I've read countless (more or less) religious, spiritual, mystical, philosophical, and self-help books that basically take an optimistic approach to life.
Yes, life is difficult, as the Buddha said. But those books say that it's possible to turn suffering into well- being through a myriad of suggested ways, many of them contradictory.
Believe in God. Meditate. Find your true self. Flow with whatever happens. Have a positive attitude.
Nothing wrong with all that. Except when it is. Yesterday Amazon delivered into my eagerly awaiting hands a book that Sam Harris recommended on Twitter: "Life is Hard," by Kieran Setiya, a philosopher who teaches at MIT.
It's a breath of fresh air for me. And I've only read the introduction. Here's some excerpts from the introduction. I really like both Setiya's writing style and his clear thinking.
Life, friends, is hard -- and we must say so. It's harder for some than it is for others. Into each life some rain must fall, but while the lucky dry themselves beside the fire, others are drenched by storms and floods, both literal and figurative.
We live in the wake of a global pandemic and mass unemployment, amid the surging catastrophe of climate change and the revival of fascism. These calamities will disproportionately harm the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.
...Since the age of twenty-seven, I have experienced chronic pain: persistent, fluctuating, strange, a constant drone of sensory distraction. It can be difficult to concentrate and, at times, impossible to sleep. Because it is invisible, my condition is isolating: almost no one knows.
...There is no cure for the human condition. But after twenty years teaching and studying moral philosophy, I believe that it can help. This book explains how.
...We should not turn away from hardship; and the best is often out of reach. Striving for it only brings dismay. This attitude may strike you as perverse or pessimistic. But we need not live our "best lives" in order to be more resilient; and we have to face the facts.
Here's an experience you may have had. You tell a friend about a problem you are coping with, maybe a blowup at work or in a close relationship, a health scare that has you rattled. They are quick to reassure you -- "Don't worry; it will all be fine!" -- or to offer you advice.
But their response is not consoling. Instead, it feels like disavowal: a refusal to acknowledge what you're going through. What we learn in moments like these is that assurance and advice can operate as denial.
Worse than denial, even, is the urge to justify human suffering. "Everything happens for a reason" -- except, of course, it doesn't. Philosophers have a word, "theodicy," for an argument that vindicates the ways of God to man.
Theodicies address the problem of evil: if God is omnipotent and benevolent, what accounts for the manifold evils of the world?
But theodicy has a life of its own, outside of narrowly theistic or doctrinal contexts. Religious or not, we conjure the problem of evil whenever we protest that something should not be; and we engage in something like theodicy when we say it's for the best.
The problem with theodicy is not just intellectual -- none of the arguments work -- but ethical, too. It's wrong to justify your own or others' suffering, to mute pity or protest in that way.
...So this is where we are: heirs to a tradition that urges us to focus on the best in life but painfully aware of the ways in which life is hard. To open our eyes is to come face-to-face with suffering -- with infirmity, loneliness, grief, failure, injustice, absurdity.
We should not blink; instead, we should look closer. What we need in our affliction is acknowledgement.
...Two insights light the way. The first is that being happy is not the same as living well. If you wish to be happy, dwelling on adversity may or may not be of use. But mere happiness should not be your goal. Happiness is a mood or feeling, a subjective state; you could be happy while living a lie.
...The truth is that we should not aim to be happy but to live as well as we can.
...I don't mean we should strive to be unhappy, or be indifferent to happiness, but there is more to life than how it feels. Our task is to face adversity as we should -- and here truth is the only means. We have to live in the world as it is, not the world as we wish it would be.
The second guiding light is that, in living well, we cannot extricate justice from self-interest or divide ourselves from others. It will emerge as the book goes on that even the most insular concerns -- with one's own suffering, one's loneliness, one's frustrations -- are implicitly moral.
They are entangled with compassion, with the value of human life, with ideologies of failure and success that obfuscate justice. Reflecting honestly on affliction in our own lives leads toward concern for others, not into narcissistic self-regard.