Oct. 8th, 2008

elana: (Default)
Most everyone is about equally miserable, I figure. Or at least, it balances out to the null hypothesis. Money, no money, married, not married, fat, skinny, young, old, healthy or disabled. I imagine that rates of actual happiness are pretty much random across all those variables. That's because I figure satisfaction has more to do with the mental landscape: the question of how their perceived life differs from what they think they deserve. The further away people feel they are from what they expect of their lives, the more miserable they are — no matter how their quality of life measures up on an objective scale.

With the exception, of course, of truly fucked up, war-torn parts of the world, where you cross some kind of misery threshold, everyone's about equally miserable. Or should I say, the distribution of happiness is not statistically varied across outwardly visible attributes. It's just the null hypothesis.

Because really, if you take the optimistic view and imagine that humanity's progress will continue into the future, even the poshest lifestyles of today could seem barbaric and bestial compared to unknown future luxuries. And parts of the world considered "Third" to the average Canadian still have access to unimaginable burden-relieving technologies compared to most peoples of the past, even the ones who were living really well for their time.

But would you say that people are, on average, happier than they were in history? Even if you remove the element of war, could you really back up that hypothesis?

It's not a difficult argument to make. Physical amenities, strengths and weaknesses, all come with their own bundles of sadness, disappointment, frustration.

The problem arises when you add the element of being lucky.

I am really. Fucking. Lucky.

- I am alive.
- Not only was I born free of any physical deformities, but my body can endure punishing abuse — irregular diet, irregular sleep, irregular levels of physical activity — without completely falling apart the way it could reasonably be expected to.
- I was born at the end of the 20th century, a time of tremendous prosperity, a time when technological advances have begun to occur so quickly that we take change for granted and even complain when it doesn't happen quickly enough.
- I was born in Canada at the end of the 20th century, a place so peaceful that I have absolutely no concept of living at risk or living in fear. A place so incredibly tolerant that most of the -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) simply don't arise in my generation's brains.
- I was born into a hardworking, middle class family that values education and travel, is willing to spend money on me for both, and also splurge on everyday luxuries and technology.
- My parents are still together, don't abuse me or each other, are both alive and healthy.
- I haven't experienced any random brute misfortunes or accidents that have harmed me or anyone I know.
- I have reasonably developed social skills and am able to get along with whomever I like and push away whomever I don't.
- My life has been quiet, has gone as expected, and my available choices for what to pursue in my future are almost limitless.

However, I am still about as miserable as everyone else.

How?? How????

What kills me, what really kills me, is when something upsets me, I can't tolerate it. I am disgusted with myself for being upset with something. Everything seems so petty, so tiny in the face of all this accumulated good luck that I've had. How dare I feel sad when there are people living in refugee camps etc. etc. And that feeling of disgust, of self-loathing, fills me with so much violent misery, you'd think something had actually happened to me.

Whatever it is that upset me, the mental struggle quickly becomes a battle to legitimize that sadness. It's a real problem because of x y and z, people would take it seriously if I told them. But no, not really. No sadness of mine could ever measure up to true suffering. I just lack perspective. I'm just a brat crying about nothing.

Well, then I become a brat crying about realizing that she's a brat, which is pretty horrible I suppose, but really, even that's not horrible enough to compete in the Most Horrible Things-lympics.

However, as I'm writing this, I realize that I am confronted with the same issues when contemplating success.

Because anything you do in life won't measure up to being, say, Sir Isaac Newton or Socrates or Mozart. At this point in history, the competition is so unbearably vast, in every single field of human pursuit.

Here, in the 2000's, the depth and breadth of human achievement and suffering is not only mindbogglingly huge, but information about it is universally accessible.

I'm sure medieval Europeans could feel pretty fucking happy with themselves for doing whatever the hell they did all day, because they didn't have access to the greatness of Rome or China to realize that they're really pretty pathetic.

In exactly the same way, any non-deformed person in an isolated Saxon village could probably feel pretty good about their looks. A girl could conceivably be called "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen" by a boy in such a village. That would be because there's only about 500 people to choose from, and they don't have a TV and have never seen Angelina Jolie.

The scale is set way too high, now. We're not just competing with our local population, or even just our media personalities. We're educated enough that "putting things in perspective" — anything — includes taking the long view of all of human history, across the entire planet.

When that is the context that we use to compare ourselves, nothing is good enough. No suffering is legitimate. The span of mediocrity is no longer a visible, median band that we can realistically strive to escape — but an enormous asteroid field from which "greatness" and "truly wretched" are distant planetary bodies.

So maybe my problem is that when I put myself into the context of all of human history — when I compare my standard of living to all humans living in all places in all times — I see what an enormously tiny upper percentile I am a part of. The luckiest of the luckiest of the luckiest.

If most misery comes from people's reality having a disparity from their expectations–
"I'm not rich enough" "I'm not successful enough" "I should have this or that"

Then perhaps my problem is being caught between disparities in both directions.

The positive (my reality surpasses my expectations): "I have it too easy" "I don't deserve this"
The negative (my reality falls short of my expectations): "I haven't composed a symphony yet and I'm already 24." "Socrates… Mozart… Ozymandias. At this point in history, it's almost impossible to be 'first' at anything… and yet even if I surpassed those people, the sun will eventually explode and no mark will be left behind."

What disgusts me still more about Being Lucky is that the people I admire most, whether historical or personal friends, are people who've suffered terribly. They persevered through tremendous hardship, took it into themselves and became stronger, resilient, capable. Or maybe they experienced horrible suffering, took it into themselves, went batshit crazy, and made amazing art before killing themselves.

There isn't a lot of art to be made about being pretty much safe, warm, content, fed, living in the suburbs, never seeing a dead body, experiencing only normalcy and calm. Not a lot to say about it. Not a lot of emotional material to draw from — especially when you delegitimize your own emotional experiences as just being bratty tantrums.

This more-or-less even-toned blog post is about the most creative thing I could generate from this feeling. Last night I was a wreck, leaking kohl eyeliner all over my pillow. It was interesting, the powder creates a little black nucleus in the centre of the tearstain. I observed that with the detached part of my mind that never lets go of the context of my suffering, the part of me that is always ready to say, "Are you done yet? This is all just so trivial."

Fucking bitch. But she's right.

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