Getting out of the mess of life

The title of this post comes from Ian Craib’s wonderful book The Importance of Disappointment, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. His concern is with a contemporary inability, pervasive to the point that we may regard it as epochal, to live with disappointment. We struggle to tolerate the failure of our plans or the frustration of our expectations, instead resolving to change our selves or our circumstances in order to evade these limitations on our next attempt. We are hyperactively concerned to fix things because, argues Craib, doing so allows us to avoid confrontations with our own limitations and the recalcitrance of our world. His point is not that deliberation or planning are intrinsically delusive but rather that we invest ourselves in them in a way which is. Unintended consequences, thwarted ambitions and unrealised hopes are an unavoidable aspect of the human condition and yet we repudiate this reality, in our manner of being even if not our reflective judgements, because doing so helps us avoid the ambivalence which unavoidably follows from it. We strive to do better next time, moving on to something new in the belief that we can arrange the pieces of our life in a way that provides the grounding which we are peripherally aware of lacking. The problem is not that we try to better ourselves but rather in what we avoid through ‘self-improvement’: displacing our confrontation with disappointment by orientating ourselves towards next time in such a manner that we foreclose the capacity to experience this time.

The themes from Craib’s book came back to me when I recently read Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I’ve attached a video below from a lecture in which he summarises the book’s argument. It’s a great read and I couldn’t help but think of it as basically being The Importance of Disappointment if you substitute experimental psychology and cultural commentary for psychoanalysis and social theory (though this is probably unfair to both authors by conflating the distinctive qualities of each book).

One of many admirable things about Burkeman’s book is the manner in which he reconciles a lacerating critique of the self-help industry with writing a book about the practical conditions for cultivating ‘happiness’ (given he’s much more nuanced than this, it’s hard not to wonder if the ‘h’ word in the title was insisted upon by the publisher). His target is not just the banality of these books but rather their tragically counter-productive character, with their inevitable tendency to provoke an attitude towards life which intensifies dissatisfaction and leads to the purchase of further books:

This is why, among themselves, some self-help publishers refer to the ‘eighteen-month rule’, which states that the person most likely to purchase any given self-help book is someone who, within the previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book – one that evidently didn’t solve all their problems. When you look at the self-help shelves with a coldly impartial eye, this isn’t especially surprising. That we yearn for neat, book-sized solutions to the problem of being human is understandable, but strip away the packaging, and you’ll find that the messages of such works are frequently banal. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People essentially tells you to decide what matters most to you in life, and then do it; How to Win Friends and Influence People advises its readers to be pleasant rather than obnoxious, and to use people’s first names a lot. One of the most successful management manuals of the last few years, Fish!, which is intended to help foster happiness and productivity in the workplace, suggests handing out small toy fish to your hardest-working employees.

This is why I found myself so unwaveringly categorising The Antidote as a companion volume for The Importance of Disappointment. The self-help industry depends upon and contributes towards the widespread evasion of disappointment whereas, as Burkeman, rather succinctly puts it: “the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable”. Our desire to avoid mess, refuting disappointment by energetically seeking solutions to our perceived problems, intensifies our inability to cope with our circumstances. What worries me though is how to stop this critique, persuasive as I find it, from leading to passivity – either at the level of personal life or social change. Both authors are sensitive to this issue but didn’t seem to resolve it in any substantive fashion. Perhaps I’m expecting too much? After all, we do not need to live with this mess but mess in general. So the recognition that there are problems which need to be solved can co-exist with a rejection of problem solving as a general condition of life. But this is by definition something that’s hard to write about in the abstract and it’s our own tendency to think about it in abstract terms (generalising our dissatisfactions and projecting into the future rather than engaging with their particularity in the present) which is such a large part of the problem both authors diagnose in their different ways.

Looking back through my kindle highlights I realise I’m perhaps being unfair by saying that Burkeman’s approach to this issue was unsatisfying. The stoics were the aspect of the book I was least familiar with but also perhaps the most interesting, at least in this particular respect:

It is essential to grasp a distinction here between acceptance and resignation: using your powers of reason to stop being disturbed by a situation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change it. To take one very obvious example, a Stoic who finds herself in an abusive relationship would not be expected to put up with it, and would almost certainly be best advised to take action to leave it. Her Stoicism would oblige her only to confront the truth of her situation – to see it for what it was – and then to take whatever actions were within her power, instead of railing against her circumstances as if they ought not exist. ‘The cucumber is bitter? Put it down,’ Marcus advises. ‘There are brambles in the path? Step to one side. That is enough, without also asking: “How did these things come into the world at all?

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