“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
I didn’t ask to be born, and neither did you. Despite this, in what has to be the most selfish act that a pair of adults can undertake, a decision was made for our existence, and as a consequence, life was suddenly and spectacularly thrust upon us.
Given that we didn’t choose to be born, we could be forgiven for assuming that the decision-makers in this messy process would be responsible for everything that happens in our lives. But as it turns out, even though mother and father plotted and conspired to establish our fleshy form, the responsibility of our own lives falls to us. I’m hard-pressed to find a comparable event of such cruel and heartless discrimination. If this were hauled before a respectable judge, she would smash her decisive gavel in our everlasting favour. Those utter, utter bastards.
I jest, of course. I’m thankful for my meagre existence and the responsibility that comes with it, I just wish it wasn’t so bewilderingly complicated. Not only are we faced with a million bamboozling choices throughout our lifetime, we’re also expected to make the right one. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t given any How To Make Great Life Choices classes at school. Socrates didn’t teach at my woeful establishment. I just got yelled at a lot by adults who seemed to have spent their earlier years being broiled in a harsh, bitter liquid. None of them ever cooled down enough to offer me a map of life and some orientation instructions.
The problem that we all have is freedom. If you’re currently incarcerated in some god-awful prison with nightmarish, grime-ridden shower blocks, I apologise. But let me explain – freedom is simultaneously the most wonderful and awful thing that we have. It’s wonderful because it offers us the ability to make our own choices, and it’s awful because those choices can be so painfully difficult to make. As the beady-eyed French philosopher Paul Sartre said: we’re condemned to be free.
“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”—Jean-Paul Sartre
Freedom oh-so generously breaks our heavy shackles, while at the same time crushing us with the obligation to choose from an endless catalogue of options. Do I quit my woefully boring day job and study to be a mechanic? Will breaking up with my girlfriend make me happier in the long run? Should I accidentally trip this screaming, satanic child? These important choices, and an uncountable number of other choices that we’re faced with, can cause us a great deal of anguish. Modern society, with its dazzling and seemingly endless plethora of choice, can make freedom even more debilitating. There’s unlimited choice, and no information on how to choose.
Then there’s the accurate nihilistic notion that life is meaningless, making the responsibility of freedom even more miserable. Why decide to do anything if it doesn’t mean anything? It’s ideas like this that have led philosophers to the prospect of suicide as a serious consideration. Is life worth living if it’s just pointless?
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Thankfully, most of us are too cowardly to place our heads in a makeshift noose, or much too attached to our lives, even though it’s often intolerably bewildering. Though we’re relentlessly faced with a freedom that presents us with important, demanding choices, we love too much about our ridiculous lives to even consider throwing it away.
If we must go on, what we need is buckets of courage. The shackles of free choice must be smashed with audacity and determination – storming into the fray of our decisions, polished, hardwood shield raised and glistening sword unsheathed. Battle wounds are inevitable, but the alternative is distanced cowardice, in which we recoil from our lives, too frightened by the perplexity of freedom to tackle it.
The courageous hero takes full responsibility for her decisions, making appalling mistakes, as well as achieving stunning, air-punching victories. Her life isn’t perfect, but who wants perfection anyway? Even if it was attainable, a life of perfect sublimity would fast become boring, because without negativity as a contrast, we cannot understand positivity. They exist as a single, unbreakable scale of experience.
“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” — Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Facing the chewy, sour parts of life without giving into the desire to escape – whether through alcohol, drugs, social media, or anything else – is heroism beyond measure. It’s affirmation, not negation, of our lives. A deafening, resounding yes. Though life is unquestionably meaningless, by choosing to participate thoroughly, and by acting decisively, we’re creating our own meaning. Our role is of the sculptor, starting his long artistic process with a huge block of marble, resolutely chipping away until something evident and meaningful appears.
We may be condemned to be free, but we still possess the ability to choose our attitude. Should we play the dismal victim, crippled by the deluge of freedom, and the terrifying responsibility that we all possess? Or should we strap on our armour, accept our immutable freedom, and charge headfirst into the world with a battlecry so hectic that it’ll inspire poets? I know what William Wallace would have done.
If somebody you dislike invites you to their house for drinks, is it morally acceptable to blankly refuse, ruthlessly stomping all over their feelings by doing so?
Lying is a near-universal sin among humans. As selfish animals for which some kind of personal gain is usually the priority, society would cease to function if nobody told each other the truth. Trade agreements would fail, employment would become untenable, and personal relationships would crumble like a squeezed croissant.
It simply isn’t possible to get along with each other unless we’re honest. And yet, white lies – those little deceptions that are usually for the sake of the recipient’s feelings – are considered by many as an appropriate and just action. Why upset someone unnecessarily when we can express a small white fib?
Though seemingly innocuous, white lies can be equally as insidious as their black counterparts, for a number of reasons.
Erosion of trust
“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
Trust is the foundation of all human relationships, which when taken away, totters like an alcoholic during a bender, waiting for the inevitable crash.
Any kind of lie, white or otherwise, comes with a risk of being discovered. If that happens, trust is diminished, weakening the relationship in turn. Having a conversation with somebody after you’ve found out that they’ve lied about something is unpleasant, and soon enough, you probably won’t want them around at all. Every word that leaves their lips has become tinged with doubt; every action a little more questionable. Their once stellar credibility has been darkened.
Over time, lying destroys human connection, even when acted out of supposed beneficence. Every time you tell an obvious white lie, the person is forced to reevaluate how trustworthy you are, causing serious damage to the relationship.
While you may not want to form a relationship with certain people, lying to them is still a bad idea because they might squeal to others about your lack of authenticity, tarnishing your reputation. It’s tempting to make up a false excuse in response to the unwanted drinks invite mentioned above, but if the little white lie is recognised, your good social standing may be at risk, which is an absolute requirement for survival in our socially-driven species.
You’re depriving people of the truth
White lies can be imbued with arrogance. What makes you so confident that the recipient of the lie can’t handle the truth? Deceit takes away their freedom to make an informed decision about the matter concerned – it’s hardly fair that you make that decision for them, like some kind of unwanted parental figure. Their choice may be entirely different to yours.
As naturally subjective creatures, our understanding of the truth isn’t always accurate, but it’s a damn-sight closer to the truth than a lie. Though white lies can have the benefit of preventing hurt feelings, as adults we should be fully aware that life is tough, and sometimes pain is required in order to learn and grow. Lying to protect someone’s feelings is treating them like a child who doesn’t have the mental capacity to deal with adversity.
In addition to this, a person who discovers that they’ve been lied to might start regarding themselves as someone who doesn’t deserve the truth, instilling a destructive unworthiness in which they doubt their own ability to make decisions.
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” —Mark Twain
“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar” —Abraham Lincoln
White lies aren’t told and then conveniently forgotten. They remain for a lifetime. If you’re a consistent white liar, you’d better have an amazing memory, otherwise you will be caught out eventually. Having to quickly remember and repeat lies can be a stressful experience; worse still, more lies may be needed in order to support the original, creating a gargantuan, sticky web that requires more and more work to maintain. Telling the truth requires none of this.
You’re acting like a fraud
“Every liar says the opposite of what he thinks in his heart, with purpose to deceive.” —Saint Augustine, The Enchiridon
We each have our desires and preferences, and going against them feels undeniably wrong. Truth, on the other hand, is like swimming with the current. Forgoing a white lie can be undoubtedly uncomfortable, but at least you’re acting in the way that is most agreeable to you; in a manner that is 100% you.
The soul that resides in your fleshy ensemble is beautifully unique, giving rise to one-of-a-kind expression and behaviour. Lies impede your originality, slowly turning you into a boring conformist, living a life that everyone else is happy with aside from you.
Lying also burdens us with cognitive dissonance, that disagreeable feeling we get when our actions don’t match our beliefs. Routine liars are likely to experience this unnecessary, guilt-ridden discomfort whenever they lie, with each deceitful sentence being accompanied by a jolly good bit of mental self-flagellation.
Bad habits are easily formed. One small white lie, seemingly harmless, leads to another white lie, eventually assembling an unstoppable 2-tonne snowball of destructive deceit. Indulging in wrong-doing becomes quickly comfortable, making other types of immoral behaviour effortless. Slowly but surely, your once grand character is warped into that of an unloveable scoundrel, with whom nobody wants to take on a lovely dinner date.
We’re being selfish
Though lying is often distressing, telling white lies can also be extremely uncomfortable, because you’re revealing a potentially unpleasant truth to the recipient. We might selfishly decide that we’re prefer the discomfort of the lie over the discomfort of the truth.
The truth might also have drastic, life-changing consequences, which we’re not willing to undertake. Consider the wife who has long fallen out of love with her husband, yet continues to declare her love for him daily, because she doesn’t want to destroy his feelings or face the reality of a painful divorce. Though this is perhaps a little extreme to be classified as a white lie, some part of the deception is to protect the husband’s feelings, while deterring an agonising breakup. She’s selfishly lying in order to achieve her own purpose.
Honesty is the glue that holds society together, and lying the crowbar that can pry it apart. We learn what’s acceptable from others, so each lie becomes tacit approval to copy the behaviour. With enough people lying, nobody can truly trust anyone, and society crumbles into non-cooperative anarchy, Mad Max style.
Given the complexity of our world, it can also be difficult to predict the full effects of a lie. Every situation contains a plethora of factors and outcomes that cannot be determined and calculated by our paltry brains. A small white lie might result in detrimental long-term effects that can’t possibly be guessed.
Lying, white or otherwise, can have far-reaching and devastating effects on our lives. The only time that lying is acceptable is to deter a serious, immediate threat to somebody’s life, as when an axe-murderer asks whether you’re hiding their intended victim, or when a ledge-skirting, suicidal stockbroker asks you whether their life is worth living. Aside from these extreme and (hopefully) rare situations, it’s better to tell the often uncomfortable truth.
White lies are a short-lived solution, with the potential to diminish your integrity, and the integrity of society as a whole. Honesty, though difficult and requiring a good deal of courage, is truly the best policy.
“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” – Leonard Cohen
Humans, while quite lovely at times, can be a spiteful bunch. The merciless critic within us, that character who always makes us feel better about ourselves, lets loose his disapproving expression or wicked tongue, the recipient of which is cast into a filthy pit of shame.
Shame is a result of undue, unfair, or badly-delivered criticism and judgment, adding to an anesthetized feeling of unworthiness. When we’re experiencing shame, we want to withdraw from the world; to run away from the thing that’s causing us damage. Experience enough of it over time, and we’ll make ourselves so small that we may as well not exist.
Brene Brown is a research professor from Houston who has spent much of her career studying shame. In her extraordinary book Daring Greatly, she explores the devastating impact of shame on our lives, and offers a powerful antidote: vulnerability.
Many of us might think of vulnerability as weakness. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to damage, and we live in a perilous world with physical and mental danger around every corner. Surely it’s better to protect ourselves? As it turns out, being constantly guarded is tantamount to being invisible – we must risk vulnerability in order to achieve anything worthwhile.
“Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And yes, we’re taking huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.” – Brene Brown
Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s strength. It’s a prerequisite for progress – you simply cannot hope to achieve anything unless you’re willing to take risks. Every compromising gamble could end up in success, or failure, but you’ll never find out which unless you have the guts to throw the dice.
Shame cloaks us in fear, preventing us from being vulnerable. Every disparaging look that lighted upon us and every small failure that befell us has helped to assemble an impenetrable suit of shame armour that we wear to protect ourselves. Brown is wonderfully candid throughout the book, describing her own farcical attempts at self-preservation:
“All of my stages were different suits of armour that kept me from becoming too engaged and too vulnerable. Each strategy was built on the same premise: keep everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy.” – Brene Brown
If shame is the excavator of quick, cowardly exits, vulnerability is how you board them up. Slowly, with enough practice, you’ll become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of being vulnerable, and though there’ll be times when you’ll want to shamefully escape using the swiftest of exits, you’ll usually possess the strength to stand true, and with a bit of luck, achieve great things.
“As I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light.” – Brene Brown
The hazards of life are thrust upon us daily, and every time that happens we’re faced with a simple choice – cowardly withdrawal, or knightly, engaging vulnerability; to camouflage ourselves and fade comfortably into the background, or put a tentative foot forward, place ourselves in all kinds of jeopardy, and maybe accomplish something that makes us feel like worthy human beings.
“Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.” – Brene Brown
Though we’re horrified at the prospect of being vulnerable, it evokes unadulterated admiration when we witness it in other people. It’s a trait for which we hold a heartfelt appreciation – this person has the courage to step reluctantly into the abyss, and the audacity to push their chips forward, cross their fingers, and throw the dice. They’re risking embarrassment, loss and failure, but at least they’re brave enough to play.
“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.” – Brene Brown
“We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us. We’re afraid that our truth isn’t enough – that what we have to offer isn’t enough without the bells and whistles, without editing and impressing.” – Brene Brown
Brown places great emphasis on the idea of wholeheartedness, which is living your life from a place of worthiness; a place where you realise that you are undeniably valuable, deserving of happiness, with the courage to be vulnerable. This is a position from which you’ll experience and affirm everything in your life – fear, pain, doubt, depression, amusement, bliss, joy – everything. By answering life with a resounding yes, you’re fully participating in your own existence.
“Much of the beauty of light owes its existence to the dark. The most powerful moments of our lives happen when we string together the small flickers of light created by courage, compassion, and connection and see them shine in the darkness of our struggles.” – Brene Brown
“We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” – Brene Brown
“The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything—from their professional success, to their marriages, to their proudest parenting moments—to their ability to be vulnerable.” – Brene Brown
It’s a choice between shying away from vulnerability and remaining on the sidelines of your life, or taking a deep breath, strapping on your boots, and running onto the field, brimming with fear but truly alive.
“Our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness.” – Brene Brown
“It’s easier to live disappointed that it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain.” – Brene Brown
While we’ll never be able to fully silence shame-inducing critique (whether from ourselves or others), we can combat the crippling feeling of shame by practicing gutsy and relentless vulnerability, stepping into the world as opposed to withdrawing from it. We adore vulnerability in others, and yet, when it’s time for us to enter the fray unprotected, running away becomes a tempting option. When we do muster up the courage to take the plunge, we’re transformed into objects of admiration, and during those moments, we’re living wholeheartedly.
“I remember a very tender moment from that year, when Steve and I were lying on the floor watching Ellen do a series of crazy, arm-flinging, and knee-slapping dances and tumbles. I looked at Steve and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how I just love her that much more for being so vulnerable and uninhibited and goofy. I could never do that. Can you imagine knowing that you’re loved like that?’ Steve looked at me and said, ‘I love you exactly like that.’ Honestly, as someone who rarely risked vulnerability and always steered clear of silly or goofy, it never dawned on me that adults could love each other like that; that I could be loved for my vulnerabilities, not despite them.” – Brene Brown
“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” – Heraclitus
Life has a tendency to grind us down over the years. Slowly, relentlessly, our limited stay on earth becomes ever more serious, carving deep-set, knitted lines between our once-smooth brows. Our muscles take on a steady tenseness, only able to be softened by the skilled hands of a Thai masseuse. The near-constant anxiety that racks our exhausted brains zaps the dazzle from our once vibrant hair.
It wasn’t always like this. As kids, we had a propensity for joy. We were able to just live in the moment. Young kids have no concept of past or future – they seem to understand, intuitively, that the only tangible thing that exists is now. You’ll never find a young child wracked in anguish about yesterday’s mishap at play school. Nor will you find them frantically worrying about the upcoming visit from their distant, straw-eating, hillbilly cousins.
Kids don’t have any responsibilities, of course, and while this is certainly a factor in their carefree attitude, it’s far from the whole story. Children just seem to have an unwavering commitment to their lives – they never hold back. When a young girl builds a sandcastle, she builds the absolute shit out of it. When she straps on her wellingtons and jumps in a freshly formed puddle, she jumps as high as her legs will allow. When she gets upset, she cries her heart out. There’s simply no time to worry when you’re so busy living.
Why are kids able to become so effortlessly engaged, and how can we imitate the joyous little bastards?
Curious, mindful sensing
“Children see magic because they look for it.”― Christopher Moore
An uncountable number of mothers across the globe have, at one point, dashed across a room to prevent their child from putting something disgusting in their mouth. Kids love to use their senses to explore the world. What does that mud-ridden, juicy worm taste like? How does this delicate, floral-covered vase feel when I run my fingers over it? What will happen if I squeeze this ginger cat’s tail?
As we become familiar with the sight, texture and taste of the world around us, it somehow becomes less special. We stop paying attention to the stunning, sun-kissed majesty of our city. Our minds are elsewhere while we wolf down salt-covered, freshly roasted potatoes. The small, thoughtful, love-filled gestures from our partner begin to go unnoticed. We start to take everything for granted.
Young kids find magic and novelty in the world because they pay attention. Their Magellan-like exploration of their surroundings aren’t accompanied by an endlessly buzzing smartphone that yanks on their attention. They aren’t conjuring plans for their next activity while delicately picking a ruby-red geranium in the local park. They do one thing at a time, and they do it wholeheartedly. Kids are the embodiment of mindfulness. They stare so intently that it can make you blush, absorbing every single blemish on your face, and giggling afterward.
“The soul is healed by being with children.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
The fact that everything is new and shiny to a kid does make things more exciting, but we can recapture a little of this magic by being more mindful and curious about the world around us.
Instead of just glancing at something, really look at it. Consider its shape, texture and colour. If it isn’t a human who’ll get offended, touch it. Contemplate how it feels against your nerve-packed fingertips. Notice the sound waves that are hurtling and ricocheting their way through the world, which by chance, happen to reach your meticulously evolved ears. Though you may experience the same thing every day, you’re probably still missing a great deal of delightful detail.
Our world has profound depth and boundless beauty, and we just happen to have the right equipment to experience it. Kids know how to use this equipment properly – they’re the masters of their senses. As we grow older, we live more inside our own heads – an existence of imagination, projection and worry, with no concrete reality. The antidote is simply, and wholeheartedly, to pay attention to the world once more. Put your fucking phone away and spend some time absorbing your exquisite, improbable planet.
“How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?” —Alan Watts
Even something that you don’t want to do can become intriguing if you pay attention, from a position of open-minded curiosity. Like a caterpillar in its cocoon, curiosity has a way of transforming the mundane into something beautiful and extraordinary. By withholding our judgment and becoming a little more inquisitive about the daily activities of our lives – scrubbing the dishes, making the bed, brushing our teeth, etc. – they become a little more pleasing. Curious attention turns us into participants, rather than spectators, in our own lives. Kids do this naturally, and this is one of the reasons why they’re so joyful.
Pledge yourself fully to each and every moment, as a child does. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re irritated, be irritated. Kids don’t try to escape their emotions the way that adults do; they seem to understand that soon enough, whatever is bothering them will be over. Our emotional life is a never-ending rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs – the highs can’t exist without the lows.
“Look at children. Of course they may quarrel, but generally speaking they do not harbor ill feelings as much or as long as adults do. Most adults have the advantage of education over children, but what is the use of an education if they show a big smile while hiding negative feelings deep inside? Children dont usually act in such a manner. If they feel angry with someone, they express it, and then it is finished. They can still play with that person the following day.”― The Dahai Lama
Be content with what you have
“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.” — Lao Tzu
As we mature from teenagers to adults, responsibility bears down on us like a truck with a sleeping driver. Suddenly, we’re no longer able to freeload from our parents, and the obligations that we’re burdened with make life much more serious. Kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or the security of their job after a recent company takeover. Their basic needs are fulfilled, often thanklessly, without question.
As adults, we’re always going to feel the squeezing pressure of earning a living, but we can minimise that pressure by learning to be content with what we have. How happier will an extra few thousand dollars a year really make us? Is it worth consistently working until the small hours of the night, and depriving yourself of sleep to get it? Most of us intuitively know the correct answer to this question, and yet we do it nonetheless.
“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” —Pearl S. Buck
While playing with a toy, young kids aren’t putting plans in place to get a bigger, better toy. They’re too busy living and experiencing what’s in front of them. Ambition is just a foolish concept pursued by grown-ups. Why strive for more when you can’t appreciate what you already have?
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” —Socrates
By learning to be content with what we have, our greedy desires for more will lessen. We won’t need a promotion in order to buy that enticing, V8 sports car. Our financial responsibility, and the pressure that comes with it, are reduced to something much easier to handle. Like kids, we can begin to fully appreciate and become involved with what’s in front of us.
Psychology has shown that keeping a daily gratitude diary is a great way to become more content with your life, because it forces you to focus on what’s good, rather than what’s lacking.
“[The world is] an arabesque of such stunning rhythm and a plot so intriguing that we are drawn by its web into a state of involvement where we forget that it is a game. We become fascinated to the point where the cheering and the booing are transformed into intense love and hate, or delight and terror, ecstatic orgasm or screaming meemies. All made out of on-and-off or black-and-white, pulsed, stuttered, diagrammed mosaiced, syncopated, shaded, jolted, tangoed, and lilted through all possible measures and dimensions. It is simultaneously the purest nonsense and the utmost artistry.” — Alan Watts
Unless you’re religious, you’d probably agree with the fact that life has no ultimate meaning. As such, it’s our challenging and enduring task to imbue it with meaning that’s wholly personal to us. We decide what makes life meaningful, and while this absolute freedom can swing between being crippling and liberating, it’s an undeniable and staggeringly beautiful fact.
Life doesn’t have to be so serious. Hindus believe that life is a game, born out of creative play by a divine god. Games are supposed to be enjoyed, not played to be won and conquered, like an empire-builder with stunted self-confidence. A game is played for the enjoyment one experiences while playing; there’s no end goal in sight – it’s the playing that counts. One doesn’t dance in order to reach the end of the song, we dance because we enjoy the process. The end game is a fool’s game.
For children, their whole existence can be described as a game, and their unremitting investment in playing through the good and bad parts of it are what makes them masterful participants.
Our existence is only serious because we assume it to be. By treating life as a game, it becomes more nonchalantly light-hearted, and our petty little worries are destroyed by a fresher, brighter perspective.
Do what you love
If a child is drawn towards something, they’ll use whatever means necessary to get it. There’s no need for them to rationalise why their heart is set on certain toys, activities or people, they just want them and enjoy them. Not much changes with the approach of adulthood – certain things just happen to intrigue us, which is why settling into a personally appealing career is so critical to our happiness. Kids don’t usually do things that they don’t want to do – why the hell would they? They’re motivated intrinsically, solely by what interests them.
Of course, gaining and maintaining employment isn’t quite as simple. It’s doubtful that we’ll work jobs that we love all the time. This seems to be an increasingly common assumption that should be expelled for the sake of our mental health – a utopia-like job, perfectly suited to you, is highly unlikely to exist. Even if it did, it’d be almost impossible to find. Instead, we should focus our efforts on finding employment that is good enough; on a role that fulfils us for the most part, but will probably still irritate us at times.
We all lost something on the way to becoming adults, stolen by an education that equipped us for survival, but robbed us of our enthusiasm. Though the responsibilities of life will forever be a burden, they don’t have to drag us to dark and depressing depths. As difficult as it can be to recognise, our existence contains much that we should be grateful for.
Anxiety doesn’t have to be the most familiar emotion in our arsenal. Our passion for life can be rekindled by imitating the kids, those masters of existence, for which time is a game played beautifully.
“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.” —George Orwell
If every experience, thought and emotion of a person were to be compiled into an extensive catalogue of their life, a large portion of it would probably be tagged with the word suffering. It’s an indelibly human experience – frequent, painful, and inescapable. Our brows are often knitted in frustration, mouths curled into a grimace, and muscles uncomfortably tense, as if preparing for an attack.
Your narcissistic, impish boss might be the source of your suffering, as his eyes slowly narrow into contemptuous slits during conversation. Perhaps you’re hopelessly fastened to a blob-like lifestyle, in which fried potato comfortably and regularly defeats fibrous vegetables. Maybe you’re slowly and reluctantly realising that you married the wrong person.
Unless you want to renounce your life and introduce your neck to a homemade noose, suffering is here to stay. And if it can’t be expelled, we’d better learn how to handle it.
As it turns out, suffering itself isn’t the problem, but our judgment of it. We suffer, and then we suffer some more because we can’t help but bitch and whine about it, exacerbating the original problem. This preposterous, habitual reaction to suffering is attributed to much of the world’s emotional pain – a form of insidious, repetitive self-harm. It’s like accidentally cutting yourself in the kitchen and then intentionally wedging the knife into the wound afterwards. A witness to this behaviour would swiftly sit you down for a chat about the demons inhabiting your soul.
There’s two fundamental roles that can be assumed in relation to suffering – two standpoints that we can assume. The first is the victim.
The victim is a doleful character for which life just isn’t fair. Nobody deserves the pain that they experience – them least of all. A disproportionate share of misery has wound a path to them; all signposts for anguish point in their direction. If they picked winning lottery numbers, they’d probably put their ticket through the wash.
Life as a victim is tragically debilitating – every ounce of energy is wasted on complaint, with feeble weakness as the result. Exertion is taxing and undesirable. It’s much easier to complain about something than it is to actually change it. The voice of a victim has an unmistakable whiney quality, as though all traces of bassy substance has been filtered out, resulting in a spiritless, barely noticeable, irritating noise.
If faith in the almighty is their thing, they might be left wondering why they’re being so woefully punished. Even Jesus himself couldn’t have been the recipient of such devlish torment. Perhaps a visit to the local church will do the trick.
The victim’s lengthy role has instilled them with an unshakeable hostility towards life, which has treated them appallingly and must be responded to in a similar fashion. They’re as hostile as rabid hounds, and as bitter as raw coffee beans.
“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” — Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays
If being a victim sounds horrible to you, then you might consider strapping on your armour, unsheathing your glistening sword, and assuming the role of a much more agreeable character: the hero.
The hero suffers the same amount as the victim, but chooses a much more advantageous stance. They understand that pain is inevitable, to be faced head-on with jutted chest, wide-set feet, and hands on hips. Suffering is still unsavoury and arduous, yet tolerated with admirable courage and hulk-like strength.
Fortitude is a chief characteristic of the hero, forged from years of leaninginto suffering. Unlike the victim, for which suffering is cruel and undeserved, the hero understands that pain is a great teacher; an alchemist for an enlightened soul.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” —Kahlil Gibran
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”— John Keats
The hero wouldn’t be caught dead casting aspersions on life, like pitiful martyrs. They know that suffering has the potential to mould them into something better, something durable, superbly tenacious, and with a shadow that darkens entire neighbourhoods.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Like the hero of Dante’s Inferno, they recognise that the way out of hell lies at its centre – only by fully experiencing pain can we escape it. Complaining only strengthens the potency of suffering. Life is a rip-roaring adventure, bursting with colourful jubilation and dreary sorrow, with all of it valuable.
Life is suffering, but the intensity and duration is defined by the stance that we choose to take. We can be helpless victims, whining our way through life with shrivelled voices, suffused with crippling anxiety. Or we can be courageous heroes, standing Hercules-like against our pain, with every laceration amplifying the robustness of our character.
The choice is yours.
“The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine” —Martha Beck
If a man molests a child because of a tumour in his brain, can we say that he freely chose to do so? Is he responsible for his actions?
This is a true case from the American state of Virginia back in 2000, in which a tumour in a man’s orbitofrontal cortex – an area that regulates social behaviour – created strong paedophilic urges, causing him to molest his stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed after being discovered by doctors, the desires vanished. Some years later the tumour returned, along with his sexual urges towards children. Its removal once again caused the paedophilia to disappear.
This dark situation is a question of free will – should he be held accountable for his actions, given that they were caused by his brain tumour? Was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?
Wikipedia defines free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” Philosophers have been musing about the existence of free will for centuries, with three major standpoints emerging from their perceptive brains. We’ll consider this situation from each unique philosophical stance.
“Life calls the tune, we dance.” —John Galsworthy
Hard determinists believe that the tumour, and the man’s crimes, are a result of natural cause and effect for which the man had no control over. The existence of his tumour, and the uncountable number of causal events that happened prior to the point of his misconduct, were not decided by him. In the world of hard determinists, everything is determined – it was his fate to be the host of a disastrous brain tumour, and to subsequently molest his stepdaughter.
Determinists believe that all events are caused by past events, and nothing other than what does occur, can occur. There’s nothing that could have been done to change the man’s path to paedophilia – free will is an illusion and does not exist. We’re nought but puppets of fate.
This position has deeply troubling consequences for personal responsibility – if there’s no free will, are we really responsible for anything? How could a legal system function under such circumstances?
It’s impossible for us to examine every single causal event that occurred up until this moment, and given that we didn’t choose these events, to what degree can we claim to be free? We almost certainly feel free to make decisions, but at the same time, we had no control over the events that led up to the decision.
From this philosophical standpoint, the man who molested his stepdaughter cannot be held accountable for his actions. The tumour doesn’t change anything, because even tumourless paedophiles aren’t in control of their own decisions.
“We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.” —Baron d’Holbach
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Libertarians believe that while the tumour was clearly not chosen as a growth in the man’s brain, he did have the free will to choose whether to molest the child. In this sense, determinism is false to the libertarians – we have the freedom to choose different courses of action, and not giving in to peadophilic urges is one of them.
Libertarians believe in agent causation – our powerful ability to affect the causal chain of the universe, though it’s unclear where those decisions actually come from. Claiming that they come from our brains is accurate, but the causal nature of the universe, and all of the classical mechanics science that supports it, would state that something must have caused our brains to make the decision. Libertarians seem to believe that it simply comes from the ether, that the decisions-making brains of humans are somehow exterior to the concept of cause and effect, as though in a vacuum.
Quantum mechanics supports the libertarian argument, with evidence to suggest that the tiniest, quantum-level elements of our universe are not necessarily subject to classical cause and effect. They can even be in two places at the same time. According to scientists, the measurable properties of a sub-atomic particles simply cannot be predicted based on what happened previously. If the tiniest elements in our brains sit outside the rigid realm of cause and effect, then free will can be said to exist.
Compatibilism (soft determinism)
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Compatibilists would agree with the libertarians, as they’re also staunch believers in free will. Unlike the libertarians though, they do believe that everything is determined, which seems contradictory – if everything is pre-determined, how can we possibly be free to choose? If the growth of the tumour was determined by forces outside of the man’s control, was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?
This contradiction is reconciled by the compatibilists belief that, even though the man’s actions were caused by the tumour, it was still him who made the decision. He wasn’t coerced by an outside force, and acted according to his own motivation; the tumour, though unwanted, was still a part of him. As such, and in spite of his tragic misfortune, he should be accountable and punished for his actions.
Degree of control – a new approach
Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that free will should be considered from a different angle. The existence of free will doesn’t matter in this situation – whether consciously decided or not, the child was still molested. Instead, Churchland thinks that we should consider how much control we have in any given situation. The greater the control, the greater the responsibility.
In the case of our tumour-driven paedophile, we would have to understand the man’s ability to resist the sexual impulses in his brain. There’s probably many paedophiles alive today who choose not to commit crimes, because their sense of morality dictates that it’s the wrong thing to do.
To what degree is the man’s tumour affecting his ability to resist his urges? For Churchland, reframing the question in this way helps us to understand how responsible the man is for his crimes, and while it’s an undoubtedly difficult thing to measure, regarding the situation from a philosophical position is even fuzzier.
Until our scientific knowledge advances to a point where we can answer these questions confidently, the paedophile’s ultimate responsibility will continue to be debated by philosophers. The tumour caused his nefarious actions, and according to the libertarians and compatibilists, he should be held accountable. This seems terribly unfair, and yet, the mercilessness of hard determinism is equally as cruel – the outcome is the same, after all.
The seemingly contradictory nature of compatibilism, the freedom-certainty of the libertarians, or the rigid idea of determinism offers little guidance for personal responsibility. From a practical perspective, Churchland’s reframing of free will from a position of control allows us to measure responsibility, determine accountability, and decide the consequences for an immoral action.
While it doesn’t answer the intriguing question of whether free will exists, it does fulfill an important concern – the ability to measure how responsible we are for our actions.
With each passing year my boobies get a little bit bigger, which isn’t great because I’m a man.
That right there is self-deprecating humour, and as a Brit, it’s baked into my very core. Brits and Australians are masters of self-deprecation – spend time with the peoples of either country and you’ll quickly become accustomed to laughing at yourself, whether it’s poking fun at your wobbly midriff, the blinding shiny bald patch where your hair used to be, or your frequent and complete lack of intelligence.
“I, myself, am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” — Augusten Burroughs
Poking fun at ourselves is an effective way to get people to like us. Nobody appreciates a high-and-mighty narcissist who never puts a foot wrong. Our flaws are what make us human, and putting them on display can be a way to communicate that there’s nothing wrong with being imperfect. Pointing out my stupidity to somebody with doubts about their own intelligence might help to put them at ease – the abject horror at being discovered as a bit dumb becomes slightly less terrifying, because it’s a trait shared by others. This is similar to the idea of imagining your psychotic boss wearing fancy pantaloons, as a way to make him appear foolish, rather than fearsome. Self-deprecation can remove the menace from the menacing.
A study from the University of Granada last year found that those who jokingly point out their own flaws have high scores in psychological well-being. Life can be tough – directing gibes at our oversized snout adds a silver lining to an otherwise painful fact. It may look like a rejected zucchini, but at least we can laugh about it. They also found a relationship between self-deprecating humour and personality traits such as kindness and honesty.
Ursula Beermann (University of California) and Willibald Ruch (University of Zurich) found that self-deprecating humour is linked with increased levels of optimism, and better moods. It literally has the power to make us happier.
Laughing at ourselves also reveals a loveable humility and self-confidence. Yes, we have some glaring deficiencies, but we also have the courage to not only display them, but shine a light on them. This willingness to show embarrassment can help to build trust with our fellow chimps. Bullies have nothing to work with if we’ve already pointed out our amusing flaws.
“I finally have the body I want. It’s easy, actually, you just have to want a really shitty body” — Louis C.K.
Must be about time for you to start slapping insults on yourself, right? Tread carefully, because self-deprecation can be destructive unless discharged under the right conditions.
Your gibes must be based in reality
Self-deprecation can only work if you’re being honest. Brad Pitt making light of his gruesome face just doesn’t work. The girls in his audience will be confused as fuck.
Stephen Hawking declaring himself a kung-fu champion does work, they’d probably high-five him if he wasn’t so delicate.
You need to find the joke funny
You must find your self-deprecating joke genuinely humourous. There’s little benefit to calling yourself fat if you’re saying it through bared teeth and clenched fists. This is just taking an axe to your own self-esteem. There’s a difference between lightly taking the piss out of yourself, and unhealthy self-hate.
Don’t target what you want to change, and can be changed
Like me, your favourite kind of self-deprecation might be about your weight, which you aren’t entirely happy with. We can lose excess weight through diet and exercise, so this type of self-poking is just illuminating our own laziness. It’s using self-deprecation as an excuse not to get off our arses and exercise – why make an effort if I can just learn to laugh at it instead? Control is the key factor here – if you’re taking the piss out of something that you can change (and want to change), you might consider diverting your efforts to the thing itself. It isn’t quite as simple as “I want to change this so I will,” some things are fucking tough, but the point still stands. This kind of self-deprecation is just taking the easy way out.
On the other hand, if you’re never going to embrace the #gym4life attitude and want to accept the eternal presence of your man-boobs, laughing at yourself will probably help you achieve that goal.
Be cautious of your environment
Egalitarian societies such as those in Scandinavia are a great place to be self-deprecating – arrogance is to be dispelled so that people are on a level playing field.
“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” – Japanese proverb
In contrast, highly competitive countries with clear and approved hierarchies are a harmful place for self-deprecation, as it can be easily mistaken for under-confidence or low self-esteem, bestowing a competitive advantage.
Don’t do it if you’re marginalised
If you’re a black person living in an inherently racist society, it’s not a good idea to joke about your own colour, as you’re just communicating your acceptance of the status quo. Racism is (obviously) an awful thing – laughing at it reinforces the idea that it’s ok to be racist.
Hannah Gadsby – a gay, Australian female comedian – puts it perfectly:
“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour, and I don’t want to do that anymore… when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins… it’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” – Hannah Gadsby
Laughing at ourselves can be a great way to take the sting out of life, with the potential to make us more loveable, and relatable. This can only be effective under the right conditions though – there’s a fine line between self-deprecation and self-hate. Walk the tightrope carefully, with a good deal of humour and honesty, and you can add a little light-hearted cheer to our often serious world.
I must admit, when I first stumbled upon Jordan Peterson, I had a bit of a man-crush. Many of the topics that he so skilfully elucidated rang clear and true for me – his explanations of human social hierarchies, infringement of free speech, the importance of symbolism, etc. Here was a man who had his act together, and I considered him a person who might help me to get my act together.
How wrong I was.
The biggest problem with Peterson is how convincing he is. The confidence of the man is staggering. Like so many others, I was swept away by Peterson’s fearless erudition – he speaks as though his life depends on it – a thrill to watch. And yet, peel away his near-invisible facade, and you’re in danger of finding baseless pseudoscience, delivered with a vehemence that is difficult to resist. As it turns out, Jordan Peterson’s emphatic claims have a tendency to be nought but sound and fury.
The most alarming illustration of Peterson’s charlatanism is from back in August, when he posted a YouTube clip from PragerU, a popular media company that posts quick consumption political videos. The video was a seemingly well-made denial of climate change, fronted by Richard Lindzen – an American physicist. Lindzen opens the video with an attempt to convince us of his credibility – he’s published 200 scientific papers, and has taught for 30 years at MIT, with the impressive title of Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Sciences.
The video was absurdly incorrect, utilising a classic data trick to mislead viewers. It presents a small, 10-year chunk of data from a graph to illustrate that the climate isn’t warming. When the data is presented for its full-range of 42 years, it clearly shows rising temperatures. He then does this a second time, but with carbon dioxide levels.
The real smoking gun though, are the payments made to Lindzen by Peabody Energy – American’s biggest coal mining company – to carry out “research” to spread the insidious idea that man-made climate change doesn’t exist. He’s literally on the payroll of energy companies. The man has zero credibility.
Then there’s the makers of the video – PragerU – a right-wing non-profit who claims to promote “Judeo-Christian values,” but is better known for turning young liberals into young conservatives. Some examples of their videos are Why you should be a nationalist, The inconvenient truth about the Democratic Party, and Was the civil war about slavery? When it comes to climate change, republicans often sit on the denial side of the fence, so it’s no surprise that PragerU are creating videos that perpetuate the idea. The U in their title exists to make the company sound like a university – a trusted academic source. In reality, PragerU is just another YouTube propaganda machine, which has amassed over a billion views according to its own marketing director.
Most importantly though is the current scientific consensus on climate change – a whopping 97%. Almost every singlescientist that has worked on climate change agrees that it’s a man-made phenomenon, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for Jordan Peterson, whose believes that after “reading a lot” of climate-change literature, his conclusion is superior, and so justifies his spread of PragerU drivel. This is mind-boggling arrogance – Peterson is a clinical psychologist, climate science isn’t his field. It would be like Einstein barging into Peterson’s practice and declaring that his treatment of patients is all wrong, regardless of the fact that Peterson has been treating patients for two decades, and Einstein for no time at all.
Peterson has authored or coauthored over 90 peer-reviewed articles on clinical psychology, social psychology, and personality theory, topics on which he’s undoubtedly well-versed, and for which he has every right to throw his hat into the ring. But when it comes to climate change — one of the most important issues of our time — it is simply not his place to be creating doubt.
Peterson has almost a million followers on Twitter – that’s a million people who, after watching the video, might be erring on the side of climate change denial. His irresponsibility cannot be understated.
While Peterson’s climate change prattlings are his biggest moral failing, his track record for nonsense isn’t slight. He once claimed – in earnest – to have gone 25 days without sleep, a whopping 14 days longer than the documented record. That’s quite a feat.
Regarding religion, Peterson was a strong proponent of God in the years before he burst into the limelight, believing that society will literally unravel without faith in a higher power:
“To say ‘I believe in God’ is equivalent, in some sense, to say ‘my thought is ultimately coherent, but predicated on an axiom (as my thought is also incomplete, so I must take something on faith).’
To say ‘I don’t believe in God’ is therefore to say ‘no axiom outside my thought is necessary’ or ‘the necessary axiom outside my thought is not real.’ The consequence of this statement is that God himself unravels, then the state unravels, then the family unravels, and then the self itself unravels.” – Jordan Peterson
In Peterson’s view, a Godless society is one of nihilistic anarchy in which the rulebook is thrown away, because religion and only religion can add meaning to our lives. I suspect there’s many philosophers who would disagree with him, if they thought it worth their time. Since rising to star-studded fame, Peterson has claimed that he no longer believes in god, but “he’s afraid he exists.” Perhaps he looked a little closer at the demographics of his fans and realised that preaching wouldn’t do him any favours.
Then there’s Peterson’s views on the struggles of women, who according to his extensive expertise, and despite swathes of historical evidence, have been treated fairly over the years:
“The idea that women were oppressed throughout history is an appalling theory.” —Jordan Peterson
Nevermind the fact that women were treated like second-class citizens by being unable to vote; nevermind the fact that stronger, larger males have been bullying women into submission throughout our evolutionary timeline; nevermind the fact that despite being equally skilled, women don’t receive the same wages as men. This is all just nonsense to Peterson, who dismisses it with an arrogant wave of his hand.
Peterson’s straight-faced, unerring conviction is of a man who expects to be taken seriously. How is that possible when he spouts such utter bullshit? As a long-practising psychologist with an obviously high IQ, he has great insight to offer the world, but his hogwash pseudoscience just subverts anything good that he has to say.
As time marches onward, Jordan Peterson is appearing less a scientific intellectual and more a conning prattler. There’s a long history of Prattleson forcefully ejaculating his opinions on topics that he has absolutely no expertise in. He simply doesn’t have the credibility or authority to voice his ideas so haughtily, especially concerning matters related to the survival of our species.
He may be the most dangerous intellectual alive today, and the quicker he returns to the obscure Canadian darkness from which he came, the better for us all.
One of the most stinging ironies of our species is the pursuit of happiness, an idea that is tragically self-defeating. Like the donkey being pushed forward by a glistening carrot that will forever elude him, pursuing happiness will position it just out of reach, but close enough for us to continue striving. It’s right there to be taken – so near and yet so far – if our grasping mitts were just a little longer.
As it turns out, happiness is incidental. It cannot be obtained by striving, and by doing so you’re making an ass of yourself. This is known as the paradox of hedonism, the idea that seeking happiness/pleasure only serves to hinder it, and in fact, you’re more likely to be happier if you quit your foolish efforts.
An example from Wikipedia illustrates the concept perfectly:
“Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behaviour, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behaviour, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.
This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.” — Wikipedia, The Paradox of Hedonism
Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that we’re notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy – a term known as affective forecasting. Our ability to perform these projections is significant because it shapes our decisions, including those concerning our happiness. We’re like incompetent gamblers, hoping to hit the happiness jackpot, but ending up disappointed and in debt. We cannot attain this state of mind by aiming for it.
“Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap” — William Bennett
Some experts go even further to claim that chasing happiness can actually make you depressed. Brock Bastian – a social psychologist based in Melbourne – identified higher depression rates in countries that place a premium on happiness, a effect created by the damaging idea that negative emotion can be forever evaded. When such feelings occur, a person might feel that there’s something wrong with them. This is exacerbated by the nauseating look at me I’m always happy illusion of social media, in which everybody appears to be better off than you, but in reality are suffering just as much.
It’s critical to understand that happiness is not our birthright, despite the bleatings of Thomas Jefferson. Our emotional range is to be fully traversed – end to end. It’s an unbreakable scale in which sacrificing sadness would mean doing the same for happiness – their existence is only possible because of the contrast between them. There’s no happiness without sadness; no light without dark; no up without down.
“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death?’ – Friedrich Nietzsche
“Sadness isn’t a disorder that needs to be cured.” — Alain De Botton
In addition to being naturally varied, our emotions are also fleeting. Happiness cannot be purchased and battened down to prevent its escape, but instead enters our emotional fray, hugs us for a little while, and then leaves without warning. Our emotional state is in a constant state of flux, and ironically, the sooner we realise that happiness cannot be coveted, the happier we’ll be.
“Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit” — Daniel Gilbert
We’re not the only one’s suffering – our planet is having a bad time too, being pushed to its limits in part by our greedy, rapacious materialism. Irony strikes once again – amassing mountains of stuff does nothing to increase our happiness or well-being. As we suffocate the world, we’re also suffocating ourselves.
So what should you focus on, if not happiness? How can we obtain happiness indirectly?
The answer lies in our estimation of what is meaningful; the parts of our lives that we personally deem to be valuable. For Paul, this was stamp collecting, a simple hobby in which he unearthed happiness; a hobby that others might find insufferably boring. We are the authors of our own fate, with a selection of tastes and values that are unique. Our personal sense of meaning will be different to someone else’s, and we’re blessed with the freedom to pursue our values. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of Liberalism – the idea that each of us is wonderfully unique, which should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged.
In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, she analysed hundreds of scientific studies on meaningfulness, concluding that the characteristic features of a meaningful life are connecting to something greater than yourself, rather than a misplaced notion of hunting happiness. What we consider to be worthy can make us happy.
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” — Viktor Frankl
“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” — Helen Keller
In addition to offering happiness, research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life can enhance your mental and physical health, resiliency, self-esteem, and reduce the possibility of depression. Meaning is a solid, long-lasting base on which to build your life. Happiness, by contrast, vanishes quicker than a genie after a third wish.
“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something” — Harold S. Kushner
“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” — Martin E. P. Seligman
What is it that you personally value; that you find meaningful? What is it that draws you in, not because you assume it’ll make you happy, but because you consider it to be worthwhile?
Figuring this out might be the most important thing you ever do.
This was a key question for Albert Camus, a handsome, Nobel Prize winning French philosopher. Camus believed that death steals the meaning from life – what’s the point of living if all that awaits us is a cold, worm-infested grave? God is dead, and an eternal afterlife is longer a possibility. Without religion to save us, how can we live with the pointlessness of existence, with the absurdity of it all?
Lyrical and Critical Essays is a volume of essays in which Camus explores this fundamental question, shedding further light on the ideas expressed in his novels.
While travelling in Italy in 1937, the following reflection encapsulates the problem that Camus was wrestling with:
“Italy, like other privileged places, offers me the spectacle of a beauty in which, nonetheless, men die.” — The Desert
What is the point in such beauty existing, and for us to experience that beauty, if it’s destined to be forever lost? How can we muster the strength to go on in the face of our inevitable death? Camus experienced undeniable natural beauty, but bristled with anguish at its meaninglessness. Things happen, we experience them, and then we die. Metaphysical significance cannot be found in anything.
“The air grows cool. A foghorn sounds at sea. The beams from the lighthouse begin to turn: one green, one red, and one white. And still the world sighs its long sigh.” — Between Yes and No
We’re on a perpetual merry-go-round, with the same tired tune from the same tired speakers, crushing us into relentless anguish and despair.
“His fever sings. He walks a little faster; tomorrow everything will be different, tomorrow. Suddenly he realizes that tomorrow will be the same, and, after tomorrow, all the other days. And he is crushed by this irreparable discovery. It’s ideas like this that kill one.” – Irony
Camus found his answer to the meaninglessness of life in a tenacious, immutable acceptance of our sorry condition. We’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so rather than wallowing in anguish at our situation, why not just accept it? This acceptance is a form of rebellion against the merciless impotency of existence — I’m going to die, but fuck you, I’ll accept it nonetheless.
“At this extreme point of acute awareness everything came together, and my life seemed a solid block to be accepted or rejected. I needed a grandeur. I found it in the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” – Death In The Soul
The battle between Camus’ despair of the futility of life, and the indifference of the world, amounts to a decision between acceptance or rejection. Between living fully, or throwing your hands up and committing suicide.
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” – The Myth of Sisyphus
Why live, if we’re going to die?
Affirming every aspect of our lives won’t necessarily lessen our despair, but we shouldn’t want to lessen our despair, because this is also a part of life to be accepted. Fantasising of another life is a tragedy – our own can be dazzling with the right perspective.
“For if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have.” – Summer in Algiers
“I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition.” – Nuptials at Tipasa
One cannot remove the negative from life without also removing the positive. The negative can only be identified because of the existence of positive. Take away despair, and you must also remove its natural contrast: joy.
“There is no love of life without despair of life.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
“But if we give up a part of what exists, we must ourselves give up being; we must then give up living or loving except by proxy. Thus there is a will to live without refusing anything life offers: the virtue I honor most in this world.” – Return to Tipasa
“In the difficult times we face, what more can I hope for than the power to exclude nothing and to learn to weave from strands of black and white one rope tautened to the breaking point?” – Return to Tipasa
There’s nothing for it but an unbridled acceptance of everything that happens to us, and by existing in this way, we’re rebelling against the absurdity of our human condition. Shunning the world does nothing to alter its uncompromising indifference; only affirmation can provide us with the determination to continue living.
“If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver. Let those who wish to turn their backs upon the world. I have nothing to complain of, since I can see myself being born.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
Camus found unending solace in natural beauty, and the sensual abilities that allow us to receive the world. Awareness of every spectacular triviality was enough for him, despite their lack of meaning. Simply experiencing the world was the point.
“What counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.” – The Desert
“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” – Nuptials at Tipasa
Only by living honestly, by accepting our absurd condition completely and without restraint, can we expel the terror of our impending doom. Our efforts should be placed on the body, in our ability to perceive and appreciate the awesome wonder all around us. Only there can meaning be found. Bitter, often uncomfortable, but meaning nonetheless.
“The immortality of the soul, it is true, engrosses many noble minds. But this is because they reject the body, the only truth that is given them, before using up its strength. For the body presents no problems, or, at least, they know the only solution it proposes: a truth which must perish and which thus acquires a bitterness and nobility they dare not contemplate directly.” – The Desert
“It is not surprising that the sensual riches this country offers so profusely to the sensitive person should coincide with the most extreme deprivation. There is no truth that does not also carry bitterness.” – Summer in Algiers
What we need most of all is the fearlessness to accept everything that comes our way, good or bad. We must positively affirm every experience – open our arms to receive it, and be consequent rebels.
“The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side
“There are some people who prefer to look their destiny straight in the eye.” – Between Yes and No
Why live, if we’re going to die? Because life can be spectacular with the right attitude. We’ll experience everything that is thrown at us — joy, agony, depression, hope, lust, love, ambivalence — and by accepting all of it, we’re rebelling valiantly against the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. Only through acceptance can we truly be free.