The first act of The Martian, with Matt Damon as Mark Watney, finds him alone on Mars, facing a choice between dying gracefully and trying to get back to Earth. The movie is about the human condition and the psychological factors that affect our ability to manage it successfully.
The problem of existence and the desirable approaches to the inevitability of death are well-known in philosophy. We are alive only for a while. Shall we give up in resignation and depression? Pretend we will live forever under a cloud of anxiety? Or make the best of things with the time we have remaining? Ding ding ding: the answer is C, make the best of things we have with the time remaining. We should not live like the gardener who told Zorba the Greek that he lives each day as if he will never die; nor should we live like Zorba, who tells the gardener that he lives as if he will die each day. The correct way to live is based on a reasoned estimate of how much time we have left. If you’re thinking of learning a foreign language, you really need to know how long it will take, how much fun it will be, and how long you will have to live to enjoy whatever you learn.
Watney understands this, and the first thing he does is assess his life expectancy to estimate what he can accomplish in the time he has. Then, like a wise consumer of the serenity prayer (changing the things he can), he considers what he can reasonably do to extend his life expectancy. Thus, the first important psychological trait he displays in the face of existential despair is reason. After all, it’s reason that makes us aware of our own death, so the least it can do is start us off on a way to think about the time we have left productively.
Watney is blessed with a secure attachment. Although abandoned by his colleagues on a distant planet, he understands deeply that it’s not their fault, that he is loved, that if he manages his existential abyss, there will be a payoff in human relationships. This understanding helps to motivate him, but more importantly, it helps him not to ruminate. Resentment about reality is often the greatest impediment to improving things. Horney teaches us that the essence of neurosis is investing in how things should be instead of in how they are, and suspicions about injustice when the only villain is randomness is one of the main distractions from how things are.
One sign of dealing with the way things are instead of the way things should have been is a focus on the problems in front of you that can be solved instead of problems that can’t be solved or the problems that are brewing. I leave for another essay the question of whether a real problem is in front of us or is not. Much of the dispute about global warming can be construed as a dispute about whether it is yet in front of us. A couple that broke up because they could not agree on what to say to their hypothetical teenage daughter about birth control was fighting about a problem that was not yet in front of them—even if a different problem of how to treat women was. Watney sees life as a series of puzzles and predicaments and addresses them as they arise.
Watney is undoubtedly a much more intelligent person than most of us, and this gives him an edge. But even more important than his level of intelligence is the use to which he puts it. Many people use whatever intellectual ability they have to make excuses, refine accusations, curse fate, or show off. Watney uses his intelligence to solve his problems. When he makes mistakes, large or small, he tries to learn from them.
Humor is central to Watney’s ability to muster his other assets to face the truth of his existence. The effort to live within reality and to avoid despair and depression on the one side and denial and anxiety on the other is best supported by a comedic or ironic frame. Like two independent, aggressive, selfish humans purporting to live for each other, it’s not sustainable if they really mean it. Only an ironic frame can sustain romantic love. In parallel, a person capable of imagining infinitude and perfection but settling for what is real cannot do so successfully if he or she really settles. That is just another route to despair. But a comedic or ironic frame around the settling enables us to make the most of our limited time on our planet, winking at ourselves as we indulge our petty desires before what Janna Goodwin calls the “glorious indifference” of the universe.
Presumably, if Watney’s life expectancy were too short to develop a plan to get off the planet, he would have devoted himself to making the most of a more limited time frame. Buddha tells a parable about a monk who is running from a tiger and comes to the edge of a cliff. He lowers himself down a vine, but there is another tiger at the base of the cliff. Mice emerge above him and start eating the vine. With only moments to live, the monk notices a strawberry growing in a crevice. Buddha reports, “How sweet it tasted!”