Last Sunday, some friends came over Mr. Football Day. Mr. Football Day is a U.S. holiday that celebrates the American Biblical story of Mr. Football, who died in a vat of nacho cheese on a Friday, and miraculously rose from a field of astroturf on a Sunday, drizzled in guacamole.
One of our congregation brought her nineteen-month old daughter. Nineteen months must be a curious age for a toddler, because they are old enough to penguin-walk from living room to kitchen and back but they can’t speak more than a couple words of Queen’s English. As a result, the few times when she was unwillingly separated from her mom or disallowed from grabbing a cracker from the table, she groaned and cried until she was soothed.
The cause we ascribe to babies fussing it up is that they don’t have the words to express what they want. If they just had the words to say ‘I’m hungry,’ or ‘I don’t want to be picked up right now,’ or ‘please turn off Guy Fieri, I find his shtick cloying,’ then they wouldn’t have to resort to temper tantrums so frequently.
Typical baby stuff, you might call it.
Except it’s not.
I was reminded of an idea philosopher Alain de Botton suggested in conversation with Tim Ferriss. He proposed that those same physical urges that drive babies – hunger, sleepiness, gassiness, etc. – continue to percolate and boil over as we become adults. The problem is that we’ve generated a veneer of culture, of civilization, of abstract thought in which we clothe our instincts. With our swelling vocabularies come expanded means to express subtle concepts like schadenfreude, existentialism, self-actualization. Even physical objects get imbued with abstract concepts. Using M&Ms as deep-dish pizza toppings isn’t just spongey and sweet, it is gauche and fail.
The problem is that we often live inside the narrative that our vocabularies create. As a result, we mistake physical, basic sensations for abstract, complicated challenges:
Your brain: Am I sticking with a career that challenges me to my best self, or settling for an illusion of comfort?
Your body: Sleepy right now. Want nap.
Your brain: I’m not upset because you weren’t here on time, I’m upset because you didn’t ask if it was okay to show up late, which shows that either you don’t care how I feel about punctuality, or that you don’t understand who I am as a person.
Your body: I’m upset because I am hungry.
Your brain: And let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.
Your body: Shouldn’t have eaten all that M&M pizza right before this.
You might say that the problem as babies is that we don’t have enough words, and that the problem as adults is that we have too many words.
The next time you feel adrift in a tempest of existential doubt, take a breath and check on your inner toddler. If life feels poopy, you might in fact just be poopy.