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What Do You Do When It All Goes Wrong?
The Struggle Is Real. Reviewing ‘Life Is Hard’ by Kieran Setiya
Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward.
So says the Book of Job, an ancient exploration of our species’ response to acute suffering. The verse resonates because it seems true as a prediction and explanation of our own experience, validated by plenty of pain, loss, failure, and frustration. And not just for some of us. No one is shielded from hardship; we are born to it.
Why is not that hard to puzzle out. It’s as simple as stubbing your toe. We have plans and things get in the way. We want, hope, and aspire but miscalibrate the fit between our desires and the world in which we must attain them. Nor are we the only actors in the world; others also possess plans, and our aims conflict.
We could say more about why but, well, why? A more interesting line of inquiry involves how we might respond. MIT professor Kieran Setiya offers such an inquiry in Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way with a series of reflections on infirmity, loneliness, grief, failure, injustice, absurdity, and ultimately hope. Four responses stood out to me as I read.
1. Expect and Accept Trouble
Setiya starts by picking a fight with one of the founders of his discipline. “We must,” said Aristotle, “strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us.” Maybe spare a few of those nerves, says Setiya.
Aristotle’s advice assumes an elevated, divine status to which humans should strive. In such a view enduring hardship or settling for less than the supposed ideal represents a moral failing. “This whole approach is wrong,” says Setiya. “We should not turn away from hardship; and the best is often out of reach. Striving for it only brings dismay.”
Should we then avoid striving? A Stoic or Buddhist appeal to detachment might respond that way. Says Setiya,
A fundamental axiom of Stoic philosophy, repeated ad nauseam in the “Handbook” of Epictetus, is that we should extinguish both aversion and desire for what is out of our control. Focus on what you can change; detach from everything else.
If a good to which we might strive is beyond our control, we hold it with a loose grip. But what happens when that good is the life of a loved one, justice, or a worthy aim we can only partially attain? We end up either abandoning or slandering the good. “For all its appeal, the Stoic axiom is perverse,” says Setiya. “The Stoic attitude may dull our pain, but it does so by distancing us from things that really matter.“
If we take these views as opposites, Setiya charts a course somewhere in between. Yes, there are higher goods, and we should set goals and strive. But we shouldn’t let those goals become all-consuming. Nor should we avoid inevitable suffering that comes from our various pursuits or hopes. We should expect and accept it. How? By circumspect engagement—something that happens best in solidarity.
2. Attend to Others
Job’s friends. If you know the story, you know that’s no compliment. While Job suffers, his friends gather to mourn with him but soon shift to explaining that he must have had it coming. Not too helpful.
Setiya first began wrestling with subject of hardship while enduring chronic pain, and though his affliction imposed burdens, robbed him of sleep, and prevented him from being at ease in his own body, it also broadened his perspective. “There is less to the separateness of persons than might appear,” he says. Coping with chronic pain gave him “a presumptive compassion for everyone else.” In this, he says, “Suffering can be a source of solidarity.”
While reading that, I was reminded of a pair of letters St. Basil the Great sent a husband and wife upon the loss of their son. As you might expect from a Christian bishop, Basil mentioned both the malice of the devil and the mystery of providence. But he went beyond these observations; in his letter to mother, Basil added this:
Above all I have this to urge—that you spare your partner in life; be a consolation one to the other; do not make the misfortune harder for him to bear by spending yourself upon your grief.1
It’s interesting that Basil gave this advice to the mother of the departed child. Perhaps he worried she would succumb to despair. By encouraging her to focus on her husband, Basil sees to her need (having her focus outside her own pain) and also her husband’s need (which he might not express for himself). Surviving their grief would require the couple to pour their life and love into each other.
This sort of mutuality amid difficulty salves all sorts of wounds. Grief, loneliness, and failure: all are softened by attending to others.
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3. Decouple Your Identity and Goals
One of my favorite book covers is to Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail, featuring an array of typographical mishaps and historical also-rans: The Titanic, Edsel, Betamax, and Dodo. Failure is a human constant but one we feel particularly uncomfortable addressing, let alone experiencing.
The reason in part goes back to Aristotle. If we’re always measuring ourselves against an unattainable ideal, it’s inevitable we’ll find ourselves stranded somewhere in that gap. This is worsened, says Setiya, by our proclivity to see our lives as narratives. “The lure of narrative unity is what makes us ‘winners’ and ‘losers’,” he says. We want to imagine linearity to our lives in which we are always progressing toward some version of “making it.”
“Projects fail and people fail in them,” says Setiya.
But we have come to speak as if a person can be a failure—as though failure were an identity, not an event. When you define your life by way of a single enterprise, a narrative arc, its outcome will come to define you.
Real life consists of no single storyline and no overarching resolution. Instead we experience a series of overlapping successes and setbacks. We’re up some days and down others, and we’re usually up and down in the same moment depending on what goal we’re focusing on. If we conceptualize life as a project or quest, we’re bound to miss or misunderstand the wild variety of our experience.
Setiya recommends pursuing certain activities for their own sakes, taking pleasure in relationships, pastimes, habits, and hobbies not for some overarching purpose but simply to find joy in the moment. Working toward an audacious goal matters; but so does getting coffee with a friend. And it’s worth remembering that even bold actions that come up short can be worth the effort. I love the line from Bob Dylan’s “Honest with Me”: “I’m glad I fought—I only wish we’d won.”
4. Risk Hope
Any effort contains the possibility of failure. Hence the necessity of hope: the desire for something attainable but not inevitable, something within reach but which still requires reaching. Setiya quotes Rebecca Solnit: “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” Without hope, there’s no motivation, no progress. But without hope, why would we act?
For a religious believer hope assumes additional dimensions. But even at its most secular hope is a virtue worth practicing. “The point of clinging to possibility,” says Setiya, “is not to feel good—hope may be more painful than despair—but to keep the flicker of potential agency alive.”
He closes by citing Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, an adaptation of a play by Sophocles:
History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.
The call to hope comes as an encouragement to battle, a call to act. Aristotle and the Stoics represent a false dichotomy. There isn’t one and only highest good to internalize and strive toward.2 Nor should we disavow the good to hedge ourselves from the inevitable sorrow of failing to fully attain it.
Instead, we should seek joy in the small successes and stay engaged despite the setbacks, remembering that neither ups nor downs are permanent or defining. And we should do so in the company of friends, waiting in hope and acting to realize it.
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Basil, Letter 6, translated by Roy J. Deferrari, LCL 190.
A Christian might reasonably object that union with God represents one such highest good. But how that journey unfolds is variable for each and full of mystery and surprise. As John Fischer sang, “Jesus is the only way; there’s more than one way to Jesus.”