Eternal Problems of the Human Mind
You're not special, but you're also not alone
You already know the Hero’s Journey. Hero goes on an adventure, undergoes a major challenge or crisis, and eventually returns home transformed.
Depending on how willing you are to stretch the parameters, you can apply it to most popular stories throughout history. Gilgamesh and the Odyssey both fit it, each Harry Potter book fits it, Star Wars was designed around it. It’s so ubiquitous in storytelling that Joseph Campbell went as far as to suggest it was the ultimate myth, the “monomyth,” that all great stories are based on.
That was perhaps too far. There are plenty of great stories that do not easily fit the Hero’s Journey without some extreme stretching of the definition. The Three-Body Problem trilogy comes to mind.1 But Campbell was right that it fits a shocking number of stories.
A more nuanced version of the monomyth idea is that most stories have one of six emotional arcs:
‘Rags to riches’ (rise).
‘Tragedy,’ or ‘Riches to rags’ (fall).
‘Man in a hole’ (fall-rise).
When you read about the emotional arcs and plotlines, it does feel intuitively correct that most stories map to surprisingly few scaffoldings. A typical Batman comic and an episode of Mr. Robot tell versions of the “Revenge” plotline, albeit through very different backdrops. We know that once the conflict is introduced, Bruce or Elliot will do some borderline illegal stuff to stop the bad guy, and we will feel happy when they emerge victorious.
What’s curious is that despite how few types of stories and narrative devices there are, we never seem to tire of them. It doesn’t matter if we know how the story will end as soon as we start. We still buy the next James Patterson book. We want to hear the Cinderella story, the Icarus story, the Rags to Riches story, over and over and over again.
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Stories have some magical place in the human mind. We are not particularly good at holding together disparate pieces of trivia and information. But we’re very good at remembering stories.
Memory champions will tell you that it is much easier to remember a story you invented about a deck of cards than to remember the raw order of the deck. It might seem like the more compact the information is, the easier it is to remember, but no. Put information into a story, and it suddenly becomes sticky.
If stories are the ultimate tool for delivering and remembering information, why would we keep seeking out retellings of the same story, though? Entertainment, sure, but there’s something more to it.
We’ve all struggled with the same small set of problems throughout history, and retelling the same stories helps us navigate them.
On the surface, our problems feel special and unique. Who could possibly understand what you’re going through? But dig a little deeper, and there are as few core human problems as there are master plotlines.
One of the most fundamental human problems is mortality. What happens when I die? Will anyone care? Can I live forever, in body or spirit or work?
Happiness is another. Are you happy? Can you be happy? Will this make you happy? What is happiness? Can you stay happy?
Wealth is another obvious one. Do you have enough? What is enough? Can you ever have enough? Will having more wealth make you happy? How can you get more? Do you actually need more?
Then there’s love. Do your peers love you? Your parents? Your partner? Your children? Are you worthy of love? Who do you love? Is love enough? How can you know when you are in love?
And the Hero’s Journey is so dominant because it touches on one of the hardest and most timeless of human problems: Who Am I?
There are certainly more eternal problems: Knowledge, Trust, the Supernatural, Goodness. You could see the seven deadly sins as checks against impulses related to core human problems. As with the plot lines, there are many ways to make your lists. But it’s impossible to deny that a short list of timeless human problems exists, just as a short list of timeless plotlines exists.
The timeless problems and timeless stories go hand in hand. You can never know the answer to a question like “do your peers love you,” “are you happy?” or “what is enough?” So we keep listening to versions of the same story, over and over, as they try to give us a grip on these timeless unsolvable problems.
The problems have a certain Godel Escher Bach strange loopiness, too. Like Bach’s endlessly rising canon, these problems expand infinitely upon themselves. Each time you think you’ve it, you’ve only jumped up to a more meta layer of the problem. You are always within the problem, trying to solve it, pushing the horizon, but never moving beyond it. You can observe yourself, but you cannot transcend yourself. Knowing “am I happy” is unanswerable does not end the puzzle. It’s the slippery fish that slides back into the lake as soon as you squeeze it too hard.
When we learn to see our micro problems and zoom out towards the eternal human problem underlying them, we can appreciate how timeless our struggles truly are. The Nicomachean Ethics is a wonderful attempt to answer “what is the good life” and “how do I be happy,” and it is still useful for guiding your thoughts around actions 2400 years later. Perhaps more useful than almost anything published since then. But just as we are still telling various forms of The Odyssey over and over again, we are still attempting to answer “how do I be happy” and arriving at similar conclusions over and over again.
Aristotle even provides an explanation for why we keep struggling with these same problems:
“...happiness is not a state. For if it were, someone might have it and yet be asleep for his whole life, living the life of a plant... If we do not approve of this, we count happiness as an activity rather than a state, as we said before.” (emphasis mine).
Happiness, Love, Wealth, Mortality, Self, these are all eternal problems that cannot be solved. But they can be worked on. They can be seen as activities, not questions.
Instead of feeling despair at the recognition that they will never be solved, we should feel relieved that there is no pressure to figure it out. We will die. We will always wonder how others feel about us. We will always want more. We will always seek to be happier. And we can never answer or satisfy those questions. But we can find healthy ways to engage with them. To struggle against them. To expand the horizon of the problem while still being stuck within it.
The answer is in the stories themselves. We love hearing the same stories and asking the same questions over and over because they help us explore these infinite waters. The hero’s journey doesn’t end with The Return when he goes back to his original world, changed and new. That’s only a rest.
He must find a new cavern to explore, a new hydra to slay, a new depth to plumb, to keep struggling against those eternal questions of the human mind.
The journey never ends. So we must keep retelling it.
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Does it matter that TBP was written by a Chinese author? How common are these story arcs across different cultures?