Things Are Against Us

Mar 17, 2014

Do you ever get the impression that life is a perpetual struggle against things? The French have a phrase for it: "Les choses sont contre nous" or things are against us.   

Consider a typical day of persecution by things. It begins with the alarm clock, one of the nastiest things ever invented, then continues with the coffee that is always too hot or too cold, the healthy cereal that tastes like cardboard and probably is cardboard, the morning newspaper that is too big and awkward to read at the table, and in which every interesting story on the front page is continued on page ninety-four. You know the routine. Things have the upper hand over us even before we get out of the front door, where we probably discover that the car is covered in ice and the garbage can has been ransacked by raccoons. When and if we get to work after battling against that thing called traffic, we probably sit down in front of a computer which is just about the most hostile thing ever conceived by the human mind. Nobody is to blame. Like Dr. Frankenstein in the story, we create our own monsters.

When I got my first computer in the 1980s I started off on the wrong foot, thinking that it was just a tool, a better typewriter. It took me a while to realize that I was the tool, and the computer was using me. Now it’s astonishing how much of my day, and probably yours too, is spent serving the whims and needs of a computer. It’s like a jealous god.

We are in dark territory here. The living world and the world of things are really quite close together. Deep in our brains we know this. One of the most ancient forms of religion is animism, in which familiar objects, plants and creatures are believed to be inhabited by spirits of their own - the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the rock, and so on. When people lived closer to nature, they didn't make such rigorous distinctions between animal and human, living and dead. The whole world seemed alive and meaningful to them. They worshipped significant places or animals, or made them taboo. They crept terrified through the forest where every plant and creature might be actively hostile, just as we creep through the jungle of our gadgets, machines and devices, worrying about what they will do to us next.

Things do seem to have a life of their own. We get angry at our dysfunctional possessions, as if they cared! What is so curious and paradoxical is that we love those things too. We love our homes, although a house is endless trouble, and some people seem to be totally in love with their portable electronic devices, as if their smart phones are inhabited by some benevolent spirit, which, I’m sorry to tell you, is not the case.

I blame evolution. Like all the other creatures on earth we have to confront the physical world, and tame it if we can. It is an intimate, personal, and dangerous relationship with winners and losers. The first humanoids to stand upright probably banged their heads against the roof of the cave. Five million years later we have suburban homes with cathedral ceilings. That’s a victory, that’s progress, but we daren’t relax for a second. Sometimes the things we create take over our lives. The French, for once, are right: things are against us.

Copyright: David Bouchier