The Origins of Modern Sadness


Sadness. It comes and goes because, well, that's the stuff life is made of. If I tell you cavemen were as sad as today's millennial I'd be lying to you, though. Never in history humans have had it so good in terms of potential for prosperity as they do today. Never in history have humans offed or medicated themselves so ferociously as in our time, though. Has material wealth brought ennui with itself as a diamond incrusted yet poisoned chalice? Has the apple from the evil witch reached humanity's Snow White era? It's all on your screen.


When Korzybski came up with the map and territory relation something deep changed in the metaphorical realm of existence. For the first time, humans had at the reach of their fingertips an illustration of how the mechanics of Being in the world could be explained. Let me break it for you as easy as it gets: out there is the territory and inside your mind there's a map. Therefore, the perception we have of reality isn't reality but a guide of it: what it is, how it feels and smells, what sounds it makes, what does it mean, where is it, etc. As conscious, self-aware, mortal and value-loaded entities, though, humans always want/ask more... yet are bound by the limits of their biology, their finitude first and foremost. That is, human perception has been the same for ages, at least since critical changes in their biology took place for the last time. What has changed is how their intelligence and ambition have led them to refine their cartographic skills: to make better maps.


Tens of thousands of years ago, the caveman had the same perceptual reach as the millennial scumbag of today. Two eyes, two ears, ten fingers, and so on and so forth. It lacked perceptual tools and aids, though, so it closed the gap between himself and the territory by virtue of empiricism and rituals. The caveman wasn't stupid. He just tried his best with what he had to make sense of the world and himself. Here's a pretty rough example: when someone had fever, achy body, and sneezed, the caveman said that person had evil spirits and, thus, nobody should come near. Was he wrong? Well, it achieved the same purpose of today's knowledge that fever, achy body, and sneezing are symptoms of a cold, and it's better to stay away from that person while his immune system kicks the cold's butt unless, of course, you want to get the cold too. Do you follow? This is a very rough example, of course, but it illustrates what I'm trying to convey.


While these "bridges" the primitive man built appear ludicrous to our modern eyes, they fulfilled two fundamental goals: first, they mapped the world in order to navigate it as successfully as possible, and, second, they served humans to grasp, consciously or unconsciously, the overbearing reality of their smallness, i.e. they lent a deep meaning to their worldview as to what their limits are. When the immediacy of death and the fragility of existence are always at the tip of one's tongue, the value of what one creates with words becomes a continuous celebration of life. This is what poets mean when they say that one should live as if it was the last day. Are you following me? Very well. So, what happened with time? The map design skills got better.


Now, don't get me wrong: the perception remained the same. Remember the biological constraints? Yup, humans did not become smarter. It's just that the cumulative knowledge (being longer on earth through writing and the like) allowed for problem solving to pass from one generation to the next. Solutions weren't passed by oral means anymore but the new humans looked at the notes of dead humans and started where the last ones left it. This Enlightenment thing isn't very old, remember. Humans really kicked off seriously just a couple of hundred years ago, if you take a step back and look at it coldly. So, if a crappy map is false, as it represents badly the territory, what happens when a map is perfect? What happens if your map is 1:1 scale of the territory? Well, the map is useless.


Today, you swipe up on your phone screen and the hard facts of the territory are there for you. Everything your curiosity can crave in terms of data: measurements, definitions, dates, numbers, you name it. It is all there. The map got almost perfect. And with its perfection... it became useless. Who needs a 1:1 reproduction of the territory? It covers it all. Going to one place of the map in one's perception is going to the territory itself. Remember the two purposes of the map? One, to navigate the world as successfully as possible, and, two, to remain aware of human finitude and fragility. That's the frontier of human self-awareness. Now, that the objective world is fully mapped, at least for the everyday practical purposes of the average man, tomorrow's man has thrown the baby with the bathwater. The rituals, which were part of the ancient map, went to the trash bin and, with them, went the meaning of life. A world of objects, perfectly mapped objects, is neat, like a 1:1 map... but it will not provide answers to questions of values, of meaning and purpose.


When the caveman grabbed the bones of his ancestors and built his home around them, that act in itself was pregnant with meaning and eventually overflowed with purpose. It was an act of objectively navigating the world (building one's dwelling) but it also imbued the existence of the caveman, and his descendants, with something deeper. It symbolized the importance of honoring the sacrifice that those preceding the caveman made to nurture and protect the coming generation, exemplifying the purpose of spreading one's genes. It ritualized tradition, survival, cooperation, and sacrifice, drawing lines beyond the scribbled sheet of paper of a single individual's mortal coil.


Examples like this abound. It's a paradox. That one of modernity. Our perception is aided by 1:1 maps of a territory yet we have disposed of the rituals that help decide which path to take on the territory. And, with that absent, meaning and purpose have dried out. Enter sadness.