Thursday, July 15, 2010

You'll Get Nothing And Like It...

It is the great myth of humanity that one can be both pleasure seeking and content. Notice that this is different than saying pleasure will not lead to contentment; this is also true, but we are making a stronger statement. We are saying the act of seeking pleasure is inconsistent with living a content life; not only does pleasure not bring contentment, but the two are, in fact, mutually exclusive.

We admit, it took us some time to appreciate the distinction here. And don't misunderstand us--we still "enjoy" things like good food and wine. But (and this is the critical distinction) we don't expect anything from them.

Let us explain.

One of the most common objections we hear to the absurd is from people who simply refuse to believe their family does not matter. While they have sympathy for the concept in general, the concept that their wife and kids are no more important than dust mites is simply a leap too far. So let's unpack this a bit.

First, it is of course true (as we have argued many times) that the reason we believe family is important is purely biological--as gene replication machines, our primary "objective," as it were, is to protect and promote our own genetic code. It really is that simple. (As an aside, we have an absurd friend who has a great line about why his kids "matter"--"They're just so cute!")

However, we are concerned with something else here--the issue of dependence and its corrosive effect on contentedness. Consider the following situation--you have a fight with your spouse that is not quickly resolved. This results in a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach that you simply cannot shake. Now we should one best handle this situation?

Well, let's break it into its components. Why, you must ask, does it bother you that your spouse is upset. One popular answer is that you care about her, and do not want her to be unhappy. Hmm...This sounds awfully good; who can argue with such a selfless, egalitarian concern?

Horseshit! Not only is such a position untenable, but it is doubly corrosive for attempting to fob off our own unhappiness (or non-contentedness, if you will) on another. What does it mean that you "care" for your wife? That you want her to be happy? All right...why? Because her being happy makes you happy.

Think on that for a minute...

All right, here's the nub of the issue. When we rely on external things--be they people, events, or objects--for our happiness, we abandon any pretext of living a content life. This is no less true with family than with anything else--the self-proscribed "family man" may be looked on more favorably by society than a rock collector, but both rely on external forces to complete their quixotic quest for internal peace.

The difference with family is it is easier to hide our true motivations. We want our children to be happy, we tell ourselves (and others) for their own good. No! We want them to be happy because it makes us feel good. If not, then why do we care more for their happiness than another child down the street? What about starving children in Uganda? Our "concern" for our family is nothing more than a socially-acceptable trick that allows us to mask pure biological self-interest (gene replication) with compassion and selflessness.

Consider again the words of Epictetus:

"As on a voyage when the vessel has reached a port, if you go out to get water, it is an amusement by the way to pick up a shell-fish or some bulb, but your thoughts ought to be directed to the ship, and you ought to be constantly watching if the captain should call, and then you must throw away all those things, that you may not be bound and pitched into the ship like sheep: so in life also, if there be given to you instead of a little bulb and a shell a wife and child, there will be nothing to prevent you from taking them. But if the captain should call, run to the ship, and leave all those things without regard to them. But if you are old, do not even go far from the ship, lest when you are called you make default. Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life."

Expect nothing. It's the only way to get what you want.

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