The last few weeks have, to say the least, been frustrating. Without going into detail, I’m stuck in limbo waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn. The result is a lot of free time, and a lot of restless anxiety. Unable to concentrate on a novel, I decided to re-read this book by Alain de Botton. I was hopeful, as Epicurus was, that philosophy might help “drive away the suffering of the mind.”
I first read The Consolations of Philosophy about five years ago, when I was living in South Korea. My little-black-book-of-quotes is full of wisdom from this volume, and I have drawn consolation from it over the intervening years. De Botton’s explanation of Seneca’s philosophy, for example – “We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them” – has been enormously helpful in dealing with my diabetes diagnosis. Coming back to it now, I’ve found reassurance in the way the ideas in this book help create perspective. It’s grounding to re-think the basics of existence every now and then, particularly when existence isn’t going exactly to plan. Here are some of the main ideas that have helped me navigate my thinking:
Frustration and stress are products of “dangerously optimistic notions” of reality
There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy (Schopenhauer)
Basically, we need to lower our expectations of the world around us. When we expect things to work out, and then they don’t, the result is anger, frustration, stress, anxiety. The less we expect, the less we are disappointed. It sounds a bit depressing, but it’s more about being realistic than pessimistic. The world is not here to make us happy. Nature is indifferent to whether we suffer or don’t. Further, suffering is a natural and inevitable part of life. Believing that any suffering we face is unfair or unnatural only increases the pain we feel.
Friends are important
He became himself on the page as he had been himself in the company of his friend (De Botton on Montaigne)
Both Epicurus and Montaigne specifically mention friendship as being a vital part of a good life. This is pretty obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. Friends give us a chance to be ourselves, they reaffirm our own experiences, thoughts and feelings by sharing and understanding – rather than judging – them. I’m very grateful for all the wonderful friends I have, and I need to spend more time appreciating (and enjoying) these relationships.
Nature is important
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. (Einstein)
Schopenhauer turned to the natural sciences in order to better understand human behaviour; Montaigne was interested in investigating and writing about his natural bodily functions; Nietzsche was a big fan of plant metaphors and – for a brief time – became a gardener. When human thinking gets too convoluted and confusing, taking some time out to consider how nature gets things done can bring a lot of clarity.
Art is important
[A]rt and philosophy help us … to turn pain into knowledge (De Botton on Schopenhauer)
For Epicurus, art is the antidote to advertising. Art shows us what we truly need (friendship, thought, freedom) stripped of all the crap advertising tells us we need (the latest iPhone, a fancy notebook, a new car). Art also, like friendship, reflects our experiences and helps us understand and cope with pain and suffering. A poet creates a story about a specific character that deals with universal themes, which we in turn – as readers – can relate back to our own individual experiences.
Simplicity is important
We are richer than we think, each one of us. (Montaigne)
It is possible to over-think things. It is also possible to over-write, and over-educate. Life doesn’t have to be so complicated. There is value in our own experiences, and in how we process and use those experiences. As humans we are intelligent, but we are also often impulsive and foolish. As Montaigne notes, “Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.” Don’t just write about the complicated, universal stuff. Write about the specific, the individual. Write about the small and sometimes embarrassing details of what it’s like to be human. And don’t use big fancy words to do it.
Difficulty is important
[I]n the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. (De Botton on Nietzsche)
Not only should we expect life to be difficult, we should be thankful for those difficulties. It is through pain and suffering that we are given the chance to grow, to learn, to become better. Every time we are faced with something hard, we should look at it as a challenge. As an opportunity to become stronger, more compassionate, smarter, or – perhaps in my particular case – more patient. De Botton puts it beautifully when he writes: “We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge.”
I’ve read this book before. I’ve heard and thought about all of these ideas numerous times. But it is always useful and enlightening to come back to them again, to review them in a new context. Re-reading de Botton hasn’t solved my problem, but it has helped me accept and deal with it. I’m still waiting, but I’m waiting a little less anxiously.