not just shrug our shoulders and get on with the futility? Why not, like all the other animals, just kind of eat, sleep and breed our way into meaningless oblivion?
But we can’t do this. And we don’t. We’re too weird for that, evidently.
And so we continue to pant after meaning in our various ways, whether it’s religion or politics or clinging faithfully to narratives of progressivism or conservatism or hedonism or “spirituality” or enlightenment or secularism or environmentalism or nihilism or any of the other narratives about who’s good and who’s bad and why the world is the way it is and what to do about it that we adopt to give our lives purpose. Or terrifyingly, some of the more extreme and violent ideologies that inevitably rush in to fill a vacuum of meaning.
(Not all “meanings” are created equal, of course, much as we might like to pretend this is the case, much as we might long to flatter ourselves with our tolerance for diversity. Some meanings correspond with the good, the true, and the beautiful better than others. Truths this obvious should not need to be stated, but they probably do. The suicide bomber and the Sri Lankan Christian celebrating the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday were both acting consistently within the narratives of meaning they have embraced. Same goes for the worshippers in the Christchurch mosques and their murderer. The truth of the matter still, inconveniently, matters.)
We are human beings and we will have our meaning. It seems, however, that we are rapidly running out of intellectual and spiritual resources to ask good questions about meaning in general (Why do we need it? What might this suggest about our species?) or to evaluate the merits of the various narratives of meaning out there (“whatever floats your boat” seems good enough, most of the time… until Christchurch, Sri Lanka, etc… or until your narrative of meaning is threatened in less devastating ways by the bad and stupid people who don’t share it). The question of what, if anything, might be true when it comes the meaning we seek seems well and truly beyond us. We’ll have a little LSD to take the edge off reality instead.
We’re not nearly curious enough about ourselves or about the meaning we can’t live without.