Is there a name for the deep hunger for evidence that we actually exist? “I think, therefore I am” is a pretty flimsy reassurance. Every character we write believes that they think; every character we write believes that they are. It feels all too likely sometimes that we’re just Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense, suddenly noticing that we aren’t here and never were. We crave evidence – evidence that there is an “I” that can be, evidence that there are thoughts separable from background noise, evidence that the world is in some way measurably different than it would be if we were not here. We can only seek within our perception for proof of our existence, though: What measurements can we meaningfully take when every data point is filtered through a suspect perception?
It’s a need without a name. Not quite social, since the evidence needn’t come from other people, but one often fed by friends and family. Not quite self-fulfillment, since in many ways it doesn’t actually matter if the role we play is one we particularly enjoy. It isn’t recognition because the only person whose perspective matters on it is ourselves. It isn’t a craving for power, though power is often necessary to fulfill it. Where does it come from? A multi-millennia old optimization, ensuring that if we don’t play a vital role in constructing our environment we slowly come to feel apart from it and unwelcome within it.
Why does it feel like so many are left hungering, looking for any evidence that their life, body, and mind, are tangible?
This craving always existed but it has also been fostered. We always wanted to be valued, to contribute, but the cultural narratives we are given of what work has worth and who can contribute has been constrained to a terribly narrow slice, defined in capitalistic terms of ceaseless and blind growth and ambition. To truly exist becomes defined as achieving success, and achieving success is measured by generation of profit. We are told that it is not just an opportunity but an obligation for us to make a difference. We are told stories of great men who shaped the world instead of the stories of good people who improved it. We are told to work hard, to make money, that the only way to feel like we exist is to produce value – though, in the end. we keep little of the value that we have produced.
There is, in each of us, a craving to be part of something greater than ourselves. There is also, in each of us, a craving to stand out, be seen, to be an individual. There is a fear that we are disconnected; there is also a fear that we are replaceable. And we spend our lives seeking some way to balance these cravings and these fears.
Different cultures push further towards one or the other of these as a norm. While elsewhere there is greater emphasis on defining yourself on being part of a family or community, here in the USA we tend to push way over towards the individualistic side, to be unique and to be seen, to tell ourselves that until we’re somebody we’re nobody. There’s a huge drive to distinguish ourselves in some way, to become singular, outstanding. Being the best at something is a common desire but is just one obvious path. There are many paths to individuality, and as many lead to infamy as lead to fame.
In our stories, we create conflicts between characters, between individuals. Often their motivations are entirely personal: Greed, jealousy, anger, fear. Rarely, though, do we explore where greed comes from, where jealousy and anger and fear are created – perhaps, at best, the proximate cause, the slight or the insult or the disappointment, but extremely rarely the characters’ cultural understanding that the right way to respond to these infractions is with revenge, with conflict, with violence. This, perhaps counter-intuitively, becomes even more true as the media becomes more prestigious: High art is rarely concerned with why things are, only that they are. It is concerned with the specifics of trauma and violence and lust, and never with the underpinnings of where these emotions are seeded. It is concerned with the individual, and not with the society they emerged from.
All this is exemplified by and to some degree stems from the prime edict of ‘good’ writing: Show, don’t tell. Show the characters’ internal lives, don’t tell what gave rise to them. Show the sex and violence, the immediate and visceral interaction, without attempting to impart any understanding of where the desires towards intercourse or physical harm emerge. These are just human nature, right? Right??
Lust and violence, urges to power and protect, love and hate, these are all part of our species-wide heritage – that much is undeniably true. However, the form that these take, the things we come to lust after or hate, hurt or protect, are shaped by the culture they exist within. But ‘good’ art is not allowed to question these, because that would be telling – not showing. We are concerned with only the proximate cause and effect, and never the long chains of systemic causes and effects that lead to them. So every villain in our stories is on trial for war crimes, saying over and over that they were just following orders – and we never stop to wonder who gave the orders in the first place.