So lately our focus has been largely on the story, but we’re still sticking to this idea that we’re doing a documentary — that is, there’s a narrator that speaks over the action of the play now and then, providing a context for the action or meandering off on flights of thematic pondering. In an attempt to nail down what the narrator might be saying, we took a stab at writing a series of speeches, which would find their proper places over top of the action on stage as that develops. In this theory, it’s okay — in fact it’s desirable –for the narrator’s commentary to only obliquely reference what’s going on, so that there is ample room for the audience to draw their own connections. At the same time, it’s important for it all to be leading somewhere, somehow or other. Here’s a sample of the half-finished and direly-in-need-of-editing narrator’s speeches.
Since the dawn of history, human beings have gathered in dark places to tell each other stories about who we are, and where we come from – creation myths about the first humans from which we are all descended. There are a million different versions of this story, but they’re all trying to explain the same thing. It’s really just one story, when you pare it down to its essentials: it’s the story of why we’re not happy.
It’s a story about how we ruined paradise, or were thrown out, or forgot where it was, or can’t return quite yet, which is a way of saying that there’s something wrong with us that we can’t quite put our finger on – somewhere along the way we traded in our happiness, and we’re not sure what we got in return. But when exactly did this happen? Ten thousand years ago? Twenty? A hundred? How long ago exactly was paradise?
It turns out that no matter how far back you go in human history, even back to when we lived in caves and had much smaller brains, we’re still telling the same story. But animals don’t seem to tell each other stories about their fall from grace, at least as far as we can tell, in large part because they don’t seem to tell each other stories at all – and that might be the difference between us and them. Maybe the paradise we’re always talking about is the paradise of life before we grew these great big brains to tell depressing stories with. Maybe that’s why we say ignorance is bliss – because at root we suspect that it’s our own brains that make us miserable. But how can this be the case? Why would we evolve to be unhappy?
Happiness is supposed to be the whole point. If, as a species, we really think we’ve blown our chance at it, this would be a serious philosophical emergency, and we really should have our best minds working on it. We’ve had thousands of years to get this sorted out, but a surprising number of us are still miserable. In fact, by the time this show is over, fourteen people will have jumped off bridges in North America alone, and twice that number in Finland, where they don’t even have that many bridges.
What is happiness, anyway? The word has the same root in English as ‘perhaps’ and ‘happenstance,’ which means that the people who made up the words for english people to use thought of happiness as being something that happened to you, more or less equivalent to good luck, that is, being in the right place at the right time. That’s what the Big Story’s trying to tell us: we’re not in the right place at the right time, not anymore.
Did you know that in your body there are about ten times as many bacteria as there are human cells? The bacteria talk to each other in a complicated chemical language, and have different jobs, and work really well together, and they’re a huge system of interdependent beings so intricate that we might as well call them one big bacteria creature, which in other words basically means that they’re not parasites on us – we’re parasites on them. That’s not all — bacteria don’t have mothers and fathers; they just divide in two, which means that really every bacterium that exists is the same bacterium, and that same bacterium has been alive for millions of years. Everything would be great for the Great Bacterium except for the Great Fungus, its arch-nemesis. We get antibiotics from fungus, because bacteria and fungus hate each other and try to kill each other, and in fact our bodies are really a huge battle between the two, and if one of them is winning then our bodies stop working properly, at least as far as we’re concerned. For instance, an overgrowth of fungus can cause your asshole to be itchy, but can also cause you to feel anxious or depressed or angry, which you will mistakenly blame on your job or your boyfriend, but it actually has nothing to do with him or his annoying habit of slurping his cereal milk, it has to do with microscopic politics as turbulent as a world war going on inside of you as you sit here. That’s frightening and depressing – or is it? Is it actually very beautiful? Whether you think the former or the latter depends on whether you ate too much blue cheese yesterday, which means, please, try cutting blue cheese out of your diet for a few days before jumping off any bridges.
Bacteria and Fungi alike view the world more or less the same way. They like some things, and dislike others. The things they like are good for them, and the things they don’t like are bad for them. They evolved that way, so that they would survive and prosper – they feel good when they’re doing something good for the species. That’s the way it is with every creature. A lizard will feel bad when it’s hungry, and good when it’s full. They don’t care what they eat – the biggest danger to a baby alligator is its own mother. But mammals developed a more complicated survival strategy based on taking care of each other, which enabled them to huddle together for warmth when the comet caused a winter thousands of years long which wiped out the dinosaurs; as a result mammals feel bad when they’re alone and good when they’re together, which is an advantageous system of emotional stimuli that we call love.
We have both lizard and mammal brains inside our heads, which means that we’re often confused about whether to kill someone or to have sex with them. But there’s a third part of our brain that only humans have, that evolved around the same time we learned to tell stories about how we’re not happy anymore. What does it take to make that part of our brain happy? What does it want?
Well, what does it do? It tells stories.
Having an idea is a pretty commonplace experience for us modern humans. But it wasn’t always so ordinary – our brains developed this capacity gradually, and early humans were overwhelmed by the power of it. A vision would appear inside their head, and somehow dimly they could perceive something existing in some way that did not exist in concrete form before them, something that had never existed before: a possibility. And the invention of possibility changed absolutely everything.
With the invention of possibility we were able to imagine a future different from the past – what might happen if we banged a stick against a bone, or rolled a round rock, or invaded France, or made a law against jaywalking – we modern humans swim in a sea of possibilities that animals have never imagined, and yet, at first, possibilities appeared to us as terrifying and wondrous apparitions, religious experiences, surrounded by ritual and mystery, the kind of thing that happens once in a lifetime to a lucky or sacred person, like being spoken to by an angel or by a demon.
The demons show us things that we don’t want: they show us things to fear. The angels show us things we do want, things that would make us feel good. Those spirits still speak to us, even though we don’t name them, and when you think about it you realize that they rule us more fiercely than the real ground under our real feet. Because now we can imagine being happy. And we can wonder why we’re not.
We like to think that we can think whatever we like. But the truth is that our thoughts are actually physical things: they’re a network of pathways in our brains. To call them pathways is useful, because, like pathways, they get worn in, like the way footprints in a forest become a trail with more and more trodding. As we get older, it gets easier and easier to have the same thoughts over and over again, because our brains actually ignore information that contradicts those thoughts, and even changes things so they fit better. Maybe theoretically it’s possible to have a different thought, but it’s just so much easier to stay on the trail than it is to hack our way through the thorny bushes out there with the wolves that having a new thought requires an act of almost absurd determination. Before long, the path is graven like a canyon, and we can’t see over the walls on either side. If you live long enough, you’ll end up sitting in a room with your brain on endless repeat, incapable of incorporating any new information at all, and you won’t even understand it’s happening. I’m not kidding about this.
We’re addicted to our thoughts. If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, or watch less television, or stop thinking you’re fat, you know that it’s not easy to get out of a rut. Your own brain betrays you, by convincing you that you shouldn’t go astray. This is true, even if the path leads over a cliff.
It wasn’t always like this. When we were children, we didn’t already know the easy way through the forest. There were monsters, and there were marvels, there were signs and there were wonders, and we could still roam wherever our whim took us. Thousands of years ago we were like that, too. We didn’t know what was on the other side of that mountain. We couldn’t find our way back to the same cave when winter came again. We weren’t even totally sure that winter would come again. Anything was possible. Anything could be true.
But winter does seem to come every year, and there’s a trail back to the cave where it’s warm, and if we stay on it all the way we won’t get lost, and now we’re right there in the middle of a story we can’t escape.
What really freaks me out is that this story is useful. In fact, it’s crucial to the survival of the species. It’s the whole point of our big brains: to tell us we’re not happy, not yet, although we could be, if only, if only, if only.
If our brains weren’t sculpted around that story, we’d still be living in trees, eating mangos and masturbating whenever we felt like it. We’d like our coffee, even if it wasn’t a double tall lo-fat mocha like we ordered. We’d be happy in our home town, even if it wasn’t Paris. We’d tell each other that we love each other when we should.
But we’re not designed that way. We’re puppets of a larger strategy for the success of our species. To be part of a successful species doesn’t mean you yourself are all that successful – ask a mosquito baby how it feels to have a one in a thousand chance of being the one that lives. I’ll tell you he’s not that happy about it. But he can’t just throw his mosquito arms in the air and give up. He’s got to do his best, despite the brutality of evolution’s plan.
So mosquito mothers keep having a thousand babies at a time, and we keep feeling miserable. In fact, this ingenious misery strategy we’ve got going is so important to the survival of our species that we can afford to lose an absurd number of our team along the way – for every tortured genius we get, we lose ten thousand people to alcoholism, insomnia, crystal meth, rage, suicide, anorexia, depression and despondency. And what killed every single one of those people was the story in their brains that says that something’s wrong with life as it is. And they honestly could have been eating mangos and masturbating instead, if their own brains hadn’t murdered them.