I spent my life trying to learn how to live. Now I’m ready to die, and I still don’t know how to live. I’m ready to die because I don’t know how to live.
I once read that, when we’re sixteen, we think we know everything and our parents know nothing. When we grow up, we’re surprised to discover how much our parents have learned during the intervening years.
What we supposedly discover, when we become adults, is that our parents were wiser than we were; but when we were children, we weren't wise enough to know it.
Everything we thought we knew when we were sixteen was wrong, and everything our parents told us was right. Adults know how to live better than we do, but we don’t know that until we become adults ourselves.
The belief that there are people who know how to live better than we do, so instead of trying to learn it ourselves we need only listen to and obey them, seemed absurd to me even when I was a child.
I never thought, when I was sixteen, I knew everything, as children supposedly do – I was always painfully aware of how little I knew – but I was sure I knew more than most adults did, because most of the adults I knew were Americans; but I never thought I knew more than my parents did. My mother, a 'high school dropout', knew more about how to live than most college-educated Americans did.
I never expected to know everything, but I tried to learn as much as I could - unlike most Americans, who believe, as children supposedly do, that although they may not know everything, they know everything worth knowing.
At sixteen I felt that, although I hadn’t learned everything, I’d learned enough to make my way through the world without making any disastrous mistakes. At seventeen I realized I was wrong.
Ever since then I’ve felt like a stranger in the world. Not a stranger in the USA, because I was a foreigner, but a stranger in the world - although the fact that the world was becoming Americanized probably has much to do with that feeling.
I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, because I read many fictions in which a seemingly ordinary person who felt as I did finds himself in an extraordinary world he’s never seen before, but feels at home there, and discovers it’s his real home.
Stories of people who at first seem ordinary, but are eventually revealed to be extraordinary beings from another better world, used to take the form of religious myths; but in our postreligious age extraterrestrials replaced gods and angels.
This feeling that we’re not like other people, that we’re from another better world (or that someone we respect comes from another better world) must be common, if not universal. It obviously played a part in the rise of what we used to call religion.
And not only religion.
The world seems mad to us. We do what we must in order to survive in it, without knowing why. But those whom we called wise taught us that the world, which seems chaotic, is in reality ordered. What we used to call religion, and now call science, are two stages in our attempt to understand that order, and live in harmony with it.
Religion taught us that this mad world into which we're all born, and in which other animals still live, doing what they must in order to survive in it without knowing why, is an illusion. We are not ordinary animals because, unlike other animals, we know it’s an illusion. Human reason tells us that, behind this mad world lies another better world that's our real home. Knowing that kept us sane, or what we used to call human.
What we used to call morality and/or humanity consists of behaving as though that better world is not an ideal, but real, at least for us; more real than this inhuman world in which other animals do what they must without knowing why. In our world reason enables us to know and choose how to live. Naturally we choose to live better because in that better world we are better
Now we’re losing faith in that ideal world, or rather in our ability to live in it, just as we've already lost faith in its ruler, or rather in those who ruled us in his name.
Now some people fear religion while others fear science, and for the same reason: both are attempts to know the world and our place in it, and people are afraid of knowing both. They know they’ve done terrible things, and fear it’s because they’re terrible people and this mad world, which seems to them a terrible place, is their real home.
I never believed the ideal world is more real, at least for us, than the world of other animals. I always believed there's only one world, and I felt at home in it. It's the world that humans made in which I feel like a stranger.
I used to think that, as I grew older, I’d become accustomed to the madness of the made world, and would eventually feel at home in it as well. Instead it appeared madder and stranger the older I grew.
Instead of discovering, when I became an adult, that I had more in common with other adults than I’d imagined when I was sixteen, I found the difference between us was greater than I’d imagined. Adults who seemed childish to me when I was a child, but who I could deal with as adults deal with willful children, by humoring them, became more willful, more difficult to deal with, as I grew older. Now, instead of behaving like a sulky child having a temper tantrum, they behave like a rabid animal.
They threaten to destroy each other, themselves and the world; not as a willful child threatens to kill itself by holding its breath until it suffocates if it doesn’t get its way, but as a rabid animal kills itself rather live in torment.