Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Human Need to Affirm

Why do most of us want to be optimists, or at least to be considered optimists? Is it a by-product of the desire for self-preservation? Is it an evolutionary mechanism?

There is a commitment that virtually all human beings hold in common, one that cuts right across divisions of religion, politics and even temperament. It is the belief that life and the world are good, or can be good, or should be good. When you think about it, you realise that this commitment is shared by everyone but the darkest of pessimists. A pessimist would have no reason to hold a gloomy view of the world unless he was measuring it against some ideal, some possible or even merely conceivable state of more desirable affairs. To that extent, even the pessimist has a kind of faith.

Unless we believed that the good of life outweighs the evil-- even if that good is simply, as it might be for an existentialist, our own heroic protest against futility-- then we would hardly continue to live, to refrain from committing suicide, to feed and care for ourselves, to stop at red traffic lights, go to work and shelter from the cold.

But for most of us, our faith in existence goes way beyond this minimal calculation. Human beings seem to harbour an insatiable urge to affirm. It is as though we cannot rest in regret or rejection. A man who loses his sight or his legs or his livelihood will, almost inevitably, struggle to "come to terms with it", as we say. Sometimes it even seems that, the worse the ordeal, the greater the reluctance to give up on life's intrinsic goodness. We even seek to find meaning in our sufferings, to discover some redemptive element to them.

I remember once, when channel-hopping late in the small hours of the morning, catching the last few minutes of a documentary about people with facial disfigurements. I always remember one of the talking heads-- a man whose misshapen face must have drawn stares wherever he went-- smiling gently at the camera and saying that, since he had "grown into" the way he now looked, he wouldn't even want to look "normal" again.

This human tendency for affirmation bears some thinking about. It is, in fact, more than a little strange. I could easily imagine a world where things were otherwise. I can imagine a world where human beings sought pleasure, distraction and stimulation, but felt no craving for the sublime, the transcendent or the meaningful. We would, essentially, seek to pass the time before our death as pleasantly (or perhaps as excitingly) as possible.

Nobody would care about the state of the world after their own demise. Nobody would invest emotionally in any great cause-- a cause such as a nation, a party, an ideology, an interest group, or a church. History would simply be a catalogue of names and events, perhaps interesting and instructive as a subject for study, but not a story in which the living felt they had a stake. Nobody would feel a debt to their ancestors, or be inspired by their own tradition and heritage. So long as the intellect was kept stimulated, nobody would feel any urge to understand the universe or their place in it.

But how different things are in reality! Even the worst of us seem to share this drive towards affirmation. No matter how badly people behave, they usually offer some justification for their actions. The excuses and rationalisations may be feeble, but the point is that nearly everybody acknowledges the need for justification. In the same way, it seems to me that every artist-- no matter how bleak, nihilistic, hopeless and squalid his productions-- claims to be ultimately on the side of the angels. Thus we are told that Beckett's plays drip with compassion for the human condition, that Franz Kafka displays a deeply religious sensibility, and so on.

Why this ingrained human urge to say an unconditional "Yes" to life, in spite of everything? And not only a "Yes" but a "Hallelujah"?

Well, you can guess my answer, can't you?

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