Is That All There Is?

The human mind is built on expectation. We fail at times, and we succeed in others, but we never let these moments get us too high or too low, because we expect the opposite is hiding in a bright or dark corner. There’s always despair, there’s always hope, and there’s always something more to life. There’s always some extraneous force that counters and balances our current predicament. We’re in a perpetual state of looking around the corner for the next event to fulfill our expectations. We look forward to the weekend, to vacations, to moving, to promotions, retirement, and the afterlife. Eager beings like us look forward to tomorrow because we know it will be different than today, for better or worse.

In this quest for a greater tomorrow, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller write that we are frequently disappointed. The song, written in November 1969, is called Is That All There Is? The song’s lyrics detail the nature of expectations and the revelatory disappointments of life that begin in childhood. The song uses the circus as an example. We believed that the moment that circus began, we would experience some of the greatest moments in our life. Remember how magical the circus was to us when we were young? We probably can’t, but if you’ve ever taken your child to the circus, you remember. You remember the moment after you smell the circus. Not all the smells are pleasant, and something about those smells being trapped in the tent seems to add ingredients to the smell. Those smells are indigenous to the circus, and when you smell them, you’re five-years-old again. Couple that smell with the warmth of the room under that incredible large and tall tent, the taste of that stale, overly salted popcorn, and the pageantry of the pre-game show and we’re giddy again, as giddy as we were when we were five. No matter what age we are, we’re not quite six when the first clown makes an appearance. We pretend that we’re laughing with them, our kids, but we feel some sort of strange, internal glow we cannot push back down. We laugh wildly at everything the clown does, even though nothing a clown does is really adult funny. If they did the same thing without makeup, would we even smile? We laugh because for one brief spot in time, we are five-years-old again, and our laughter and that warmth are borne of expectation. When we saw the magnificence of elephants walking around, yards away from us, our little faces just beamed with awe, but they usually didn’t do anything to meet our expectations. They just walked around in circles and occasionally did painfully slow tricks that were supposed to impress us, but we were kids. We didn’t know how much it took to make an elephant stand on one foot on something. We know now, but we remember when we thought different. We saw a beautiful lady in pink and green tights flying high above our heads, and we cringed with the expectation that she might fall, and then she didn’t, and then it was over, and we walked out of from under the tent disappointed that our incredibly high expectations weren’t met. We couldn’t help but think that we missed something. Is that what everyone was talking about? “Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

PJ Harvey

Sung by Peggy Lee (later PJ Harvey) Is That All there Is? moves to more depressing matters as the song progresses. It talks about how the most horrific moments in life, even fire, can end up a little disappointing when one is all hyped up with horror. When the afterlife is discussed, the lyrics detail that how they don’t want to die, because they fear that final disappointment. The theme of the song, as evidenced by the above refrain, is that if that’s all there is to life, let’s live life to the fullest. Let’s break out the booze and let’s keep dancing if all these overhyped joys and horrors turn out to pale in comparison to what are supposed to be life’s greatest joys and horrors.

When we talk about the power of America in the world today, we talk about how she has the ability to shape the world in its status as the world’s lone superpower. When we talk about the technological advances she has made in her 200+ years of existence, we talk about it being the lone beacon in the world for individual achievement. Even after acknowledging this ingenuity and creativity, we are still vulnerable to insecurities that lead us to notion that there is something bigger, brighter and more powerful out there just waiting to expose us as frauds. We don’t know what that is, but we know that we can’t be all there is in the world.

Peggy Lee

We fear China. While few would say we have nothing to fear from China, our overhyped fear of them is borne of expectation. They are a very secretive country. If they were superior to all countries on earth, wouldn’t it be counterintuitive to keep that a secret? If that’s not the case, what’s the alternative? Do they enjoy our overhyped fear? Do they enjoy remaining the unknown? They number into the billions, they speak a funny language, and they’re a very industrious people. In our greatest fears, we portray their people, their citizens as almost machine-like. Their government has less regard for their lives and their suffering than we do. They pay their workers peanuts, and they rip off our creativity and ingenuity, but does this equate to superiority? If we were to construct a line-by-line comparison, we might find that they are not superior. They have their areas, of course, and we have ours? How about in the future? Ah, there’s the rub Skippy! The future is the unknown quality. The Chinese may be more organized, they may be better at math and engineering, and they may be so disciplined that they can they march in lockstep? But, are they superior? We don’t know, and our insecurities are driving us nuts.

We fear aliens from outer space for the same reasons. Aliens are superior to us. According to all speculation on this topic, they have technological advances we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Some have claimed that their culture may be thousands of years older than ours, so they must be thousands of years more advanced than we are. Some even claim that we base our comparatively little technological advancements on that which we’ve learned from alien visitations. There is one small problem with all of these assumptions: aliens may not exist. They may not exist, but if they do they’re superior to us. At least with the Chinese, we have tangible evidence for our fears, but the fear of aliens from outer space is a manifestation of our insecure belief that we’re limited by human constraints, and we can’t compete with them, and their superior intellect and machine-like abilities. The fact that we engage in these hypothetical fears is all is built on the expectation that this can’t be all there is.

Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

What would we do if we learned of an alien visitation from an individual who claimed the aliens who visited him were not as superior as we were led to believe? What if he said, “They might have been exceptions in the species, but I think I just got visited by a couple of alien hicks. When they stepped out of their incredibly advanced flying saucer, they were drinking and belching, and the way they spoke made me think they were swearing. I can’t be sure, but I swear they were drunk. Then, when they violated me, I think they were laughing while they did it!” Would we believe this person, or would their story violate our expectations of their superiority so much that this would be the lone alien visitation story that we didn’t believe? How convincing would this the poor person have to be to override our need to believe that there is something spectacular out there that we have yet to experience?

Alien visitation stories also feed into fears of our ultimate destruction. The subject of the visitation usually relays information from the overlord, alien visitors that suggest that our reliance on war and technology will have an ultimate price if we don’t stop now. Most aliens appear to be anti-corporate peaceniks. Due to the fact that aliens are superior, we know that they’ve seen the horrors technology can have on a society, so we could do a lot to stave off our Armageddon if we’d just put our iPods away and go back to our primitive nature. The advice the aliens give us tend to follow the subject of the visitation’s political philosophy, and it’s usually advice that is as simplistic as the subject appears to be. “When ordering from a fast food menu, lay off the Biggee portions they’re not good for you,” the wizened alien says in his alien tongue that has been translated to English by the subject. “Stop driving SUVs, and lay off the cigarettes. Doobies are fine, but those cigarettes are killing you Tony.”

If rational people are going to accept that we’re not the only life forms in the universe, they must accept the possibility that there are superior life forms out there. But they must also accept the possibility that there are inferior life forms out there, and if we have been visited by these life forms, we should’ve been visited by some them too. Some alien visitation “experts” would counter that the aliens we encounter are basically their astronauts—their best and brightest—so we probably won’t ever see the hicks of their species. That would bring us back to square one if we didn’t witness their technology and believe that theirs is thousands of years more advanced than ours. Most people who indulge in alien folklore don’t even question alien superiority or inferiority. For these people, the evidence is in, and their fundamental belief system is based on ALF superiority. This is based on their frustrations with life on Earth. This is based on the fact that they don’t make a whole of money in a job that they hate, their family hates them, and they don’t have a lot of friends. They need something to believe in, and believing in a God just isn’t cutting it for them anymore. They need something bigger, better and brighter than the stuff their stupid parents believed in.

Some fear UFO people, some fear the Chinese, and some fear God. Some believe in some form of astrological control of destiny, and others believe that with the correct federal government legislation on the books we can all avoid total failure. Most of us have some belief in a controlling authority that directs our fate, our daily lives, and our failures and successes, and some psychologists suggest that is actually be quite healthy. They say that because believing such things gives us some distance from our failures, and it gives those of us who have had our expectations damaged some hope that things will get better, or if they don’t, then we have someone, or something, to blame for it. We might read, and reread, that definition of healthy with a skeptical, furrowed brow, but what’s the alternative? The alternative could lead to a psychological blackhole in which the patient implodes in on themselves with the knowledge that most of their fears and beliefs were overhyped and they break out the booze and dance to try to forget that this is all there is.


2 thoughts on “Is That All There Is?

  1. I wrote this so long ago, almost ten years ago, that I forgot all about it. Thanks for the compliment, Whitney, and thank you for reminding me about it. It was a fun trip down memory lane reading it.


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