Learning from the Extreme

When he was fourteen years old, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch witnessed the death of his older sister Sophie from tuberculosis, at a time when there was no treatment for the disease. The tragic event deeply affected the young Munch, who remained obsessed with it for much of his early adult life, painting and re-painting the moments before Sophie’s death in a canvas known as The Sick Child.

The painting reminds us that life is fragile and unpredictable, and that the most extreme things can befall us when they are least expected. Many among us have been scarred in one way or another by a great loss. What does it mean for a situation to be extreme, and how should we deal with such situations? In order to shed some light on this question, this essay starts by examining some extreme lives going back 2,400 years ago in Athens.

Extreme independence

Socrates popularized the idea that one can be content by being satisfied with little. Two generations later, the philosopher Diogenes radicalized this idea, taking it to its utmost extreme, laying the foundation for the Cynic school of thought. For the Cynics, one should anticipate the very worst that fate can bring by plunging into a life of complete destitution, rejecting ordinary civilized life in favor of a more simple existence. We should be contended to satisfy our basic needs, in accordance with the minimum requirements of our nature.

This entails a rejection of all material goods, which is why the Cynics sought to live as beggars in the streets of the city. They put a positive value on hardship, believing that it serves as a form of training which enables them to rise above suffering. “What philosophy attempts to persuade us by means of arguments, poverty compels us to do in very deed.” If you can wear a shabby cloak, sleep on the ground, drink nothing but water, and be satified with the food you come across, then very little in this world can affect you. You will be robust, like a rock in a storm.

We have to put aside illusions that are propagated within the social order. Things such as wealth, fame and pleasure have no real value. If anything, they are more likely to corrupt our minds. We live in a world where people pray for good health, yet most of them consistently act in such a way as to damage their health. The city you live in is not cheap or expensive in itself; it is only expensive if one lives expensively. Luxurious living distracts us from virtue: it is not from barley-eaters that tyrants arise, Diogenes claimed, but from people who dine on sumptuous fare, forgetting the contingent nature of their fleeting privilege.

It was the Cynics who first came up with the idea that “the things you own, end up owning you.” Those who are most satisfied with what they have are the least likely to covet the possessions of others. We should not reserve our admiration for those who have the most wealth, but should instead seek to spend our time in the company of those whose character we find pleasing.

Bion observed that when life does not go as expected, most people blame anything other than their own perversity and bad nature, accusing old age, poverty, circumstances, the day, the hour, the place. They put the blame not on themselves but on things outside. What they miss is that the pain we suffer as a result of things outside ourselves depends on how we apprehend them.

For the Cynics, happiness can only be achieved by being at peace, a state of mind characterized by a clear conscience and a good cheer, both of which can be accomplished with very little. Accordingly, the finest thing that a man can achieve is the ability to speak his mind plainly. When Diogenes was captured and enslaved by Mediterranean pirates, who barely gave him enough food to keep him alive, he made them note the ridicule of their attempt to fatten their pigs while barely feeding him, their human captive, who could be sold for much more.

For Diogenes, honor and status mean nothing. A famous general is no different than a farmer driving a donkey, and “those who surround themselves with flatterers are as helpless as calves who have fallen among wolves.” He even made a deliberate habit of railing at prostitutes to train himself to endure foul abuse. If you want to find out how a wise man differs from one who is not, “send the two out naked among strangers, and then you will know.”

A society entirely made of Cynics is an economic impossibility. Unlike later Christian hermits, which would leave human society to live in autarky, the Cynics were an urban phenomenon. While fiercely free-spirited, they would remain dependent on the generosity of their fellow citizens to survive. Someone had to feed them. But then, are you really free if you cannot bite the hand that feeds you?

Moreover, the Cyrenaic philosopher Aristippus had an interesting counterargument against this ideal of destitution: to master pleasure is not to abstain from it, but rather to enjoy it without being carried away by it. If one believes that moderation in pleasure is possible, then why should we refrain from it altogether?

Whatever one may think about their lifestyle, the Cynics teach us something useful: that we are capable of being stronger and more self-sufficient than we think, even in a society where we depend on others; that deeds matter more than words; that it is possible to live without caring about our reputation; and that it is possible to master our passions and desires.

Society would have us believe that being a beggar is a sign of failure. But the Cynics made a point of proving the opposite, namely that one can live in absolute poverty and still be a good person. Your social standing has nothing to do with your moral worth, which is why it is “better to be a beggar than to be uneducated.”

Zeno of Citium later adopted the Cynics’ robust attitude towards fortune as well as their cultivation of peace of mind and goodness as virtues, but rejected their ideal of destitution, laying the foundation for what became known as Stoicism. Both Cynics and Stoics cultivated the ability to withstand misfortune, but for the Stoic sage, life is about resilience and opportunity, a school of thought that became very popular among ambitious Romans.

As the Roman statesman Sallust remarked, “we should not pass silently through life like cattle.” In order to truly enjoy the breath of life that we are given, we should not be afraid of taking risks, because a life with no undertaking is not worth living. However, while a life of adventure can reap incredible rewards, it can also generate considerable loss, as we will see next.

When everything comes crashing down

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, the American psychiatrist Dick River falls in love with one his patients, Nicole. He marries her, and they end up forming a loving family with two children. He works tirelessly and does everything to cure Nicole from her occasional bouts of mental illness, until one day he meets the young actress Rosemary, and starts developing feelings for her. But when Rosemary offers herself to Dick, he finds himself unable to fulfill his desires. He realizes that he still loves his wife, despite his affection for Rosemary. Nicole is vulnerable; he feels responsible for curing her condition; he must take good care of her.

As the years pass, Rosemary’s fame as an actress grows. When they meet again, Dick feels that she completely neglects him. What once made him attractive no longer seems to be there; his chance has passed. But Dick remains obsessed with Rosemary. His frustrations torment him, and he slowly succumbs to alcoholism. At some point, he loses it and gets into a drunken fight with policemen. He is forced to call Nicole’s sister and ask her to bail him out from jail. She remains silent about the episode, but she now holds him by the balls. Dick ends up humiliated and marginalized. He becomes grim and rude, driving away everyone around him, including Nicole, who ends up leaving him for another man.

Why does Dick end up in such a state of ruin — losing his wife, his clinic, his job, his intellectual integrity? There are likely a multitude of factors, and the novel leaves us wondering why things unfolded the way they did. A conservative reading would attribute Dick’s misfortune to his own irresponsible actions. But not a single character seems to be morally irreproachable; everyone is flawed and everyone acts irresponsibly, everyone has some role in Dick’s fall from grace. A more liberal reading would partly attribute Dick’s miserable fate to the social forces, norms and material conditions of his situation. Slavoj Žižek used the story as an example of the non-linear nature of human experience.

If anything, Tender is the Night tells us of what can happen when a person fails to live up to challenging circumstances and confront the negative emotions that unpredictably emerge in his or her life. While reading the novel, it is hard not to feel frustrated for Dick as one inconvenience succeeds the other. Nothing happens according to expectations, as if he was somehow trapped by fatal events and coincidences which slowly but surely drive him into a tragic state of depression.

Life will sometimes lead us into extreme situations, moments where a lot is at stake (what the German psychiatrist Karl Jaspers called Grenzsituationen). They are extreme in the sense that they are rare, in clear contrast with the mundane regularity of the average man’s daily life. Such situations tend to be critical inflection points which come to define our lives.

When we are confronted with an extreme situation to which there might be no easy answers, difficult choices must be made. These choices will likely have significant consequences. Inaction is a possible course of action, just like any other, and it will also have its consequences, so there is no escape from the conundrum.

It goes without saying that every decision, every action we take can affect our life trajectory. What separates extreme situations from others is the magnitude of the consequences. Our life (and the lives of others) may never be the same again. We may emerge completely changed from the experience.

These situations are interesting because they reveal a great deal about ourselves. When we are confronted with unexpected difficulties, when we are faced with a crisis, an emergency, when we have to make a difficult choice — this is when our priorities are revealed. We should not miss the opportunity to carefully reflect about ourselves after having gone through such an experience.

Suppose that one day you come home, and the unimaginable happens: you suddenly discover that your spouse has been having an affair behind your back since the beginning of your relationship. How you react to this situation will depend on the unique context in which your personal background, your values, your shared history and lived experience, the manner in which the situation presents itself, and social pressure and expectations all weigh down on your final decision: whether your relationship will continue or end.

Perhaps you will decide to put an end to it, right there, accepting that everything you built over the last years has been for nothing. Or perhaps a very strong belief in the absurdity of contemporary norms of sexual fidelity will make you forgive your spouse. Perhaps your decision at that point won’t even be final, perhaps you will be torn between endless contradictory emotions, swinging between destructive jealousy and a desire to keep the flame alive. But in that moment of initial realization, you will have to make a decision nonetheless. From that point on, your life will never be the same.

The limits of human will

As a way to achieve tranquility of mind, Stoicism teaches a psychological technique of negative visualization, or as the old adage goes, “it could always be worse.” Stoicism encourages us to take active steps to prevent ourselves from taking our situation for granted, and to always put adversity into perspective.

However, what history teaches us is that there are limits to our capacity to handle adversity. The worst things that can possibly happen to us are not to be found in natural catastrophes; they are to be found in the cruelty and horrors that can be inflicted by other human beings.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips argues that “we may want to think that people who torture others, people who are committed to ethnic cleansing, people who will kill themselves and others for their beliefs, are the exception that prove the rule; but actually they reveal to us what certain people in certain situations, certain predicaments, want to do. Excessive behavior tells us more than we want to hear about who we are, about what we want to say to each other, and what we might be capable of.”

In 1965, during the Vietnam War, the American fighter pilot James B. Stockdale was struck by enemy fire while flying over North Vietnam. He managed to eject before his plane crashed, landing in a Vietnamese village where he was severely beaten and had his leg broken by the crowd before being taken as a prisoner of war to the Hỏa Lò Prison.

Stockdale spent the next seven and a half years in captivity, where he was routinely tortured. His severely damaged leg was repeatedly broken again by his captors. When told that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his fellow Americans’ so-called “black activities”, he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession.

The ordeal revealed the frailty of the American prisoners. Every single one of them, including Stockdale, eventually broke under torture, telling their captors whatever they wanted to hear. The only way for something to remain secret was to avoid raising any suspicion about it, so that the topic would not come up on the interrogator’s agenda. Needless to say, this proved extremely difficult, and Stockdale did the most courageous thing to protect his friends: he tried to commit suicide.

Then something unexpected happened: the prison guards suddenly became more friendly after an international campaign for the humane treatment of prisoners of war, led by Stockdale’s wife, eventually reached the Vietnamese politburo, which then put an end to torture to avoid a public relations scandal.

The bravery, persistence and tenacity of these American soldiers cannot be attributed to any philosophy of life. The thing that kept them going wasn’t Seneca or Epictetus. It was their mutual encouragement and the friendship they formed in the prison courtyard, which they also maintained by communicating in codes through the prison walls. There are clear limits to how much philosophy can protect us against fate, because we are inherently fragile.

However, critics of Stoicism may miss an important point: namely that the goal of Stoicism is not to eliminate negative feelings, but rather to domesticate them to whatever extent possible. It does not expect that everyone be able to endure any type of circumstance. However, it does expect us to make our best effort to withstand misfortune. And it shows us that there is also, perhaps, a silver lining to extreme experiences when they do happen.

Unsuspected resilience

The philosopher William B. Irvine suggests that “war, disease, and natural catastrophes are tragic, inasmuch as they take us away from the things we value, but they also have the power to transform those who experience them.”

Consider, for instance, one of the most horrific events of the twenty-first century: the Holocaust. Between 46% and 55% of Holocaust survivors suffered PTSD. This is a very high percentage. By comparison, American soldiers returning home from battle during World War II had a PTSD rate closer to 15%. But, to look at things from the reverse side of the coin, this also means that more than half of Holocaust survivors managed to get on with a normal life; they were able to cope with what they had experienced.

Other examples of traumatic events abound. One study found that 30% of parents who lost babies as a result of sudden infant death syndrome never experienced significant depression. Another found that 82% of bereaved spouses were doing well two years after the death of their loved child. This says something about our incredible capacity for resilience. Yet it also tells us that some people break more easily than others.

“Why do some people recover quickly whereas others do not?” asks the psychologist Timothy D. Wilson. “One important factor is the extent to which people are able to find some meaning in the loss. People who find meaning, such as believing that the death is God’s will, that their loved one had accepted dying, or that death is a natural part of the life cycle, recover more quickly than people who are unable to find any meaning in the loss.”

Another important factor for Wilson is “the extent to which people find something positive in the experience, such as the belief that they have grown as a person, [or] gained perspective.” This goes in line with the advice of ancient philosophers, who encourage us to live according to ideas and beliefs that make us stronger.

Beyond personal mindset, there is also the fact that our mind evolved to handle emotional challenges. When tragic events occur, they first hurt us, “but very quickly we find ways of warding off the pain by reinterpreting or rationalizing them. Just as we have physiological immune system [we also] have a psychological immune system that identifies threats to our self-esteem and finds ways of neutralizing these threats.”

Then there is also the role of our environment. Wilson notes that we often think of a hypothetical future event (such as the loss of a child) as if it was occurring in a vacuum, without reminding ourselves that “life will be full of other activities and events that will compete for our attention, and which will influence our happiness.”

More than anything, however, stories of trauma teach us gratitude. They teach us that we are lucky to be living in times of peace and prosperity.

Gratitude in an uncertain world

In today’s Western societies, individuals are free to pick any moral and political theory that fits their current outlook on life. We are free to believe what we want, just as we are free to do whatever we want within the bounds of what is morally and socially acceptable. Let us for a moment contemplate the permissible, which represents an infinite sea of possibilities.

Consider the fact that courtship, marriage and mating used to be highly regulated social activities. Today, in the West, anyone is free to approach and flirt with another person in a bar. Despite this, seduction remains difficult: we get anxious when approaching strangers, and we fear that our advances might be rejected.

The Cynics would have said: so fucking what? There is nothing to fear but a few disapproving looks. Once we realize how little social rejection actually matters, an entire world of possibilities opens up. Every single person you meet becomes a unique human life waiting to be discovered. Every interaction can lead to an outcome you had never imagined. We live in a world that offers more opportunity than any other time in history.

I am not defending some naive optimism. Much of the world around us is contingent. If anything, history teaches us that periods of relative peace can quickly deteriorate beyond any individual’s control, so that we should always be prepared for adversity and danger. What I do profess, however, is that we should recognize how lucky we are when the sun shines. We should be grateful to live in such freedom and welfare, right here and right now, and we should not be afraid to undertake new projects when the consequences of failure are limited.

As the philosopher William B. Irvine points out, we are always at risk of losing the things that we take for granted — including our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. By “contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.”

While we cannot fully control our fate, making ourselves the victims of circumstance amounts to what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would call bad faith. Sarah Bakewell explains that “for Sartre, we show bad faith whenever we portray ourselves as passive creations” of our social circumstances, such as “our race, class, job, history, nation, family, heredity, childhood influences, events, or even hidden drives in our subconscious which we claim are out of our control.”

This doesn’t mean that these factors are unimportant. They are powerful forces in our lives. “But for me to be in good faith means not making any excuses for myself. We cannot say ‘I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; if I have not written any good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so.’ We do say such things; but we are in bad faith when we do it.”

This reflects a prescription of the infamous psychiatrist Jordan Peterson, for whom we should “have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure.” This says something about the importance of position. A life where nothing goes well — where neither work, nor spouse, nor family, nor friends bring you any security — is extremely hard to handle. From there, it’s a slippery slope to the self-destruction witnessed in Tender is the Night. We all need something that we can rely on, so that we may bravely confront beasts and demons in other domains of life.

For famous playwrights such as Sophocles and Shakespeare, human lives follow the form of a dramatic narrative. Some situations will inevitably arise which are diagonally opposed to everything we want to happen. “If a human life is understood as progress through harms and dangers, moral and physical,” as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre explains, “the virtues will find their place as those qualities which generally tend to success in this enterprise.”

This is entirely in line with the advice of the ancient Stoics, which remains as relevant as ever. Whatever happens, be grateful for what you have. Seize the opportunities that the day presents. Position yourself so as to manage adversity. Above all, remain strong through the tragedies that may befall you.

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