Editor’s Note: The article is by The School of Life, in partnership with CNN, as part of a series on living more philosophically during the coronavirus pandemic.
To meditate on the unimportance of our own end, strangely, does not make it more frightening. The more absurd our death the more vivid our appreciation of being alive. Our conscious existence is unveiled not as the inevitable state of things but as a strange, precious, moment of grace. We may be amazed to be here at all – and no longer quite so sad about the time when we no longer will be.
It’s therefore worth trying to understand why happiness ‘ever after’ should be congenitally so impossible. It isn’t that we can’t ever have a good relationship, a house or a pension. We may well have all this – and more. It’s simply that these won’t be able to deliver what we hope for from them. We will still worry in the arms of a kind and interesting partner, we will still fret in a well-appointed kitchen, our terrors won’t cease whatever income we have. It sounds implausible – especially when these goods are still far out of our grasp – but we should trust this fundamental truth in order to make an honest peace with the forbidding facts of the human condition.
We can never properly be secure, because so long as we are alive, we will be alert to danger and in some way at risk. The only people with full security are the dead; the only people who can be truly at peace are under the ground; cemeteries are the only definitively calm places around.
There is a certain nobility in coming to accept this fact – and the unending nature of worry in our lives. We should both recognise the intensity of our desire for a happy endpoint and at the same time acknowledge the inbuilt reasons why it cannot be ours.
We should give up on The Arrival Fallacy, the conviction that there might be such a thing as a destination, in the sense of a stable position beyond which we will no longer suffer, crave and dread.
The feeling that there must be such a point of arrival begins in childhood, with a longing for certain toys; then the destination shifts, perhaps to love, or career. Other popular destinations include Children and Family, Fame; Retirement or (even) After the Novel is Published.
It isn’t that these places don’t exist. It’s just that they aren’t places that we can pull up at, settle in, feel adequately sheltered by and never want to leave again. None of these zones will afford us a sense that we have properly arrived. We will soon enough discover threats and restlessness anew.
One response is to imagine that we may be craving the wrong things, that we should look elsewhere, perhaps to something more esoteric or high-minded: philosophy or beauty, community or Art.
But that is just as illusory. It doesn’t matter what goals we have: they will never be enough. Life is a process of replacing one anxiety and one desire with another. No goal spares us renewed goal seeking. The only stable element in our lives is craving: the only destination is the journey.
What are the implications of fully accepting the Arrival Fallacy? We may still have ambitions, but we’ll have a certain ironic detachment about what is likely to happen when we fulfill them. We’ll know the itch will start up again soon enough. Knowing the Arrival Fallacy, we’ll be subject to illusion, but at least aware of the fact. When we watch others striving, we may experience slightly less envy. It may look as if certain others have reached ‘there’. But we know they are still longing and worrying in the mansions of the rich and the suites of CEOs.
We should naturally try to give the journey more attention: we should look out of the window and appreciate the view whenever we can. But we should also understand why this can only ever be a partial solution. Our longing is too powerful a force. The greatest wisdom we’re capable of is to know why true wisdom won’t be fully possible – and instead pride ourselves on having at least a slight oversight on our madness.
We can accept the ceaselessness of certain anxieties and rather than aim for a yogic calm state, serenely accept that we will never be definitely calm. Our goal should not be to banish anxiety but to learn to manage, live well around and – when we can – heartily laugh at, our anxious state.
Founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton, The School of Life is a global organization helping people to find perspective and resilience in the face of life’s challenges. We share ideas through a range of channels, including books, eBooks, films, virtual classes and tools for emotional well-being.
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