Saturday, April 19, 2014

What to do next...

At the end of the novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey (as also in the movie), we are left with an image of the Starchild, the super-evolved new form of Dave Bowman, astronaut, hovering above the earth and wondering what to do next. That, to me, has long symbolised the challenge, not just of being a super-evolved human, but of being an ordinary, everyday human. What do I do next?

Traditional religion has often posed the question: Why am I here? Personally, I don’t believe that I have been brought into this world for some kind of secret (or obvious) purpose. Human beings came into existence through an entirely natural and wonderful process of evolution. Evolution has no plan. It doesn’t think ahead. Natural selection responds to existing conditions, and sometimes it leads to useless dead ends. So I am not here for a purpose, as a result of some divine or natural plan. Nevertheless I am here; and the question that always faces me is: What do I do next?

I wouldn’t claim that we are the only creatures on this planet, let alone in the wide universe, who face this question. Nevertheless, we do seem to depend less on instinct and more on conscious decision-making than most other animals. Almost certainly we are driven by instinct more often than we care to admit. But much of what I do has to be decided. It doesn’t really matter whether other creatures also face this dilemma. It doesn’t even matter whether you do. I know that I do.

When we are younger, particularly in our teenage years, we battle for our freedom. We don’t like being told what to do by those in authority. We rebel! And spend the rest of our lives looking for someone or something that will tell us what to do next. Whether they are political leaders, great philosophers, religious leaders, or pop stars, we look for someone to lift from us this terrible burden of decision-making. No wonder neither religion nor totalitarianism ever quite go away. We want what we so detested in our parents: someone to tell us what to do next.

It can be tiring, this decision-making, this unending process of self-motivation. One of the characters in the novel I am currently working on has these thoughts:

He wanted to be a bee or an ant, or some other creature that was simply what it was, and didn’t have to decide what to be, or feel guilty about what it was or wasn’t. He doubted that an ant or a bee experienced guilt.

No doubt someone will want to argue that it’s possible that ants and bees feel guilt. Fine. Let them. All I know is that decision-making inevitably involves guilt. When faced with a choice, it is always possible that I will make the wrong choice. And, of course, in the real world there is never a simple ‘right or wrong’ choice. Every choice I make will have good and bad consequences, to a lesser or greater degree. There’s always room to feel guilty about the bad ones.

So, every day—every moment—I feel like that Starchild, looking at the world around me and wondering what I will do next. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad, by any means. It’s also wildly exhilarating! Possibility is both frightening and exciting, like the best rides in a theme park. With all the burdens that come with this freedom to do, I would never again swap it for the security of the State or the comfort of Religion.

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