In his book A Fragile Life, the philosopher Todd May offers a highly interesting perspective on the different schools of thought at the heart of Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism. While these ancient systems of thought do offer many useful tools that can help us face adversity, they also idealize a certain form of invulnerability. The author argues that some desirable aspects of human life are to be found in our exposure to potential sources of suffering. I here expose May’s argument while reflecting on its significance as a modern way of life.
The Weight of Time
May argues that our lives take on a distinct narrative shape — a shape which cannot be ignored when we try to give meaning to our life. Suppose, for the sake of illustration, that we had a machine that could directly measure and quantify the psychological well-being and sense of accomplishment of a person in any given year. The machine would measure this score for each year lived, thereby allowing us to plot the entire “life pattern” of an individual person on a graph:
Now the two life patterns above have one thing in common, and that is that they both contain the same overall quantity of positive life experiences. If you add up the scores for all years lived, for each person, you will obtain the same result.
However, there is a notable difference: Person 1’s life has a lot of ups and downs, whereas Person 2 starts in difficult circumstances and progressively ends up at a much higher level of well-being and satisfaction, with a few visible negative life events that were overcome along the way. What May argues is that most of us would likely prefer the life of Person 2, and the reason for that lies in its narrative structure.
For May, the narrative shape of a life can only be definitively assessed at the end of it; something that the philosopher Montaigne recognized when he argued that one can only assess a person’s happiness after his death. Although we spend our lives telling others a story about where we come from and where we are going, the reality is that our life is inherently uncertain. We face two kinds of uncertainties: about the past, and about the future.
Uncertainties about the past arise because our life is to some extent the consequence of our choices. Person 1 might ask: what if things had been done differently? Would a different past have led to better paths?
“She may ratify her life,” writes May, “but, if she is self-reflective, can she do this with anything other than a certain halting recognition that she is doing so in ignorance of what the alternatives might have been like for her?” Person 2 might have a rising trajectory, where the shape of the past might seem rightly ordered; but “nothing guarantees that what has led to the present will not be the source of longing or nostalgia later.”
When we narrate our lives to others, we often become subject to a phenomenon that the philosopher R. Jay Wallace calls the affirmation dynamic, the idea that “if we ratify our current situation we cannot entirely regret the conditions that gave rise to it.” But when we are alone and let our mind wander, we often cannot help but think of what life would have been like if certain things had been done differently. And so we easily dream about imaginary fates.
It is precisely a past that is at once contingent and cannot be changed that burdens life with a certain weight: the weight of “what if?” We carry this “what if” with us, a “what if” that only gets heavier as the years pass and the forks taken imply more forks untaken and thus more paths that cannot be explored.
May argues that “the past can weigh upon us in a manner that casts a shadow over the future,” and that “the more important the past is in its contribution to one’s sense of her life, the larger the shadow is likely to loom.”
When we lie “awake at night, wondering whether the choices we made were the right ones; sitting at our desk during dull moments at work, asking whether we could have done better; in the wake of personal failure, or sometimes even personal success” — these are moments when we feel the weight of the past.
As a contributor to well-being or meaningfulness, the past does not come without an opportunity cost. However, this cost is uncertain, and it therefore “casts an indistinct shadow over our lives.” This life, the one that we are living right now, “has its enjoyment supported by a necessary ignorance of its alternatives and its future.”
Even someone who has a broadly rising trajectory could suddenly experience a reversal of fortune tomorrow. We should therefore “recognize that we never know where we are in the shape of our trajectories.” The blogger Tim Urban made a nice illustration for this:
At any point, “it may be that the best has happened, and what is left is no longer enjoying the continuance of an upward trajectory but rather coming to terms with its end,” meaning that we may stagnate, or we may face an unexpected tragedy, following an event that is lying in wait just around the corner. There are consequential events that we simply cannot anticipate before they happen (also called black swans.) May argues that “inasmuch as a narrative structure exists, it is subject to certain vulnerabilities that can disrupt the narrative.”
“How can we live with these uncertainties that taint us? (…) For many of us, the thought that we might not suffer, that we might be able to face our pain and loss with equanimity, is a tempting one. This temptation is not new. It is probably coextensive with humankind’s existence.”
Many religious and philosophical systems of thought claim that they can offer a refuge from these uncertainties. The problem is that they do so through images of purity, by claiming that we can become invulnerable sages. This ideal of invulnerability can be found in the East Asian traditions of Buddhism and Taoism, but it is also present in Ancient Greek philosophies such as Stoicism. May’s interest lies specifically in their relation to suffering, as we will see next.
The centerpiece of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths, which could be summarized as:
- all life is inevitably sorrowful,
- sorrow is due to craving,
- sorrow can only be stopped by the stopping of craving, and
- this can be done by a course of carefully disciplined conduct, culminating in a life of concentration and meditation
In the Buddhist cosmic view, “there is no permanence in the universe, only the appearance of permanence.” We inhabit a world where “things are constantly in a flux,” a world in which “I am like the wave on the sea. While the wave rises, I appear to have some independent existence. However, I am just a movement in the sea, and my death is nothing but a crashing of water into water.”
Our sorrows come from our attachment to things which are really just fleeting moments in this ever-changing process. The Buddhist sage “is not excited by gain or dejected by loss. Fame does not dazzle him and infamy does not shame him. Scorn does not repel him, praise does not attract him. Pleasure does not please him, pain does not trouble him.” In other words, “reaching nirvana is the achievement of invulnerability to suffering.”
Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, the wise are not affected by praise or blame […] To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
Our minds are literally caught up in the appearances that the world presents us. “Form and matter, sensations, perceptions, and so on – seem to us to be what there is, and we come to care one way or another about them.” To free ourselves from this illusion, “one must still the mind, give it an opportunity to withdraw from its attachment to the world. That is what meditation does.”
This leads us to one of the paradoxes of life. To achieve a state of peace and tranquility, you must detach yourself from the world. But, to live a good life, you must also act properly in the world. It’s not easy to achieve both at once.
The two requirements do not necessarily contradict each other as much as one would think. “First, in engaging in ethical conduct, one is practicing to become less egoistic.” Shifting our attention away from our cravings, and toward the well-being of others is a way to distance ourselves from worldly illusions affecting our ego.
Second, for Buddhism, ethical conduct is premised on the belief that we are all part of the same world of Being. As May explains, “we are not actually separate from one another; we are all aspects of the same process.” Compassion is for Buddhists “a way of recognizing that others are no less worthy of our attention than ourselves in a cosmos in which none of us are actually independent creatures.”
May argues that, for Mahayana Buddhism, “invulnerability is the goal. Detachment from desire, rising above being tossed about on the waves of the world’s vicissitudes, the blowing out of one’s soul: these are what Buddhism asks us to strive for.” Reaching nirvana is the achievement of invulnerability to suffering.
“This does not mean that Buddhists do not have compassion for others; Buddhism is notable precisely for such compassion. However, this compassion stems not from a place of sympathy in which a person takes on for herself the suffering of others, but from a place of equanimity in which she can maintain her distance from it.”
Taoism considers humans as embedded in a continuous flow of interdependencies that are too complex for any individual to grasp. This is described as the “the Way” (or Tao), a natural order into which we will all eventually disappear and become part of the process of the world’s ever-changing character.
“Mountains rise and fall; rivers change their course or dry out; the earth will eventually be absorbed by an expanding sun that will itself become a black hole. The Way is the process of the universe. It is like the One or the Void of Buddhism, however it is without karma or rebirth.”
Taoism recommends accepting the universe as a continuous process of change. “It involves saying yes to everything without chasing after the illusions of permanence that the snares of language lead us to believe exist,” especially the illusions of fame, wealth and happiness as being conditions that will last: they won’t.
Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad of creatures as straw dogs.
— Lao Tzu
Taoism inspired the philosopher John Gray’s critique of the modern Enlightenment idea of progress. For Gray, humans are no different than straw dogs: we are animals acting on instinct, not reason. “Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science.” The fact is that we inhabit a world moved by forces that we do not control.
Gray argues that “if you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans. If we speak of the history of the species at all, it is only to signify the unknowable sum of these lives. As with other animals, some lives are happy, others wretched. None has a meaning that lies beyond itself.” Beyond our lived experience, we are just poor animals entangled in a web of cosmic forces.
Taoism does not go as far as Gray does in denying that the world is devoid of meaning. However, if there is a greater meaning to things, this certainly remains beyond our reach.
The universe works harmoniously in its own ways, as reflected in Master Shih’s story in the Book of Chuang Tzu. A tree outside the village seems completely useless: “What a worthless tree! Make boats out of it and they’d sink; make coffins and they’d rot in no time. Use it for doors and they would sweat sap like pine; use it for posts and the worms would eat it up.”
Because the tree is perceived as useless, everyone leaves it alone. Until some day people realize that the tree has grown enormous. It then becomes a sacred shrine revered by everyone. If it had been useful, would it have grown so large? The tree does not try to become useful, it does not seek to be helpful, it just is. How can anyone really make a valid judgment of value in a world that is permanently in flux?
All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.
— Chuang Tzu
May points out that “while the metaphysics of Taoism – its rejection of rebirth and thus its view of our place in the universe – may be distinct from that of Buddhism, the goal of equanimity in the face of all things is close kin.” A wise man will accept that what happens is part of the Tao while at the same time he will continue doing whatever it is that he does. As May explains, “Taoism is at once more serene and less morally centred than Buddhism.”
Among the ancient philosophies of life it may be the one which most strongly favors an acceptance of the status quo, of letting ourselves be carried by the wave.
Stoicism and Epicureanism
In everyday language, being “stoic” means being cold and emotionless. Yet May points out that “the idea of Stoicism as a resignation or a bearing up in the face of an indifferent or even cruel cosmos is mistaken. In some ways, that is the opposite of Stoic belief […] For the Stoics, the universe is entirely rational. Nothing happens that should not happen.”
May concedes that “the idea of a rational universe is foreign to many of us. Rather than rational, it seems at best indifferent or arbitrary. There is evil, both natural and human. There are tragedy, accident, unfairness, and pointless cruelty.”
The Stoics believed “the universe will not place before us tasks we cannot accomplish. If the good life is available to all of us, then whatever it is that constitutes a good life must be under our control.”
The one thing that we can control in this mortal life is our relation to the world, that is, how we react to it. And if all that we can fully control is our relation to the world, then that must be what a good life consists of. “Stoic tranquility, then, is an achievement that consists in abandoning the desire for things to be a certain way in the name of acceptance of the way things are.”
May observes that for Stoicism, as for Buddhism and Taoism, the universe is a constant process of change rather than stagnation, which gives the world its unpredictable character, one in which we will sooner or later encounter some difficulty.
Begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offender’s ignorance of what is good or evil.
— Marcus Aurelius
This exercise, that of a daily reminder to oneself, was also recommended by Seneca. Ask yourself, every day, what kind of person you should be; and at the end of each day, take stock of how well you did. The purpose is not to berate yourself for your failures, but rather to remain engaged in a constant process of preparation and fortification. How you deal with the present is key to achieving a good life.
May observes that “the exercise of inhabiting the present is different for Stoics than it is for Buddhists. The latter have this exercise [concentrating on the present] as a central element of their approach to life through meditation,” while for Stoics it is only one exercise among many to tame the passions in favor of reason. “For the Stoics, as for the Buddhists and Taoists, the ultimate goal of living is invulnerability, to live a life where suffering cannot enter in.”
In thinking about pleasures, the Ancient Greeks found it important to consider which ones are worth pursuing and which should be avoided. For the Stoics, pleasures should only be pursued insofar as they are part of a rational requirement. The Epicureans, however, had a somewhat diverging view on this topic.
“Pleasure, for Epicurus, is serenity, a life that is undisturbed by needless worries and concerns. It is, we might say, a joy in living at that particular moment, one that requires very little in order to be experienced. Where a [pleasure-seeking hedonist] seeks to amplify and complexify pleasure, Epicurus seeks to simplify it, for that is all that life requires.”
“In addition to simple nourishment and warmth, Epicurus counts friendship as a necessary desire. It is one that brings pleasures that cannot be substituted for by anything one does alone. Sociality, then, must be counted among the necessary desires, the desires that must be fulfilled in order to have a good life.” May observes that some people can live like hermits, “but for most of us it is central to our flourishing to have others whom we care about and who care about us.”
Stoics will strive to rid themselves of desire. The reason for this is that they wish to eliminate the frustration that comes from unfulfilled desires. However, “this is not so for Epicurus, for whom there are, as we have seen, necessary desires. These necessary desires, if frustrated, must lead to some sort of suffering. To be sure, Epicurus has simplified the desires that must be met and so reduced the possibility for suffering. But, in contrast to the Buddhists, Taoists, and Stoics, it is not clear that his view allows for a complete invulnerabilism, although he seems to seek it.”
May points out that “good things, as he [Epicurus] has defined them, may be easy to achieve most of the time, and bad things borne with equanimity most of the time. But, given the requirements of his view and perhaps the character of most of our lives, not always.” In this way, Epicurus sought a life that balanced the goal of tranquility with that of fundamental emotional needs.
The problem with invulnerability
May argues that there are points in our lives where the above philosophies of life will no longer seem attractive to us: the ideal of invulnerability that they ultimately embrace is “too disengaged emotionally from the world.” There are several arguments for why it might be worth having negative emotions.
First, there are political and moral reasons. We live in a world that is filled with injustice. The ancients’ quest for invulnerability would not have us face them. “Their focus [seems to be] on changing oneself rather than the world,” which is “exactly the wrong approach to life in a world soaked in injustice.”
May also points out that “the concern for justice often arises not out of a sense of serenity or equanimity but precisely from its opposite, a distress about the state of the world […] What parades as serenity might also be resignation, perhaps tinged not with sadness but with regret.”
The author asks us to imagine the German officer Claus von Stauffenberg after he just learned that his attempt to assassinate Hitler had failed. What if he had reacted to this by saying: “Well, that didn’t work out. However, that is the past and I can only live in the now.” Most of us would likely think that he didn’t really care about achieving his goal. Yet that is exactly what Buddhism and Stoicism would counsel him to feel. “Disappointment or regret would be a reaction we would relate to and, more important, that we would want to relate to.”
“While it may be true that many of us are too readily distressed about failures that in the larger scheme of things don’t really matter, there are plenty of projects whose failure it would be perfectly appropriate to react to with one or another expression of backward-looking misgiving […] Such a reaction would not just be a display of understandable human weakness. It would be a display of human caring.”
For an invulnerabilist, to grieve over the loss of a spouse, a friend, or a child would simply be a failure to recognize that the loss is one that occurred in the past. This is where May disagrees, arguing that for most of us, caring requires vulnerability.
It is difficult to care deeply about others while not being moved by their loss. “Grief is both for our sake and for the sake of the one lost. From our side, those we care about are woven into our lives. They are central to what make our lives meaningful to us, a fact that Epictetus recognized.”
“For most people, being alive is worth the difficulties it involves. That is why so few of us consider suicide very seriously or for very long. The loss of a life, even if the person is no longer there to experience the loss, is a loss of what would have been had he not died. Our grief at the death of someone about whom we care marks a recognition of that loss. It is difficult to see how someone could recognize that loss on the one hand and not feel it on the other.”
This inability to recognize the role of grieving is, for May, the most important reason for rejecting the cult of invulnerability. But how can we take up the insights of the ancients, how can we learn to become more resilient, “while still allowing ourselves a fragility that we would not want to forsake?”
In search of the right mindset
May makes a useful comparison between what he calls vulnerabilism, a disposition characterized by the acceptance of suffering, and invulnerabilism, a disposition characterized by non-reactiveness toward external events.
“To live invulnerably is to live with a release from suffering in our careers, our families, our friendships, our hobbies, our religions, and so on. So it cannot happen unless we are committed to the project of invulnerability both in the specific practices it offers and in allowing it to spread its effects across our other projects.”
For May, people who appear invulnerable “often seem to have precisely that invulnerability as their central characteristic. Their serenity in the face of the world’s vicissitudes, the distance they secrete between themselves and its occasional onslaughts: this is often what strikes the observer of those who have mastered or are seeking to master their suffering.”
I would argue if there is something that we can learn from Stoicism, it is the notion that the universe will put us to test; that there is something highly admirable in the ability to oppose and withstand a harsh fate, in the attempt to overcome a painful wound.
For people who actually manage to develop such an ability, their resilience will pervade every aspect of their lives. They will often appear “unflappable at their jobs, in their relationships, and in their daily movement through the world.”
But however impressive these rare champions of invulnerability may appear, we must not forget that our natural state is one of fundamental vulnerability.
“Unless we actively do something to struggle against it – unless we make it a project – we are exposed to the possibility of suffering in many arenas of our life. Vulnerability, then, is not a project that one might choose instead of choosing invulnerability for the simple reason that it is not a project at all.”
“Invulnerabilist lives exhibit a central common trait: serenity in the face of all potential suffering. However, suffering comes in many forms, as we have seen. Therefore, a life that allows itself to be vulnerable to suffering is often going to display more diversity in regard to suffering than one that exhibits serenity in the face of such suffering.”
All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
— Leo Tolstoy (in Anna Karenina)
In contrast, says May, “vulnerabilism shares with Buddhism at least the first Noble Truth: life is (or at least can be) sorrowful.”
But, unlike Buddhism, a defining aspect of vulnerabilism is that it offers no ideal to which we must conform, and there is therefore “no particular action it asks us to take. What characterizes vulnerabilism is not so much its embrace of a particular form of life as its rejection of one. What vulnerabilism commends is living in a way that allows one to be vulnerable to suffering.”
May points out that there is nothing morally wrong with invulnerabilism. In fact, “the rejection of invulnerabilism is not the rejection of all its aspects. There are aspects of invulnerabilism that can be brought into vulnerabilism […] There are many things we suffer over that, in retrospect (and even sometimes in prospect), we recognize are not worth the suffering we undergo. Taking on some of the lessons of invulnerabilism will help us deal with those.”
Small and Large Matters
Small matters are those that are not worth getting upset about. Large matters are those that we should have an emotional stake in; these are matters where it makes sense for us to be vulnerable. The problem is that what distinguishes small from large matters isn’t really obvious.
Consider the Butterfly effect: a butterfly flaps its wings, triggering a chain of events that can lead to extremely big consequences. If we reason along such lines, any decision we make will seem like a Big Matter, “leaving us without the ability to develop any sense of proportion about our lives.”
This kind of deterministic thinking leads to a dead-end. We can develop a sense of proportion about our actions by considering the weight of time. As we saw earlier, we cannot know with certainty what alternative lives would have resulted from different past decisions. The same applies to the future lives resulting from the decisions we make today: they remain highly uncertain. The further out in the future we look, the higher the uncertainty.
“We might say that, since we cannot tell the future, what distinguishes a Small Matter from a Large Matter is not that we know the former to be Small and the latter to be Large but rather that their immediate effects appear to be Small and Large, respectively, and we have no idea what will happen beyond that.”
This means that, for May, the capability to differentiate between small and large matters lies in a sense of immediate certainty. When the immediate consequences of an event are perceived as being great, when we know that they will have a very significant effect, it becomes a large matter. But when the consequences are very uncertain, we should accept them as such, that is, we should cultivate an attitude of acceptance toward our uncertain past and future.
“Acceptance recognizes that many of us benefit from aspects of our history that we would not affirm but that we cannot change. We may wish this history were otherwise, even at the cost of our not being here, but we cannot go back in time and change it. The acceptance we are discussing here also recognizes that there are things we cannot control.”
While May makes a useful distinction between certain and uncertain outcomes, I would argue that it is unlikely that we can in practice agree on a universal definition of what actually constitutes a certain large matter. People will have very different values and beliefs which are simply not open for questioning. Yet within our individual value frameworks, we can still reflect on what constitutes small and large matters; we can aim to confine large matters to a restricted set of situations.
May imagines himself being on a train that is late. “I will be late for a meeting with some colleagues who will be waiting for me, but there is at this point nothing I can do about it.” How should one handle such a situation?
“I might ask, is there anything wrong at this particular moment? […] Or I might slow my breathing and meditate. I might tell myself that there is no reason to allow myself to be thrown off emotionally, because I cannot control the situation. Or I might inculcate in myself the recognition that in the larger scheme of things my being late to a meeting does not really matter. All of these exercises, it seems to me, are appropriate to the situation.” They are appropriate because it’s a small matter.
May points out that “without having to take on the idea that all suffering can or should be overcome, we can recognize that, in much of our daily lives, suffering is both self-imposed and unnecessary. We become anxious in regard to things we can do nothing about.”
“When our grown kids travel to other countries or our spouse meets an attractive person for dinner or our workplace undergoes reorganization or our friend moves into a neighborhood that is transitional but still very dangerous, something bad could happen. But it’s not likely and it seems pointless to worry about it.”
For the ancients, a true sage “secretes an emotional distance between herself and the world.” Every act is performed with “a certain serenity, a certain distance from the world such that the outcome of the act cannot be of concern to her.” Such a sage would never be “gripped, excited, interested, engaged.”
May points out that this seems like an almost inhuman way of living, and he wonders “whether anyone would really be capable of it […] It does seem to me to push the very limits of what humans can do.” He argues that what people embrace when they take up interest in an ancient spiritual doctrine is something other.
“Most Buddhists, Stoics, Taoists, [and] Epicureans probably do not want to rise above their desires or their passions but instead to be less in thrall to them, less bound to the emotional roller coaster that their wants subject them to.”
To understand why so many people are attracted to these philosophies, it can be useful to consider their opposite, as I did in the figure below. The opposite of a Stoic or Buddhist sage is a drama queen, someone who flips at the slightest disturbance, who goes into a rage at the slightest insult, who panics at the slightest negative news, who makes a big fuss about small matters. If we do not want to become such a person, then who better to teach us than the ancients?
One could argue that most people start their lives on the left side of this continuum, and progress toward the right side as they acquire more experience. A child can easily be a drama queen, overreacting to everything, precisely because of his or her lack of understanding about the world. This makes the child’s existence subject to greater emotional swings than that of the adult.
What we can adopt from the ancients is a regimen of what May calls “spiritual calisthenics,” exercises that can help us overcome needless worry and anxiety, so that we do not simply drift around as slaves to our passions, but rather mold ourselves into mature characters capable of dealing with Small Matters.
Just like physical exercise, these spiritual exercises must be repeated on a regular basis to be effective. “They are often extremely simple. [They] even appear to be banal. Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. They must be engraved into our mental and behavioral repertoire, which requires repetition, just as muscle memory requires physical exercises.”
While appropriate for Small Matters, much of the philosophy of the ancients is inappropriate to deal with Large Matters. These are matters where we want to be vulnerable. For instance, few among us would want to remain indifferent toward our spouse, our children, our friends. We care about our projects; we want these projects to succeed. Caring about them gives meaning to our lives, but that also means that we expose ourselves to a potential source of suffering. What we want in this domain of life is acceptance rather than tranquility.
Desire, passion and attachment […] allow us to feel our lives to be ours rather than just something we happen to inhabit.
Few among us would want to be the person that just shrugs at everything, saying “Well, that’s unfortunate.” According to the philosopher Susan Wolf, “for a life to be meaningful, first of all it must engage us.” A life in which we feel indifferent or alienated is not a meaningful one. We must, as May argues, “feel involved in what we’re doing.”
By making their quest for invulnerability universal, and by ignoring the role that emotional investment plays in human lives, many ancient philosophies miss the diversity of desirable human endeavors.
Dealing with narrative disruption
Happiness and meaning very often emerge as byproducts of our actions. We most often carry on with projects, not because they were initiated due to some premeditated meaning, but because we end up caring about them, which in turn makes the project meaningful.
May argues that “we can, and many of us should, take stock of our lives, ask ourselves what makes them meaningful.” He believes that human lives are very often characterized by specific narrative values such as intensity, loyalty, courage, spirituality, curiosity, and others.
“These themes can offer a way of thinking about what lends a life significance from an objective standpoint. They are ways of assessing life trajectories. If we agree that the appeal to narrative values (or some other form of assessment) makes sense, then I can ask of particular projects whether they will contribute to a narrative value that I would like to have characterize my life.”
Yet significant disruptions can happen in our life narrative: events that severely go against what we wish to happen, and which put our values to the test. I have often observed that, while such major disruptions are almost always initially perceived as negative or unwanted, they do not always appear so bad in retrospect, perhaps because we sometimes update our values to make sense of what happened.
There is a Norwegian expression called hell i uhell (“luck in hard luck”) used to speak of a perceived bad event which turned out to be far better than alternative outcomes. For example, you might get fired but then immediately find a much better job, or go through an unwanted divorce only to find a new and better love. The concept of hell i uhell captures an important aspect of human experience, namely that whether an event is positive or negative depends on timing and our changing perspective of what happened in retrospect.
What May points out, however, is that we cannot simply accept any type of suffering. Some events “are beyond acceptance,” they are “failures or losses or grief that we cannot or will not accept.”
Such events definitely can happen, and May provides very good examples. Suppose that you are driving a car, and you inadvertently happen to be driving 5 km/hour over the speed limit — something that happens to most of us. As you drive through a neighborhood, a child suddenly comes running out of from two cars, and a tragic outcome ensues. Would you have killed the child if you had not been driving above the speed limit?
“There are sufferings that, for those who undergo them, transcend the mitigation that acceptance might offer. The laceration the [vehicle] driver bears from this accident will likely remain with him for the rest of his life.”
Whether acceptance is warranted is a tricky issue. “On the one hand,” argues May, “contingency did contribute to his killing the child, and it might not be unseemly for him to recognize this. On the other hand, that recognition can go too far, at least in the eyes of many of the rest of us. If, after the accident, the truck driver shrugged and said: Yeah, I feel bad about it, but these things happen and it was just a fluke that she ran out there at that moment, we might feel that his acceptance was achieved at too low a price.”
May’s argument here is that “there are situations, then, in which acceptance does not play a role or perhaps ought not to.” Some narrative disruptions, especially those that go against our core nature and values, can be very difficult to accept. In such cases, one simply cannot easily “get it over it,” even if the outcome is to a large extent a product of hard luck.
“There are people who will lose their own children; for many of them acceptance will be a long time coming, if it arrives at all. This does not mean that they cannot go on, that they will remain paralyzed for the remainder of their lives. Rather, it is that part of their existence will revolve around a wound that cannot scar over, much less heal. The contingency of the world, its extension beyond their causal reach, cannot serve as a consolation to them.”
“One can conceive, in the vein of the weight of the past, someone regretting her own life, knowing, just knowing, now that it is too late to retrace her steps, that she should have stayed with that man who wanted to be with her.”
This is why May argues that acceptance “has its limits, limits that are not just interior but exterior as well […] Not only does acceptance not lead to complete serenity, it sometimes fails to alleviate suffering at all. It is a truce with the world that the world can sometimes break.”
“Vulnerabilism involves different ways of coping with (and not coping with) the different types of suffering to which we may be exposed.” Invulnerabilism, meanwhile, cannot be reconciled with this form acceptance. For Buddhism, Taoism and Stoicism, there cannot be anything called tragic situations, that is, “situations where there is no solace to be had.” For them, we always have a possibility to distance ourselves from worldly events. Yet such a view, as we have seen, becomes absurd when taken to its extreme.
For May, a more defensible goal is to “navigate the world without being unnecessarily buffeted by its winds but also without being rendered insensible to its storms.” For this, he says, we should not be afraid to turn to philosophy, which can play an important role in helping us understand who we are and what we should want.
While philosophy may be an important source of wisdom, I would add that we should not be afraid to turn to “pre-philosophical” heroic models such as those found in the Illiad or the Viking sagas. It is worth noting that the protagonists in these ancient narratives did not have a quiet and uneventful life; they are not admired for seeking inner peace, nor for what they achieved in terms of material outcomes. They are primarily judged by the virtue or vice of their actions.