Forgive me for coming across as very “self-helpy” in this post. Occasionally (usually), because I teach at a university, I write to respond to actual problems I see right before my eyes, rather than just to political concerns. Maybe one or two people will find this helpful, even though it doesn’t cover every facet of the issue it’s addressing.
Disclaimers aside, though, it’s an amazing and unsettling fact that most people I know do not want to be unconditionally happy. They want to be happy when they’re in a relationship or when they’re not, or when they have their dream job or when they are the picture of perfect health. Most people attach a great deal of their happiness to some form of success: in relationships, in their studies/careers, in the high opinions that others have of them or should have of them. And this results in insisting that happiness is always somewhere else but never here. It is always predicated upon some if but never a state of mind or being. There is, in short, a stubborn resistance to joy, which is expressed as its reverse. Saying “I just want to be happy” can be accompanied by the actions and thoughts that sabotage the very possibility of happiness. This probably happens unconsciously, but it happens nonetheless.
I locate the problem in a little thing called “ego.” I’m using the term in its common rather than Freudian sense. The ego is the “container” of the self—it is the sense of self-worth, self-esteem and self-importance that people mistake for being their true identity. It is the false self. (The true self is something like the soul, which I’m not going to go into much here, but I do presume—against an enormous body of bad modernist metaphysics—that it is a real thing).
The false self, the ego, is pretty easy to locate it. It’s in the labels that people give to themselves (“I am athis or a that“) and in the emotional reactions they have to petty and insignificant things like when someone cuts them off in traffic or if they ordered a salad with fries and ended up with only the salad. Ego is easily offended, hurt, belittled. It is a terribly fearful thing. And this is because ego is ever expanding. Large things are always vulnerable. It’s easier, for instance, to shoot an elephant than a rat. It’s the large things that are really the weak things. Empires crumble faster than families. A bird is swift because a bird is light. A boulder falls because it’s big and heavy.
Chesterton calls this ever-spreading ego phenomenon “panegotism”—the idea is that ego can grow out of proportion with reality, and when this happens, you have misery.
Why misery? Well, the main reason, as I see it, is that people tend to live in at the edges of their own existence, in the things that they have no actual influence over. They will complain, for instance, when others think less of them, even though they cannot control the mind of anyone else. Or they will be upset when the world doesn’t conspire to make them get what they want, despite what Paulo Coelho told them in The Alchemist. “Damn you, Paulo!” they say, but it’s not Paulo’s fault. He was just being poetic, and they were being morons.
Enter the Stoic philosopher Epictetus with some strong, wise words: “I must die, but must I die bawling?” There is, he seems to say, that which is real (I’m going to die) and then there is how we react to it (Do I have to die bawling?). We may have no control over the first thing (what is going to happen or what is happening), but we can affect how we react to it since we are not, if we choose to be, simply machines caught in a stimulus-response reaction. We can insert something like will (or good old fashioned silent contemplation) between the stimulus and the response. Epictetus expresses the idea more succinctly as follows: “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”
There’s what we can control and what we cannot. And misery happens when the ego presumes that what it cannot control is in fact within the scope of its authority.
Happiness begins when we are able to step back from the mayhem and ask the simple question: “What can I actually do?” Happiness, then, is an issue of self-mastery and personal responsibility. Misery, on the contrary, is the cry of the absolute victim: the person who refuses to take responsibility for their own reactions to things. People who constantly point fingers at others—blaming the government, the system, the chef, the waitress, the doctor—are really just announcing their egotism; they expected that the world was in their control even though it isn’t.
And yet, the great irony is that the miserable person will claim to want to be happy when he or she clearly doesn’t. What egotists believe and what they live are at odds. I suppose that this may have something to do with the fact that it is somewhat pleasant to have an enormous ego. Think of the people of Ancient Rome or the British Empire who loved to brag about their ever expanding borders, as if it was a good thing. Having larger borders just means you have more to defend and more to lose. I don’t see how it’s a good thing.
Maybe there’s a kind of pleasure to be found in being able to view yourself as somehow large and important. But we all know what happens to empires: the collapse of the ego is just as inevitable.
Most people are aware of the negative ego: the arrogant ego. But few seem to be aware that there is a negative side to even the positive ego: the ego that wants to do more, achieve more, grow more, learn more and (ahem) burn out more. Whenever we give into the drug of panegotism, whether for positive or negative reasons, it spells trouble. It’s also a way to ensure that we cannot see/perceive things very clearly. Chesterton writes this in The Defendant:
The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school, Nietzsche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the philosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the cowardly, and the ignorant. Looking down on things may be a delightful experience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that is really seen when it is seen from a balloon. The philosopher of the ego sees everything, no doubt, from a high and rarified heaven; only he sees everything foreshortened or deformed.
It takes a concerted effort to be genuinely humble—and humility is worthwhile because, as much of this little meander through thought has indicated, it is the key to happiness (“The secret of life is in laughter and humility,” Chesterton writes in Heretics).
It takes an act of humble concentration: a focus on our very human and very real limitations to free us from our egotism (It takes other things too, butwill is one of the tools we actually have control over). William Desmond says this thing that I just love: “The discipline of finitude will keep us in check.” It’s is an awareness of our finitude that will stop us from perceiving the world in entirely distorted terms. I have this up on my office wall: a drawing of a jug, which symbolises “Everything you want to achieve” x10 to the power of 29 and a tiny bottle x1 labeled “How much time you actually have.” It’s not just time that is at issue here, but it’s a pretty good indicator of our finitude.
I’m reminded of the beautiful movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in which we find a bunch of teenagers being teenagers, trying to figure out their place in a very mad, troubled world. And the main character, in a moment of ecstasy, talks about having a feeling of being “infinite.” But, of course, even the feeling of being infinite is something that can only happen in a “moment.” And the moment passes. And we know that we are this, right here, right now. We can influence things, but we certainly cannot control everything. In in this moment, I swear, we are terribly finite.
That, I think, is the beginning of any journey into genuine joy and genuine freedom.
Originally posted on duncanreyburn.com on July 24, 2015