The reason the Internet is filled with endless debates over what people should eat, is because it’s the only thing most people have any degree of control over. You control what goes into your mouth, but for most people that’s where it ends.
Most people spend their days doing jobs where they have zero ability to meaningfully influence the course of the world. When I go to donate blood, the phlebotomists there will have received a decent training, but they decide exactly nothing. They don’t even decide which arm to puncture, they ask you which one you want. Even someone as educated as a surgeon doesn’t decide anything. If he meaningfully influences the course of your life we call it a medical error, it means he did his job wrong.
In theory a human being has tremendous power to influence the world. If you live in Sudan and really don’t like Egypt, you could divert the course of the Nile. You could gather a bunch of people together, start digging a canal to the Red Sea, you could dump a bunch of concrete rubble into the Nile and you would turn Egypt into a barren lifeless desert like Libya in the process.
But in practice, you control nothing. You live your life, you die and you haven’t changed the world for better or worse. There is no city named after you, no dam, no street, even your grave takes up so much space that your remains will probably be dug up after a few years. You live in a concrete block, on top of another concrete block. That concrete block has the bare essentials you need as an individual to survive. You probably can’t even afford to have a plot of land behind your door to call your own, where you can determine the vegetation.
A beaver has the drive, the desire, to change the course of events in his environment in a particular manner. He wants to build a dam. He sees water flowing somewhere, he wants to intervene in it. He starts chewing through trees until they collapse, then he drags them towards the river, where he pushes them together, until dirt accumulates. It’s what he wants to do from the core of his essence and he can go about it with no significant disturbance.
I on the other hand, would be stopped the moment I start chewing on a tree. And yet, as a human being, my desire to intervene in world events extends far beyond a stream flowing somewhere in the woods. Human beings see things happening elsewhere in the world and want to influence them. They see Israel dropping bombs on Gaza and they want to change this. They’re emotionally invested in this, so they cover the city in stickers that say “Free Palestine”.
They have this inner drive, to meaningfully influence the imagery they see on their TV. But they have zero influence on it. This is perhaps the biggest problem with democracy, how it leaves everyone under the impression that we have some genuine ability to change the course of events. In reality, we have no such power. This lack of power is a profound source of distress, especially because it is contradicted by our culture, which constantly suggests that we do have the ability to decide things.
But it’s even stranger than that. The politicians don’t really decide things either. Consider the invasion of Ukraine. We treat Putin as this powerful tyrant who decides things. But if you read carefully about what happened, it’s clear that essentially the whole circle around Putin wanted this invasion. So what meaningful ability did Putin have, to decide whether or not to invade Ukraine?
In the past, your mind was mainly occupied by things you had some degree of influence on. What happened in Palestine, was a subject of vague rumors. Today you can follow every single rocket as it flies through the air. And yet you’re completely powerless to influence it.
It’s this powerlessness to meaningfully influence anything outside ourselves, that makes us obsessed about ourselves. Powerful men tend to grow fat and bald, because they have other things to control than their body. But powerlessness makes the narcissistic impulse move inwards. You can endlessly try to improve yourself, or try to stave off aging. And the less control you have over your outside world, the more attractive it becomes to micromanage your own world, from every pore on your nose you can cleanse of dirt, to every muscle in your body that you can improve.
In the past, aging was more acceptable to people, because your sense of self expanded to include other people. If you live in a town full of people genetically related to you, then as your hair falls out and your prostate balloons, you can take comfort in the idea that you can still help them thrive. But in today’s society, there isn’t really such a sense of community anymore, so your sense of self can’t properly expand anymore either.
There’s this peculiar observation made throughout the ages, that during wartime, people’s mental health improves:
War breaks out and suddenly people feel as if their lives have meaning. If I look at the Netherlands today, the sad truth is really that I’m just looking at a society overdue for a civil war. There are more people here than there is physical space for them.
War allows you to shake things up. During a war, you suddenly decide things. Don’t like a building? Have fun complaining to the municipal council, where a skinnyfat balding guy with glasses will ignore your complaints. Don’t like a building during wartime? Blow it up. After the second world war was over, the Dutch government essentially just stole a whole island from a German aristocrat, because they could.
Men grow addicted to war. Almost all the problems we experience today can be traced to this lack of conflict we have experienced in the nuclear era. If the Cuban missile crisis had resulted in a nuclear exchange, our world would have recovered by now from the environmental impact. But our brief era of exponential growth and relative peace, culminated in global warming that will last for at least a hundred thousand years to come.
And even stranger, Germany has recovered from the rapist Bolshevik horde, Eastern Europe has recovered from the hunger plan. There is once again an independent Polish nation between Russia and Germany. But for London, seventy years of peace proved fatal. After seventy years of peace, Brussels no longer looks like Brussels. Seventy years of peace did to Paris, what five years of German occupation could not.
People often ask themselves, what the British troops in world war II ever fought for. But it’s the wrong question to ask. We know what they fought for. It’s the same thing the British have been fighting the Germans, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Italians, the Turks and the Russians over for generations. They didn’t fight for democracy, for freedom, or for human rights. The British fought for Britain. These wars made us what we became. The much more important question to ask ourselves is: What did we stop fighting for?