SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - The Ancient Art of Stayin' Alive
Like disco, but with more blood.
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
A shaking urgency, like ten cups of cold brew, ripples through you; the increasing speed of your heart rate makes your body feel more like an object than a self; your mind constricts and your thoughts narrow like a wild dog’s stare locked on a single zebra out of 800 other moving bodies; a you that’s not quite you searches through itself for the kind of cruelty that lies deep in the swamp of our selves.
The gaudy sports car that tested your brakes zips away to what you hope is an early and deserved death, but your rage remains.
The reasons—like speeding metal machines on the road and disembodied anti-social interactions online—might be different today, but the rage remains. Our anger is not new; it lives in the oldest part of our brain, the part that made decisions about saber-tooth tigers and enemy tribes.
Anger isn’t an accident. The burning emotion that bubbles up when we feel threatened—whether that threat is real or not—is there by design. When flight turns to fight, we react with the same ancient energy as wolves defending their young.
We organize society around our desperate wish to escape the ugly stain of our animalistic roots, but rage remains. We argue and theorize that aggression is merely a malfunction of bad social structures, that if we only organized our society differently, the ugliness of anger would melt away, leaving only civilized understanding and discourse behind.
Yet, at 10 weeks old, even your own infant is stained by the ancient roots of rage, able to discern between sad and angry expressions. So much for that crucial tabula rasa meant to beget utopia.
Our anger is not always justified, but it is always available.
Accepting that this world gave you a tool to fight for survival—a phrase that was literal for most of our history—is an icky process with a shining reward. We might convince ourselves we have nothing but the number of limbs left in common with those savage versions of ourselves for which murder, hunting, and rape were as banal a part of life as your office job, but this fantasy does no one but our ego any favors.
We ignore the reality of a still brutal world where beheadings, gang rape, and cannibalizing your enemies is only an ideology away (tune in next week) at a cost.
Denying the ancient roots of our anger only makes us more vulnerable to its dangers.
You’re not you on rage.
When you feel threatened, all those fancy, civilized human traits like rationality, compassion, and objectivity evaporate. Survival supersedes accuracy.
In anger, our brains do what they’ve done for eternity: identify and eradicate threats. In the information age, the threats and our attacks don’t fit that ancient framework seamlessly.
Acting from anger means wielding short term tools against long term problems.
The term “blind anger” holds truth. Anger changes our perspective, which then changes our actions. Research has shown that, even when the anger-inducing event doesn’t directly affect you, the anger you feel about that event will.
After the attacks on 9/11, anger about the event purposely stoked during an experiment changed people’s perception of risk for terrorism and even for mundane events, like catching the flu. Our anger was never designed to deal with global events and national politics.
Hearing about corruption in government still elicits the response meant for fighting the snakes you find in the grass, not in a political office.
When acting from anger, whether against a predator or a politician (I know, I know), the change in your thinking will only help you against the former. Blind cruelty, overconfidence in your chances of victory, careless thought patterns, and over-eagerness to act are powerful tools that anger offers against ancient, immediate threats like physical danger.
When it comes to surviving in society, the tools of anger—a stronger desire to blame and punish, a thirst for harsher punishment, and a reduction in rational thinking—become tools of destruction against only ourselves.
The angered self that replaces our usual self doesn’t live in the civilized future we’re aiming for, but in the primitive past we’re attempting to escape.
Behind all the screens and social norms are the very same humans that, in another place or time, would just as quickly cheer at the execution of their fellow villagers as you would at a concert. Your biology is no different today than it was six centuries ago; the quick-beating heart and the bitter rage remain.
The only separation between you and a pitchfork-wielding, witch-burning villager is the choice you make to express those ancient impulses.
There is no shortage of reasons to feel anger and there is no shortage of anger within you to feel. The risk of ancient anger in a modern world comes from treating modern threats like archaic monsters, seeking instant and intense relief from threats that are much more complex—and much more dangerous—than snakes hiding in tall grass.
Do you like your life?
Is there something beautiful in the light of each new day? Do you feel a pull towards life itself, like a bond that keeps you tethered to even the most boring parts of every day? As though, amid all the struggle, unpredictability, and suffering, the question of whether to give up on a game you will eventually be forced to quit never sticks in your head for too long?
And if life isn’t so beautiful, if life is as ugly, meaningless, and painful as you believe it is, why are you still in it?
As self-aware animals with the gift of vividly imagining the ways we can suffer, the question of why we don’t preemptively opt-out of life’s hardships isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem. Sure, maybe your day-to-day life doesn’t make you want to kill yourself, but even when we face the pain of losing a loved one or losing all our limbs, we keep on living.
What kind of animal knows it will suffer and eventually die, yet stubbornly continues on toward that suffering and death?
The animal that survives.
By Jenna Barton
I wasn’t always a fan of Schopenhauer. The first of Schopenhauer’s words I read belonged to one of his sexist musings about the “weaker sex” and their inability to be rational. Naturally, I irrationally judged the entirety of his work by his irrational judgment of women.
The battle of the sexes transcends even time.
Lest I deny myself the discoveries of the world because the humans that did the discovering were flawed, I decided I wouldn’t take to heart the gender critiques of a man who never married and lived out his life alone in a Frankfurt apartment with a dog the neighborhood children renamed Mrs. Schopenhauer.
My reward for granting Schopenhauer the right to be wrong was the surprise of discovering a philosophy that teaches the very compassion I needed to read him.
With a face like that, who wouldn’t mind being called the weaker sex?
When we choose to get out of bed, to go to work, to pursue our passions, to love others, to eat and sleep—we choose life. The person who isn’t sure about whether they will choose life often neglects to make these smaller choices. They oversleep or don’t sleep enough, they don’t eat well, they don’t have interests, let alone the drive to pursue them.
We often call people with a lack of interest in life depressed—a condition that can culminate in the ultimate expression of disinterest in life—suicide.
A lot of existential philosophy circles around this one morbid question: why live?
Every minute of every day is another chance to decide life simply isn’t worth the trouble. And yet, you choose—again and again—to stay. Schopenhauer tried to explain the insanity of staying alive while knowing you’ll face misery after misery, only working up to the grand finale of death, with a single word:
We need it, we joke about losing it, and there’s more to it than the name implies: the will to live. Schopenhauer’s answer to why the hell we haven’t all killed ourselves was simply the will to live. Or more poetically from the direct German translation: the will to life.
No matter how miserable and how conscious of the world’s horrors we may be, our will to life keeps us living.
The way Old Schopie talks about the will to life makes it sound less like sweet magic of the soul and more like a curse placed upon us by nature. That dark sorceress named Nature, embedding within us an undeniable urge to push forward and create the world.
The will to live is so deeply embedded within us we rarely bother to question why we choose to live.
Why do anything? Why pursue relationships knowing they will bring pain? Why pursue career goals knowing there are only new pursuits lurking behind each success? Why buy a home knowing you’ll only feel the need to remodel it and fill it with an infinite stream of constantly updating items?
Just like the salmon admirably and idiotically swims against the stream and into the clutches of a bear every season, we too press forward against struggle and death.
Yet, the salmon doesn’t rebel against the stream and go backpacking cross-country instead. Only humans have the unique ability to become aware of the will that drives us and lose ourselves in rumination or subvert it for good.
If living for nothing more than the sake of living sounds depressing, you now understand Schopenhauer’s fascination with the persistence of our existence. Just like salmon braving death and gravity for nothing more than a one-stream stand, humans live in a constant state of striving punctuated by brief moments of relief. No, not happiness, just relief; to Schopenhauer, humans are doomed to crave and covet, only to swap old suffering for new suffering with every goal we achieve.
For being a serious and sharp-tongued 1800s philosopher, Schopenhauer embraced the Buddhist concept of life as suffering like any paisley-wearing 1960s psychonaut.
Suffering stems from insufficiency, and all beings, from plants to people, live lives of perpetual striving to fulfill that insufficiency. Whether it’s a flower turning towards the sunlight or you turning towards the dessert in your kitchen, as soon as we get what we crave, a new craving takes its place.
What sounds like a condemnation to meaningless monotony is actually the precious magic of life. Without this endless striving, there is no will to life; without the will to life, there is no life.
The will to life is within every living thing, pushing it naively forward in a world that will only consume it in time. That’s the beauty in our suffering—it’s our suffering.
The will to life is a miserable curse of insatiability embedded within every being; you know how the salmon feels just readily as you know how the bear feels.
We may be unable to understand even the most basic choices other people make, but there is one thing we know about every person: they too carry the same burden of endless striving to survive that you do.
Remembering that every human you see is struggling under the weight of their merciless will to life is an emergency entrance into compassion for even the most unlikable person.
“Such a person who recognizes his own inner and true self in every being, must also regard the endless suffering of all living things as his own, and therefore must take upon himself the pain of the whole world.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer
Detail from Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli - Robert de Flers, lithographies de Alphonse Mucha - 1897
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.