Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Satisfaction, Happiness and Suffering

These days I have nothing much that worries me, and there's really isn't any much that I'm really wanting in life - satisfaction, to put it in a word. But it seems like satisfaction isn't true happiness, or at least in a rather interesting philosophical conversation with a friend of mine.

It came about when I was explaining my ease of not having to be in a relationship, which comes as a disbelief that is shared by many of my other friends. They usually misconstrue what I meant by 'at ease', which they take it that I want to remain single, which is far from it - I don't discount the possibly of having a partner if I do meet someone nice, but I'm not going to sweat it even if I never meet 'the right one'[1] in my lifetime.

Surprisingly, my satisfaction with status quo seems to trouble a lot of people more than me (usually singles I observed, but there is an odd couple here and there who will raise hackles), that they see something is 'wrong' with me if I am not actively looking for that 'someone' in my life. And that slights me, given that it whiffs a hint that my 'happiness' is just a state of self-denial.

It's not that my friend is being pushy or obnoxious, and I do understand what he's getting at - most people want to get hitched and 'live happily ever after'[2]. Well, most people anyway. But in order to do that, one cannot do avoid the 'trials and tribulations' of courtship, or the proverbial slaying of the dragon to get the princess. Apparently, it's nothing more than a hollow victory if princesses come stocked at your nearest Wal-Mart store, or available through phone delivery!

While I don't disagree that there are some sacrifices to be made in order to get there, like doing things that you don't particularly take interest in, or even things that you detest but you're doing just because she does; it is precisely my refusal to partake in such 'silly' activities, or in his view, my 'avoidance of suffering' through this rite of passage that formed the basis of this lively philosophical debate.

He starts by quoting Nietzsche philosophical leanings, towards the idea that suffering is necessary, and quotes:

"To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities - I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished."

And went on to say that suffering is good, for without it, we do not know the true meaning of happiness. Now the idea wasn't hard to accept, and got me pondering for a couple of days, literally. After all, it does have kernels of truth in it - given that best things in life are usually hard won, without suffering in its way, we will not attain a sense of fulfillment. Satisfaction of status quo is, as he puts it, a synonym for mediocrity.

But is mediocrity also a synonym for unhappiness? I'll get onto that later. Let's continue with the discussion.

He then quotes Schopenhauer's explanation of Aristotle's remark:

"The prudent man strives for freedom from pain, not pleasure."

Schopenhauer's philosophy is summarised into the point that it is impossible to fulfill all our desires and so we should avoid the troubles and anxiety that we go through in it's pursuit. Which is the stance that I supposedly adopted.

While I do not disagree with Schopenhauer's school of thought, but I didn't realise that it wasn't exactly what I believed only until later. Furthermore, I mistook what my friend had said as to have meant that he believed in the duality of happiness and suffering, ie. that you are happy only in the absence of suffering, and vice-versa, suffering in the absence of happiness. In fact, only at afterthought did I realise that he meant something more subtle, that in the absence of suffering, you will not know what happiness is.

But I still find Nietzsche's viewpoint too extreme to have any sensibility - instead of just facing adversity as it comes, Nietzsche encouraged the seeking out of suffering. The thought, while plausible, was an idea that was unpalatable subconsciously, even while my conscious thought wasn't settled enough to gather full clarity. Maybe it was just my friend's rather enthusiastic (or forceful) sell of his views that had formed a mental gag reflex, after being having it shoved down my throat.

We moved on and formulated a hypothetical example by comparing a starving child with one who has always had 3 square meals on the table. He asserts, and it is plausible to believe, that the starving child, when offered the same meal, will be more grateful to having the food when compared to the child who never had to starve. It is then, he argued, that because the starving child had suffered, and hence he is able to understand the joy of having food in the way that other child will never fathom, which I agreed, only to come to reject and refute the argument a day later.

There are two things that we have to factor into account here, which characterises our 'human nature', and incidentally, refuting Nietzsche's argument as absolute truth. One, the 'law of diminishing returns' inherent in human nature. Given that if the starving child was to given the same treatment as the child who never went hungry before, he will too, grow content of his 3 square meals, and over time, not derive the same level of happiness he had when he was first starving. Two, our nature of empathy - if you are the satisfied boy, and after seeing the suffering of the starving boy, will you not understand how lucky you are and to enjoy your meal better than before?

Hence it is not of the need to suffer in order to attain happiness, but rather the mere knowledge of suffering that will be sufficient. If that's the case, why is there a need to assiduously seek pain in order to gain pleasure?

In fact, I realised that neither the viewpoints of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are absolute truths in itself, but rather they are two extreme points of view of the same issue: as much as it is insane to seek pain intentionally (you like cooking your hand in boiling water?), it is equally futile to avoid it (show me an exception, and I'll punch him in the face, effectively negating your exception), that in life we will be sitting within a spectrum in between both ends of it.

Suffering is sometimes, even good for you, like exercise is - while unenjoyable, and sometimes painful, you still do it anyway, and so the assiduous avoidance of pain is not the answer too. If you think about the risk to reward ratio, or couching it in the terms of happiness versus suffering, if you're well rewarded by the happiness for the amount of suffering you'll be getting, by all means, you should attempt it.

Applying that in the context of my philosophy towards relationship, if you do find the 'right one', you'll have much in common, therefore automatically have a better payout between happiness and suffering. Conversely, if you happen to find a bitch in your life who makes your life a living hell, you're probably better off without her.

Choice is, ultimately a test of your own judgement - but anxiety about not having a choice, or seeking to make the best one, is exactly what Nietzsche alludes to, that you're seeking suffering, albeit unconsciously, yet without any promise of happiness in return. Which is why I ascribe it is as 'silly'. There is nothing wrong with being content, and just because I don't show the anxieties that others have, doesn't mean I have to.

Only a day after did my friend pass me Alain De Botton's book - "The Consolations of Philosophy", the source where the majority of his philosophical arguments came from. While flipping through the book and reading about Montaigne, only did I realise that it is he that strikes the balance between the two extreme schools of thought, which resonated with me the most:

"We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life."

Sneaky bastard[3]!

[1]: I only use the phrase 'the right one' as a well understood idea, but I am a not a believer of the idea of the 'right one', but rather that of a 'right compromise' :)
[2]: Sorry, but it's just another myth!
[3]: For trying to lull me into feeling insecure about myself!


Photobuch said...

What a wonderful philosophy of life. "We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid"- love this line. It’s much easier to try to take things into our own hands and control the future, but a faith-filled life is more peaceful, this is my philosophy of life:)

Anonymous said...

Makes me angry... philosophies about how suffering complements happiness and that without one we could not know the other, it is especially frustrating, because, it unfortunately makes some sense and carries some truth within it, what makes me despise the idea even more...
About the philosophy you mentioned earlier, as being the most suitable to represent your own way of thinking, please allow me to express a small part of my own ideas and way of thought within your own way... i will use one of the sentences above mentioned to present my point, "we must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid, until we discover a way to avoid what is currently unavoidable." i hope you can find something within these words worthy of reflection.


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