I was walking with a friend recently and we got talking about insomnia, about how strange it is that you can’t fall asleep when you’re meant to, which is one of the most basic functions of an animal. And yet so many of us (myself included) struggle to fall asleep, and if we could just let our minds rest and stop thinking, we’d be able to. I mentioned to my friend the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote extensively on insomnia, having suffered intensely from it (see my article on how sleeplessness influenced his life and ideas for The Partially Examined Life blog). Cioran actually thought insomnia defined the human animal. As he said in On the Heights of Despair (1934):
The importance of insomnia is so colossal that I am tempted to define man as the animal that cannot sleep. Why call him a rational animal when other animals are equally reasonable? But there is not another animal in the entire creation that wants to sleep yet cannot.
This got me thinking about the broader theme of humans struggling to fulfil basic needs and functions because of our human nature. I asked my friend if he could think of any other examples of this, and said, “sex”, because of performance anxiety. What other animal struggles with sex because they’re worried about how they’re going to perform or how they’re performing? Other animals don’t wrestle with anxiety that frustrates basic needs and wants, at least not in the way we do. Someone in the comment section for my article on Cioran wrote: “For the record, we’re also the animal that tries to shit, and can’t.” However, we’re certainly not the only animal that gets constipated, so I won’t add that one to my list of unmet human needs.
It is true that domesticated pets do have issues of unmet needs, but a lot of this is to do with the fact that while they’re domesticated, keeping them in the home doesn’t mean natural needs aren’t being thwarted (see this piece in Aeon from bioethicist Jessica Pierceon on whether dogs would be better off without us). Nonetheless, I would argue that the unmet needs I have in mind, like sleep and sex, are distinctly human. I’m not thinking of the unmet needs that result from impoverished material conditions (a lack of food, clothing, shelter, etc.) but those that arise irrespective of our material conditions — those that arise from human psychology, or what it means to be human.
The human is the animal that yearns: we desire strongly what is difficult or impossible to obtain. The German term for this experience is Sehnsucht. It is a painful longing for something, the attainment of which seems hopeless, uncertain, or distant. Psychologists use the term to describe intense desires for ideal states of life that are remote or unattainable. Psychologists don’t use it to refer to the basic functions of sleep and sex I have mentioned; Sehnsuct (life longings) tends to refer more to our search for ideal states of happiness and meaning, and the way we struggle to cope with losses, unrealisable wishes, and facets of life that are incomplete or imperfect. Nevertheless, I believe Sehnsucht is a useful term to describe other unmet human needs, which likewise arise from our inherent psychological makeup, and which are either difficult or impossible to obtain. I’d now like to touch on some examples that came to mind (although I’m sure there are many more).
The hedgehog’s dilemma, also called the porcupine dilemma, is a metaphor that encapsulates the human struggle for intimacy. Humans are like hedgehogs in a cold winter who move closer to each other to share heat, but the closer they get, the more they prick each other with their sharp spines. So they must remain apart to avoid harming each other, despite the discomfort of coldness they have to face as a result.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer used this metaphor to describe the challenge that an individual encounters in how they should best relate to others in society. Despite our intentions of goodwill towards others, we cannot be intimate with others without incurring mutual harm, thus creating an outcome of cautious behaviour and weakly intimate relationships. This a compromise that leaves our need for truly close intimacy unmet. As Schopenhauer writes in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851):
One cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart. Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they had discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the need for society which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart. The mean distance which they finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners. Whoever does not keep to this, is told in England to ‘keep his distance.’ By virtue thereof, it is true that the need for mutual warmth will be only imperfectly satisfied, but on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt. Yet whoever has a great deal of internal warmth of his own will prefer to keep away from society in order to avoid giving or receiving trouble or annoyance.
Sigmund Freud would come to draw on this metaphor from Schopenhauer, thus resulting in the phenomenon entering the world of psychology (Freud kept a small metal porcupine on his desk in the study of his London home, now the Freud Museum). In a footnote to his 1921 work Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud remarked that Schopenhauer’s metaphor illustrated what he called the “sediment of feelings of aversion and hostility” that arise when we try to commit to a long-lasting human relationship. Freud struggled with questions about intimacy: How much is too much? How much intimacy is necessary for our survival and flourishing? How can crave and reject intimacy at the same time? Indeed, it is common (perhaps just not realised, expressed, or introspected upon) that there are people in our lives who we intermittently want to embrace and reject. Interestingly (as a side note), George Prochnik suggests in a piece for Cabinet Magazine:
Freud may, then, have kept the true basis for his fascination with porcupines secret from his followers because exposing it would have meant conceding a familiarity with Schopenhauer, thereby contracting the boundaries of his own originality — and, perhaps, revealing the limitations of the scientific as opposed to philosophical authority of his claims.
True Connection to Others
One of the four ultimate concerns in life that humans have, described by the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, is isolation. We want to feel truly connected to others, which ties into the previous theme of intimacy. Having a reciprocal relationship depends on an empathic connection: understanding others and being understood. Yet the chasm that separates us — our distinct subjective experiences of life, or the particular world each of us lives in, as a result of having individual minds and bodies — means that we cannot reach into each other’s reality. We can be empathetic, of course, and get true and insightful glimpses of another’s world, but we are intrinsically barred from having direct access and, in turn, true understanding and connection. Likewise, others cannot experience our own experiences. And so, as with the porcupine dilemma, we can partially connect with others but never fully do so.
Similar to our need for intimacy and connection, we may want to communicate effectively with others but struggle to do so. Owing to the unbridgeable gap that exists between minds, communicating with each other can be effective but never perfect. True telepathy could solve this, but this situation remains in the world of both utopian and dystopian sci-fi. (It is easy to see how telepathic communication could equally be a cause for newfound joys and anxieties: Finally, others can understand me! Oh no, people know exactly what I’m thinking! Telepathy could enable deep levels of empathy for others, but you could also discover people’s negative judgements and opinions about you, which you may not need to know but which once known can thereafter make amicable relationships difficult to maintain.)
While many issues and conflicts between people can be resolved through empathic or active listening, which can be developed and strengthened, our inability to meet our need for ideal communication means that some misunderstandings will be inevitable, resulting in some level of frustration and anxiety. This is not to say that when we communicate with others, this can’t be satisfying, but our yearning for ideal communication means that there will always be a sense that the significance of something we feel has not properly been conveyed or that someone else’s inner world has not entered our own. This is also related to the intrinsic clunkiness and awkwardness of wrapping up subjective experiences into tidy concepts, which are themselves wrapped up in the medium of a language. For an ingeniously creative depiction of the issue of miscommunication, I recommend watching Jan Švankmajer’s 1982 short experimental film Dimensions of Dialogue (see below).
Part of being human is the yearning for knowledge of all facets of life: ourselves, others, and the world. We are innately curious and inquisitive creatures, always eager to learn. However, no single human, nor humanity as a whole, may ever be able to gain a full understanding of anything; and even if we could, how would we know it? We would need to have some meta-understanding that allowed us to know when full understanding had been reached.
While we can amass valuable knowledge of many valuable things, we won’t be able to meet our desire for complete knowledge of who we are as individuals, why we think and act the way we do, what our full potential is, who others are, how others conceive us and how this conception matches with our own self-conception, the various disciplines that deal with different aspects of society and the world we live in, and the true nature of reality. Also, there is only so much you can read and learn in a single lifetime.
Except for those who subscribe to the idea of mystical insight giving us access to the fundamentals of existence, truly understanding consciousness, matter, time, space, the origins of the universe, and the totality of what exists can seem forever out of reach, no matter how educated or advanced we become as a species. This is not to say, nonetheless, that we can’t find joy in the experience of mystery.
Absolute Meaning and Purpose
Another one of Yalom’s four key concerns that humans have is meaning. We may find satisfaction in life through terrestrial meaning, that is, the meaning we gain through human affairs on this planet: the kind of people we become (i.e. our striving to be authentic, self-actualised, and virtuous), our commitment to being of service to others, being involved in something greater than ourselves, and so forth and so on. But we may nonetheless lack cosmic meaning, also known as ultimate, absolute, or objective meaning and purpose. This is the kind of meaning and purpose that exists for us beyond the confines of human affairs and the planet — outside of our own subjective perception of and creation of meaning. It is the meaning that exists from the “cosmic perspective”, as philosopher David Benatar calls it, which in philosophy is also referred to as the “point of view of the universe”, “the view from everywhere”, and sub specie aeternitatis (coined by Baruch Spinoza, which means in the context of the universe at large, the universal perspective, or from the viewpoint of eternity).
Our felt need for some ultimate meaning and purpose to our existence can make us reach for the conception of a divine plan, but for those who reject this belief or are uncertain about it, attention and priority can be given to terrestrial meaning. However, some may struggle with the feeling that this level of meaning is insufficient, that the activities and experiences we call meaningful are insignificant and shrink into valuelessness and pointlessness in the context of the vastness — and possible infinitude — of the universe. Consequently, many people may feel they lead deeply meaningful lives but not the deepest kind of meaningful life. There may be a need for a type of meaning and purpose that is unobtainable.
Another key human concern in life discussed by Yalom is mortality. The fear of death is part of the human condition; with the awareness of the end comes anxiety about its arrival, as well as anxieties about other connected problems (such as meaning). Fears about dying or going out of existence are commonplace but are often repressed, the subject of death being taboo in many cultures. Some people may overcome the fear of death through spiritual experiences, yet for many, the fear is eased but never fully eradicated. The yearning for immortality is rooted in the knowledge of our impermanence. In response to the deep-seated fear of death, we may (consciously or unconsciously) try to aim for immortality through fame, achievements, new ideas, works of art, and our descendants — but nothing lasts forever, including anything we create. And so immortality will never be attainable.
The desire to be immortal is conveyed in age-old myths (such as the fountain of youth) and it is certainly unique to the human species, but actually achieving this state of being might be physically impossible or difficult to achieve technologically (digital immortality or virtual immortality is the hypothetical concept of storing your personality in a digital substrate, i.e. a computer, robot, or cyberspace). However, an AI reproduction may be no more than a sophisticated remembrance of yourself, like a precious photo or video, rather than truly copying your existence. Whether you as a conscious experiencing subject can be replicated digitally and preserved forever is a possibility doubted by many.
Moral Certainty and Moral Perfection
Much of what makes life meaningful is the realm of ethics: what it means to be a good person, how to act rightly and wrongly, and what we mean by moral goodness and badness. But we may never know for certain the answers to any of these questions, and so we are burdened by inescapable moral uncertainty.
Moreover, we may never achieve or know what it means to be morally perfect. This last point ties into the earlier point about wanting but not fulfilling our need for full understanding. The unmet need for moral certainty and moral perfection, made difficult or impossible to obtain due to the complexity and messiness of everyday ethics, can be especially troubling for those who are dedicated to leading a virtuous and ethical life and those who struggle with moral scrupulosity: an unhealthy obsession with being a good person or doing the right thing. According to the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen, moral perfection is impossible because when we make choices we are always confronted with conflicting duties: deliberately choosing one path of action (or inaction) over another means another path is neglected.
Being unable to attain moral perfection, a moral ideal that we think should be untainted by self-centred drives, does not make the pursuit of an ethical life meaningless, but some may feel a sense of despondency about never ascending to those heights, and perhaps this is why we construct certain beliefs and narratives around purported gurus, saints, prophets, messiahs, and divine beings because we want to believe that it is possible to exist without selfishness, that we can be superhuman — human and non-human at once.
A zoologist who observed gorillas in their native habitat was amazed by the uniformity of their life and their vast idleness. Hours and hours without doing anything. Was boredom unknown to them? This is indeed a question raised by a human, a busy ape. Far from fleeing monotony, animals crave it, and what they most dread is to see it end. For it ends, only to be replaced by fear, the cause of all activity. Inaction is divine; yet it is against inaction that man has rebelled. Man alone, in nature, is incapable of enduring monotony, man alone wants something to happen at all costs — something, anything…. Thereby he shows himself unworthy of his ancestor: the need for novelty is the characteristic of an alienated gorilla.
But here we can add that people may have a desire not just for novelty in and of itself but a high degree of novelty. My friend and fellow writer Matt Bluemink wrote a series of articles on the concept of anti-hauntology, a concept that is the counterpoint to philosopher Mark Fisher’s thoughts on hauntology, which refers to the phenomenon of current cultural forms (e.g. music, TV, film, and video games) being haunted by the past, resulting in nothing feeling truly new and original. Fisher called this the “slow cancellation of the future”, and he believed this to be the triumph of capitalism or, more specifically, capitalist realism, which closes off the possibility of even imagining alternative social and economic setups. There are ghostly images or spectres that the present is haunted by, which the present doesn’t move away from, and thus the result is cultural repetition and rehashing. Fisher wrote in Ghosts of My Life (2014):
It is the contention of this book that 21st-century culture is marked by … anachronism and inertia … But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up of time’, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that is no longer even noticed.
Fisher essentially sees that contemporary music has been trapped in a cycle of repetition which has allowed the capitalist culture industries to trap listeners in a state of suspended animation; a state through which novel and new ideas are not being created or even expected by the listener. Here, in some respects, Fisher is harking back to Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the culture industries and their subsumption of cultural forms into the machine of late capitalism. However, the hopelessness of Fisher’s diagnosis has always seemed to me to be misplaced. Fisher was writing during a transitional period in popular music. There’s no doubt that his diagnosis is an apt one for the particular aspects of culture that he describes, but as the twenty-first century has matured, a whole host of new sounds have started to enter the public consciousness, and these, I would argue, are something completely new.
I won’t go into detail here about the arguments for and against anti-hauntology; I wanted to bring it up because I think it speaks to something important about the human need for novelty. Anti-hauntology can represent the desire for palpable or intense novelty. This is a kind of ideal novelty that may be influenced by but not haunted by the past; anti-hauntological artists, Bluemink maintains, are “reconnecting disparate aesthetic elements together in creative new ways that escape the kind of hauntological spectres of the past that Fisher was wary of.”
We might also have a desire for final novelty or maximal novelty: an apogee of novelty that is the final, unfathomable destination of human development, which goes beyond anything previously conceived. The psychonaut and lecturer Terence McKenna argued this is a point of infinite novelty (or complexity) and he referred to it as “the concrescence”, “the great attractor”, or “the transcendental object at the end of time”. He believed this to be the endpoint of the universe’s natural trajectory towards interconnection, novelty, and complexity (inspired by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysics). In his view, the universe is being pulled through time towards this attractor. Yet while the idea of ultimate or maximal novelty is enticing, especially because of the way McKenna waxes lyrical about it, it might just be a fanciful notion. What does ‘infinite novelty’ actually mean? The teleological (goal-driven) picture of the universe that McKenna paints also requires justification.
If we yearn for intense novelty, one could argue that the kind of novelty we normally encounter will never be satisfying enough. There is a desire for something cultural, technological, material, or immaterial that truly shocks our system into a state of awe and reverence, but this experience can be difficult to obtain, although many psychonauts will report that certain breakthrough experiences with psychedelics, especially those induced by DMT, offer such states of novelty.
Additionally, the tendency of many of us to feel boredom and ennui in the face of monotony often requires that we have not just punctuations of novelty but continual new experiences. The need for novelty varies, of course, from person to person. And some people are creatures of habit. Still, as Cioran underlines, the inability to sit with monotony is uniquely human, and it creates a hard-to-satisfy need in us. For this reason, I suggest an alternative name for the human species is Homo inquietus (“restless man”). Indeed, a large chunk of the population has a strong restless, exploratory nature, which can be explained by the fact that this tendency contributed to our success in our evolutionary past. Connecting our fondness for novelty (neophilia) to our awareness of personal mortality, many of us might feel it’s a shame that we won’t be around to witness all of the new discoveries and forms of art and technology that will emerge in the future.
Non-human animals live in the present or, to put it in a more nuanced way, other animals mainly live life in the present (some animals, such as the great apes, display behaviour that appears consistent with mental time travel, which refers to the mental reconstruction of pasts events and the mental construction of possible future events, which has long been believed to be a distinctly human trait). In any case, we can still say that the human condition is marked by a high degree of mental time travel; it is very much in our nature to fixate on the past and future. But this ability is also the cause of much of our emotional distress; it can cause us to ruminate about the past (leading to regret, shame, guilt, embarrassment, low self-esteem, etc.) and worry about the future (leading to anxiety, catastrophising, insomnia, impaired functioning, etc.).
It’s certainly possible to develop more present-moment awareness through a mindfulness meditation practice, although this practice can be challenging, and even though progress with it and attendant benefits are possible for anyone, this doesn’t mean that a state of perpetual mindfulness is possible (although those who believe in perfect, enlightened beings may think otherwise). We can always be more mindful and be mindful more often, but we may never meet our need for true peacefulness and calmness by having our mindfulness setting permanently switched on and turned up to the maximum.
We are as much defined by our ability to achieve uniquely human goals as our inability to achieve both basic and unique human aims. While the above discussion may sound pessimistic, the unmet needs I’ve outlined don’t have to lead to despondency. It’s possible and desirable to accept and enjoy the play or dance of unmet needs. Here it’s useful to borrow the concept of lila from Hinduism, a Sanskrit word that means “play”, “sport”, “pastime”, or “drama”, although it has different meanings in the dualistic and non-dualistic schools of Hindu philosophy. In essence, however, lila is the idea that the world or life is an ongoing creative play put on by Brahman (the absolute, supreme being in Hinduism).
By viewing our human needs as part of a play or drama, we can treat our ever-changing relationship with them with less seriousness and more joy. We can also be less needy in relation to our needs and experience a kind of freedom and clarity through an attitude of non-attachment, whereby we value, respect, and aim to fulfil our needs without relying on their complete or consistent satisfaction as essential to our well-being. Furthermore, we can magnify the appreciation that comes from the partial and inconsistent completion of our wants and needs.
Abandoning hope for the unachievable and working on meeting different dimensions of needs that are achievable are worthwhile aims despite ongoing frustrations. We can still end up reaching a state of joyful appreciation, untainted by our longings that lurk in the background.