Chapter 10. Humans are survival machines — why we suffer the way we do
Humans are survival machines.
All living beings are.
We’re desire machines, but out of all our desires, our main desire is to survive. It’s our main instinct.
We’ve evolved to survive.
We’re wired to survive.
And just to be clear survival isn’t just about our lives. It’s not just about living another day. It’s about the survival of our genes. It’s about our genes continuing to live on through our future generations.
The desire for survival is a desire for a part of us to live on forever.
In the past, survival meant staying alive long enough to have kids and raise them until they could survive on their own.
But today, due to the advent of agriculture, the concept of survival has changed, at least for most of us.
In the past, back when we were only preoccupied with our survival, when we were hunting and gathering, when survival took up all of our time and energy, we used to ask ourselves: What do we want? What are we doing here? What are we supposed to do? What’s our purpose or meaning?
And the answer was simple: to survive, to live.
Today, we say: ok, we don’t have to worry about dying today, now what?
Now what do we want? What are we supposed to do now? What’s our purpose or meaning?
When we’re young it’s to do well in school or to be popular. And then it’s to get into a good college, get a good job, get a promotion, get married, have kids. It’s to become rich, powerful, and famous, or to cultivate meaningful relationships, or to change the world.
If you look closely, we’re still just trying to survive — it’s just that survival is less about life and death, and more about survival within our society.
We, as a society, have created and operate within a facade of survival.
Doing well in school or becoming popular is supposed to help us survive in society. So is going to a good college, getting a good job, and making money. We’re taught that if we don’t make enough money, then we won’t be able to afford food and a place to live, and then we’ll die.
Amassing power is part of our instinct to stockpile resources to better survive. Or we amass power because we want to live on through our legacy. We want to be remembered. That’s why we have funerals, cemeteries, and headstones.
Or we want to survive by helping others. Helping others survive helps us survive. But more than that, we want to make a dent by making a difference in other’s lives, because by affecting their lives, we become a part of them.
And that’s why we suffer the way we do.
Back then, we still suffered.
But we suffered differently. Our suffering was more simple.
All we felt was the base level of dissatisfaction that kept us surviving.
We were thirsty, hungry, and scared. We were worried about where our next meal would come from or whether we would make it through the day alive.
And satisfying our desire to survive by actually surviving was the ultimate reward in itself. We got to live another day.
But also, as our main desire, our main instinct, surviving gave us the ultimate sense of satisfaction.
Today, nothing can give us that ultimate sense of satisfaction that survival used to give us.
Nothing we do can measure up because it’s all a facade.
We’re not truly trying to survive. We’re just trying to survive within the facade that we’ve created in our society. So, nothing we achieve is ever going to measure up to the satisfaction that true survival gives us.
But more than that, nothing can measure up because that itch is already being scratched.
We’re already surviving. We already know that we’re not going to go hungry. We don’t have to worry about being mauled to death by a wild animal. Or about dying from a simple bacterial infection.
And that’s why we suffer we do — it’s why we suffer in general but also why trying to diminish or end our suffering only perpetuates it.
We suffer because we’re trying to scratch this existential itch by scratching this other societal facade of itches, even though the itch can’t be scratched because it’s already being scratched.
And we perpetuate our suffering because when we try to diminish or end our suffering, we just end up going deeper into the facade.
And this also explains why everything is and isn’t equally valuable.
Within the facade, everything isn’t equally valuable.
Since we’re wired to survive, feeling like we’re surviving is more valuable than feeling like we aren’t.
But step outside the facade, and as long as we’re surviving, everything is equally valuable.
Because we’re trying to answer a question that’s already been answered.
What do we want? What are we doing here? What are we supposed to do? What’s our purpose or meaning?
The answer is and has always been: to survive, to live.
To be human, to be a living being, is about survival. It’s about life and death.
And as a survival machine, as long as we’re alive, the rest doesn’t really matter. Any experience is better than no experience. Any moment is better than no moment. Any emotion is better than no emotion.