Monday, January 30, 2012

The Trouble With "I"

"Of things some are in our power, and others are not."--Epictetus

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the absurd is its capacity to grant one absolute power over one's emotions.

Think about that for a minute. Absolute power. Sounds fantastic. And indeed, we used to laugh off even the prospect of such a thing. For example, many years ago we read of a study that asked people to rate how satisfied they were with their life on a scale of 1 to 10, and were amazed that some people...answered "10"! What, we wondered, was their secret? Were they all married to supermodels? Lottery winners? Preternaturally-gifted athletes?

We were literally flummoxed as to how anyone could be completely satisfied with his life. Was there nothing these people regretted? No path they wished they had (or hadn't) taken? No loves that got away? How could everything have turned out exactly as they wanted?

The answer, of course, is to focus on what is. This was the genius of the Stoics, who made the critical distinction between things in one's control (a remarkably short list, mainly having to do with one's mental state), and everything else, including our bodies, possessions, and "success." Unfortunately, the vast majority of people worry far more about the latter group.

It sounds trite, but the truth is that anyone can be satisfied with his current lot in life. Anyone. (Yes, Occupiers, even you!) The great lie of humanity is that things (possessions, experiences, relationships) make one happy; in fact, it is quite the opposite. For once one cedes contentment to external forces, the game is lost.

By contrast, he who accepts his current condition...has already won.

The paradox of the I is that this illusion, which drives people to "great" things (Steve Jobs may have fashioned himself a Buddhist, but he was awfully concerned with his legacy), is also responsible for the unhappiness and emptiness felt by so many. It is the I that wants, that desires, that is never satisfied for more than a moment, no matter what the circumstance. By contrast, for one who can view himself objectively, as not only one human among seven billion, but one temporary arrangement of atoms among an infinite number...well, let's just say life's struggles are a bit easier to bear.

On a side note, we have been alternately amused and saddened by those who sling invective at us for our presumed "success," and how it, and it alone, must explain our relaxed view on the world. Our favorite was the recent commenter who exhorted us to "pass the caviar!"

To borrow a phrase...let us be perfectly clear. The true irony of the Occupy movement is that by demanding a more equal distribution of wealth, Occupiers tacitly accept the premise that more "stuff" is the key to happiness. Said a different way, those who presume to throw off the shackles of giant corporations and the culture of consumption...have unwittingly locked the chains!

Regardless of your current status in life, we guarantee you there are many miserable people with "more" (possessions, friends, or lovers), and fully contented people with less.

Until next time...


  1. Is happiness only about 'lots in life'? HUMAN RIGHTS and JUSTICE FOR ALL make Occupiers feel content/happy. You seem to have put the Occupy Movement into a tiny box in your mind.


    Occupy Brazil is holding Rally & March of Candles. Details on this Facebook event.

    Occupy Tuscaloosa is holding a march for human rights on the national Day of Action for the Occupy movement and the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Occupy London‘s lunchtime GA will provide space for London lovers, neighbours and visitors to discuss plans for occupations, teach outs and other actions specific to the local areas of London. More info here.
    Also, live streaming of protests and show of cross-culture solidarity at the St. Paul Cathedral with guest speaker Professor Charles Tripp. Info here.

    Madrid TomaLaPlaza is holding a week of action that starts on the 10th of December (International Human Rights Day) and culminates on the 18th of December (the global action day against racism and for the rights of migrants, refugees and displaced people) including performances, a Forum of Human Rights at Puerta del Sol, music show with various choirs, etc. Find more details here.

    Occupy Montreal
    After their eviction and the disrespect of their rights, Occupy Montreal will march to and occupy the SPVM HQ (Montreal Police Head Quarters) on this day of human rights and liberty. Complete schedule of events found here.

    Occupy Nanamio will be taking part in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign.

    Occupy Nashville has planned a Global Human Rights Day March

    Occupy Omaha will be holding a symbolic cross-town march uniting traditionally segregated areas of the city. Demonstrators will start from North Omaha and South Omaha and converge at the encampment.

    Occupons La Defense (Paris)
    As part of the global day of mobilization for the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the indignation of Paris are calling for a mobilization.

    Occupy Sydney is holding a Global Human Rights Day Festival with info stalls, Free School, music, food and more!

    Find more actions here.

  2. As they say, nothing ventured...

    We feel for you. Honestly. We know exactly how you feel--that the world is unfair, and you are doing your small part to make it less so.

    But we wonder how you can presume to solve others' unhappiness before your own. Ask yourself: Why do you feel the need to attend rallies, and post to blogs, and generally agitate in the name of...something?

    Are you so contented in your own life that you feel the need to pass it on to others? Or could it be that "Occupying" is more about you?

    Those who are truly content have no need to march, or protest, or "speak out" about the injustice of it all. They simply make peace with what is, living life without infringing on others'. By contrast, your entire movement, laudable though its motivations may be, rests on nothing less than coercion and remaking the world in a manner more consistent with your views.

    "Human rights" and "justice" make you content? We don't know whether to laugh or cry...

  3. All most thinking people see around them is Corporate Coercion. If you can't see it, maybe you're too enmeshed in it.

  4. Pass the caviar . . .

  5. But maybe self-satisfaction is not the most important thing in life, or at least not the only important thing in life. Therefore, I may live in destitute poverty but rate my life satisfaction as 10/10. That still doesn't mean I live an ideal life which we should be striving for.

    1. You are obviously free to agree or disagree, but from an absurdist viewpoint, there is no "most important thing in life." And there sure is no "ideal to strive for."

  6. If these "Occupy" people really want to help anyone, they should quit whining about something that will never change(greed and selfishness; the 'enemies' and our own) and focus on what actually COULD help their fellow man: Just the simple act of listening to a persons troubles, no matter how absurd it seems, can give an individual the strength and courage to carry on . For even with the best of intentions, most battles are fought in our own mind and must be fought alone.

  7. . . . ah, and pass that tawny port for a delicious apertif . . .

  8. I'd like to welcome all you seekers of justice and worshippers of progress. However quaint your words and ideals may be, they do provide considerable amusement when juxtoposed with the message of this blog.

    Minutes – Interview with Noam Chomsky – 1/31/12

  10. How can you say that the occupy protesters are trying to "remake the world in a manner more consistent with your views" despite what really appears to be a noble note of defiance thrown against the wind? I appreciate that all you here on this site belong to some postmodern movement, and to some extent I agree with your view of happiness having to come from within rather than relying on external factors, but you simply cannot dismiss some foundational values such as the right to decent education, health care and not to be exploited. Think carefully before advocating passivity.

  11. Ted-

    Ah yes, the universal rights to things provided by others. We are hard pressed to think of anything more noble than that...


  12. Yeah, like the noble Europeans who showed up, took the land away from Native Americans as they killed them if they had some special right to it....

    There's enough on the planet for everyone but a select few think it all belongs to them to do what they want with it. Exploited people fight back. That is a natural consequence.

  13. Rick -

    You seem to be misssing the point entirely. Rights aren't "earned", hence why I affirmed them as "foundational". And since you've failed to retort the point that I, like every other commenter who has sense, has made - namely that rebellion against injustice is inevitable and only right - I can only assume that you know next to nothing about politics and/or philosophy. You are therefore in no real position to claim that your judgement is superior to the Wall Street protesters, not to mention the whole "life is without meaning/I've just asserted meaning" paradox which you seem to have ignored.

  14. Ted-

    If you didn't exist we would need to make you up. Oh wait...

    Really? A "foundational" right to education and health care? You actually can't see the gigantic contradiction in asserting one's right to something that must be provided by others? (Do doctors and teachers also have rights?) Also...since they are "foundational," it would appear the rights you reference actually preceded the institutions that provide them. But we're sure our primate ancestors enjoyed their free schools and medical care nonetheless...

    We're sorry to break it to you, but you are making one of the most basic errors in philosophy--the confusion of positive rights with negative ones. In other words, you have the right to (for example) be left alone (which as you can see does not require anything of others), but not to force me to clean your house (or perhaps...tent).

    As to the "paradox" you have so gleefully discovered, it is nothing of the sort. To recognize lack of meaning is hardly to assert it; indeed, as we have discussed in these pages, one of our quibbles with Camus was his twisted logic of asserting meaning in order to avoid sanctioning murder, which, while at first blush compelling, was ultimately off the mark.


    1. RB-

      It is not a 'gigantic contradiction' to say that one has a right to something that must be provided by others. Would one not say that a baby, or a young child, has a 'foundational' right to care, to food, to shelter and the like? At least from its parents? If one accepts that one cannot consistently argue that there is a contradiction in asserting one's right to something that must be provided by others. Also, I do not see the point of your sarcastic comment about our ancestors; just because people of the past have been refused a 'foundational' right, does not in turn prove the right not to be foundational!

      I feel that 'ted' is not making an error, you can have positive rights, as i feel i have presented a good case for (well a good case given that it was a quick point, without all the detail of papers i have written to 'prove' the existence of foundational positive rights), and at no point did he call it a negative right.

      Finally, argue what you will, but it is not coherent to argue against the existence of meaning, and then to assert it, for this to not be contradictory, you would have to be asserting the meaning, not because there is actual meaning, but to support a cause you favour.

  15. Rick -

    There's no confusion; yes I am talking about positive rights. Negative rights simply aren't enough, as laissez-faire capitalism has undoutedley proven.

    My point wasn't that you had asserted meaning by recognising its lack; I was referring to your Thatcherite views which you seem to hold as irrefutable.

    1. "Negative rights simply aren't enough, as laissez-faire capitalism has undoutedley proven."

      Which country has had laissez-faire capitalism?

  16. Human rights and justice is very important at least in countries like India where people rarely see it happening.