[Full disclosure: On 10 August, 2018, I was stabbed getting into my car, and suffered 6-7 stab wounds in my back, hand, head, and face during a 90 second knife-fight-become-gun-fight. I walked away a survivor; he did not. Afterwards, however, I developed PTSD, and reflected quite a lot upon death and the meaning of death during the many months of my recovery, which is ongoing: this series is the result.]
We believe that there are those in this world with perfect lives.
Yes, we believe that such people exist because we have seen them in movies and on television, these people with everything that anybody could ever want: sex, money, fame and fortune. We see them everywhere; we are absolutely inundated with their success stories; we very nearly worship these celebrities and debutantes, as though they were made of something better. Indeed, it is hardly even possible to get through a single day- to get through a single hour!- without seeing them living better and more fulfilling lives than we ever could. And these perfect people come in all kinds; they are cut from every cloth, and they are dyed in every color. No matter who they are or where they hale from, they are certainly better than us. They have none of our flaws; they have never failed.
And yet they do not exist.
No matter how perfect a life may seem to be at first glance, it is never without trial and tribulation. I grew up in the 1990s, and I remember the great musicians of that era, that each and every one of them was rich and famous, and could have had whatever he wanted in this world. Things are not always what they seem, however. For each had his own struggle:
Shall we continue a more extensive though not quite exhaustive list of troubled musicians? Let us select a few names from the 27 Club:
And these are only a few! A list of tortured souls in enviable positions of power throughout history- not only in the arts, but also in religion and politics- would run on and on forever:
It is truly shocking that any rational person could look even briefly over the vast history of the world and come to the conclusion that power brings "happiness" (whatever that is). And yet we live in a world in which everyone wants power, thinking quite wrongly that it will bring fulfillment; paradoxically, "privilege" is held in contempt, and any person that claims to be the victim of unjust circumstances is worshipped as a martyr- but who has not been the victim of unjust circumstances? When even the lives of kings and presidents end in tragedy, what exactly does it mean to be the victim of unjust circumstances? Has any man or woman in the history of the world lived a life untouched by unjust circumstances? Not a single one; whether good or evil, all men suffer. And so why is it that we insist on comparing ourselves to others, as though tragedy were a badge of honor to be bragged about rather than a natural condition shared by all humanity?
There is an answer, of course, though most of us would not care to admit it: In the modern world, the victim gets protection, and so there are social benefits to being a martyr- whether one is in reality or not. It is, in some respect, a downstream effect of our Judaeo-Christian worldview: "The world is the kingdom of sin; it wages war upon the good and the just." Whether it is true or not means little from a psychological point of view; everything follows from it, through mere osmosis. Generations of enculturation has resulted in a natural reaction to stand with the victim, to protect the victim, and thus, at times, even to prefer to be the victim.
No matter our cultural proclivities, however, the fact remains: Adversity does not make one special; it is the overcoming of adversity that makes one special.
Generally speaking, when men are successful, other men only pay attention to his successes; when men are not successful, other men only pay attention to his failures. Both estimations, however, are incomplete, for neither takes into account the totality of the man as a human being: A man is more than what he has done; he is also all the things that has been done to him, and he is all the things that he has done to others in turn. Each man is a world unto himself, and cannot be judged so simply as we might wish. In the end, it might be wiser to reserve judgment.
"Call no man happy until he is dead."
Obviously, fame and fortune do not ensure fulfillment, else why would we see the constant themes of addiction and suicide in the lives of those that have accomplished so much, especially in recent years? Something is clearly quite wrong with our conception of the human being, and of the relationship between happiness and suffering. Perhaps- just perhaps!- fame and fortune are not what we really desire at all; perhaps we desire more than mere material prosperity. For, ultimately, it is not prosperity that brings fulfillment but purpose.
Man's material conditions mean little when it comes to the question of fulfillment. It is quite simply not a material problem; thus, it has no material solution. And so when we become distracted by physical concerns, we we neglect the non-physical concerns that might actually prove capable of providing us a solution to the most critical of all questions: "What gives meaning to suffering?" This is the only question that matters, ultimately; all other questions are superficial. But there is only one satisfactory answer to this most critical of all questions: There must be something greater than us for which we suffer.
We cannot avoid suffering, but we can make it meaningful...and that is enough.
Although it may be true that different kinds of people experience different kinds of struggle, it is not true at all that any particular kind of person is spared suffering: We all suffer, but we suffer differently. None of us are spared; each individual struggles in his own way, no matter how "privileged" he may appear to be in the eyes of others. And we are lucky that it is so, for it is the universality of suffering that binds us together; without suffering, we would remain forever alien to one another. After all, compassion literally means "to suffer with" (from Latin: com = with; passio = suffering)...
The life sans suffering is mythical. It are not real; it cannot be real, and most importantly, it should not be real. Because although we may be born human, we must be made into a person, and personhood requires flaw, failure, and frustration. For it is our flaws, failures, and frustrations that make each of us unique, and therefore individual in his uniqueness. Without hardship and tragedy, we are but carbon copies of one another; without hardship and tragedy, we would lose the very sense of self that defines each of us as a human being. And when we no longer know ourselves as human beings, we no longer have reason to continue living as human beings.
"The thought of suicide is a great consolation:
by means of it one gets through many a dark night."
~ Beyond Good & Evil ~
That is the meaning of nihilism, which the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche understood so well, and which he feared above all other events. We have been living in the shadow of nihilism for quite some time, distracted by the promise of material prosperity, as though any amount of money could save us from suffering. But no amount of money can save us; no amount of power can save us. Instead, we must look within, no matter what darkness we might find there waiting for us...
~ Joshua van Asakinda
[Note: This post is half of a two-part series; for part two, please click the link below.]