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Toxic Seriousness

There is this ridiculously futile thing that we all do almost all of the time. There are various ways in which we can talk about this ‘ridiculously futile thing’. One way is to say that we are forever trying to pretend that we are something that we aren’t, for all the world as if it were (for some obscure reason) absolutely crucial that we should be this thing that we are pretending to be, but which we’re not, and never can be. The other way of talking about the futile task that we are forever engaged in is to say that we are forever trying to ‘maintain the self-image’.




Maintaining the self-image is a quintessentially humourless business; it is a quintessentially humourless business because it is so very futile! Or rather (if we were to be more accurate about it) we should say that it is a quintessentially humourless business because [1] it is so futile, and [2] because we are pretending as hard as we possibly can that it isn’t futile. This is precisely where the dreadful humourlessness comes from – it comes about because of our ‘denied dishonesty’ in this regard. If we were in any way able to admit this dishonesty, or admit the absurdity of the project which we are engaged in, then this particular quality (the quality of ‘toxic seriousness’) would simply not be there. It would immediately be transformed into something a lot more wholesome!




It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that no good can ever come out of investing very heavily in ‘denying the utter absurdity of the project that we are engaged in’. Only two things are possible once we go down this road – either we are temporarily successful in our denial of the complete futility of what we are trying to do, in which case we will feel good in a very superficial kind of way, or we will be unsuccessful, in which case not only will we feel superficially bad because we have ‘lost rather than won’, we will also start to feel bad in a much more profound way to since the truth that we have been working so hard to deny is now showing. There is a ‘double whammy’ going on here therefore: not only are we failing within the terms of the game we are playing, we are also starting to feel the underlying pain and angst that the game has been preventing us from feeling.




There is a kind of rich and heady mystique involved in ‘achieving our goals’ and this mystique derives from the unconscious assumption that in achieving our goals we are proving the thing that we are secretly trying to prove (which is that we really are the self-image that we are pretending to be! The mystique that we are referring to here (the mystique of winning, the mystique of success) has to do with proving that the futile task isn’t actually futile at all, which is clearly an entirely nonsensical a thing to try to prove. We can’t help knowing on one level that the futile task is futile – if we didn’t know this then very obviously we wouldn’t be trying so hard to prove otherwise! When we do feel triumphant or victorious or empowered as a result of supposedly proving this to ourselves (via the achieving of our concrete goals) then what’s actually happening is that we are ‘separating ourselves from our own knowing’; we are ‘proving’ to ourselves the truth of what we already know very well to be untrue! This represents a very dubious ‘victory’, therefore.




Just as there is a positive mystique involved in winning, there is also a corresponding negative mystique associated with losing, or failing. As we have already said, not only is there the ‘nominal failure’ of us not achieving what we have set out to achieve, there is also what this nominal failure unconsciously represents to us, which is the failure of our acknowledged attempt to prove that the futile task isn’t futile, and that we really are ‘who we are pretending to be’. Because we don’t understand at all that this is what we are trying to prove, because we don’t at all understand that ‘we aren’t who we are pretending to be’ (or even that we are pretending at all) the utter despair that we feel at our failure comes from a very deep and dark place. It is the denial of pain or fear that creates the ‘negative mystique of losing’ therefore – we know that what’s happening is extremely bad (more terrible than we can rationally understand) and it is because we don’t know why failure feels so ominous that gives it its very special frisson, therefore.




The way to get rid of the positive/negative mystique associated with winning and losing (which is what keeps the game going) is therefore to see the thing that we are not allowing ourselves to see, which is that the futile task actually is ‘the futile task’! If we were to see that the game is driven by our own acknowledged need to prove that we ‘really are who we are pretending to be’ (whilst not knowing we are pretending anything) then of course that would be the end of the game – we would know that ‘success’ means ‘success at pretending to be who we aren’t’ and this would take all the ‘mystique’ away in one go. There is no ‘great and wonderful thing’ going to happen as a result of our being successful in our ludicrous pretending, after all! Very clearly, if I am successful in deceiving myself that ‘I am who I amn’t’ then all I have succeeded at in is making a fool of myself! I have been remarkably ‘successful in my foolishness’.




Likewise, when we discover what the game is really all about, ‘failure’ (the dreaded F-word!) loses all its power in a flash. The spectre of failure no longer has the power to make me feel so bad – I have ‘dismally failed to deceive myself that the futile task isn’t futile’, but so what? What’s so terrible about that? What’s so terrible about me ailing to make an absolute fool of myself, what’s so terrible about me not shooting myself in the foot? What’s so terrible about me not scoring an own goal? All the ‘toxic seriousness’ that derives from me not allowing myself to see the total absurdity of the project that I am engaged in evaporates in a flash, and there’s no harm in that! What good is all this toxic seriousness to anyone, after all?




As Eckhart Tolle says somewhere (although not in quite these words) all the negativity and evil in the world comes from this one thing – it comes from our not allowing ourselves to see the utter absurdity of us trying to prove what we are always trying to prove. How great it would be it would feel not to be a slave to the insane need to keep on pretending to ourselves that ‘the absurd projectthat we’re engaged in isn’t absurd’, that ‘the futile task that we’re 100% committed to isn’t futile’, that ‘we aren’t this ridiculous non-existent thing that we never could be anyway’… How splendid and marvellous this would be!









Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.
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