Incompatible Desires and the Less is Less Principle
Posted Aug 24 2008 12:03am
"There is no such thing as a free lunch." "It's all relative." "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction." "You can't have your cake and eat it too." Call it Karma or whatever you will, but in the end, there is one golden rule that goes far beyond simply treating those as you would have them treat you: nothing comes without a cost. The choices we make in our lives all come at a cost - some to the environment, some to society, and some to ourselves.
Being "green", having a spiritual awakening, or pursuing our dreams can cost us our friends and/or relatives.
Anyone who has refused to accept a gift or eat what is put before them out of principle has felt the sting of having offended their hosts. Anyone who has accepted such offerings despite their values has felt the inner humiliation that comes with being aware of one's own hypocracy.
Anyone who has diverged from their peers' perspectives on politics, sexuality, or spirituality has felt that sense of loneliness one can get in a crowded room of familiar faces. And anyone who wishes to maintain relationships over the course of their personal development has felt the pressure to conform and keep their metamorphosis to themselves.
Anyone who has wanted something for themselves that others did not approve of or thought impossible has felt the generational tug-of-war that has been ripping away at our social fabric for centuries now. One is left to choose between the things they love and the people they love. They are left to either mourn the loss of those most important to them or spend their lives retrospectively asking, "what if?"
Anyone who has sought answers to those most difficult questions (you know, the ones that usually start with 'why') has found much to be sad about. Shopenhauer was right to say that ignorance is bliss (He might have actually said that 'intelligence is a curse'; I'm not sure, but the point is the same). Or how about this one: "What you don't know can't kill you." Well, actually, it can, but what you do know can also kill you. Knowing is often painful, especially when living in such, shall I say, interesting times. So, maybe it is naive to seek both happiness and enlightenment because they are arguably incompatible.
And that is one of my points: that many of the things we want in life are incompatible. Sure, we can find examples of people who've had rewarding careers, affluence, a stable family life, spiritual enlightenment, mental health, physical health, a strong community, and a legacy to boot; and they are romanticized and idolized as shining examples of what we should all strive to be. But under the surface, I suspect they are mostly frauds and/or sociopaths. In my experience, the ideal persona is far more prevalent in artistic expression than in reality. Most of the people I can think of who might 'fit the bill' are fictional characters; real people have issues. The real folks I do know of who might be called "happy", well, there's probably just something I don't know about them. Everyone experiences pain, don't they?
Pain is the price of joy.
So, on a much more general level, we have the dichotomous balance of happiness and sadness. Now, I don't know about you, but I personally do not see how I could possibly appreciate happiness without having known sadness, and I believe the opposite to also be true - that one cannot know sadness without having experienced happiness. So, it is all relative to what I will call the "stable center". For any individual, the "center" may seem to be in a different place, but happiness and sadness are balanced in a closed system, such that the relativity of happiness and sadness are primarily relegated to one's own personal experience (In other words, I'm disregarding peer comparisons and their relationship to self-esteem). To me, this explains how destitute people in third world countries appear to be no less satisfied with their situation than whiny, affluent, suburban teenagers who seem (by comparison) to have nothing worth complaining about. When feeling depressed about something trivial, it can be convenient to remind ourselves that others have it worse than we do, but that really only provides temporary relief; it does nothing to correct the problem which is that our present experience is worse in relation to previous experience.
So, what's my point here? Well, it is that I cannot avoid them, but I do have some degree of control over the intensity of my negative experiences. Having it good all the time means that when something even trivially bad happens, it will be devastating; "I'm used to having a good time, so this really sucks." An event far more serious could be downright dangerous. So, to turn the heat down on those things that depress us, perhaps we must suppress the urge to seek intense and/or sustained experiences of joy. Euphoric states achieved through the use of drugs are often followed by periods of depression; just ask anyone who has ever taken ecstacy. Intense romantic experiences can leave us feeling extremely empty and dissatisfied when the inevitable reality that cooperation and commitment, not romance and lust, are the basis of a long-term and rewarding relationship. And consumerism, with it's intense highs, leaves us feeling empty when the excitement over our new belonging fades, and we're left (months later when cleaning the closet or garage) feeling strangely guilty over the mounds of useless stuff that are the remnants of our cheap, miserly thrills and ill-fated attempts at establishing an identity.
So, here's to living with less - not just less stuff, but less baggage. The less excitement we seek in our lives, the more we find enjoyment in simpler things and the less we are devastated by the inevitable trials of life. Less dreaming and desiring, less passion and lust, less greed and gluttony, less envy and less judgement of others (and ourselves) - all will mean we all have a little less BS on our plates.
Returning to the issue of want compatibility, I'm curious what anyone who managed to read this far thinks about that. Some other things I believe are incompatible: feminism and chivalry; assimilationism and racial/gender equality; Western culture and community; art and intellectual property; social justice and global trade. I have others I just can't think of right now. Do you have other examples? Do you have points that might illustrate ways in which my beliefs could be unfounded? I'd love to hear them...