The Ungratefulness of Being


“If I had to define man it would be: a biped, ungrateful.” Fyodor Dostoevsky put these words in the mouth of his unnamed character in Notes From the Underground. The rambling, idealistic, unsettling novel was written in 1864. Dostoevsky was uneasy with the notions of utopianism and unbridled optimism that were becoming fashionable in the Russia of his time. And today, that optimism seems to have grown into a veil cast over our proud civilisation.

It wouldn’t be an unfair and off-the-mark scientific point to make that human beings aren’t designed for happiness. Happiness is a word created by the minds of man. It doesn’t feature in nature’s lexicon. Yes, an animal can know joy, such as a lion successfully bringing down a kudu; or a male bird of paradise winning the attention of a demanding female. But such moments of joy are necessarily fleeting.

To be in a state of happiness in nature is suicidal. An animal needs to be tense, alert, cautious, anxious in order to survey his surroundings and keep himself alive.

And human beings still bear the unremarkable stains of their animal childhood. We are different in degree but not in kind to our cousin animals.

A state of extended, uninterrupted happiness is not in our make-up. Yes we are more sophisticated than animals; we can know extended periods of joy – so-called honeymoon periods. And yet, even during a honeymoon period, man’s true nature still bubbles tactlessly beneath the surface: ungratefulness.

Dostoevsky is a disconcerting counterpoint to Marxism. Marx claimed, in essential terms, that if you satisfy people’s material needs then utopia shall descend upon the earth. And this is a healthy idea to cherish. I’ve not forgotten my Marxist youth. And yet, psychologically, it is naïve.

Look at us now, 21st century Westerners, look carefully, thoughtfully, and you will see the human species living as freely as is humanly possible. If you disagree with me, just read history.

Yes we are still plagued by our mortality, diseases, misfortune, romantic breakups, familial deaths and so on. And yet, most of our lives are lived in a modicum of comfort, a satisfactory caricature of bliss. We have everything our nature requires of us. We have food. Sex is readily available. We are safe from warring neighbours. And even diseases, relatively, are not as instantly murderous as they once were. So, in a strict naturalistic sense, we should be happy.

Of course: we aren’t.

What’s worse, in the ever more ideologically-driven 21st century is that, like some Marxists of pleasure, we’ve not only come to expect happiness: we demand it.

We demand that our governments make us happy. These demands come most loudly from groups which, historically, have known most suffering. Minorities demand freedom from their governments. Women and migrants demand happiness from societies. They ask for rights, rights and rights, the basic rights of man, so they could play the happiness-game as well as the ‘patriarchal’ white male. And when happiness is denied them by their very nature and psyche, they take to the streets and hold up placards, seeking to be ideologically martyred like good Jesuses. They get attention too. It is a human trait to love martyrs. Happiness might always be out of reach, but suffering is all-too-near, close to the bone, and our natures get turned on by a kinky martyr. People who seem to have had their right arm amputated and replaced with placards play this card annoyingly well.

It is a great paradox of modern Western life: we demand progress because we have made so much progress. It’s like we are addicted to progress. And like all true addictions, they are blinding and misleading.

Of course it is a great badge of honour for our civilisation to crave progress. We are a milestone in human existence. And yet, it must be remembered that human beings are not purely rational animals. We are made of emotions, impulses, urges and a subconscious. These things keep us restless, full of wanderlust, and our heightened sense of reason can’t keep up.

Our reason tells us: you should be happy, you have everything, you’ve made it. But our emotions – animalistic and savannah-made as they are – keep us on our toes, keep telling us, you’re not safe, eat more, lust more, venture further, keep looking for something, for what? For anything. Our modernity is clashing head-on with our primordial substratum and the battle-ground is our unconscious.

Feeling hopeless and miserable yet? Don’t. Because our inability to ever be truly and extensively happy might just be a Trojan Horse; a unique, endemic hope that only the human animal can hold up.

When thought about logically: it is mad to always want more. And yet, to not want anything at all is a sign of clinical depression! So, perhaps, that madness, that voice in our heads that keeps pushing us further across the borders of wanting, is the one thing that truly separates us from the rest of the animal world.

Any other animal, take away all its needs, its hunger, its thirst, its lust – it will rest on its laurels, grow fat and lazy. Look at how happily the wolf made itself a dog just so it can live lazily, pathetically on our sofas. Think of a fat guinea pig, cats, neighing horses, pigs – but not man.

Man has domesticated himself. We live in great human zoos. We have covered all our basic needs. And yet, unlike a dog: we want more. Now, this might make us restless, might make us ill-at-ease: but it opens us to adventures nothing else in the universe will ever undertake.

When man is satisfied, he seeks grandeur. He creates art, he dreams, he travels, he journeys and loves and destroys and hates and adores. Man’s Sisyphean pursuit of happiness has left a trail of side-effects full of masterpieces and radiance.

I’m nothing if not naïve. I don’t have to tell you, any of you, that man’s wanderlust, his refusal to be satisfied, has been the source of a great many cruelty and misery. Our insatiable, restless spirit has given birth to unnecessary wars, oppressions, rebellions, crimes, punishments, torture, rape and xenophobia.

But that great Pandora’s-jar of horrors is a dark branch that has the same source as the better angels of our nature: our wanderlust.

As a writer, I think the horrors of mankind are as interesting as his achievements as they are unique as far as our telescopes can see, more unique even than the Big Bang and the endless galaxies it has produced. I will carry on my own tail-biting pursuit of happiness and hope, along the way, never to judge anyone too harshly, except for those who judge because they are satisfied with what they have.

Those people, mostly spoilt, lazy Westerners, entitled and holier-than-thou, who demand happiness from others and demand to be satisfied, who must look down their noses on those who pursue happiness and burn bridges – they are the dogs, the cows, the fat guinea pigs of our species. Those placarded guinea pigs are less interesting than an expat with a drink problem. And I know who has better stories to tell.

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