SUNDAY, 1 FEBRUARY 2004
It may occur to the ordinary reader that I have a peculiar talent for pointing out things with ardent enthusiasm as if I have made an exciting discovery which no one had ever known before, but of which everyone, in actual fact, is already fully aware of. It reminds me of a Far Side cartoon about two gorillas sitting under a tree, eating bananas. One gorilla breaks a banana from the bunch, looks at it with immense love and tenderness, and then says to his friend: “You know, Sid, I really like bananas … I mean, I know that’s not profound or nothin’ … Heck! We ALL do …”
As all intelligent animals know, certain requirements must be met in order to avoid unpleasant sensations like hunger. Human beings, apparently the most complex, most advanced and – in most cases anyway – the most intelligent among all mammals, experience besides the usual cravings also the need To Feel All Right, at least for the most part of most days we spent on this speck of cosmic dust.
Most of us accept that there will be times in our lives that will be quite unpleasant, days when we know we just have to survive one day at a time in the hope that everything will soon be all right again. We also know that there are times when we are more than just okay – times when we are ecstatically happy, when we even want to embrace the worst of our enemies, when we want to convince everyone we meet of the exceptional beauty of life. These times, however, never last, and that we know just as well.
When times are good, it also helps that we know even the dull days following the ecstatic, will be quite survivable. When times are bad, we can’t wait for the air to clear and for everything to just be okay again. We also know that this sense of “everything’s all right” is generally sustainable, in spite of better and worse times in between, if we do certain things on a regular basis.
What we do to maintain this general sense of well-being is as different as our faces. Some maintain this awareness through religious rituals, such as praying five times a day or doing Bible study every morning. Others maintain it with more secular activities such as hobbies, sports or gardening. With many people, spending time with loved ones is part of this process.
Why do we not take this sense of well-being for granted? The answer I would suggest is the banana to which the other Far Side gorilla will respond: “I know. You tell me nothing new.”
The reason why most of us fail to take this sense of okay-ness for granted and why we must take steps to maintain it is because more things threaten our daily existence than is healthy to count. There are viruses, criminals, accidents, and genetic diseases that can hit us out of the blue, to name but a few.
The idea for this essay came to me while I was on my way home from the Carrefour with a bag of “groceries” (my new word for four different boxes of cereal) hanging from my handlebar. Since I was on my bicycle late at night in the dark back streets of a Taiwanese city, the main danger I could think of was that someone would suddenly crash into me from behind or that a taxi with a possessed driver behind the wheel will come speeding out from some darkened alley. The thought of people still crushing pieces of breakfast cereal into the road days later understandably did not overwhelm me with a feeling of well-being.
I did indeed arrive home safely, and I felt quite all right when only minutes later I could spill an overflowing bowl of fresh cornflakes and muesli on my Sunday newspaper. But I was also aware of the fact that I would also be rushing past narrow alleys the next evening, and then there are the epidemics which one has almost become accustomed to in these parts.
Besides these obvious threats are the things that have made one tread with caution for many a year and counting: age, creeping closer like a hungry rat to a box of muesli in the middle of a busy road; poverty, and all the nasty consequences that go with it; loneliness, if you fail to earn enough money to be able to go on romantic dates, and so I can continue.
These fears are not unique to me. Most people are at least a little cautious when they go on the road. Everyone is annoyed when a sick person coughs in their direction. Few people get excited when they detect the first gray hair on a head that was covered with significantly more hair just a decade ago. And most people think poverty is worse than the plague.
We all take measures to give ourselves a fighting chance against these threats. All of us also place a high premium on a sense of well-being – or at least to feel all right. For many people, religion plays a vital role as a measure against visible and invisible threats. Life and disability insurance also make us feel much better about the ever-present risk of accidents and other misfortunes. And to underestimate the numerous benefits of financial well-being speaks of outrageous ignorance (“What’s that?”), even inexcusable irresponsibility (“Was I not busy doing something else?”).
However, there is one last threat I want to point out – a dormant, yet ancient dread terrorizing human beings ever since our brains were developed enough to weave two rational thoughts together. This threat to our well-being is the idea that we are going to disappear into nothingness the moment our physical existence comes to an end. That we will not be remembered. That everyone will get on with their lives, almost … as if we were never even here.
Again, we put certain measures into place. Again, religion plays a role. There are also children who can carry on our genes, who may even perpetuate our names.
For the religious measures to work, we need to perform certain rituals on a regular basis; for example, people who believe in it, have to confirm their membership to the Great Salvation Plan as a matter of routine to be certain of Something More Than Just This Earthly Existence. People who have children know that they have to work hard every day to keep their children alive. For some people – religious people with children, or people with no descendants, who are also not adherents to any traditional set of religious beliefs – there are (also) other routines and rituals that should be actively pursued as often as possible to keep this latent fear at bay.
Like other people, I also have a ritual, a primary measure, an essential routine that I follow as often as possible to keep from being overwhelmed by the above-mentioned primal fear. People try various measures, they explore a variety of activities for potential value in maintaining a sense that they are okay, and with the passage of time, certain activities stand out as exceptionally suitable for this important task. So it happened that I identified after many years a pattern in my own life – that to be actively engaged in the process of stringing words together serve as a powerful sedative when I get nervous about the end of my physical existence.
When I write, I feel all right. Even if I don’t spend every waking hour behind the computer or with a notebook in front of me, as long as I know I’m working on a literary project, I know my lamp of personal well-being still has some oil left to burn.
To not write on a regular basis, is to run the risk that my lamp will start burning weaker and weaker. For me, it’s an almost religious ritual, an activity that can almost be regarded as sacred.
To write, is my insurance.