Watts: “It is easy to see that most of the acts which, in conventional morals, are called evil can be traced to the divided mind. By far the greater part of these acts come from exaggerated desires, desires for things which are not even remotely necessary for the health of mind and body, granting that ‘health’ is a relative term. Such outlandish and insatiable desires come into being because man is exploiting his appetites to give the ‘I’ a sense of security.”
Security is an illusion. At any second an unsuspected bacterium could invade your immune system, a blood vessel in your brain could burst, a piece of space junk could fall out of the sky on your head, or a random act of violence could find you in the wrong place at the right time. Imagine what your life would become were you to make these slim probabilities your preoccupying focus.
Instead of fixating on them and driving yourself crazy, you do the responsible thing and build up a line of protection to keep any of it from happening. But now there’s a new worry over that monthly insurance payment, or a deepening sense of isolation as you keep yourself safe at home. So what can you do but see the doctor for a prescription drug that will take the edge off your anxiety or lift you off the floor of your depression. Then there’s the side-effects …
Our desperate quest for whatever can counteract or permanently transcend the inherent insecurity of existence actually creates new things to worry about. As we devote more resources to protecting our resources, eventually we reach the point of diminishing returns. More is spent to keep from losing. Life becomes an exercise in circling the drain: put death off just a little longer and maybe you stand a chance of having a life. Nope, it doesn’t work that way.
We should be clear, it’s not the body that is driving this circus of absurdity. By following the rhythm of its natural life cycle, the body has evolved internal mechanisms to either heal or surrender to its inevitable fate. The ego, strapped to this eventual corpse, is the one who strives to slip the knot and live forever. We have developed all kinds of technologies and cosmetics to postpone or conceal the fact of mortality. And religion has done its part by promising everlasting security to the one who can delay gratification and remain obedient to the end.
Think of the evils that have been committed for the sake of security – or the sense of security, and the pursuit of it. The greed for “enough” can never be satisfied, simply because there can be no such thing as enough. How can you know for sure? Life conditions could change, the supply could run out, your neighbor could take more than his fair share. Insecurity produces discontent, discontent produces greed, greed motivates hoarding and theft, hoarding and theft (by others) require protection, protection requires insurance payments, insurance payments require more income, more income requires more time, and more time – oops, game over.
Let’s just agree for the moment that security is an illusion, something unreal, unrealistic, and unattainable. If we were to simply accept this fact, would we live any differently than we do now? We would worry less, there’s no doubt about that. And depression – the state of fatigue and discouragement that comes in the wake of anxiety – would be far rarer, indeed. We would certainly be more relaxed, even living on this edge of death, and probably feel more alive by virtue of its constant shadow.
Watts’ “divided mind” is another term for ego ambition, driven by the competing motivations of desire and fear. For its part, security, being an illusion, is not even something we can pursue – unless some clever advertising has attached it to a “must have” new product or service. To that end, we buy and replace, use and toss out, try and abandon one false promise after another.
The fear side of ambition is typically more concrete. While positive gains and happy progress may forever elude us, negative losses on the downward slope of mortality are inevitable. Ego ambition is about spending and stacking – or shooting – whatever is necessary to hold off the specter of death. But the more we clutch and stockpile, the greater our risk and pain in losing it, and the more we are willing to do to keep it a little longer.
Even if “Romeo and Juliet are [not] together in eternity,” in the words of Blue Oyster Cult’s Donald Roeser, we don’t need to fear the reaper.