Remember That It’s All in Your Head

Happiness, human nature, and sciamachy.


Self-portrait at an Early Age  (1628) by Rembrandt. Image courtesy of  Rijksmuseum .

Self-portrait at an Early Age (1628) by Rembrandt. Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Think back to where you were 10 years ago, or five years ago, or even one year ago. What was your chief concern at that time? What occupied your thoughts more than anything else? What problem seemed insurmountable? Now ask: Does it still seem like such a big deal? Now ask this: What occupies your thoughts today?

The point is not that any one concern was necessarily foolish to harp on simply because it might have resolved itself long ago; each worry was real enough at the time, and each current one feels just as pressing. The point instead is that human beings will always suffer preoccupations. As soon as one concern dissipates a new one will arise to fill the vacuum, like gas particles expanding to fit their container. This tendency happens to be supremely annoying, but when perceived in a more charitable light it turns out to be an invaluable asset.

In an old essay, Dr. Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) made a characteristically thought-provoking observation: If what is usually referred to as the Cycle of Poverty were strictly an inviolable law of economics rather than a more complex matter involving individual conscious choices, human beings would still be living in caves.

But we are no longer cave-dwellers. Why? How did we manage that neat trick of forging civilizations, farming stuff, and creating iPhones?

Various vain attempts have been made by mankind to elevate ourselves above all other animals, and one after another they have been debunked (including Aristotle’s proposition that laughter distinguishes us from the beastswondrously false!). Yet any fair accounting of the planet would demonstrate that something about us is exceptional, or else the word means nothing.

Here’s a distinction: People are incapable of being truly content in any lasting way. And it is precisely this simultaneous desire for, yet inability to attain, enduring satisfaction that distinguishes us — or more precisely, it is our nagging awareness of this that distinguishes us. We are the only species that weighs endlessly variable outcomes, imagines our own distant circumstances, and strives to make them better for ourselves. Our success at this has been materially astounding (though spiritually rather hit and miss). Yet it’s never enough. If ever something lacked a limiting principle, it is human desire.

This existential failing to hold on to happiness — our inability to be still and feel content with our lot, to stop wishing our lives away, to cease scheming to improve our present conditions in manners large and small — is simultaneously our greatest source of inner discord and the secret to our astonishing ascension. We want things to be better; we make them better; then we still feel the same as when we started. After all we’ve accomplished to live more comfortably than even a mighty Roman emperor could have aspired to, how can it be that we remain saddled with worry and regrets and dissatisfaction?

In an endearing essay on regret in The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz writes:

Here are two more findings about regret that psychologists have repeatedly replicated. One, we deplore loss more than we enjoy gain, just as we remember unhappy experiences more vividly than happy ones. And two, in the heat of the moment, we brood more obsessively about the dumb things we did, and as we age, we grieve more about all the things we failed to do.”

It seems there’s just no way around this: we are irredeemable ingrates. But questioning multiple possible paths and imagining their alternative outcomes comprise the very foundation of the trial-and-error approach that has collectively taken us so far. To complicate matters, it is often asserted that this tendency to agonize over our stations in life is being exacerbated by our rapid technological advancement and the stark increase in our stimuli and choices. As Shulevitz says, “Psychologists suspect that we regret more than we used to, because we make more choices than we used to.”

This is the topic of another fascinating field that apparently is gaining traction in Germany: exhaustion studies. The theory holds that people in our own time are more exhausted than ever before, more stressed out, more worried, more everything. In her review of recent work on the subject, Professor Anna Kathernia Schaffner writes, “Burnout is also frequently linked to the proliferation of new media in the digital age, which no longer allows us to relax properly. These technologies, it is assumed, further blur the boundaries between work and private life.”

This seems intuitively true. Perhaps it is especially appealing because it puts us in such a sympathetic light, not to mention on a pedestal above our putatively benighted ancestors. Woe are we! We’re just so put upon these days!

But hold on a sec: It turns out that every era, every generation, seems to make the same claims for itself. (Typical self-centered humans.) It’s worth quoting Professor Schaffner at length here:

“One of the abiding refrains in exhaustion theories, both past and present, is the idea that modernity as such drains the individual’s energy. The aspects of modernity that are repeatedly identified as responsible include technological inventions that have dramatically increased the pace of life, as well as wider cultural developments such as the spread of capitalism, secularization, urbanization, industrialization, and, more recently, the imperative to be a constantly self-fashioning, entrepreneurial subject in a highly competitive environment. Symptoms are related to specific external developments, which are thus not just construed as drivers of pathology, but also pathologized in their own right. Even Freud, who generally aimed to establish transhistorical truths about the human psyche, assumed that modernity and exhaustion went hand in hand, as the demand to repress one’s desires became ever more complex.

. . .

“‘We are the most exhausted age!’ is their weary cry. Yet many other people have presented their own ages, whether before or after the fin de siècle, as the most stressful of all, and a wider historical perspective on exhaustion as well as a reflection on why so many other periods embrace very similar rhetoric are curiously absent in this otherwise admirable study.”

It is hard to disagree with Ms. Schaffner’s conclusion:

Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted, is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal? If we were to venture further back into the past, crossing the frequently evoked modern/pre-modern threshold, we would find that many medieval men and women suffered from a lack of energy and spiritual weariness too. . . . But one could look back further still: the weariness of the melancholic was a condition already theorized by Hippocrates and Galen. Rather than lamenting the horrors of modernity, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that exhaustion is simply an essential part of the human experience. Indeed, the fact that our energies are limited, and that this worries us, is very much part of what makes us human. What changes through history is not the experience of exhaustion as such, but rather the labels we invent to describe it, the causes we mobilize to explain it, and, of course, the specific cultural discontents that we tend so readily to map onto it.”

The more scrutiny we apply to the human condition, then, the more it appears that a constant background noise of dissatisfaction is its motif. Even when we wish with all our hearts for something we like to not change, the source of that desire is dissatisfaction with the knowledge that it will change, and must. In varying degrees, we dwell on past decisions and missed opportunities both real and imagined. We wonder whether we should have made some different choices and about the effects the sum of our choices has had on our lives, the effects even on the very spot we occupy in this moment. Lionel Trilling said, “Nothing has so filled me with shame and regret as what I have not done,” surely a relatable sentiment. For others, the road taken might be more lamented than the ones passed over. In either case, the constant among the variables is wonder tinged with both hope and doubt.

We tell ourselves not to take anything for granted, but is that even possible? No matter where we are, we’re likely busy right there pondering someplace else, or how to improve upon our current place and our time spent in it. If only we had the ability to tinker here and there, to try out other possibilities and outcomes like outfits, to calm this constant yearning for things to be at least ever so slightly better: Even those cherished moments when we experience fleeting joy aren’t enough, because even as they’re happening we catch ourselves wishing they could last longer. But of course its fleeting quality is inseparable from the joy itself, indeed is a necessary condition for joy to exist. “All sunshine makes a desert” and all that. Perhaps the best to hope for is to grudgingly come to understand, at least intellectually, that this bargain really is for the best, and hold tight to that realization in an attempt to feel gratitude.

But still the thoughts persist, even after triumphs. This isn’t enough. My life can be better. My life surely will get even better. If only I could do/have/find this or that or the other thing, then I would be happy.

Such thoughts will never go away; if they did, we would no longer be human, as we understand ourselves. We would be something different. And the costs would be immense. Because if happiness were easy and lasting, if we stopped endlessly hoping and trying to improve our existence and make things better for us and our children and those we love, stopped trying to somehow escape our very human limitations — well, things would stop improving then, wouldn’t they?

And so, about that word in the title up there: sciamachy. It’s an interesting word not only for its euphony, but for its etymology. Some dictionaries define sciamachy as a “mock fight” or “practice-fighting as exercise,” but at its root (Greek skiamakhia : from skia a shadow + makhesthai to fight) there lies a meaning far richer: fighting with shadows.

Is there any more succinct summation of human nature itself, of human consciousness even? Fighting with shadows: this is what occupies our inner lives. This is what we pay for with our time and energy and thoughts and worries and dreams. What might have been, what might come to pass, and a whole lot of what will never, ever materialize.

Much of this sciamachy lies in our harping over the immutable past and in our unrealistic expectations about the future. The truth of it is that decades from now (if we’re lucky), whether we end up more successful than our most ambitious fantasies or find ourselves just getting by reasonably OK, we’ll largely think and feel the same as we do right now. Perhaps in our minds we can appreciate that this return to a sort of inner equilibrium (in terms of internal satisfaction, no matter the level of material success) is inescapable. Yet our implacable hearts aren’t so easily quieted. It’s this interminable striving, this exhausting sciamachy, that makes us who we are.

In the short story “An Affair of Honor,” Nabokov’s protagonist says, “If I think that nothing will happen to me, then the worst will happen. Everything in life always happens the other way around.” That’s just it: our worries and our dreams are but shadows. They rarely come to pass, and if they do, they do so in some unrecognizable way not at all similar to our fevered imaginations’ preoccupations. Our thoughts are by definition abstractions, shadows. They can be enlisted as trusty allies, but they can also make for some craftily deceptive opponents.

And so we trudge on, shadows all about us to battle, the fighting of which all along defining who we are more than any other of our qualities, the fighting of which remaining as futile and hopeless and sad as it is admirable and worthwhile and wonderfully, inimitably human. With each stumble, we beat ourselves up. With each success, we immediately scan the horizon for the next best thing. No matter what we achieve, even if we far surpass our fondest hopes, we will never be satisfied for long.

So what can be done? What is the best course of action? What are we supposed to do to maximize happiness?

In his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Victor Frankl suggests that these are the wrong questions:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.”

This insight leads him to his theory’s categorical imperative: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to do now!” (If you really think about that one, it might keep you up at night. Also, if you’d like to see a fictional treatment of how the ability to repeat your life might play out, check out Ken Grimwood’s rollicking novel Replay, which begs to be adapted into a film.)

Frankl shares lots more wisdom than that, like this piece of advice he says he imparted to all of his students:

“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Like most worthwhile advice, this is easier said than done. But after all, what else can we do? Think of your heroes, the individuals today or throughout history whom you most revere. They were never satisfied. You will never be satisfied. It is our lot to forever be fighting shadows. Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. Experiencing happiness requires careful cultivation, i.e., work. And you won’t even appreciate it until it’s passed. That this is true might be the second-most-valuable piece of knowledge to help navigate this strange life, to make it easier to keep our chins up and do our best, come what may. What knowledge is more valuable still? Hint: It is engraved on an old Scottish gravestone — a marker laid down long ago in what we inevitably condescend to call simpler times”:

Consider friend, as you pass by:

As you are now, so once was I.

As I am now, you too shall be.

Prepare, therefore, to follow me.

Some things never change.



Posted on February 21, 2014.