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20

MEANING

Life is not a story

Who am I? What should I do in life? What is the meaning of life? Humans have been asking these questions from time immemorial. Every generation needs a new answer, because what we know and don’t know keeps changing. Given everything we know and don’t know about science, about God, about politics and about religion – what is the best answer we can give today?

What kind of an answer do people expect? In almost all cases, when people ask about the meaning of life, they expect to be told a story. Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal, that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings. When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what is my particular role in the cosmic drama. This role defines who I am, and gives meaning to all my experiences and choices.

One popular story, told for thousands of years to billions of anxious humans, explains that we are all part of an eternal cycle that encompasses and connects all beings. Each being has a distinctive function to fulfil in the cycle. To understand the meaning of life means to understand your unique function, and to live a good life means to accomplish that function.

The Hindu epic the Bhagavadgita relates how, in the midst of a murderous civil war, the great warrior prince Arjuna is consumed with doubts. Seeing his friends and relatives in the opposing army, he hesitates to fight and kill them. He begins to wounder what are good and evil, who decided it, and what is the purpose of human life. The god Krishna then explains to Arjuna that within the great cosmic cycle each being possesses a unique ‘dharma’, the path you must follow and the duties you must fulfil. If you realise your dharma, no matter how hard the path may be, you enjoy peace of mind and liberation from all doubts. If you refuse to follow your dharma, and try to adopt somebody else’s path – or to wander about with no path at all – you will disturb the cosmic balance, and will never be able to find either peace or joy. It makes no difference what your particular path is, as long as you follow it. A washerwoman who devotedly follows the way of the washerwoman is far superior to a prince who strays off the way of the prince. Having understood the meaning of life, Arjuna duly proceeds to follow his dharma as a warrior. He kills his friends and relatives, leads his army to victory, and becomes one of the most esteemed and beloved heroes of the Hindu world.

The 1994 Disney epic The Lion King repackaged this ancient story for modern audiences, with the young lion Simba standing in for Arjuna. When Simba wants to know the meaning of existence, his father – the lion king Mufasa – tells him about the great Circle of Life. Mufasa explains that the antelopes eat the grass, the lions eat the antelopes, and when the lions die their body decomposes and feeds the grass. This is how life continues from generation to generation, provided each animal plays its part in the drama. Everything is connected, and everyone depends on everyone else, so if even a blade of grass fails to fulfil its vocation, the entire Circle of Life might unravel. Simba’s vocation, says Mufasa, is to rule the lion kingdom after Mufasa’s death, and keep the other animals in order.

However, when Mufasa is prematurely murdered by his evil brother Scar, young Simba blames himself for the catastrophe, and racked with guilt he leaves the lion kingdom, shuns his royal destiny, and wanders off into the wilderness. There he meets two other outcasts, a meerkat and a warthog, and together they spend a few carefree years off the beaten path. Their antisocial philosophy means that they answer every problem by chanting Hakuna matata – no worries.

But Simba cannot escape his dharma. As he matures, he becomes increasingly troubled, not knowing who he is and what he should do in life. At the climactic moment of the movie, the spirit of Mufasa reveals himself to Simba in a vision, and reminds Simba of the Circle of Life and of his royal identity. Simba also learns that in his absence, the evil Scar has assumed the throne and mismanaged the kingdom, which now suffers greatly from disharmony and famine. Simba finally understands who he is and what he should do. He returns to the lion kingdom, kills his uncle, becomes king, and re-establishes harmony and prosperity. The movie ends with a proud Simba presenting his newly born heir to the assembled animals, ensuring the continuation of the great Circle of Life.

The Circle of Life presents the cosmic drama as a circular story. For all Simba and Arjuna know, lions ate antelopes and warriors fought battles for countless aeons and will continue to do so for ever and ever. The eternal repetition gives power to the story, implying that this is the natural course of things, and that if Arjuna shuns combat or if Simba refuses to become king, they will be rebelling against the very laws of nature.

If I believe in some version of the Circle of Life story, it means that I have a fixed and true identity that determines my duties in life. For many years I may be doubtful or ignorant of this identity, but one day, in some great climactic moment, it will be revealed, and I will understand my role in the cosmic drama, and though I may subsequently encounter many trials and tribulations, I will be free of doubts and despair.

Other religions and ideologies believe in a linear cosmic drama, which has a definitive beginning, a not-too-long middle, and a once-and-for-all ending. For example, the Muslim story says that in the beginning Allah created the entire universe and laid down its laws. He then revealed these laws to humans in the Quran. Unfortunately, ignorant and wicked people rebelled against Allah and tried to break or hide these laws, and it is up to virtuous and loyal Muslims to uphold these laws and spread knowledge of them. Eventually, on Judgement Day, Allah will pass judgement on the conduct of each and every individual. He will reward the righteous with everlasting bliss in paradise, and toss the wicked into the burning pits of hell.

This grand narrative implies that my small but important role in life is to follow Allah’s commands, spread knowledge of His laws, and ensure obedience to His wishes. If I believe the Muslim story, I find meaning in praying five times a day, donating money to build a new mosque, and struggling against apostates and infidels. Even the most mundane activities – washing hands, drinking wine, having sex – are imbued with cosmic meaning.

Nationalism too upholds a linear story. Thus the Zionist story begins with the biblical adventures and achievements of the Jewish people, recounts 2,000 years of exile and persecution, reaches a climax with the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, and looks forward to the day when Israel will enjoy peace and prosperity and become a moral and spiritual beacon to the entire world. If I believe in the Zionist story, I conclude that my life’s mission is to advance the interests of the Jewish nation by protecting the purity of the Hebrew language, by fighting to regain lost Jewish territory, or perhaps by having and raising a new generation of loyal Israeli children.

In this case too, even humdrum undertakings are infused with meaning. On Independence Day, Israeli schoolchildren often sing together a popular Hebrew song praising any action done for the sake of the motherland. One kid sings ‘I’ve built a house in the land of Israel’, another kid chants ‘I’ve planted a tree in the land of Israel’, a third chimes in with ‘I’ve written a poem in the land of Israel’, and so it goes on and on, until finally they all join together in a chorus singing ‘So we have a house, and a tree, and a poem [and whatever else you would like to add] in the land of Israel.’ Communism tells an analogous story, but focuses on class rather than ethnicity. The Communist Manifesto opens by proclaiming that:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.1 The manifesto goes on to explain that in modern times, ‘Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.’2 Their struggle will end with the victory of the proletariat, which will signal the end of history and the establishment of the communist paradise on earth, in which nobody will own anything, and everyone will be completely free and happy.

If I believe in this communist story, I conclude that my life’s mission is to speed up the global revolution by writing fiery pamphlets, organising strikes and demonstrations, or perhaps assassinating greedy capitalists and fighting against their lackeys. The story gives meaning even to the smallest of gestures, such as boycotting a brand that exploits textile workers in Bangladesh or arguing with my capitalist-pig father-in-law over Christmas dinner.

When looking at the entire range of stories that seek to define my true identity and give meaning to my actions, it is striking to realise that scale matters very little. Some stories, such as Simba’s Circle of Life, seem to stretch for eternity. It is only against the backdrop of the entire universe that I can know who I am. Other stories, such as most nationalist and tribal myths, are puny by comparison. Zionism holds sacred the adventures of about 0.2 per cent of humankind and 0.005 per cent of the earth’s surface during a tiny fraction of the span of time. The Zionist story fails to ascribe any meaning to the Chinese empires, to the tribes of New Guinea, and to the Andromeda galaxy, as well as to the countless aeons that passed before the existence of Moses, Abraham and the evolution of apes.

Such myopia can have serious repercussions. For example, one of the major obstacles for any peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians is that Israelis are unwilling to divide the city of Jerusalem. They argue that this city is ‘the eternal capital of the Jewish people’ – and surely you cannot compromise on something eternal.3 What are a few dead people compared to eternity? This is of course utter nonsense. Eternity is at the very least 13.8 billion years – the current age of the universe. Planet Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have existed for at least 2 million years. In contrast, the city of Jerusalem was established just 5,000 years ago and the Jewish people are at most 3,000 years old. This hardly qualifies as eternity.

As for the future, physics tells us that planet Earth will be absorbed by an expanding sun about 7.5 billion years from now,4 and that our universe will continue to exist for at least 13 billion years more. Does anyone seriously believe that the Jewish people, the state of Israel, or the city of Jerusalem will still exist 13,000 years from now, let alone 13 billion years? Looking to the future, Zionism has a horizon of no more than a few centuries, yet it is enough to exhaust the imagination of most Israelis and somehow qualify as ‘eternity’. And people are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of ‘the eternal city’, which they would probably refuse to make for an ephemeral collection of houses.

As a teenager in Israel, I too was initially captivated by the nationalist promise to become part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to believe that if I gave my life to the nation, I would live for ever in the nation. But I couldn’t fathom what it meant ‘to live for ever in the nation’. The phrase sounded very profound, but what did it actually mean? I remember one particular Memorial Day ceremony when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Whereas in the USA Memorial Day is marked mainly by shopping sales, in Israel Memorial Day is an extremely solemn and important event. On this day the schools hold ceremonies to remember the soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s many wars. The kids dress in white, recite poems, sing songs, place wreaths and wave flags. So there I was, dressed in white, during our school’s ceremony, and in between flag waving and poem recitations, I naturally thought to myself that when I grow up I too would like to be a fallen soldier. After all, if I were a heroic fallen soldier who sacrificed his life for Israel, then I would have all these kids reciting poems and waving flags in my honour.

But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. If I am dead, how would I know these kids were really reciting poems in my honour?’ So I tried to imagine myself dead. And I imagined myself lying under some white tombstone in a neat military cemetery, listening to the poems coming from above the ground. But then I thought, ‘If I am dead, then I cannot hear any poems, because I don’t have ears, and I don’t have a brain, and I cannot hear or feel anything. So what’s the point?’ Even worse, by the time I was thirteen I knew that the universe is a couple of billion years old, and will probably go on existing for billions of years more. Could I realistically expect Israel to exist for such a long time? Will Homo sapiens kids dressed in white still recite poems in my honour after 200 million years? There was something fishy about the whole business.

If you happen to be Palestinian, don’t feel smug. It is just as unlikely that there will be any Palestinians around 200 million years from now. Indeed, in all probability by then there won’t be any mammals whatsoever. Other national movements are just as narrow-minded. Serbian nationalism cares little about events in the Jurassic era, whereas Korean nationalists believe that a small peninsula on the east coast of Asia is the only part of the cosmos that really matters in the grand scheme of things.

Of course even Simba – for all his devotion to the everlasting Circle of Life – never contemplates the fact that lions, antelopes and grass aren’t really eternal. Simba does not consider what the universe was like before the evolution of mammals, nor what would be the fate of his beloved African savannah once humans kill all the lions and cover the grasslands with asphalt and concrete. Would this render Simba’s life utterly meaningless?

All stories are incomplete. Yet in order to construct a viable identity for myself and give meaning to my life, I don’t really need a complete story devoid of blind spots and internal contradictions. To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions: first, it must give me some role to play. A New Guinean tribesman is unlikely to believe in Zionism or in Serbian nationalism, because these stories don’t care at all about New Guinea and its people. Like movie stars, humans like only those scripts that reserve an important role for them.

Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself. But there is always a danger that I might start wondering what gives meaning to that ‘something bigger’. If the meaning of my life is to help the proletariat or the Polish nation, what exactly gives meaning to the proletariat or to the Polish nation? There is a story of a man who claimed that the world is kept in place by resting on the back of a huge elephant. When asked what the elephant stands on, he replied that it stands on the back of a large turtle. And the turtle? On the back of an even bigger turtle. And that bigger turtle? The man snapped and said: ‘Don’t bother about it. From there onwards it’s turtles all the way down.’ Most successful stories remain open-ended. They never need to explain where meaning ultimately comes from, because they are so good at capturing people’s attention and keeping it inside a safe zone. Thus when explaining that the world rests on the back of a huge elephant, you should pre-empt any difficult questions by describing in great detail that when the elephant’s gigantic ears flap they cause hurricanes, and when the elephant quivers with anger earthquakes shake the surface of the earth. If you weave a good enough yarn, it won’t occur to anyone to ask what the elephant is standing on. Similarly, nationalism enchants us with tales of heroism, moves us to tears by recounting past disasters, and ignites our fury by dwelling on the injustices our nation suffered. We get so absorbed in this national epic that we start evaluating everything that happens in the world by its impact on our nation, and hardly think of asking what makes our nation so important in the first place.

When you believe a particular story, it makes you extremely interested in its minutest details, while keeping you blind to anything that falls outside its scope. Devout communists may spend countless hours debating whether it is permissible to make an alliance with social democrats in the early stages of revolution, but they seldom stop to ponder the place of the proletariat in the evolution of mammalian life on planet Earth or in the spread of organic life in the cosmos. Such idle talk is considered a counter-revolutionary waste of breath.

Though some stories go to the trouble of encompassing the entirety of space and time, the ability to control attention allows many other successful stories to remain far more modest in scope. A crucial law of storytelling is that once a story manages to extend beyond the audience’s horizon, its ultimate scope matters little. People may display the same murderous fanaticism for the sake of a thousand-year-old nation as for the sake of a billion-year-old god. People are just not good with large numbers. In most cases, it takes surprisingly little to exhaust our imagination.

Given everything we know about the universe it would seem utterly impossible for any sane person to believe that the ultimate truth about the universe and human existence is the story of Israeli, German or Russian nationalism – or indeed of nationalism in general. A story that ignores almost the whole of time, the whole of space, the Big Bang, quantum physics and the evolution of life is at most just a tiny part of the truth. Yet people somehow manage not to see beyond it.

Indeed, billions of people throughout history have believed that for their lives to have meaning, they don’t even need to be absorbed into a nation or a great ideological movement. It is enough if they just ‘leave something behind’, thereby ensuring that their personal story continues beyond their death. The ‘something’ I leave behind is ideally my soul or my personal essence. If I am reborn in a new body after the death of my present body, then death is not the end. It is merely the space between two chapters, and the plot that began in one chapter will carry on into the next. Many people have at least a vague faith in such a theory, even if they do not base it on any specific theology. They don’t need an elaborate dogma – they just need the reassuring feeling that their story continues beyond the horizon of death.

This theory of life as a never-ending epic is extremely attractive and common, but it suffers from two main problems. First, by lengthening my personal story I don’t really make it more meaningful. I just make it longer. Indeed, the two great religions that embrace the idea of a never-ending cycle of births and deaths – Hinduism and Buddhism – share a horror of the futility of it all. Millions upon millions of times I learn how to walk, I grow up, I fight with my mother-in-law, I get sick, I die – and then do it all over again. What’s the point? If I accumulated all the tears I have shed in all my previous lives, they would fill the Pacific Ocean; if I gathered together all the teeth and hair I have lost, they would be higher than the Himalayas. And what have I got to show for all that? No wonder that Hindu and Buddhist sages have both focused much of their efforts on finding a way to get off this merry-go-round rather than to perpetuate it.

The second problem with this theory is the paucity of supporting evidence. What proof have I got that in a past life I was a medieval peasant, a Neanderthal hunter, a Tyrannosaurus rex, or an amoeba (if I really lived millions of lives, I must have been a dinosaur and an amoeba at some point, for humans have existed for only the last 2.5 million years)? Who vouches that in the future I will be reborn as a cyborg, an intergalactic explorer, or even a frog? Basing my life on this promise is a bit like selling my house in exchange for a post-dated cheque drawn on a bank above the clouds.

People who doubt that some kind of soul or spirit really survives their death therefore strive to leave behind something a bit more tangible. That ‘something tangible’ could take one of two forms: cultural or biological. I might leave behind a poem, say, or some of my precious genes. My life has meaning because people will still read my poem a hundred years from now, or because my kids and grandchildren will still be around. And what is the meaning of their lives? Well, that’s their problem, not mine. The meaning of life is thus a bit like playing with a live hand grenade. Once you pass it on to somebody else, you are safe.

Alas, this modest hope of just ‘leaving something behind’ is rarely fulfilled. Most organisms that ever existed became extinct without leaving any genetic inheritance. Almost all the dinosaurs, for example. Or a Neanderthal family which became extinct as Sapiens took over. Or my grandmother’s Polish clan. In 1934 my grandma Fanny emigrated to Jerusalem with her parents and two sisters, but most of their relatives stayed behind in the Polish towns of Chmielnik and Częstochowa. A few years later the Nazis came along and wiped them out to the very last child.

Attempts at leaving behind some cultural legacy are seldom more successful. Nothing has remained of my grandmother’s Polish clan except a few faded faces in the family album, and at the age of ninety-six, even my grandmother cannot match names to the faces. To the best of my knowledge, they haven’t left behind any cultural creation – not a poem, nor a diary, nor even a grocery list. You might argue that they have a share in the collective inheritance of the Jewish people or of the Zionist movement, but that hardly gives meaning to their individual lives. Moreover, how do you know all of them really cherished their Jewish identity or agreed with the Zionist movement? Maybe one of them was a committed communist, and sacrificed his life spying for the Soviets? Maybe another wanted nothing more than to assimilate into Polish society, served as an officer in the Polish army, and was killed by the Soviets in the Katyn massacre? Maybe a third was a radical feminist, rejecting all traditional religious and nationalist identities? Since they left nothing behind it is all too easy to posthumously recruit them to this or that cause, and they cannot even protest.

If we cannot leave something tangible behind – such as a gene or a poem – perhaps it is enough if we just make the world a little better? You can help somebody, and that somebody will subsequently help somebody else, and you thereby contribute to the overall improvement of the world, and constitute a small link in the great chain of kindness. Maybe you serve as a mentor for a difficult but brilliant child, who goes on to be a doctor who saves the lives of hundreds? Maybe you help an old lady cross the street, and brighten up an hour of her life? Though it has its merits, the great chain of kindness is a bit like the great chain of turtles – it is far from clear where its meaning comes from. A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why the other people are here.’ For those who don’t trust any great chains, any future legacies or any collective epics, perhaps the safest and most parsimonious story they can turn to is romance. It doesn’t seek to go beyond the here and now. As countless love poems testify, when you are in love, the entire universe is reduced to the earlobe, the eyelash or the nipple of your beloved. When gazing at Juliet leaning her cheek upon her hand, Romeo exclaims ‘O, that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!’ By connecting with a single body here and now, you feel connected with the entire cosmos.

In truth, your beloved is just another human, no different in essence from the multitudes you ignore every day on the train and in the supermarket. But to you, he or she seems infinite, and you are happy to lose yourself in that infinity. Mystic poets of all traditions have often conflated romantic love with cosmic union, writing about God as a lover. Romantic poets have repaid the compliment by writing about their lovers as gods. If you are really in love with someone, you never worry about the meaning of life.

And what if you are not in love? Well, if you believe in the romantic story but you are not in love, you at least know what the aim of your life is: to find true love. You have seen it in countless movies and read about it in innumerable books. You know that one day you will meet that special someone, you will see infinity inside two sparkling eyes, your entire life will suddenly make sense, and all the questions you ever had will be answered by repeating one name over and over again, just like Tony in West Side Story or Romeo upon seeing Juliet looking down at him from the balcony.

The weight of the roof

While a good story must give me a role, and must extend beyond my horizons, it need not be true. A story can be pure fiction, and yet provide me with an identity and make me feel that my life has meaning. Indeed, to the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions and tribes have invented throughout history is true. They are all just human inventions. If you ask for the true meaning of life and get a story in reply, know that this is the wrong answer. The exact details don’t really matter. Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story.

So why do people believe in these fictions? One reason is that their personal identity is built on the story. People are taught to believe in the story from early childhood. They hear it from their parents, their teachers, their neighbours and the general culture long before they develop the intellectual and emotional independence necessary to question and verify such stories. By the time their intellect matures, they are so heavily invested in the story, that they are far more likely to use their intellect to rationalise the story than to doubt it. Most people who go on identity quests are like children going treasure hunting. They find only what their parents have hidden for them in advance.

Second, not only our personal identities but also our collective institutions are built on the story. Consequently, it is extremely frightening to doubt the story. In many societies, anyone who tries to do so is ostracised or persecuted. Even if not, it takes strong nerves to question the very fabric of society. For if indeed the story is false, then the entire world as we know it makes no sense. State laws, social norms, economic institutions – they might all collapse.

Most stories are held together by the weight of their roof rather than by the strength of their foundations. Consider the Christian story. It has the flimsiest of foundations. What evidence do we have that the son of the Creator of the entire universe was born as a carbon-based life form somewhere in the Milky Way about 2,000 years ago? What evidence do we have that it happened in the Galilee area, and that His mother was a virgin? Yet enormous global institutions have been built on top of that story, and their weight presses down with such overwhelming force that they keep the story in place. Entire wars have been waged about changing a single word in the story. The thousand-year schism between Western Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians, which has manifested itself recently in the mutual butchery of Croats by Serbs and Serbs by Croats, began over the lone word ‘filioque’ (‘and from the son’ in Latin). The Western Christians wanted to insert this word into the Christian profession of faith, while the Eastern Christians vehemently objected. (The theological implications of adding that word are so arcane that it would be impossible to explain them here in any meaningful way. If you are curious, ask Google.) Once personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of a story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, not because of the evidence supporting it, but because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. In history, the roof is sometimes more important than the foundations.

Hocus pocus and the industry of belief

The stories that provide us with meaning and identity are all fictional, but humans need to believe in them. So how to make the story feel real? It’s obvious why humans want to believe the story, but how do they actually believe? Already thousands of years ago priests and shamans discovered the answer: rituals. A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real. The essence of ritual is the magical spell ‘Hocus pocus, X is Y!’5 How to make Christ real to his devotees? In the ceremony of Mass, the priest takes a piece of bread and a glass of wine, and proclaims that the bread is Christ’s flesh, the wine is Christ’s blood, and by eating and drinking them the faithful attain communion with Christ. What could be more real than actually tasting Christ in your mouth? Traditionally, the priest made these bold proclamations in Latin, the ancient language of religion, law, and the secrets of life. In front of the amazed eyes of the assembled peasants the priest held high a piece of bread and exclaimed ‘Hoc est corpus!’– ‘This is the body!’ – and the bread supposedly became the flesh of Christ. In the minds of the illiterate peasants, who did not speak Latin, ‘Hoc est corpus!’ got garbled into ‘Hocus pocus!’ and thus was born the powerful spell that can transform a frog into a prince, and a pumpkin into a carriage.6 A thousand years before the birth of Christianity, the ancient Hindus used the same trick. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad interprets the ritual sacrifice of a horse as a realisation of the entire story of the cosmos. The text follows the ‘Hocus pocus, X is Y!’ structure, saying that: ‘The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn, its eye the sun, its vital force the air, its open mouth the fire called Vaisvanara, and the body of the sacrificial horse is the year … its members are the seasons, its joints the months and fortnights, its feet the days and nights, its bones the stars, and its flesh the clouds … its yawning is lightning, its shaking the body is thundering, its making water is raining, and its neighing is voice.’7 Almost anything can be turned into a ritual, by giving mundane gestures like lighting candles, ringing bells or counting beads a deep religious meaning. The same is true of physical gesticulations, such as bowing the head, prostrating the whole body, or bringing both palms together. Various forms of headgear, from the Sikh turban to the Muslim hijab, have been so laden with meaning that they have stirred passionate struggles for centuries.

Food too can be loaded with spiritual significance far beyond its nutritional value, be it Easter eggs that symbolise new life and Christ’s resurrection, or the bitter herbs and unleavened bread that Jews must eat at Passover to remember their slavery in Egypt and their miraculous escape. There is hardly a dish in the world that hasn’t been interpreted to symbolise something. Thus on New Year’s Day religious Jews eat honey so that the coming year will be sweet, they eat fish heads so that they will be fruitful like fish and will move forward rather than back, and they eat pomegranates so that their good deeds will multiply like the many seeds of the pomegranate.

Similar rituals have been used for political purposes too. For thousands of years crowns, thrones and staffs represented kingdoms and entire empires, and millions of people died in brutal wars waged over the possession of ‘the throne’ or ‘the crown’. Royal courts cultivated extremely elaborate protocols, which match the most intricate of religious ceremonies. In the military, discipline and ritual are inseparable, and soldiers from ancient Rome to the present day spend countless hours marching in formation, saluting superiors, and shining boots. Napoleon famously observed that he could make men sacrifice their lives for a colourful ribbon.

Perhaps nobody understood the political importance of rituals better than Confucius, who saw the strict observance of rites (li) as the key to social harmony and political stability. Confucian classics such as The Book of Rites, The Rites of Zhou and The Book of Etiquette and Rites recorded in the minutest details which rite should be performed at which state occasion, down to the number of ritual vessels used in the ceremony, the type of musical instruments played, and the colours of the robes to be worn. Whenever China was hit by some crisis, Confucian scholars were quick to blame it on the neglect of rites, like a sergeant major who blames military defeat on slack soldiers not shining their boots.8 In the modern West, the Confucian obsession with rituals has often been seen as a sign of shallowness and archaism. In fact, it probably testifies to Confucius’ profound and timeless appreciation of human nature. It is perhaps no coincidence that Confucian cultures – first and foremost in China, but also in neighbouring Korea, Vietnam and Japan – produced extremely long-lasting social and political structures. If you want to know the ultimate truth of life, rites and rituals are a huge obstacle. But if you are interested – like Confucius – in social stability and harmony, truth is often a liability, whereas rites and rituals are among your best allies.

This is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was in ancient China. The power of Hocus Pocus is alive and well in our modern industrial world. For many people in 2018, two wooden sticks nailed together are God, a colourful poster on the wall is the Revolution, and a piece of cloth flapping in the wind is the Nation. You cannot see or hear France, because it exists only in your imagination, but you can certainly see the tricolour and hear the ‘Marseillaise’. So by waving a colourful flag and singing an anthem you transform the nation from an abstract story into a tangible reality.

Thousands of years ago devout Hindus sacrificed precious horses – today they invest in producing costly flags. The national flag of India is known as the Tiranga (literally, tricolour), because it consists of three stripes of saffron, white and green. The 2002 Flag Code of India proclaims that the flag ‘represents the hopes and aspirations of the people of India. It is the symbol of our national pride. Over the last five decades, several people including members of the armed forces have ungrudgingly laid down their lives to keep the tricolour flying in its full glory.’9 The Flag Code then quotes Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s second president, who explained that: The saffron colour denotes renunciation or disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work. The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct. The green shows our relation to the soil, our relation to the plant life here on which all other life depends. The Ashoka wheel in the centre of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or Satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principles of all those who work under this flag.10 In 2017 India’s nationalist government hoisted one of the largest flags in the world at Attari on the Indo-Pakistan border, in a gesture calculated to inspire neither renunciation nor disinterestedness, but rather Pakistani envy. That particular Tiranga was 36 metres long and 24 metres wide, and was hoisted on a 110-metre-high flag post (what would Freud have said about that?). The flag could be seen as far as the Pakistani metropolis of Lahore. Unfortunately, strong winds kept tearing the flag, and national pride required that it be stitched together again and again, at great cost to Indian taxpayers.11 Why does the Indian government invest scarce resources in weaving enormous flags, instead of building sewage systems in Delhi’s slums? Because the flag makes India real in a way that sewage systems do not.

Indeed, the very cost of the flag makes the ritual more effective. Of all rituals, sacrifice is the most potent, because of all the things in the world, suffering is the most real. You can never ignore it or doubt it. If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real. If you fast because God commanded you to do so, the tangible feeling of hunger makes God present more than any statue or icon. If you lose your legs in a patriotic war, your stumps and wheelchair make the nation more real than any poem or anthem. On a less grandiose level, by preferring to buy inferior local pasta to imported high-quality Italian pasta you might make a small daily sacrifice that makes the nation feel real even in the supermarket.

This is of course a logical fallacy. If you suffer because of your belief in God or in the nation, that does not prove that your beliefs are true. Maybe you are just paying the price of your gullibility? However, most people don’t like to admit that they are fools. Consequently, the more they sacrifice for a particular belief, the stronger their faith becomes. This is the mysterious alchemy of sacrifice. In order to bring us under his power, the sacrificing priest need not give us anything – neither rain, nor money, nor victory in war. Rather, he needs to take away something. Once he convinces us to make some painful sacrifice, we are trapped.

It works in the commercial world, too. If you buy a second-hand Fiat for $2,000, you are likely to complain about it to anyone willing to hear. But if you buy a brand-new Ferrari for $200,000, you will sing its praises far and wide, not because it is such a good car, but because you have paid so much money for it that you must believe it is the most wonderful thing in the world. Even in romance, any aspiring Romeo or Werther knows that without sacrifice, there is no true love. The sacrifice is not just a way to convince your lover that you are serious – it is also a way to convince yourself that you are really in love. Why do you think women ask their lovers to bring them diamond rings? Once the lover makes such a huge financial sacrifice, he must convince himself that it was for a worthy cause.

Self-sacrifice is extremely persuasive not just for the martyrs themselves, but also for the bystanders. Few gods, nations or revolutions can sustain themselves without martyrs. If you presume to question the divine drama, the nationalist myth or the revolutionary saga, you are immediately scolded: ‘But the blessed martyrs died for this! Do you dare say that they died for nothing? Do you think these heroes were fools?’ For Shiite Muslims, the drama of the cosmos reached its climactic moment on the day of Ashura, which was the tenth day of the month of Muharram, sixty-one years after the Hijrah (10 October 680, according to the Christian calendar). On that day, at Karbala in Iraq, soldiers of the evil usurper Yazid massacred Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, together with a small group of followers. For Shiites, Husayn’s martyrdom has come to symbolise the eternal struggle of good against evil and of the oppressed against injustice. Just as Christians repeatedly re-enact the drama of the crucifixion and imitate the passion of Christ, so Shiites re-enact the drama of Ashura and imitate the passion of Husayn. Millions of Shiites flock yearly to the holy shrine in Karbala, established where Husayn was martyred, and on the day of Ashura Shiites throughout the world stage mourning rituals, in some cases flagellating and cutting themselves with chains and knives.

Yet the importance of Ashura is not limited to one place and one day. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and numerous other Shiite leaders have repeatedly told their followers that ‘every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala’.12 The martyrdom of Husayn at Karbala thus gives meaning to every event, anywhere, any time, and even the most mundane decisions should be seen as having an impact on the great cosmic struggle between good and evil. If you dare doubt this story, you will immediately be reminded of Karbala – and to doubt or mock the martyrdom of Husayn is just about the worst offence you could possibly commit.

Alternatively, if martyrs are scarce and people are unwilling to sacrifice themselves, the sacrificing priest may get them to sacrifice somebody else instead. You might sacrifice a human to the vengeful god Ba’al, burn a heretic at the stake for the greater glory of Jesus Christ, execute adulterous women because Allah said so, or send class enemies to the Gulag. Once you do that, a slightly different alchemy of sacrifice begins to work its magic on you. When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a gullible fool.’ When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a cruel villain.’ And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains, so we prefer to believe that the story is true.

In March 1839, in the Iranian city of Mashhad, a Jewish woman who suffered from some skin disease was told by a local quack that if she killed a dog and washed her hands in its blood, she would be cured. Mashhad is a holy Shiite city, and it so happened that the woman undertook the grisly therapy on the sacred day of Ashura. She was observed by some Shiites, who believed – or claimed to believe – that the woman killed the dog in mockery of the Karbala martyrdom. Word of this unthinkable sacrilege quickly spread through the streets of Mashhad. Egged on by the local imam, an angry mob broke into the Jewish quarter, torched the synagogue, and murdered thirty-six Jews on the spot. All the surviving Jews of Mashhad were then given a stark choice: convert to Islam immediately, or be killed. The sordid episode hardly harmed Mashhad’s reputation as ‘Iran’s spiritual capital’.13 When we think of human sacrifice we usually have in mind gruesome rituals in Canaanite or Aztec temples, and it is common to argue that monotheism brought an end to this terrible practice. In fact, monotheists practised human sacrifice on a much larger scale than most polytheistic cults. Christianity and Islam killed far more people in the name of God than did the followers of Ba’al or Huitzilopochtli. At a time when the Spanish conquistadores stopped all human sacrifices to the Aztec and Inca gods, back home in Spain the Inquisition was burning heretics by the cartload.

Sacrifices can come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t always involve knife-wielding priests or bloody pogroms. Judaism, for example, forbids working or travelling on the holy day of Sabbath (the literal meaning of the word ‘sabbath’ is ‘to stand still’ or ‘to rest’). The Sabbath starts at sunset on Friday, and lasts until sunset on Saturday, and in between Orthodox Jews refrain from almost any kind of work, including even tearing off toilet paper from a roll in the lavatory. (There has been some discussion of this among the most learned rabbis, and they concluded that tearing toilet paper will break the Sabbath taboo, and consequently devout Jews who want to wipe their bottoms on the Sabbath have to prepare a stash of pre-torn toilet paper in advance.14) In Israel, religious Jews often try to force secular Jews and even complete atheists to keep these taboos. Since Orthodox parties usually hold the balance of power in Israeli politics, over the years they have succeeded in passing many laws banning all kinds of activities on the Sabbath. Though they were unable to outlaw the use of private vehicles on the Sabbath, they have been successful in banning public transport. This nationwide religious sacrifice hits mainly the weakest sectors of society, especially as Saturday is the only day of the week when working-class people are free to travel and visit distant relatives, friends and tourist attractions. A rich grandmother has no problem driving her brand-new car to visit her grandchildren in another town, but a poor grandmother cannot do so, because there are no buses or trains.

By inflicting such difficulties on hundreds of thousands of citizens, the religious parties prove and entrench their unwavering faith in Judaism. Though no blood is shed, the well-being of many people is still being sacrificed. If Judaism is just a fictional story, then it is a cruel and heartless thing to prevent a grandmother from visiting her grandchildren or to prevent an impoverished student from going to have some fun on the beach. By nevertheless doing so, the religious parties tell the world – and tell themselves – that they really believe in the Jewish story. What, do you think they enjoy harming people for no good reason whatsoever?

Sacrifice not only strengthens your faith in the story, but often substitutes for all your other obligations towards it. Most of the great stories of humankind have set up ideals that most people cannot fulfil. How many Christians really follow the Ten Commandments to the letter, never lying or coveting? How many Buddhists have so far reached the stage of egolessness? How many socialists work to the utmost of their ability while taking no more than they really need?

Unable to live up to the ideal, people turn to sacrifice as a solution. A Hindu may engage in tax frauds, visit the occasional prostitute and mistreat his elderly parents, but then convince himself that he is a very pious person, because he supports the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya and has even donated money to build a Hindu temple in its stead. Just as in ancient times, so also in the twenty-first century, the human quest for meaning all too often ends with a succession of sacrifices.

The identity portfolio

The ancient Egyptians, Canaanites and Greeks hedged their sacrifices. They had many gods, and if one failed, they hoped that another would still come through. So they sacrificed to the sun god in the morning, to the earth goddess at noon, and to a mixed lot of fairies and demons in the evening. That too hasn’t changed much. All the stories and gods in which people today believe – be they Yahweh, Mammon, the Nation, or the Revolution – are incomplete, full of holes, and riddled with contradictions. Therefore people rarely put their entire faith in a single story. Instead, they keep a portfolio of several stories and several identities, switching from one to the other as the need arises. Such cognitive dissonances are inherent in almost all societies and movements.

Consider a typical Tea Party supporter who somehow squares an ardent faith in Jesus Christ with a firm objection to government welfare policies and a staunch support for the National Rifle Association. Wasn’t Jesus a bit more keen on helping the poor than on arming yourself to the teeth? It might seem incompatible, but the human brain has a lot of drawers and compartments, and some neurons just don’t talk to one another. Similarly, you can find plenty of Bernie Sanders supporters who have a vague belief in some future revolution, while also believing in the importance of investing your money wisely. They can easily switch from discussing the unjust distribution of wealth in the world to discussing the performance of their Wall Street investments.

Hardly anyone has just one identity. Nobody is just a Muslim, or just an Italian, or just a capitalist. But every now and then a fanatical creed comes along and insists that people should believe in only one story and have only one identity. In recent generations the most fanatical such creed was fascism. Fascism insisted that people should not believe any story except the nationalist story, and should have no identity except their national identity. Not all nationalists are fascists. Most nationalists have great faith in the story of their nation, and emphasise the unique merits of their nation and the unique obligations they have towards their nation – but they nevertheless acknowledge that there is more to the world than just their nation. I can be a loyal Italian with special obligations towards the Italian nation, and still have other identities. I can also be a socialist, a Catholic, a husband, a father, a scientist and a vegetarian, and each of these identities entails additional obligations. Sometimes several of my identities pull me in different directions, and some of my obligations come into conflict with one another. But well, who said life was easy?

Fascism is what happens when nationalism wants to make life too easy for itself by denying all other identities and obligations. There has been a lot of confusion lately about the exact meaning of fascism. People call almost anyone they don’t like ‘a fascist’. The term is in danger of degenerating into an all-purpose term of abuse. So what does it really mean? In brief, while nationalism teaches me that my nation is unique and that I have special obligations towards it, fascism says that my nation is supreme, and that I owe my nation exclusive obligations. My nation is the only important thing in the world, and I should never prefer the interests of any group or individual over the interests of my nation, no matter what the circumstances are. Even if my nation stands to make but a paltry profit from inflicting much misery on millions of strangers in a far-off land, I should have no qualms supporting my nation. Otherwise, I am a despicable traitor.

If my nation demands that I kill millions of people, I should kill millions. If my nation demands that I sacrifice my family, I should sacrifice my family. If my nation demands that I betray truth and beauty, I should betray truth and beauty.

How does a fascist evaluate art? How does a fascist know whether a movie is a good movie? Very simple. There is just one yardstick. If the movie serves the national interests, it is a good movie. If the movie does not serve the national interests, it is a bad movie. And how does a fascist decide what to teach kids in school? He uses the same yardstick. Teach the kids whatever serves the interests of the nation; the truth does not matter.15 This worship of the nation is extremely attractive, not only because it simplifies many difficult dilemmas, but also because it causes people to think that they belong to the most important and most beautiful thing in the world – their nation. The horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust indicate the terrible consequences of this line of thinking. Unfortunately, when people talk of the ills of fascism they often do a poor job, because they tend to depict fascism as a hideous monster while failing to explain what is so seductive about it. This is why today people sometimes adopt fascist ideas without realising it. People think, ‘I was taught that fascism is ugly, and when I look in the mirror I see something very beautiful, so I cannot be a fascist.’ It is a bit like the mistake Hollywood movies make when they depict the bad guys – Voldemort, Lord Sauron, Darth Vader – as ugly and mean. They are usually cruel and nasty even towards their most loyal supporters. What I never understand when watching such movies is why anyone would be tempted to follow a disgusting creep like Voldemort.

The problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful. Christianity knew this better than Hollywood, which is why traditional Christian art tended to depict Satan as a gorgeous hunk. That is why it is so difficult to resist Satan’s temptations. That is also why it is difficult to deal with fascism. When you look in the fascist mirror, what you see there isn’t ugly at all. When Germans looked in the fascist mirror in the 1930s, they saw Germany as the most beautiful thing in the world. If today Russians look in the fascist mirror, they will see Russia as the most beautiful thing in the world. And if Israelis look in the fascist mirror, they will see Israel as the most beautiful thing in the world. They will then want to lose themselves inside that beautiful collective.

The word ‘fascism’ comes from the Latin ‘fascis’, meaning ‘a bundle of rods’. That sounds like a rather unglamorous symbol for one of the most ferocious and deadly ideologies in world history. But it has a deep and sinister meaning. A single rod is very weak, and you can easily snap it in two. However, once you bundle many rods together into a fascis, it becomes almost impossible to break them. This implies that the individual is a thing of no consequence, but as long as the collective sticks together, it is very powerful.16 Fascists therefore believe in privileging the interests of the collective over those of any individual, and demand that no single rod ever dare break the unity of the bundle.

Of course, it is never clear where one human ‘bundle of rods’ ends and another begins. Why should I view Italy as the bundle of rods to which I belong? Why not my family, or the city of Florence, or the province of Tuscany, or the continent of Europe, or the entire human species? The milder forms of nationalism will tell me that I can indeed have obligations towards my family, Florence, Europe and the whole of humankind, as well as having special obligations to Italy. In contrast, Italian fascists will demand absolute loyalty to Italy alone.

Despite the best efforts of Mussolini and his fascist party, most Italians remained rather lukewarm about putting Italy before their famiglia. In Germany the Nazi propaganda machine did a much more thorough job, but not even Hitler managed to make people forget all the alternative stories. Even in the darkest days of the Nazi era, people always kept some back-up stories in addition to the official one. This became patently clear in 1945. You would have thought that after twelve years of Nazi brainwashing many Germans would be utterly incapable of making sense of their post-war lives. Having put all their faith in one great story, what to do when that story exploded? Yet most Germans recovered with amazing speed. Somewhere in their minds they maintained some other stories about the world, and no sooner had Hitler fired a bullet through his brain, than people in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich adopted new identities and found new meanings to their lives.

True, about 20 per cent of the Nazi gauleiters – the regional party leaders – committed suicide, as did about 10 per cent of generals.17 But that means that 80 per cent of gauleiters and 90 per cent of generals were quite happy to live on. The vast majority of card-holding Nazis and even of the SS rank and file neither went insane nor killed themselves. They went on to be productive farmers, teachers, doctors and insurance agents.

Indeed, even suicide doesn’t prove an absolute commitment to a single story. On 13 November 2015, the Islamic State orchestrated several suicide attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. The extremist group explained that it did so in revenge for the bombing of Islamic State activists in Syria and Iraq by the French air force, and in the hope that France would be deterred from carrying out such bombardments in the future.18 In the same breath, the Islamic State also declared that all the Muslims killed by the French air force were martyrs, who now enjoy eternal bliss in heaven.

Something here doesn’t make sense. If indeed the martyrs killed by the French air force are now in heaven, why should anyone seek revenge for it? Revenge for what, exactly? For sending people to heaven? If you just heard that your beloved brother won a million dollars in the lottery, would you start blowing up lottery stalls in revenge? So why go rampaging in Paris just because the French air force gave a few of your brothers a one-way ticket to paradise? It would be even worse if you indeed managed to deter the French from carrying out further bombings in Syria. For in that case, fewer Muslims would get to heaven.

We might be tempted to conclude that Islamic State activists don’t really believe that martyrs go to heaven. That’s why they are angry when they are bombed and killed. But if so, why do some of them strap on explosive belts and willingly blow themselves to smithereens? In all likelihood, the answer is that they hold on to two contradictory stories, without thinking too much about the inconsistencies. As noted earlier, some neurons are just not on speaking terms with one another.

Eight centuries before the French air force bombed Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq, another French army invaded the Middle East, in what is known to posterity as ‘the Seventh Crusade’. Led by the saintly King Louis IX, the crusaders hoped to conquer the Nile Valley and turn Egypt into a Christian bulwark. However, they were defeated at the Battle of Mansoura and most of the crusaders were taken captive. A crusader knight, Jean de Joinville, later wrote in his memoirs that when the battle was lost and they decided to surrender, one of his men said that ‘I cannot agree with this decision. What I advise is that we should all let ourselves be slain, for thus we shall go to paradise.’ Joinville comments dryly that ‘none of us heeded his advice’.19 Joinville does not explain why they refused. After all, these were men who left their comfortable chateaux in France for a long and perilous adventure in the Middle East largely because they believed the promise of eternal salvation. Why, then, when they were but a moment away from the everlasting bliss of paradise, did they prefer Muslim captivity instead? Apparently, though the crusaders fervently believed in salvation and paradise, at the moment of truth they opted to hedge their bets.

The supermarket at Elsinore

Throughout history almost all humans believed in several stories at the same time, and were never absolutely convinced of the truth of any one of them. This uncertainty rattled most religions, which therefore considered faith to be a cardinal virtue and doubt to be among the worst sins possible. As if there was something intrinsically good about believing things without evidence. With the rise of modern culture, however, the tables were turned. Faith looked increasingly like mental slavery, while doubt came to be seen as a precondition for freedom.

Sometime between 1599 and 1602, William Shakespeare wrote his version of The Lion King, better known as Hamlet. Yet unlike Simba, Hamlet doesn’t complete the Circle of Life. He remains sceptical and ambivalent to the very end, never discovering what life is all about, and never making up his mind whether it is better to be or not to be. In this, Hamlet is the paradigmatic modern hero. Modernity didn’t reject the plethora of stories it inherited from the past. Instead, it opened a supermarket for them. The modern human is free to sample them all, choosing and combining whatever fits his or her taste.

Some people cannot stand so much freedom and uncertainty. Modern totalitarian movements such as fascism reacted violently to the supermarket of doubtful ideas, and outdid even traditional religions in demanding absolute faith in a single story. Most modern people, however, took a liking to the supermarket. What do you do when you don’t know what life is all about and which story to believe? You sanctify the very ability to choose. You forever stand there in the supermarket aisle, with the power and freedom to choose whatever you like, examining the products laid out before you, and … freeze that frame, cut, The End. Run credits.

According to liberal mythology, if you stand long enough in that big supermarket, sooner or later you will experience the liberal epiphany, and you will realise the true meaning of life. All the stories on the supermarket shelves are fakes. The meaning of life isn’t a ready-made product. There is no divine script, and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life. It is I who imbue everything with meaning through my free choices and through my own feelings.

In the fantasy film Willow – a run-of-the-mill George Lucas fairy tale – the eponymous hero is an ordinary dwarf who dreams of becoming a great sorcerer and mastering the secrets of existence. One day such a sorcerer passes through the dwarf village in search of an apprentice. Willow and two other hopeful dwarves present themselves, and the sorcerer gives the aspirants a simple test. He extends his right hand, spreads his fingers, and asks in a Yoda-like voice: ‘The power to control the world, is in which finger?’ Each of the three dwarves picks a finger – but they all pick the wrong one. Nevertheless, the sorcerer notices something about Willow, and later asks him ‘When I held up my fingers, what was your first impulse?’ ‘Well, it was stupid,’ says Willow in embarrassment, ‘to pick my own finger.’ ‘Aha!’ exclaims the sorcerer in triumph, ‘That was the correct answer! You lack faith in yourself.’ Liberal mythology never tires of repeating this lesson.

It is our own human fingers that wrote the Bible, the Quran and the Vedas, and it is our minds that give these stories power. They are no doubt beautiful stories, but their beauty is strictly in the eyes of the beholder. Jerusalem, Mecca, Varanasi and Bodh Gaya are sacred places, but only because of the feelings humans experience when they go there. In itself, the universe is only a meaningless hodge-podge of atoms. Nothing is beautiful, sacred or sexy – but human feelings make it so. It is only human feelings that make a red apple seductive and a turd disgusting. Take away human feelings, and you are left with a bunch of molecules.

We hope to find meaning by fitting ourselves into some ready-made story about the universe, but according to the liberal interpretation of the world, the truth is exactly the opposite. The universe does not give me meaning. I give meaning to the universe. This is my cosmic vocation. I have no fixed destiny or dharma. If I find myself in Simba’s or Arjuna’s shoes, I can choose to fight for the crown of a kingdom, but I don’t have to. I can just as well join a wandering circus, go to Broadway to sing in a musical, or move to Silicon Valley and launch a start-up. I am free to create my own dharma.

Thus, like all other cosmic stories, the liberal story too starts with a creation narrative. It says that the creation occurs every moment, and I am the creator. What then is the aim of my life? To create meaning by feeling, by thinking, by desiring, and by inventing. Anything that limits the human liberty to feel, to think, to desire and to invent, limits the meaning of the universe. Hence liberty from such limitations is the supreme ideal.

In practical terms, those who believe in the liberal story live by the light of two commandments: create, and fight for liberty. Creativity can manifest itself in writing a poem, exploring your sexuality, inventing a new app, or discovering an unknown chemical. Fighting for liberty includes anything that frees people from social, biological and physical constraints, be it demonstrating against brutal dictators, teaching girls to read, finding a cure for cancer, or building a spaceship. The liberal pantheon of heroes houses Rosa Parks and Pablo Picasso alongside Louis Pasteur and the Wright brothers.

This sounds extremely exciting and profound in theory. Unfortunately, human freedom and human creativity are not what the liberal story imagines them to be. To the best of our scientific understanding, there is no magic behind our choices and creations. They are the product of billions of neurons exchanging biochemical signals, and even if you liberate humans from the yoke of the Catholic Church and the Soviet Union, their choices will still be dictated by biochemical algorithms as ruthless as the Inquisition and the KGB.

The liberal story instructs me to seek freedom to express and realise myself. But both the ‘self’ and freedom are mythological chimeras borrowed from the fairy tales of ancient times. Liberalism has a particularly confused notion of ‘free will’. Humans obviously have a will, they have desires, and they are sometimes free to fulfil their desires. If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire – then yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire – then no, humans have no free will.

If I am sexually attracted to men, I may be free to realise my fantasies, but I am not free to feel an attraction to women instead. In some cases I might decide to restrain my sexual urges or even try a ‘sexual conversion’ therapy, but the very desire to change my sexual orientation is something forced upon me by my neurons, egged on perhaps by cultural and religious biases. Why does one person feel ashamed of his sexuality and strives to alter it, while another person celebrates the same sexual desires without a trace of guilt? You can say that the former might have stronger religious feelings than the latter. But do people freely choose whether to have strong or weak religious feelings? Again, a person may decide to go to church every Sunday in a conscious effort to strengthen his weak religious feelings – but why does one person aspire to be more religious, while another is perfectly happy to remain an atheist? This may result from any number of cultural and genetic dispositions, but it is never the result of ‘free will’.

What’s true of sexual desire is true of all desire, and indeed of all feelings and thoughts. Just consider the next thought that pops up in your mind. Where did it come from? Did you freely choose to think it, and only then did you think it? Certainly not. The process of self-exploration begins with simple things, and becomes progressively harder. At first, we realise that we do not control the world outside us. I don’t decide when it rains. Then we realise that we do not control what’s happening inside our own body. I don’t control my blood pressure. Next, we understand that we don’t even govern our brain. I don’t tell the neurons when to fire. Ultimately we should realise that we do not control our desires, or even our reactions to these desires.

Realising this can help us become less obsessive about our opinions, about our feelings, and about our desires. We don’t have free will, but we can be a bit more free from the tyranny of our will. Humans usually give so much importance to their desires that they try to control and shape the entire world according to these desires. In pursuit of their cravings, humans fly to the moon, wage world wars, and destabilise the entire ecosystem. If we understand that our desires are not the magical manifestations of free choice, but rather are the product of biochemical processes (influenced by cultural factors that are also beyond our control), we might be less preoccupied with them. It is better to understand ourselves, our minds and our desires rather than try to realise whatever fantasy pops up in our heads.

And in order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and rewrite. There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now. Like the government spin doctors who explain the latest political upheavals, the inner narrator repeatedly gets things wrong but rarely, if ever, admits it. And just as the government builds up a national myth with flags, icons and parades, so my inner propaganda machine builds up a personal myth with prized memories and cherished traumas that often bear little resemblance to the truth.

In the age of Facebook and Instagram you can observe this myth-making process more clearly than ever before, because some of it has been outsourced from the mind to the computer. It is fascinating and terrifying to behold people who spend countless hours constructing and embellishing a perfect self online, becoming attached to their own creation, and mistaking it for the truth about themselves.20 That’s how a family holiday fraught with traffic jams, petty squabbles and tense silences becomes a collection of beautiful panoramas, perfect dinners and smiling faces; 99 per cent of what we experience never becomes part of the story of the self.

It is particularly noteworthy that our fantasy self tends to be very visual, whereas our actual experiences are corporeal. In the fantasy, you observe a scene in your mind’s eye or on the computer screen. You see yourself standing on a tropical beach, the blue sea behind you, a big smile on your face, one hand holding a cocktail, the other arm around your lover’s waist. Paradise. What the picture does not show is the annoying fly that bites your leg, the cramped feeling in your stomach from eating that rotten fish soup, the tension in your jaw as you fake a big smile, and the ugly fight the happy couple had five minutes ago. If we could only feel what the people in the photos felt while taking them!

Hence if you really want to understand yourself, you should not identify with your Facebook account or with the inner story of the self. Instead, you should observe the actual flow of body and mind. You will see thoughts, emotions and desires appear and disappear without much reason and without any command from you, just as different winds blow from this or that direction and mess up your hair. And just as you are not the winds, so also you are not the jumble of thoughts, emotions and desires you experience, and you are certainly not the sanitised story you tell about them with hindsight. You experience all of them, but you don’t control them, you don’t own them, and you are not them. People ask ‘Who am I?’ and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.

No story

Liberalism took a radical step in denying all cosmic dramas, but then recreated the drama within the human being – the universe has no plot, so it is up to us humans to create a plot, and this is our vocation and the meaning of our life. Thousands of years before our liberal age, ancient Buddhism went further by denying not just all cosmic dramas, but even the inner drama of human creation. The universe has no meaning, and human feelings too are not part of a great cosmic tale. They are ephemeral vibrations, appearing and disappearing for no particular purpose. That’s the truth. Get over it.

As noted earlier, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us that ‘The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn, its eye the sun … its members the seasons, its joints the months and fortnights, its feet the days and nights, its bones the stars and its flesh the clouds.’ In contrast, the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, a key Buddhist text, explains that when a human meditates, he or she observes the body carefully, noting that ‘In this body, there are hairs of the head, hairs of the skin, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidney, heart … saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid and urine. Thus he dwells observing body … Now his understanding is established: “This is body!”’21 The hairs, bones or urine stand for nothing else. They are just what they are.

In passage after passage the text goes on to explain that no matter what the meditator observes in the body or in the mind, he or she just understands it as it is. Thus when the monk breathes, ‘Breathing in a deep breath, he understands properly “I am breathing in a deep breath.” Breathing in a shallow breath, he understands properly “I am breathing in a shallow breath.”’22 The long breath does not represent the seasons and the short breath does not represent the days. They are just vibrations in the body.

The Buddha taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying. You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind – but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfies you.

Suffering emerges because people fail to appreciate this. They believe that there is some eternal essence somewhere, and if they can only find it and connect to it, they will be completely satisfied. This eternal essence is sometimes called God, sometimes the nation, sometimes the soul, sometimes the authentic self, and sometimes true love – and the more people are attached to it, the more disappointed and miserable they become due to the failure to find it. Worse yet, the greater the attachment, the greater the hatred such people develop towards any person, group or institution that seems to stand between them and their cherished goal.

According to the Buddha, then, life has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning. They just need to realise that there is no meaning, and thus be liberated from the suffering caused by our attachments and our identification with empty phenomena. ‘What should I do?’ ask people, and the Buddha advises: ‘Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ The whole problem is that we constantly do something. Not necessarily on the physical level – we can sit immobile for hours with closed eyes – yet on the mental level we are extremely busy creating stories and identities, fighting battles and winning victories. To really do nothing means that the mind too does nothing and creates nothing.

Unfortunately, this too very easily turns into a heroic epic. Even as you sit with closed eyes and observe the breath coming in and out of the nostrils, you might well start constructing stories about it. ‘My breath is a bit forced, and if I breathe more calmly, I will become more healthy’ or ‘If I just keep observing my breath and do nothing, I will become enlightened, and be the wisest and happiest person in the world.’ Then the epic starts expanding, and people embark on a quest not just to liberate themselves from their own attachments, but also to convince others to do so. Having accepted that life has no meaning, I find meaning in explaining this truth to others, arguing with the unbelievers, giving lectures to the sceptics, donating money to build monasteries, and so on. ‘No story’ can all too easily become just another story.

The history of Buddhism provides a thousand examples of how people who believe in the transience and emptiness of all phenomena, and in the importance of having no attachments, can squabble and fight over the government of a country, the possession of a building, or even the meaning of a word. Fighting other people because you believe in the glory of an eternal God is unfortunate but understandable; fighting other people because you believe in the emptiness of all phenomena is truly bizarre – but so very human.

In the eighteenth century, the royal dynasties of both Burma and neighbouring Siam prided themselves on their devotion to the Buddha, and gained legitimacy by protecting the Buddhist faith. The kings endowed monasteries, built pagodas, and listened every week to learned monks who preached eloquent sermons on the five basic moral commitments of every human being: to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual abuse, deception and intoxication. The two kingdoms nevertheless fought each other relentlessly. On 7 April 1767 the army of the Burmese king Hsinbyushin stormed the capital of Siam, after a long siege. The victorious troops killed, looted, raped and probably also got intoxicated here and there. They then burned down much of the city, with its palaces, monasteries and pagodas, and carried home thousands of slaves and cartloads of gold and jewels.

Not that King Hsinbyushin took his Buddhism lightly. Seven years after his great victory, the king made a royal progression down the great Irrawaddy River, worshipping at the important pagodas on the way, and asking Buddha to bless his armies with more victories. When Hsinbyushin reached Rangoon, he rebuilt and expanded the most sacred structure in all Burma – the Shwedagon Pagoda. He then gilded the enlarged edifice with his own weight in gold, and erected a gold spire on top of the pagoda and studded it with precious gems (perhaps looted from Siam). He also used the occasion to execute the captive king of Pegu, his brother and his son.23 In 1930s Japan, people even found imaginative ways to combine Buddhist doctrines with nationalism, militarism and fascism. Radical Buddhist thinkers such as Nissho Inoue, Ikki Kita and Tanaka Chigaku argued that in order to dissolve one’s egoistic attachments, people should completely give themselves up to the emperor, cut away all personal thinking, and observe total loyalty to the nation. Various ultra-nationalist organisations were inspired by such ideas, including a fanatical military group that sought to overthrow Japan’s conservative political system by a campaign of assassination. They murdered the former finance minister, the director general of the Mitsui corporation, and eventually the prime minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. They thereby speeded up the transformation of Japan into a military dictatorship. When the military then embarked on war, Buddhist priests and Zen meditation masters preached selfless obedience to state authority and recommended self-sacrifice for the war effort. In contrast, Buddhist teachings on compassion and non-violence were somehow forgotten, and had no perceptible influence on the behaviour of Japanese troops in Nanjing, Manila or Seoul.24 Today, the human rights record of Buddhist Myanmar is among the worst in the world, and a Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, leads the anti-Muslim movement in the country. He claims that he only wants to protect Myanmar and Buddhism against Muslim jihadi conspiracies, but his sermons and articles are so inflammatory, that in February 2018 Facebook removed his page, citing its prohibition on hate speech. During a 2017 interview for the Guardian the monk preached compassion for a passing mosquito, but when confronted with allegations that Muslim women have been raped by the Myanmar military he laughed and said ‘Impossible. Their bodies are too disgusting.’25 There is very little chance that world peace and global harmony will come once 8 billion humans start meditating regularly. Observing the truth about yourself is just so difficult! Even if you somehow manage to get most humans to try it, many of us will quickly distort the truth we encounter into some story with heroes, villains and enemies, and find really good excuses to go to war.

The test of reality

Even though all these big stories are fictions generated by our own minds, there is no reason for despair. Reality is still there. You cannot play a part in any make-believe drama, but why would you want to do that in the first place? The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life?’ but rather, ‘how do we get out of suffering?’ When you give up all the fictional stories, you can observe reality with far greater clarity than before, and if you really know the truth about yourself and about the world, nothing can make you miserable. But that is of course much easier said than done.

We humans have conquered the world thanks to our ability to create and believe fictional stories. We are therefore particularly bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality. Overlooking this difference has been a matter of survival for us. If you nevertheless want to know the difference, the place to start is with suffering. Because the most real thing in the world is suffering.

When you are confronted by some great story, and you wish to know whether it is real or imaginary, one of the key questions to ask is whether the central hero of the story can suffer. For example, if somebody tells you the story of the Polish nation, take a moment to reflect whether Poland can suffer. Adam Mickiewicz, the great Romantic poet and the father of modern Polish nationalism, famously called Poland ‘the Christ of nations’. Writing in 1832, after Poland had been partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, and shortly after the Polish uprising of 1830 was brutally crushed by the Russians, Mickiewicz explained that the horrendous suffering of Poland was a sacrifice on behalf of the whole of humanity, comparable to the sacrifice of Christ, and that just like Christ, Poland will rise from the dead.

In a famous passage Mickiewicz wrote that:

Poland said [to the people of Europe], ‘Whosoever will come to me shall be free and equal for I am FREEDOM.’ But the kings, when they heard it, were frightened in their hearts, and they crucified the Polish nation and laid it in its grave, crying out ‘We have slain and buried Freedom.’ But they cried out foolishly … For the Polish Nation did not die … On the Third Day, the Soul shall return to the Body; and the Nation shall arise and free all the peoples of Europe from Slavery.26 Can a nation really suffer? Has a nation eyes, hands, senses, affections and passions? If you prick it, can it bleed? Obviously not. If it is defeated in war, loses a province, or even forfeits its independence, still it cannot experience pain, sadness or any other kind of misery, for it has no body, no mind, and no feelings whatsoever. In truth, it is just a metaphor. Only in the imagination of certain humans is Poland a real entity capable of suffering. Poland endures because these humans lend it their bodies – not just by serving as soldiers in the Polish army, but by incarnating the joys and sorrows of the nation. When in May 1831 news reached Warsaw of the Polish defeat at the battle of Ostrołęka, human stomachs twisted in distress, human chests heaved with pain, human eyes filled with tears.

All that does not justify the Russian invasion, of course, nor does it undermine the right of Poles to establish an independent country and decide their own laws and customs. Yet it does mean that ultimately, reality cannot be the story of the Polish nation, for the very existence of Poland depends on images in human minds.

In contrast, consider the fate of a Warsaw woman who was robbed and raped by the invading Russian troops. Unlike the metaphorical suffering of the Polish nation, the suffering of that woman was very real. It may well have been caused by human beliefs in various fictions, such as in Russian nationalism, in Orthodox Christianity, and in macho heroism, all of which inspired many of the Russian statesmen and soldiers. However, the resulting suffering was still 100 per cent real.

Whenever politicians start talking in mystical terms, beware. They might be trying to disguise and excuse real suffering by wrapping it up in big incomprehensible words. Be particularly careful about the following four words: sacrifice, eternity, purity, redemption. If you hear any of these, sound the alarm. And if you happen to live in a country whose leader routinely says things like ‘Their sacrifice will redeem the purity of our eternal nation’ – know that you are in deep trouble. To save your sanity, always try to translate such hogwash into real terms: a soldier crying in agony, a woman beaten and brutalised, a child shaking in fear.

So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is.

The answer isn’t a story.

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