The only path to happiness is to know yourself and your values
Everyone suffers: the statement is true but too abstract. We need to look at specific cases. Poor health is a common source of suffering. So is loneliness. Today we focus on the latter.
This is very good, by Mary Gaitskill:
But I think this is probably true of young men as well: that they, too, could have sex if they would accept literally anyone. But surprise: just about no one of any gender wants to have sex with literally anyone.
Obviously if a man wants sex he can hire a prostitute. In that sense, the ugliest man on the planet can have as much sex as they can afford. When men vent insane incel rhetoric, we should assume they have a mental illness similar to women with anorexia: in both cases we are talking about people who have internalized a simplistic version of society’s status rules. Such people have become hyper-conformist: they want to punish themselves for the ways they deviate. They judge themselves as failing some ideal they want to conform to. The cure is always the same: they must break with their desire to conform.
So: I’ve known women in this situation. I admit that I don’t know if they couldn’t for their entire lives. At least one of the women who fits the profile had sexual relationships with two men when she was in her twenties — disastrous, disrespectful, borderline abusive (in one case) relationships — but then nothing for the next 40 years of her life. I didn’t know the other women as well, but well enough to know that they were… not having a good time. And there are others who I don’t know but feel like I can identify through a certain aura/facial expression/body language that tells me a woman is hurting in this way. Because that is what it is: hurting. Just like incels are hurting.
I’ve known people, both men and women, who stay in bad relationships for many years, even decades. Perhaps those relationships have a secret happiness that was not visible to me, but in many cases I think two damaged people end up together because they are damaged in complementary ways, like a plug with prongs going into a plug that accepts exactly that number and shape of prongs.
But all living things grow and, at least for awhile, growth allows a recovery from injury. This is true of trees and turtles and also humans. We are potentially resilient creatures facing constant attack. The healing is possible, but the suffering is certain, and some suffer more than others:
I have never forgotten — never stopped feeling heart-pain for — the two ugliest girls in my junior high school; I will call them Donna and Denise. I was going to describe them feature-by-feature so that you would know when I say “ugly” I don’t mean merely plain. But I can’t bring myself to do it. Even now it seems unnecessarily cruel. I was merely plain, and so socially awkward and ineptly dressed that I was sometimes called ugly. I was part of a whole gaggle of unpopular girls like that. But Donna and Denise were different.
Their physical ugliness was compounded by extreme social dysfunction (even worse than mine!), poverty, poor grooming and non-existent fashion choices. Donna, who was at least physically robust, seemed rightfully enraged at her situation; Denise, who was more delicate, looked like a wounded, frightened doe. (The one positive thing I can recall about them is that they seemed to have a genuine friendship; in my memory, Donna was subtly protective of Denise.)
They were treated worse than me or any other girl in that school. They were completely shunned. Even during the horrible school show, when boys jeered at or cat-called unpopular or slutty girls, Donna and Denise were stared at in total, hostile silence, as if they were too freakish to connect with even via insult.
Mary Gaitskil does a good job of bringing out the awfulness of this situation, somehow made uniquely acute by the youth of those suffering. Every person’s pain is unique, even though we can relate to each others pain. And we can learn from the growth of others:
This is where it gets complicated and hard to talk about. One of the ugly women I knew who married well was also a classmate at high school. She was a friend, though not a close one. Cassie had some better physical traits than Donna or Denise — thick, wavy hair, a deep, warm voice and decent clothes, by which I mean not from Goodwill. She wasn’t popular with the cliques and, during the time I knew her, didn’t get one date in high school. But that did not impair her confidence, physical presence (she was a jock) and sense of humour. She was solid in herself in a way that many pretty girls are not. This has been true of every plain or ugly woman I’ve known who’s had relationship success, and it ultimately held Cassie in good stead.
Doris Lessing once wrote that it was fundamental to the human condition to be in rebellion against circumstances. Circumstances of birth, of health, of obligation to parents, to children, to lovers, to spouse, to friends, circumstances of work, of money, of rent, of housing, of introductions to specific circles.
At all times, we lack something we want. Of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the first is “Life Is Suffering” and the second is that “Suffering arises from our desires”. The only possible path to happiness must involve some acceptance of suffering, some reconciliation of oneself to the fact that suffering is a universal experience. The Buddha recommends “non attachment” but I think it is possible to remain attached but stoic, full of cravings but reconciled to the fact that most of those cravings will end in defeat and disappointment.
In the end, we all die, and everyone we’ve ever loved will also die. All of us must finally face the small, personal defeat of death. Some of us go on to larger victories, we fight for causes that we think will be victorious in the long-run, after we are dead. Who knows if we are right? All that matters is that we believed in things, and fought for things, and if defeated, found some way to understand that defeat as part of the natural order, effecting everyone. We can look for the small spaces that offer us personal happiness, spaces where we can be at peace with ourselves, knowing that, though defeated, we fought well.
But it isn’t impossible to find another way. Not always and forever. I finally found the old yearbook for my freshman class and looked up both Donna and Denise. I was touched to see that actually Denise had every chance of growing up to be a conventionally attractive woman. Although her height didn’t work for her back in the day (because of her stooped, cringing posture) she was, after all, thin and tall, with large dark eyes, full lips, a high forehead and naturally black hair combined with pale skin. Her protruding teeth could be fixed and her slightly bulbous nose overlooked; a good haircut would’ve worked wonders.
But what was most affecting: her sweet, gentle personality was so visible. Alone with a camera, she was not too scared to smile and it was adorable.
Donna was another story. I couldn’t see how she could ever become attractive. But she might have become something as good or better. She was smiling too, with actual pleasure plus the hint of wicked disgust that I remember — disgust at the cruel social order that had consigned her to such a low position. The strength of that smile was, to me, a better predictor of a possible happy outcome even than an improvement in her looks. Not because of the disgust but because of the vibrancy. How could I have thought these girls had no chance?
And this is exactly it. Whether we are ugly or beautiful, sick or healthy, poor or rich, lazy or driven, we will suffer. The only possible route to happiness has to involve reconciling ourselves to what is real and what is possible and what is important. We never get everything, there is always something missing. We need make peace with that. Either we find ourselves or we will be lost in nihilism and despair. “The strength of that smile” — we should all hope to find the strength to smile in the face of the cruelty of the world, smile because of what we managed to win, despite the whole world being against us.
Above all else, even if you are born with abundant privileges, no matter how much you have, if you don’t have yourself, then you don’t have anything at all.