I think the world is pretty daunting, these days. I want to share how I think about despair, how I get through it myself.
First, There’s nothing wrong with you, if you are unhappy. There are very good reasons to be unhappy. As you get older, the tragedy of being mortal comes into focus (although the joy of life can flood into you more fiercely and wildly than ever, too). Life is hard, and even being rich or powerful doesn’t protect you from its downs. The daily news reminds us of the ugly side of human nature, and we all suffer from problematic relationships, either because people are nasty to us or because we love people that we can’t be with, or help. If you also care about the non-human life on the planet, then the news is at times nearly unbearable. And if you live in a city, then it’s hard to find peace and quiet to re-center yourself. There’s no need to belabor this; the main point is just that you’re not crazy to feel unhappy.
Second, Go ahead and grieve. Grief—real grief, not cynicism—is useful; it helps us to honor those things, ideas and people that we want to honor, and then to move on. Marie Kondo pointed out that it’s easier to let go of things that we accomplished, than to let go of unfinished dreams. Our deepest desires are those things that we couldn’t have, or didn’t succeed in. I think it’s important to grieve for the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, as well as the real tragedies--lost loves. I read an interview with a young conservationist named Tim DeChristopher who said “It’s somewhat comforting knowing that things are going to fall apart, because it does give us that opportunity to drastically change things.” His work only became powerful after he gave up and grieved for the loss of the world he wanted to save, because that’s when he could start thinking about how to build a better world from its ashes. There is only so much that you can do to protect the things you love, and sometimes you can’t save them. Grief is a powerful tool. Don’t hold it all in.
Third, Once you are done grieving, stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is a truth that the old cultures knew, a value they held high, and one that our modern, self-obsessed culture seems to have partially forgotten. Can you think of anyone you admire who wallows in self-pity for more than a few minutes at a time? I can’t. As I wrote earlier, “One of the truest tests of character is a person’s ability to overcome self-pity in the face of adversity. No trait more reliably commands our respect.” Putting yourself down, giving yourself a disparaging label like “involuntary celibate,” is a form of self-pity. As long as you are pitying yourself, you are holding yourself down. The reality is that we are all many things, that we change from ugliness to beauty (and back), from day to day and hour to hour. Self-pity is toxic for individuals and it is also toxic for society. People who feel sorry for themselves, who cast themselves as victims, tend to feel justified in hurting other people, so they become dangerous as well as pathetic. So go ahead and grieve, but then have a look at yourself. Are you still sorry for yourself? Get over it! Clean up your act. Look up from your navel; help another living being. Demonstrate some self-respect, even if you don’t really feel it at first.
Fourth, Wash the dishes. The Zen koans are questions that Zen masters asked their pupils to help them attain enlightenment. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is famous because, like the others, it makes your thoughts stumble for a second, and thus shakes you out of whatever mental rut you are in. My favorite koan is a story about a young pupil who came to his master and complained, “I’ve been working and working, and thinking so hard, and meditating, and trying my best, but I just can’t figure it out, I just can’t find the key…” and so on. The master interrupted and said “Have you eaten this morning?” And the pupil, rather frustrated at this non-sequitor, said “Yes, but…” The master interrupted again, saying “Well then, have you washed your bowl?” And just like that, the pupil attained enlightenment. The point of that koan is that there wasn’t really anything to find: life is just life. Life is simultaneously the most complex and beautiful and high-level thing you could imagine, and the most mundane thing possible, washing your bowl after you eat. They coexist seamlessly.
So maybe you have grieved and then succeeded in not feeling sorry for yourself for too long, but life still seems flat and gray and pointless? Fine; just eat, and wash your dishes. Keep putting one foot in front of another, soldier. The beauty and joy is right there, intertwined with the bleakness. Just stare at the dish suds and give it time, and you’ll see the joy again.
Fifth. Life will change. When she was little, my daughter was terrified of being bored. I think boredom was so daunting for her because it seemed like it would go on forever. As an adult, I was amused because I knew that her ebullient nature would reassert itself and she would soon be fully engaged again, but that feeling that nothing will ever change seems to be one of the main characteristics of difficult emotions. Factually speaking, those feelings are 100% wrong. Nothing lasts forever! Whatever you think you know about the future is surely wrong. One of the most valuable gifts I’ve received was being taught how to pay attention to my thought patterns, and to understand when to trust my thoughts and when to ignore them. The most important lesson for me was that my thoughts have their own weather patterns. When my thinking is warm and happy, relaxed and inclusive, that is the time to really pay attention to what I’m thinking. When my thoughts are bleak and miserable, repetitive and circling back to worries and insecurities, that is the time to ignore them and just watch the dish suds, or put one foot in front of another. With time, my internal weather will change. Which brings me to my last point:
Life is beautiful. I am a scientist and an atheist, so for me there is no comfort to be had in thoughts of everlasting life, reincarnation, or existential meaning. As Douglas Adams expresssed it so perfectly in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “The one thing that a person cannot afford to have in a universe of this size is a sense of proportion.” But I reject the suicidal (or homicidal) conclusions of people who become obsessed with life’s lack of meaning. I see those thoughts as a rather despicable form of self-pity. In the whole immensity of the universe, our planet is the only place we yet know of where the spark of life has arisen; where we can witness, as the physicist Erwin Schrödinger described it, “an organism's astonishing gift of concentrating a stream of order on itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos.” Your very body and mind are part of the immense diversity and resilience of life, which deserves your respect and love. For your own sake, for the sake of everyone and everything alive: grieve if you need to, then put aside your sorrow and your self pity, and try to make the most of your brief existence.