I have a negative bent, a tendency to see the bad in life more clearly than the good. I get very affected by bad news – and there’s a lot of it: worsening inequality, dismantling of the welfare state, another financial crisis potentially around the corner while we’re still in debt from the last one, climate change, antibiotic resistance, global conflict / power struggles, refugees living in squalid camps…
Thanks to media such as Twitter and Facebook, I find it easier than ever to learn about all these things, and to access really stimulating viewpoints and analysis that is constantly helping my own understanding and awareness to develop. I would much rather have that access than not; however, there are times when I just have to scroll past it all and look for some cute puppy video instead. I get exhausted with concern.
And I have difficulty with Sunday Assembly’s ethos of “celebrating life” because, when it comes down to it, I’m not convinced human existence is a good thing. The rest of the planet would be better off without us, for sure. It’s hard to feel joyful about being alive while keenly aware of how spectacularly the human race is fucking up at the general aim of not doing harm to ourselves or each other. And even if we were doing much better, nature alone can be cruel enough to us. What’s there to celebrate?
On the other hand, what good does it do to feel so negatively?
I’m reading a book about Stoicism just now. According to the Stoics, the only thing needed for deep happiness and well-being (eudaimonia), is to be the best human being one can be. This means perfecting the rationality and practical wisdom that humans alone can develop. This in turn entails acceptance of things outside of one’s control; it doesn’t make sense to worry or get upset about things you can’t do anything about.
I’m really wrestling with this! I find myself wanting to protest: that there is no clean division between what is and isn’t under your control; that it’s unrealistic to expect your happiness to not be affected by your circumstances (and has the potential to trigger shame); that even if it were possible to be that detached, it would surely lead to amorality – that there wouldn’t be any point in justice or making anyone’s circumstances better because their happiness can only come from within.
But I do wonder if I’m missing the point on that last part; Stoicism, after all, does promote justice and compassion and there is a sense of some outcomes being ‘preferred’ (even though they are ultimately indifferent with regard to eudaimonia). It’s confusing. It reminds me of similar confusion I’ve had with Buddhism in the past.
Maybe the answer is that eudaimonia, although important (and heavily emphasised in Stoicism), isn’t the only thing that matters?
Perhaps the problem I’m having lies in the English language and the fact that words like ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’ are just too broad-brush. One example of this comes to mind from the Pixar film Inside Out, in which the main characters are anthropomorphised emotions inside a human character’s head. In the film, Joy has to learn that there is a place for Sadness; that Sadness is able to help their human host come to terms with an unwanted change in circumstances, and connect with the love and care of others, in a way that Joy cannot. Joy does not represent all positive experiences – she merely represents an upbeat, cheerful mood. I think we lack a clear word in English for the positive experience Sadness was able to bring about – in the film, we see the creation of a core memory that is a mixture of sad and happy.
And I think there are probably many distinct emotional and mental states that we lack distinct words for and that get muddied together under words like ‘happiness’.
So, maybe this is partly why I have difficulty seeing how a positive emotional state can coexist with concern about problems. Maybe it’s possible to really want things to improve while at the same time being able to really accept that things are as they are. This seems like a contradiction to me but I have moments where I can see these as two separate processes.
I think Buddhism and Stoicism really come into their own in situations of extreme suffering that cannot be averted – where the only way forward is to be ‘philosophical’. Their emphasis on eudaimonia and its possible independence of circumstances is perhaps an over-emphasis for the context of my everyday life of relative comfort. I keep having difficulty with them because I have the exact opposite approach: can’t feel OK about life until all the problems are solved. But that is also why I keep being drawn to them.