As someone who has been called the Master of Modern Horror by Fake Quote magazine, people often ask me, "What keeps you up at night? Aside from anxiety-based insomnia and your alarmingly small bladder? What scares you?" That's easy: It's the possibility that we're just fooling ourselves into thinking that the things we love actually love us back. For example, dogs.
It's easier to love a dog than it is to love a spider or a cactus because dogs have adorable facial expressions. The nonverbal pleas for food and love, the dopey smiles, the heartbreaking, almost teary disappointment -- it's all there. But the reason they can make those expressions is that, after evolution split dogs from wolves to begin their partnership with humans, they evolved facial muscles to make "expressions" that humans would respond to. They grew little eyebrows.
So I often wonder: What if it's all just a strategy? What if, having magically transported your soul into your dog's body, you'd find it has no concept of anything we'd call love? What if they think all of our fawning attention is kind of just weird? What if when their little paws twitch while they're dreaming, they're actually dreaming of kicking us in the groin, over and over?
"But cats don't have those expressions, and we love them just the same!" you may object. "If anything, cats look like they hate our guts!" Sure, but they just found another way to rope us in. Did you know that cats don't meow to each other? It's a sound they've developed specifically for humans, to get us to feed them. Even creepier, it may be specifically calculated to mimic a crying human baby. If anything, they think it's hilarious that we keep falling for it.
This would, of course, mean that it's entirely possible to pour all of your love into something that is in fact coldly sending back just enough validation signals to keep you doling out the food and shelter. It would open the possibility that the kind of sweeping gooey sentimentality we think of as the Most Important Thing In Life will be seen by future societies as a weird, backward superstition. "These sick bastards went so far off the rails that they literally defied their most basic biological imperative and adopted pets instead of having children."
In fact, they may say that about our entire concept of "love" in general, including the romantic love that all of our movies and sitcoms and pop songs are about. Remember, in most times and places, marriage has been arranged by the parents as a cold, practical transaction ("My daughter for your mule, you say? Throw in that old shovel and you've got yourself a deal") and those societies survived just fine. What if all of our poetry and lyrics about "soul mates" and eternal devotion is one big weird cultural fetish?
Hell, I've almost talked myself into it in the course of typing this. Parts of the first world have gotten so neurotic about the subject that a record number of young people have stopped having romantic relationships entirely, and sex-starved guys have formed a murderous cult around their celibacy. Maybe that's because we've built up expectations that can never be fulfilled by the reality, since they were never based on anything real in the first place. Maybe future generations will have showings of Titanic in their history classes, during the chapter on this ancient misguided religion of sentimentality ("But teacher, why would she reject the man who had the greater resources to support her?").
And, you know what? I think they'll be wrong.
What I have to remind myself in times like this, in the dark moments, is that some superstitions disguise themselves as logic. In reality, this kind of cynicism has a built-in bias, in that it only runs in one direction. It's the kind of cynicism that says our heroes are only pretending to be good, but never mentions that our villains could be pretending to be worse than they are. It doesn't admit that if happiness isn't really a thing, then neither is suffering. No, says that cynical voice, only the bad things get to be real.
But the gooey sentimentality, it turns out, is just as easy to defend with cold logic. If love isn't real, then nothing is. "But it's just an idea!" So's the law, and democracy, and money. If you can argue away love as just hormones and brain chemicals, then you can argue away the sun as being just a bunch of hydrogen and helium molecules. Figuring out how a thing works doesn't invalidate its existence.
Likewise, whether or not my dog loves me, or as I secretly suspect, feels mostly only mild annoyance that I'm taking up her spot on the sofa ...
... isn't something I can ever know or control. It doesn't have to be. In the end, you're going to be defined by what you gave, not by what you got back. And the belief that life is just a series of manipulations and cold transactions isn't logic, it's a coping mechanism. We "too smart for corny bullshit" types secretly want life to be meaningless because a meaningless life would be easier. But there's a part of us that will always know it's a cop-out.
I keep saying that you can be smart in a way that makes you miserable, cynical in a way that makes you scared to be happy. It's the kind of smart that isn't helping you, that makes you terrified that you're getting taken advantage of, too afraid of leaving yourself open to betrayal or disappointment. But in the end, you can wind up doing more harm to yourself than your imaginary betrayers ever could have. To avoid being kidnapped you've decided to duct-tape your own wrists and live in the trunk of your car.
Being willing to believe in things, to buy in, to put yourself out there, that's what takes real courage. As proof, just look at how scared that idea makes some people. For some, any breach in that layer of detached "everything sucks" irony is as terrifying as seeing a leak in a submarine. That's too bad; the world needs people who aren't afraid to care and the system is already run those who see everything as a cynical transaction. Wait a second, is this what that terrible Edie Brickell song was about? Holy shit, I kind of feel bad for hating it now.
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