There is a folk-philosophical position that I oppose with every fiber of my being. From my perspective, this position is guilty of complete ingratitude, utter small-mindedness, lack of imagination, absence of perspective, and furthermore it indicates a complete lack of personal technique.
This position can be best summed up with the following phrase:“Life’s a Bitch, and Then You Die.” It might also be expressed by the phrase: “Karma’s a Bitch.” I think that people suffering from these nihilistic perspectives basically suffer from poor taste. That would be bad enough on its own, but they also seem insistent on inflicting their poor perspectives on everyone else.
Let’s not leave it at bad taste. I want at least a bit of rigor in this discussion. I don’t want to complain on just aesthetic or emotional grounds, though I think holding this position is definitely an aesthetic defect. It’s important to see how holding this mindset is a failure on multiple moral and intellectual levels.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve never maintained that Life’s a Bitch (henceforth the ‘LBH Hypothesis’). I have. I just think it’s a poor approach to life. This essay is as much an argument against parts of myself as it is an argument against anyone else. It’s likely more of an argument against my self than anyone else.
I sometimes feel like life is awful, or not worth living. I wish that I had someone to tell me the following things when I feel like life is awful. Hopefully, writing them like this will fix them in my being.
The first point I would make against myself, if I was trying to convince myself that live is worth living would be to point out to myself that reality actually came for free. Or rather, the basic ingredients for reality came for free. The other ingredients also tend to come pretty cheaply, if you know how to do it.
If you’re alive and reading this, that means that you had someone to feed you when you were too young and weak and helpless to feed yourself. That’s actually pretty cool. It also means that someone cared enough to put the effort into teaching you how to read. That’s also pretty cool. Not everybody gets that.
Those are both two major points to be grateful about. Hopefully focusing on them will help make life less oppressive.
The second point is somewhat more of a subtle one. If you feel that life is so awful that it’s worth throwing away, or that you hate yourself, then there is a subtle message in that. In the moments that I have hated myself, or that I have hated life, I’ve considered the consequences of throwing it away. In the majority of cases, throwing my life away has been a smaller cost than making a radical adjustment.
That was my conclusion when I decided to quit using drugs to numb myself against pain. I hated my life so much that I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t have any hope in my life getting any better. Then I asked myself: ‘If life is so bad, why don’t you take the risk to try and make it better? The worst thing that could happen is you’re three months down the line and still want to die.’
From a psychoanalytic perspective, we might say that some suicidal feelings are a desire to be rid of the self. In those questions, why not just change? Of course, we have to acknowledge the bravery that this requires.
To be alive is to have optionality. We have optionality in all cases. Even a prisoner in solitary confinement has some optionality. Optionality is inherently valuable. It’s valuable because to make a good choice is valuable, and to make a bad choice is valuable. To fail is valuable, and to succeed is valuable. Each are valuable. The results of a good choice are valuable, and the lessons from a bad choice are valuable.
I guess the solution to ingratitude on this view is the recognition that even the unpleasant can be appreciated and received gratefully; to cultivate gratitude for those things that don’t seem positive on the face of it. But also to reject those things which we can’t feel grateful for, such as failed selves, or failed modes of reacting to the world.
If I subscribe to the LBH because I hate myself, then in order to free myself from the LBH I must first free myself from the self that I cannot stand. The freedom that you were given as a birthright is to not suffer in a fixed mode of being if you don’t want to. Exercising that right with gratitude is one way to resist the LBH.
II. Lack of Insight.
In the last section I talked about relating positively to the world. But sometimes it’s impossible to relate positively to the world, because it’s just too awful. In those cases, it’s worth taking a page out of Ecclesiastes.
But consider that we might not be able to accept the presence of suffering in the world. If we were to decide that life was unworth living on the grounds that it contained such apparently senseless suffering, we would not be the first people to do so. The Problem of Evil has been a good chewing point for Philosophers and Theologians at least since the days of Ancient Greece.
What would happen if, instead of trying to answer the question ‘why is there suffering’, we instead focused on ‘how can I live with this suffering’? Both are important questions, but only one prompts a difference in behavior.
From a therapeutic perspective, activating the behavioral response is one of the most important things you can do to help combat depression, which I suppose is a medicalized way of viewing the problem of pessimism, or the LBH.
I have spoken elsewhere on the problem of modal confusion. In this other piece I put it in the context of love. Here it’s important to put it in the context of relating to reality. To wring ourselves out trying to answer the Problem of Evil is like trying to use a hammer to turn a screw. An answer to it wouldn’t satisfy. We know this; we have many theodicies. What we need is a way to behave that would be less painful.
Any of those ways, as I see it, have to be informed by an acceptance of the presence of suffering. That’s step one of the Four Noble Truths, or in the Christian tradition, we could say that’s the admittance of Original Sin. It’s allowing us to answer the question posed by the Problem of the Presence of Suffering with ‘just because.’
Which isn’t satisfying to the intellect, because it can’t be. If the intellect wants the significance of a given symbol, or if it wants to know the meaning of something, it asks what beyond that thing can be signified. If I want to know the meaning of you bringing me a plate of eggs, it likely has to do with something beyond the plate of eggs. Maybe it’s my birthday.
But I don’t even have eyes big enough to see all the suffering in the world. How could I then relate it to some outside context? If, on the other hand, I want to ask for the significance of why the world is broken, I would have to be able to see something outside the world, which I sadly cannot.
Don Cupitt gives a beautiful description of the world as a bubbling fountain, which must be taken on its own terms. Not as a linear process, or as a cycle, but as a chaotic, formless, and constantly shifting realm of phenomena arising and passing away, perhaps to never be reproduced. This might sound like a nihilistic or atheistic approach to the world. But I don’t think it has to be.
On the model of the fountain, the significance of any bubble or shape in the stream is just that it is part of the stream. The context is its formlessness and transience. But it is difficult to assume this perspective.
Exercise: Taking the Point of View of The Universe.
In order to make it easier to overcome the difficulty of being unhappy with how the world treats you, go outside and look at the night’s sky when it’s clear. If possible, go up on a hill, or go to a graveyard where you can sit comfortably. Then, try and imagine what the universe feels like, in all of its immensity. If you can find a graveyard on the hill, even better.
If you only have stars, consider how wide the universe is. Imagine the stars looking at you — that is if you’re even big enough to see.
If you only have graves, consider how long a time there was before you. Consider how long a time there will be after you. Imagine the ghosts talking about you, with all the advantage of eternity to widen their perspectives. Imagine what they wished they would have done.
In either case, make sure you realize that reality, in terms of space and time, is much wider than you regularly have access to. There’s a reason people say ‘it was good to get some perspective.’
III. Lack of Technique.
So hopefully you’ve considered the possibility that you don’t need to be miserable, and hopefully you’ve also realized that the world doesn’t care about you enough to make you miserable on purpose.
Hopefully both of those realizations were mighty freedom inducing.
If so, then you might still be miserable because you aren’t very skillful at getting what you want. I don’t want to give you a bunch of life advice. I’m not a self-help guru. I hope. But here are two possible errors you’re making, and maybe if you happen to be making them, and you stop making them, then you’ll be happier:
Poor Goal Setting.
I suppose it would be better to call this ‘poor goal updating.’ Sometimes, we have a dream, or we have an idea of what we want, and we pursue it so single-mindedly that we don’t realize it would make us miserable to get it — or to give up what we would need to give up to get it — until it is much too late.
For example, my father works with executives who climbed the corporate ladder, only to be kicked out of the organization at the last minute. He describes their biggest issues as being their lack of relationship with their families. He describes their second-biggest issues as being with their inability to direct themselves without the advantage of an organizational culture to set their goals for them.
It is possible that these people were sheep from the beginning. At times in my life, I would have thought so. But it is also possible that they simply forgot to pay attention to what they were giving up in the pursuit of their goal. They neglected to update their knowledge of themselves as they pursued their goal, and as such were unable to course-correct, or even to set themselves a landing pad if they should fail. This leads on to my second point.
I’m not going to harp on about this for years. Enough books and blog posts have been written on this concept to pave Rhode Island twice over.
But we should remember Aristotle, who suggested that excellence was the cultivation of virtuous habits. This means everyday action.
The other day I also heard an idea from the Vedas: you are not entitled to the fruit of your effort, just to the effort itself.
So virtue is the cultivation of virtuous habit. Suffering may or may not happen. Our solution is to be as noble and virtuous as possible in the mean-time. That means making an effort every day. In Narcotics Anonymous they say ‘it works if you work it, so keep coming back.’ Or, as Albert Camus suggests: ‘we must imagine Sisyphus happy.’
Here’s a clip from Bojack Horseman that makes me cry:
IV. Poor Taste.
I don’t think it’s accidental that so much great art requires conflict. If we take drama, which is in my opinion an exceptional source of perspective, then we could divide the attempts to organize the human condition into the comedic and the tragic.
All stories demand conflict to drive the plot. A joke requires a conflict of perspectives or expectation to prompt the moment of realization and subsequent release. The dramatic is a source of knowledge regarding emotional self-regulation because it evolved over so many thousands of years to serve just such a purpose.
The adaptive comedic is when you can laugh at something that makes no sense. The maladaptive or pathological comedic is when you can’t make sense of anything, and all you can do is laugh. The first kind is useful and brings joy. The second half makes you want to blow up Gotham General, and horribly maim District Attorney Harvey Dent.
On the other hand, we might say an adaptively tragic attitude to your life is where you can find the beauty in the transience of the fountain. For Nietzsche, the beauty of the Tragic is that we know the ending is coming before the main character does. That gives us a chance to savor the emotional tension before the moment of Storm and Stress in which the world is taken from him.
A pathologically tragic attitude is when you have become so overwhelmed by suffering and the inevitability of death that you are unable to savor the tension at all. It is when you are unable to love your inevitable death — which is likely most of the time, because that sort of attitude is hard to maintain.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s pointless to try and acquire an adaptively tragic outlook on life’s miseries. And it doesn’t mean that it’s worthless to maintain an adaptively comic outlook on life’s absurdities. In fact, the lesson we can take from the analgesic effect of art on the human spirit is that these attitudes are essentially curative. So maybe there’s another solution to the LBH.
Exercise: Imagining your Own Death.
This is an old Stoic trick. I am usually skeptical of Stoicism, because I don’t like how it’s used by people trying to sell self-help. The problem is that it’s also really useful if you’re trying to suffer less.
Take a few moments every day, and imagine yourself dying in at least one way. Die in a heroic way, pushing someone out of the course of a speeding bus! Die in a comedic way, as via aneurysm midway through a bout of constipation. Die in a senseless, bleak way; from starvation in a bomb shelter. Die in a soothing, peaceful way, surrounded by your family.
Just remember that’s going to happen. It might be tragic, it might be senseless, but get used to the idea, because it will happen. In the meantime, this exercise will stop your eventual mutability from seeming so absurd.
Once you’ve run out of ideas, watch this clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Maybe it will give you some more ideas, or maybe it will make you laugh.