“Drunk Philosophy” is a series of essays in which I explore deeper issues related to culture, philosophy and metaphysics whilst under the influence of alcohol. I make every attempt to treat these issues seriously and express my thoughts as thoroughly and coherently as possible. At least as far as can be expected.
“I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
I have been thinking quite a bit as of late about the impact of suffering and tragedy on forming one’s character and making us who we are. Not the suffering of self-pity, unrealized potential or boredom that we spoiled children of modern society have accepted and embraced and built reality TV shows around; but the suffering of the widow, the survivor, the chronically ill, the traumatized. The type of suffering which scars one’s soul and changes one’s life irreparably.
I do not pretend to have lived a particularly tragic or difficult life; but I have gone through more than one extended period of the kind of hopeless, desperate suffering which can only be described as “formative” and which have profoundly changed me and my experience of life. Although in some ways brought on by conscious choices I have made to, for example, commit to spend my life with someone I love “for better or worse, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer” – or to take on responsibilities which others may have been content to weasel out of and leave for someone else to deal with – these were nevertheless circumstances which were not my own doing, which I was not prepared for, and which left me scarred in ways that fundamentally changed my personality, my worldview and my relationships with other people. It strikes me how significant a role events over which we have no control can determine the course of our lives. Who are we, from where does our personality come if external events can so deeply transform us? How can we have hope in the future when we cannot even be sure who we will be when that future arrives?
It is taken for granted – in fact, it is at the heart of every cliché deployed for the purpose of comforting the victim and offering condolences – that pain will pass, suffering is temporary, the darkness must fade and things must get better. Nina Simone encapsulates the optimism at the heart of American culture with her famous lyrics:
O-o-h child things are gonna get easier
O-o-h child things ‘ll get brighter
O-o-h child things are gonna get easier
O-o-h child things ‘ll get brighter
Someday we’ll get it together and we’ll get it undone
Someday when the world is much brighter
Someday we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Someday when the world is much lighter
– Nina Simone, O-o-h Child
But what if we accept that things may not necessarily get better? What if we accept that suffering may not be a temporary condition? If we are changed by our experience and we carry that with us for the rest of our lives, then it is not really all that temporary. Things must get better to some extent. The human psyche is remarkably adaptable to stress and hardship and at the very least we will adapt to cope with whatever trauma has been visited upon us and will settle into a “new normal” which will be better than our present condition but not by any means better than our previous condition. And the next trauma we suffer will knock us down another notch as we gradually descend from the carefree optimism of youth to the quiet, hardened, misery of old age. Of course that is not necessarily the case either. But what if you knew that this was what you had to look forward to? What if the best comfort someone could offer you after a tragedy was: It may get better, or it may get worse?
My take on fatalism as a personal philosophy is that it allows us to confront tragedy and misfortune with a conscious, sober, realistic, appraisal of what we have lost and what we have gained, to embrace the lessons of suffering and learn from the changes we recognize in ourselves and our relationships and our experience of life. And to fortify ourselves against the next trauma with the recognition that – easy come, easy go – all that we have is at any moment capable of evaporating in front of our eyes and the only thing we can do is to be prepared to cope with it, as best we can.
The movie Donnie Darko is a strange, complex, confusing film that is, at its core, a movie about fatalism: the belief that we are, in life, at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves which we cannot understand or control. Even in a world in which the future is known in advance, we are helpless to change it. What will be, will be.
“Every living creature on earth dies alone.” – Donnie Darko
Donnie is tortured when an old, mentally ill neighbor named Roberta Sparrow tells him that everybody dies alone. He refuses to see how anyone can find happiness in a world where, ultimately, regardless of what we do or who we become, we are all destined to die alone. We “die alone” because, regardless of whether we are surrounded by loved ones or in total solitude, death is an experience so personal, so total, so deep, that it is a journey on which none can accompany us. But there is a deeper meaning as well, in the sense that death is not the only perfectly lonely fate which awaits us in life. Ultimately, we suffer alone as well. And the loneliness that comes with suffering, that wall it erects between us and those around us, which exists as a result of the fact that suffering affects everyone so differently, so deeply, and so all-consumingly that true empathy is only possible in the rarest cases. No one can ever know what you are feeling or experiencing. No one can know what it feels like or what it does to you. Only very exceptional people can break through that wall; most will simply stop or turn aside when confronted by it. And how many of us surround ourselves with exceptional people?
In the final scene of Donnie Darko, Donnie goes to bed with a smile on his face, with complete awareness that “the world will end” and he will never awake. He dies alone, and in conscious acceptance of the fact. A tortured struggle to find meaning and avoid death ends with quiet acceptance of the fact that life is not a personal narrative and we are not protagonists. Thus fatalism must first destroy the ego, as the ego believes itself entitled to a happy ending.
None of this should be mistaken for determinism, defeatism, and pessimism. Fatalism as taken to mean that the future has been written in advance and that we are helpless to make our own choices is, to be sure, metaphysical nonsense. Fatalism as a personal philosophy is portrayed as a dark, cold, cynical, worldview which throws its hands up in exasperation and determines to accept that what comes without resistance. But fatalism understood in a looser sense, to mean that for all our choices and freedom and responsibility, there are forces and circumstances beyond our control that will lay waste to our best-laid plans. This is the fatalism expressed in the Yiddish proverb “Man makes plans, and God laughs.” Fatalism simply accepts the outcome in advance, for better or worse, taking neither ultimate credit for success nor sole blame for failure. The fatalist can, without contradiction, pour himself into his work and practice the same dedication, drive and commitment to success as the optimist – free from the illusion that love, success and happiness are in his or her own hands.
Popular culture, hack psychology and Hollywood movies have taught us that a positive outlook and good attitude are the keys to success and happiness. The belief that if we have the right attitude, if we respond to events in the right way, if we explain our misfortunes as “part of a plan” or a learning experience or an inspiration or something which makes one a better person, we can overcome any adversity and lead fuller, better lives than otherwise. When something terrible happens to us, is it God’s plan to test us or fortify us or teach us a deeper lesson? Or is it a random, tragic, meaningless act which takes something away from us, something which we may never get back? There is undoubtedly truth in the idea that needlessly dwelling on a tragedy rather than “moving on” is unhealthy and unproductive. But to pretend like we are suffering in order to serve some divine purpose or to attempt to bestow meaning on the meaningless is simple rationalization at best and denial at worst. Why must we impart meaning on the meaningless? Why must events be written into some larger narrative with us at the center? Why must we see the positive in the face of tragedy? What if no good is to come of it? Why must we lie to ourselves? This is the childish philosophy of Voltaire’s Pangloss – “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Why not simply accept tragedy as something irredeemably tragic?
Not to continue harping on the same point, but I think that our cultural obsession with storytelling is largely at fault. We refuse to consider circumstances at face value, but insist on weaving them into some lesson, some broader allegory or anecdote or episode in an unfolding drama with us at the center. It is the fault of an ego which can’t help but place itself in the starring role of a story loosely based on the experience of our own life (but carefully edited and filtered through the thoroughly biased lens of our self-perception).
The pop culture depiction of suffering tends to resort to one of two cliches: the sufferer who finds strength and resilience and faith, or the victim of undeserved tragedy who serves as a humble reminder as to how lucky the rest of us are. The victim is either the protagonist, in the first case, or a supporting character in our own story, in the second. They have suffered so that they can overcome and triumph over the adversity with which they were faced, or that they may teach us an important lesson that we may use to write our own narrative of struggle and resolve and survival. Our egotistic nature refuses to consider that we may ourselves be supporting characters or, even worse, inconsequential extras in someone else’s story.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
All of this assumes, of course, that we triumph over our tragedy and emerge from our trials and tribulations as a stronger, better, fuller person. Struggle is the flame which turns soft metal into steel. Pain focuses the heart and teaches us to appreciate the banal pleasures of life. Tragedy reveals the strength of one’s true character. But what if it doesn’t?
What consolation is there to the victim who suffers tragically so that others may learn some lesson about themselves? And what if our experience is not inspirational, what if we are not the pillars of strength people expect us to be? What if our suffering does not make us stronger? What if it breaks us? What if it takes something from us that we never get back? What if it leaves a hole deep inside us that never goes away, a dark, cold void that creates distance between us and the other people in our lives? What if it takes away our ability to love and be loved? What if it destroys that which made us what we were, and leaves a bitter, hollow, shadow in its place?
The Hollywood depiction of tragedy and suffering is a dramatic moment of sorrow followed by the long, slow, but inevitable path to redemption and triumph. Suffering is a plot point against which our ultimate glory is made sweeter, bolder and more well-deserved. “I have succeeded despite my suffering. I have triumphed against innumerable obstacles. I stumbled, I fell, and I arose again, to aspire to new heights.” But what if suffering is not a plot device? What if it does not take the form of a concise, discreet moment book-ended by our timely summoning of that inner strength we never knew we possessed, and resolving to use our experience to grow and become a better person? What if our tragedy is not met by a heartfelt outpouring of support, a moment of community and solidarity and love? What if our suffering is slow, quiet, miserable, and undramatic? What if our grief and our pain outlast the predictable outpouring of support, and our suffering continues, though it ceases to elicit the interest of those who had to presumed to support us in our moment of need?
“The thing to note about stage 4 cancer – is that there is no stage 5.” – Christopher Hitchens, Mortality
This is not to say that people do not support one another in our moments of need. Indeed, the greater the tragedy the more generous we can expect our friends, family, coworkers, and community to be with their sympathies and their offers of support and assistance. But we ultimately suffer alone. We are there for one another but we do not suffer one another’s pain. The hardest part about watching someone you love suffer from a terrible illness is that you cannot take their pain and make it your own. For all the talk about completing one another and becoming “as one” through your love you cannot feel their pain as you watch it eat them alive. You cannot experience their suffering no more than you can stop it. You can console them only by the fact that to watch someone you love suffer is in many ways worse than to suffer yourself. But you each suffer alone, together. And as for one’s friends, one’s family, they will soon grow weary of the emotional burden entailed in offering support to the sufferer. It is hard to blame them. We all want to be optimistic and offer support to those in need, but it is hard to cheer up someone with little hope of brighter days, no prospects of improvement, or only the abstract, distant possibility of recovery. Once the clichés, psalms, and hallmark cards have been exhausted, where does one go from there? If we insist on optimism and our right to look forward to brighter days, in which we will look back on this as a great learning experience – how then do we look hopelessness in the face, and offer consolation to the inconsolable? No, we must recognize that all that we have, all that we love, all that we have worked for, can turn to ash in an instant – and it would be no less unjust than when it happens to anyone else, we have no special right to happiness, earned or otherwise. To do so with any honesty or earnestness means to stare into that abyss ourselves – empathy means, after all, to imagine oneself in someone else’s place – and realize that for someone sentenced to a life of eternal darkness, talk of sunshine is no comfort at all. And so we must, one way or another, experience hopelessness in order to empathize with the hopeless.
“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
I want to tie together the above rambling with one final point. In a world without purpose, or justice, or fairness, optimism is an illusion. It is a privilege, a luxury of those fortunate enough to be able to look forward to brighter days. For those who are not so lucky, optimism is a psychological trick that may or may not help alleviate the pain and loneliness of a life in the shadow of their own misfortune. In a world in which we are all one way or another destined to suffer alone, or, if we are lucky, only to die alone, it is in my experience better to to harden oneself to the fact that nothing is promised and try our best to cope with life’s traumas in such a way that we build our character and learn whatever we can from each experience we are subjected to without resorting to petty nonsense about overcoming adversity or being made stronger or having faith in the ultimate wisdom of life’s inexplicable caprices. We must take what comes for what comes without trying to imbue everything with meaning, and push on for the sake of love of living (if not this life itself) and the desire to continue our existence in one way or another – not for the sake of fulfilling some grand story arc or following some path which was chosen for us or proving some divine purpose. So for me a life of sober, honest, assessment of what is and what is not is preferable to one based on happy illusions and comfortable pretenses. And rather than leading to cynicism and despair this gives me the strength to continue to work towards building a better future for myself and my family without being dismayed and deflated at every misfortune that lands upon us. And that is the essence of fatalism as far as I am concerned.