Making it up as we go along

Growing up is many things – in turn exciting, hard, surprising, frustrating. It is also, as the years roll by, an exercise in disenchantment.

Life starts off well enough. The world of the toddler is populated by soft, fluffy animals and colourful plastic toys. Infants have fairy tales with knights, princesses, and talking animals. As a child, there is Santa Claus who brings you presents from the North Pole – if you've been good, that is. There is also the reassuring presence of grown-ups  – Mum knows best, Dad can fix anything, and uncle George will fill you in about life as he takes you for a spin in his sports car. The people who can handle things are in charge.

Then cracks start to appear. Although your teacher can work magic with maths, she doesn't have an answer to all your questions. History, it seems, is not just about facts, but also about interpretation. Your friends have different explanations for the mystery of the birds and the bees, and how can you tell who is right? Good still triumphs over evil, but why does evil keep coming back? By then you've figured out that a flying sleigh and a pack of reindeer can't deliver presents to all the kids in the world, and that you've been had.

You're now fully into teen doubt. Your perfect parents have arguments, lose their temper, and clearly haven't got a clue about what it's like to be you. To your horror, you realise that they never had to qualify as parents, and that your upbringing is one huge experiment. If you still believe in God after the trick they played on you with Santa Claus, you will find that the priest is getting increasingly coy about the truths in the holy book, and prefers to talk about metaphors.

Taking matters in your own hand, you delve into science – only to find out how incredibly vast and empty the universe is, with hundreds of billions of galaxies composed of hundreds of billions of stars, and that we seem to be alone in it. The straightforward story about how it all started has been replaced with a convoluted evolutionary theory with all kinds of missing links. The worst part of it is that nobody seems to be in charge, and nobody, no matter how powerful or wise, really has a clue about why the world exists at all. Life, you realise, is very much like a computer game without instructions, and with rules that keep changing.

This is your cue. Like the hero who has hit rock bottom, you shake off your fear and rebound with renewed confidence. The great news is that if everyone is just making it up, then you can do the same. There are no rules in love? Great, let's try out something new. Adults have just been repeating what someone else told them? Wonderful, you won't have to listen to them anymore. Degrees, full-time jobs, and nuclear families are all industrial age institutions? Brilliant, you can make your own way. The computer game of life may have changing rules, but you can design your own world, and propose your own rules.

Make sure to keep to your convictions. Don't let yourself be intimidated by those who profess to know. Experts? Bless their hearts, they get so focused for so long that they end up knowing almost everything about almost nothing. Scientists? Well, the math looks impressive. But physicists, by their own account, seem to have lost 70% of the matter in the Universe. They also espouse two wonderful theories that fully explain the physical world, except for the fact that they also contradict each other. Ecologist raise the alarm about species disappearing, but their best guess about how many species there are lies between 5 and 100 million – not the kind of ballpark figure that will usually get you a passing grade. Doctors look especially authoritative in their white coats, but their diagnosis is often really just an educated guess – as they will finally tell you when none of their prescriptions work. As for pundits and politicians, well, just remember Father Christmas.

The dirty little secret is that we have all been making it up as we go along. All of it. The history of how it all started, how we came to be who we are, what good and evil are, how one should live. Not that we've been totally useless at it. We've mastered the physical world well enough, with airplanes and computers. We've proposed theories worth learning and debating. Some people have even said surprisingly wise things: prophets, poets, pop stars, and even the odd philosopher. But none of them knows how one should live, and none of them can tell you how you should live your life.

The upshot is that life is not as reassuring and comfortable as it was with your fluffy toys, but the good news is that it's a wide open playground. Keep trying things out. Make some rules of your own, then break them just for good measure. To convince others, lower your voice to hit that authoritative tone – that is what teachers the world over do. And never hold back on being fully human – that is, on making it up as you go along.

Dunkerke – Dover ferry, January 20, 2015

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