Gift or Curse?


This is a note to self, a journal of sorts. You might find it relevant too…

This week I started writing an article, but as I got into it, I realised that it didn’t feel right. Something was missing, but I wasn’t sure what. I decided to think on it,  sleep on it, and ‘walk’ on it, and only then was I able to put the article on hold, and pivot onto this one, because something else grabbed my attention.

I realised I’m bad at resting, and I’ve paid the price somewhat in the past few weeks. I don’t think I’m ‘burnt out’ per se, but I feel I’ve come close. This has been a while in the making; many months of suboptimal sleep and irregular nutrition (both physical and mental), many months of spinning plates, juggling projects and ‘multitasking’, many months of trying to do it all at once, too quickly. It’s all led me down a road I now see only leads to one place: existential dread. 

This dread led me to reflect on some words I wrote a little while back. If you’ve ever been to one of my shows, you might recognise or remember these words…

What is it about living that makes one scared to fail?

What is it about failing that makes one scared to live? 

In the end, I’m only human

Born of a woman

But I wish that I could be like a bird in the sky

With no care, and no tears to cry

These words constitute part of the lyrics to Born of a Woman, a song I wrote in dark times in my life. There’s no studio version as of yet, but last year I recorded a live acoustic version as part of a series by a talented filmmaker on the local music scene. Feel free to have a listen and come back for the rest of this post. 

The gist of the song is that, like everyone else, I’m often compelled to contemplate the complexities of life, and this causes me, on occasion, to bemoan my existence and the broader phenomenon that is the human condition. Succinctly put, I sometimes wonder whether life would be easier if I was something other than human, something like a sparrow in the sky or an eel in the sea. 

The answer may sound like a no-brainer; it may seem obvious, but it isn’t to me. I find that the human condition is both a gift and a curse. On one hand, our complex cognitive abilities have enabled us to achieve impressive feats. We’ve built complex societies, we’ve advanced civilisation, we’ve furthered scientific and technological innovations and discoveries, and as Yuval Noah Harari posits in his bestselling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, we’ve conjured intangible myths and stories that are unimaginable to other species, which serve as the basis for our cooperation, innovation and progress. Things like money and monetary systems, law and legal jurisdictions, national constitutions and business corporations, are concepts that only exist in our collective minds. The manifestations of these entities are all around us and thus inescapable to the point that it is all too easy to forget that they are all products of our imagination. This is partly what makes them – and  humans – so impressive; the fact that they exist because humans will them so, and the fact that humans have cognitive abilities so advanced that we can conjure up such entities to begin with. 

Impressive as our cognitive abilities are, there is a flip side. The ‘gift’ of the human cognition that has driven our progress as a species, has also come to manifest as a ‘curse’. Our complex abilities have made us prone to overthinking, worrying about things we can’t change, and fretting over future possibilities that may never come, futures that may be unlikely, logically implausible, or physically impossible.

This is what drives me, in the first part of the song, to contemplate whether I’d be better off if I was of a different species, say the flying, wing-flapping variety. Now, I don’t know what it would be like to be a bird, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe that they worry about future eventualities. I can’t imagine that birds worry about a stock market crash, or live under the prospects of impending doom. Birds, I imagine,  live from day to day, prioritising the things that are essential for their survival: find food, seek shelter, migrate to more suitable climates with the seasons, mate, feed the young, don’t get eaten, find food, seek shelter, and so on ad infinitum.

I recognise that it is somewhat reductive to think of birds (and other species) as simpletons. It is perhaps a mark of human hubris to believe that we are the most advanced species on the planet and that we’re smarter than all the others, when we’re only just beginning to discover the features, and understand the extent of the brilliance that other species possess. Things like echolocation, magnetic field navigation, and weather prediction, are features that are regularly practised by other species. These are impressive abilities that telegraph the cognitive complexities of these species, yet we tend to view the phenomenon of intelligence through the human lens out of convenience or ignorance, or both. Some marine life navigate deep waters using echolocation, some birds seem to predict natural disasters, some species embark en masse on annual migrations that we can’t even begin to dream of, and some cephalopods (like the octopus) exhibit traits that are just alien to us. And yet, we rarely include, or rather, predictably omit these features from the calculus when we consider what it means for a species to be intelligent, complex or advanced.  

I also recognise that birds and other species do engage in forward planning that we don’t give them enough credit for. Some species live their lives around the prevailing seasons in their habitats. They plan for hibernation, storing up food in the warmer months when the bounty is plentiful and saving them up for the colder months when conditions are dire, they choose when to make treacherous sojourns that ensure the survival and proliferation of their species, and as stated earlier, they know just when to up and leave an area that’s about to be decimated by a natural disaster. This takes planning, forward-thinking, and at least a measure of cognition that may be at par with, or perhaps even superior to ours. That said, as far as we know and understand, non-human species are not given to the sort of navel-gazing that is emblematic of the human species. We are the unfortunate experts in this regard. Not only do we plan for (and worry about) negative eventualities (like getting eaten by a bear), we also worry about the things our active imaginations are able to conjure, and a lot of these things range from the unlikely to the impossible. The question is why, and my answer is, I wish I knew. 

Posing questions that I don’t have answers to isn’t all that helpful, but then again this isn’t an advice column, nor is it a self-help panel. I suppose there is a self-help component, insofar as the exercise of ruminating and cogitating on my thoughts can only be performed by me, and may turn out (on occasion) to be helpful to me. In this vein, permit me to ask another question I can’t pose definitive answers to. This question comes from the second part of Born of a Woman

What is it about trying that makes one scared to fail?

What is it about failing that makes one scared to try?

In the end, I’m only human

Born of a woman

But sometimes I wish that I could soar in the sky

With no care, and no tears to cry

If you’re like most people, it’s likely that there are so many things you’ve wanted to do that you haven’t done, for fear of failing. The fear of failing is perhaps the single most unfortunate (and greatest) inhibitor to a life well lived. But why is this the case? Even after recognising and acknowledging that this fear is irrational, why am I still held back from doing the things I should be doing, by some voice in the back of my mind telling me it’s not worth trying because I won’t succeed? I often wonder whether other species are plagued by this.

When a dog – let’s call her Fifi the pomeranian – sights some wondrous human food (like pizza) on the dinner table and begins to salivate at the prospects of munching on that doughy, cheesy, aromatic goodness that has no doubt occupied her nostrils and overwhelmed her olfactory senses, does she stop and think, there's no use going for it, I won’t be able to get in on the action? Does Fifi make up reasons to hold herself back from going for a pizza slice? Does she say, my human will tell me off, or I can’t jump high enough to reach the table, or the slice is too big to fit in my mouth? Does Fifi make up even more reasons to convince herself that the slice isn’t worth going for to begin with, like saying she won’t even enjoy it as much as she has imagined, or she’s better off with the dry kibble that will appear in her dog bowl after her human has had her own pizza dinner? Again, I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the answer to these questions is a resounding no. I suspect that Fifi sees (or smells) something she wants, something she believes is good for her, and just goes for it sans fear of failure, consequences be damned.

I feel the need to acknowledge that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we have a cognitive filter that enables us to stop and contemplate the potential ramifications of our actions rather than instinctively acting on impulse. For instance, the carpe diem approach that enables Fifi to go for the pizza slice may sometimes do her more harm than good; the cheesy goodness may turn out to be too much goodness, leading to diarrhoea, or worse. Through this lens, Fifi may not be able to contemplate or fully comprehend the implications of her actions, but we can, thankfully. Still, I have to wonder where the line is, between planning for likely eventualities and worrying about improbable scenarios, between self-preservation and self-sabotage, and between life-saving caution and mind-crippling anxiety. 

Perhaps I’d worry less if I were a bird. Perhaps I'd seize the day more often if I were a dog. Perhaps life would be simpler if I were a fish. But would I be happier? I’m not sure, and I’ll never know. What I do know is that I’m human, and I have to embrace my human existence with all its flaws, foibles and quirks. More so, I've come to believe that I'm worthy of my existence not in spite of my flaws, but because of them. My flaws, it turns out, are the things that make me, me. This is the only existence I’ve got and I have to live it to the fullest. When I think about it, it’s not so bad either. Sure, I’m plagued with worry and anxiety, but I also get to do things that are pretty cool. I can make art. I can dump words on paper (or screen) and communicate ideas to people all across the globe. I can make up words and sounds, reproduce these ‘soundful’ words while plucking nylon strings affixed to a wooden contraption, and capture this moment to be made available for consumption anywhere and anytime, for all of posterity. All of this is made possible by millennia and millennia of human cooperation. I think this is pretty cool, and we shouldn’t take it lightly. 

So, on the question of whether my human condition is a gift or a curse, maybe it’s both, and that’s okay. I’ve come to accept, and be thankful for my existence, flaws and all.

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