It is in the nature of every child to feel special. In fact, humans find it difficult, even unbearable, to live life without attaching to it some meaning or purpose, and cementing their place in the grand scheme of things. This childlike optimism is something I am well familiar with.
One of my earliest memories was sitting only a few feet away from a box-like TV set. Being a typical five-year-old, I was watching Power Rangers. It was a blissful Sunday morning, and I ignored my grandfather’s warning against taking the show too seriously; instead, I found myself drawn in by the idea that a single person could be special, the chosen one who can save humanity. This could be me, I began to reason.
I then learned that Hindu mythology predicts the birth of Kalki, the saviour of the world. Coupled with my success in primary school, this superstition only served to fuel my growing belief. Being a single child from a relatively well-off family gave me the impression that the world was mine for the taking.
However, this changed with my experiences in middle school – meeting people stronger, smarter and better than me derailed my train of optimism. The blow to my feeling of self-importance left me filled with doubt. In an act of desperation, and with my parent’s encouragement, I resolved to work very hard in order to earn my rightful place in the world. As a result, I passed high school with flying colours, and my hope for the future was renewed.
This too was to prove short-lived. I had high hopes of getting into the top universities in the world, but this was shattered when I saw thousands of young people just like me, possessed by the same belief. I suddenly felt very, very small, like a frog leaving its well for the first time to be confronted by the vast expanse of the world. I was suffering from an ideological crisis, and I wasn’t alone. There were hundreds just like me, reeling from the same brutal realisation.
There was no going back this time. I began to wonder whether the truth was what I had feared: what if the universe couldn’t care less about me or my problems, let alone make elaborate plans for my future? What kind of world would that be?
A much more realistic world. One where I couldn’t blame fate for the failure of my endeavours, where I couldn’t leave karma to take care of my failure to stand up against injustice, or leave the gods to look after people in abject poverty. I realised that ultimately, I didn’t have the courage to live my own story, so I had followed someone else’s instead.
But why are so many people tempted to take the easy way out? The answer is ingrained in our evolutionary history. Since the dawn of our species, we, along with all other forms of life, have struggled through conflict, famine and hardship for the sake of survival. Those who survived the journey had to be the best-adapted, and our cognitive abilities are just one such adaptation. Similar to how hunger and thirst compels us to find food and water, the illusion of inherent purpose compels us to find hope, and to persevere through the darkest days. The belief that fate is on our side is simply another mechanism to aid our survival. We find it comforting to allow it to trump the harsher reality revealed to us by reason and observation.
It is a mechanism which can serve us well in times of hardship, especially with our tendency to create and spread our ideas, which could explain the origin of caring gods, and religious duties – the idea that despite how grim the current situation seems, someone somewhere has a plan. Being far from perfect logical thinkers, this presents a very effective stop-gap measure. However, in the long term, pursuing false purpose and meaning can certainly cloud our judgement and cause confusion, as I know well from experience.
Of course, I cannot understate the importance of living a meaningful and purposeful life. But I eventually learned that one can only be empowered to do this effectively after accepting that life has no meaning or purpose in and of itself (i.e. inherently), because only then can what we do be truly ours. Ultimately, life is what we make it, so we should pursue goals that we set ourselves. Once we have mustered the courage to grasp our new-found freedom, surely this is a far more comforting thought?