What is Pessimism?
"Philosophy was a discipline to keep you sane in troubled times. And the best way to be sane was precisely to master pessimism; to make yourself at home in pessimism; to become a master of this strange and perhaps depressing seeming philosophy." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
We live in a troubled time with self-pity. Often, we feel like something that is supposed to have gone right has gone wrong. I used to be a perfectionist, carrying high expectations for everything. I tried to make every minute in classes productive, pre-listing everything I would do for the day, and feeling irritated of myself whenever I felt like I needed a break.
I am here to talk about why is positive thinking bad for you. Perhaps reversing the equation can have unexpectedly positive effects: nothing was supposed to go right, so nothing particularly went wrong. Unlike the commonly misunderstood perception, pessimism does not necessarily lead to a lack of achievement or complete resignation; knowing that 'life is suffering, and the human being is a fallen creature' can lead to self-acceptance. Stressing on perfection is a problem that could possibly result in suicide.
I very much like the example of impotence suggested by Michael de Montaigne. "If you arrive in the bedchamber with high expectations, there is a serious high risk that things will go wrong." He came up with a solution to make a good impression on your partner: to lower the expectations of performances—always say that you are a bad lover. This is the only way you can ever stand the chance of making a good impression.
Raising expectations that everything will go well is the surest way to get very nervous, and with nervousness comes failure. If you expect to succeed, you will almost certainly fail.
Let's talk about anger. Is being angry at times a psychological problem of you being hot-blooded? Not really, from Lucius Annaeus Seneca, we get angry for one reason – Optimism; it is the hope that's we all have that drives us insane. Why do people get angry when they can't find their cell phones? Why do we start shouting when we lose the house keys? Why do we behave madly and insult people when stuck in traffic? Because we believe in a world in which our properties never go astray and the roads are always mysteriously traffic-free, that's a very odd approach!
You may wanna ask at this point, "Why don't people get angry when it rains?" Because we expected it to! But confusingly, we hardly adopt this wise approach in all areas of life. We've entered an era where the expectations of what human beings can achieve with their lifespan have never been so high. We are told from many sources that "anyone can achieve anything," "we've done away with the caste, we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position if they just try." However, I am here to say that your chance of becoming as rich and famous as Bill Gates nowadays is the same as that of you joining the ranks of the French Aristocracy back in the 17 century. But the problem is that it doesn't feel that way.
Seneca's solution on 'How To Make Your Life Better.'
For Seneca, our fates are in the hands of the goddess of fortune, a woman who held and commanded all of our destinies. She is entirely fickle, cruel, vain, and able to decide at any point when we will die, and somebody else will succeed; she is an uncontrollable entity in our lives.
(She's in the back of coin at Rome)
The message Seneca is trying to tell us is that most of our life is in somebody else's hands. No matter how much we try and achieve rational control, she'll at some point get us. In order to cope with the vagaries of fortune, Seneca counseled us to undertake premeditation. The idea every morning in bed before getting up, you should essentially run through in your mind the whole day ahead of you and imagine every single disaster that could occur to you. Not because it will necessarily occur, but it will protect you if it might.
"The wise will start each day with the thought that fortune gives us nothing which we can really own; nothing, whether they are public or private, is stable. The destinies of men no less than those of cities are in a whirl. How often of cities in Asia been laid load by a single shock of an earthquake? How many towns in Syria do we live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, and to mortals have you been given birth. So reckon on everything, expect everything a year later; a town of Pompeii was destroyed." - Seneca
From Seneca's words, the starting point has to be more pessimistic; it makes you feel somehow you're not alone in your sadness. Sadness can seem like an aberration, but a departure from the norm is, in fact, the basic default mode of human beings. We live on unstable ground, and we must accept pessimism from our fundamental starting point. We must not react with injured surprise to bad things. These bad things are written into the contract of life. Here are three more quotes from Seneca:
"No one should have a child without the ability to tolerate the thought that the child may be dead by evening."
"What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears."
"A man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more disgusting in the day ahead."
It's very sad that we live in a world full of hope; the feeling that everybody can succeed, that opportunity is not for the few; it's for the many. Surrounded by self-help books, they constantly tell us to get out of bed and achieve wonderful things. This is the message from every politician on all sides of the political spectrum who ever stands upon a pulpit: "everyone can do it, no one should hold you back, you can do it!!!"
It's a beautiful idea – encouraging people to thrive, except this has some serious drawbacks: it constantly leaves us feeling envious. Let's face it, we all have envied someone at school, in a university reunion, or when we read something in a newspaper about someone who was once at school with us.
There's a sense of opportunity: we don't feel envious to the people we feel distant from us, because we don't feel equal to them. But soon when you feel equal to somebody, "I'm more or less like this person! And I could do this too, but I just haven't!" you will feel really depressing! The feeling of opportunity, equality, and the sense that everybody could make it left us feeling that we haven't achieved enough.
The problem of Self-Esteem
Because simply everybody is expected to achieve everything, awful a lot of people are feeling something has gone dramatically wrong with their lives. But you need to know that 98% of all businesses ideas every submitted will fail. It's statistically unbelievably small; a tiny minority has succeeded as businessmen. But the problem is, we don't hear those stories. It's again about the poisonous side of Meritocracy, a very depressing idea that is proposed (check out my review on Meritocracy here).
"I only got to where I got because I worked hard. My father is an alcoholic, but I made it! And I made it because of me! So I deserve to be at the top! If someone's in a trailer home, well, they're in a trailer home! That's their problem, don't expect me to pay for them!" With Meritocracy, that's precisely the attitude you hear as a result. There are so many factors to be considered for a person's success. Don't ever expect you can take a reading of someone's life and determine from that whether they deserve to be there or not.
- The Grace of God
In ancient Roman, those who did well didn't think that they were entirely responsible for success; they knew that it was the goodness of fortune. When something goes right, you went to give an offer to the the goodness of fortune instantly, to basically say thank you. "I didn't sell my company for millions of pounds; the goodness of fortune gave this to me. It's a gift, and that gift may be taken away. I don't own it; that gift says nothing about me. The gift is really as it were in the hands of somebody else."
Unfortunately, we've lost sight of this. Nowadays, we live in societies that are left to be individualistic. Being self-centered, we believe that we are in control of our destinies. As a result, the rate of suicide goes up because those who failed all assumed their failure to be a personal point of blame; they have no one to blame apart from themselves.
Definition for WORK
Nowadays, people expect their work to be an arena of fulfillment and happiness. It's an entirely insane idea historically. In the Ancient Greeks, work = slavery. If you want to have a good life, you simply have to take yourself out of the financial system. The pleasurable side of existence is not circumscribed within the boundaries of work. In Early Christianity: work = punishment. We toil for the sins of Adam (disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge of good and evil).
However, by the time you get to the 18th century, various bourgeois philosophers are singing the praises of work. Work is a place to realize and become yourself, take out something precious of yourself, put it out there, and get paid for it. Incidentally, the optimistic idea of work kicked in at roughly the same time that that of love comes about; the new idea that you should marry someone you love. It is also a mad idea historically. Previously, you don't marry someone you love; you marry somebody who's got a farm next door. That's how you would do it!
Again, people who are very happily married and enjoy their jobs are an absolute minority. It's a very bizarre philosophy of life that we hold something up as usual when clearly they are beautifully rare.
The Contemplation of Death
In the Middle Ages and the early modern period, if you had finished a beautiful desk mahogany desk, not only you'd put your quill pen, but also you'd put a skull on your desk. A skull was something you'd always put on your desk as a vital piece of interior design.
The reason for that is that it reminds you of death while working. When thinking about death, it doesn't make you think that life is meaningless; reversely, it simply readjusts your priorities. Every time you look at the skull, you'd think, "I'm going to be like him in a little while." The sense of despair makes us precisely focus on what's important.
A near-death experience can teach us vital lessons; we realize that we often overlook the things that matter the most to us—for example, feeling loved, what people you really like think of you, and what unfinished 'dreams' are there left for us to achieve. At the same time, other things started to matter a bit less: irrelevant peoples' opinions on you, certain aspects of your career, and jealousy we had for others. All of us should pay enough attention to this matter; it is an essential part of a healthy life because let's face it, we could fall on our head at any time; life itself is a near-death experience.
All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.' - Pensées, Blaise Pascal.
We are dealing with a world where human achievement is right at the center of what we do. We constantly told the great human achievements before us; the bits of history where we see the marks written into the landscape. The phenomenon is, indeed, why we are feeling small. Often we are made to feel small by people at work or in social life who patronize us.
We can't change the snobbery of others; we still can improve the way we deal with sadness by ourselves. We feel small in relation to the massive things - eternity, time, death. The reason why some of us like to look down at the Earth from an airplane is that we feel small in front of the boundlessness. Those vast empty spaces make us feel small in a way that alleviates us from that excruciating sense of self-importance and egotism. So head out to anywhere, which makes you feel properly small. Another cue to deal with sadness is to discover sad works of art; find artists who somehow say life is not cheerful and it is a grimy devil.
Bring Pessimism into real-life
“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find something worth suffering for.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
- In Relationship
When we think about falling in love, one of the things we want to do is share other people's sadness in a relationship. What's the point of having a relationship if you are cheerful all the time? You want to have a relationship where you can somehow unite your sadness with somebody else's sadness. Relationships are built around shared griefs, and letting those griefs show on the first date is a good thing– confessing how lonely you've recently been. Incidentally, I see a gender divide. Most men do very much like someone who's been in a lot; we feel relaxed and cheered up by the sense that the woman has not got too many dates, and she's a little bit alone who needs company.
- How to Live
To master Pessimism is to live your dark moments/sadness fully. Not seeing it as some aberration, but as sth that's an intrinsic part of life; sth that you shouldn't run away from and try to embrace it instead. Go and read some Nietzsche, One of the greatest philosophers of the 19th century, possibly of all time, is advising us, or anyone he cares about, that he wants to suffer:
"To those human beings who are of any concern of me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, and indignities and illness. I wish that these friends of mine should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished." - Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche believed that somehow, the ability to endure suffering and the capacity to do great things is interlinked:
"If you refuse to let your suffering lie upon you for even an hour, and if you constantly try and prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time, if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and a defect of existence, then it is clear that you harbor in your heart the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable little people; happiness and unhappiness are sisters, and even twins that either grow up together or as in your case child remains small together." - Friedrich Nietzsche.
In other words, happiness is in correlation with unhappiness. If your life is full of lovely memories of you being in happy states, then happiness wouldn't give you much utility. Happiness derives more from life with heartbreaking moments than an idealistic life. Comparison is what makes happiness invaluable.
The moments of darkness are the best insights we need in life. The capacity to tolerate suffering, be pessimistic comfortably, and endure Pessimism passages is absolutely essential. If we try to stop feeling bad immediately after a brutal break-up, or if we're writing a book and feel happy about it immediately, we will never do anything well.
From living your life as a pessimist, you can find yourself living a life of surprise and gratitude. Pessimism is a cure for depression: shit happens, opportunities don't appear for everyone. You should embrace our sadness, enjoy it, because that’s the acceptance of reality in life. Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.