To be truly happy, you must understand that the world is terrible.
The small scale is sometimes not depressing; that is why so many remain there. Personal lives may be joyous or melancholy, personal relationships may be fulfilling or abusive, personal activities may be empowering or self-destructive. But to this day the flowers still bloom, the lovers still embrace, the children still play, families still grow, the artists still create, the musicians still play and the people still dance, and happiness, in whatever measure we are able to steal it, accumulates. There is love in every day and every small human action. Alienation, consumer society, the market, and the leaden weight of financial and personal and institutional burdens have not yet entirely destroyed these pleasures, though they try and though they often succeed. Beneath every maniacal institutional role, beneath every soul-crushing occupation, beneath every deadening task and every snarl of cynicism and sarcasm flailing behind it, lies a human capable of love and sympathy. In most cases, anyway: the corporate executives, the politicians, the leaders — like the kings and aristocrats and other malevolents before them — are selected for by institutional psychopathy, and have in great measure become assimilated. But even they can often turn off pathology at home’s front doorstep.
Even beyond the cuteness of the small scale, there is beauty to be found, though usually only by leaving humans as far behind as possible. The human world stands insignificant before the natural one, though we chip away at its achilles heel, goading it to crush us, and with us, civilization. The goading threatens even these pleasures, yet for the time being they remain a palliative. We have swamped the Pacific with garbage, but its waves still roll onto the shore. We will melt their glaciers shortly enough, but the cordilleras still tower to the ends of the earth. All the more so as we melt the ice caps, oceanic vastness surrounds us. And though our excrement even extends there too, the nothingness of interplanetary, interstellar and intergalactic space retains the beauty of unspoilt darkness.
Beyond and behind it all, within the fabric of reality, even transcending it, lie inspirations and joys of the most sublime beauty; how I wish I could immerse myself there permanently! Accessible only to our greatest faculties of abstract reason, they present a challenge to understand and a puzzle we cannot yet solve. Only reason can seek this realm, and only reason can understand it. This greatest of beauties, cold, austere and monumental, by its nature precludes access to the ignorant, and renders answers which, while the greatest of our oracles still only hear the faintest murmur of the final answer in its signals, shine with eternal simplicity and abstraction. These physics — and behind them, their language, mathematics, the language in which not just this but any reality can be written — remain a haven of coherent peace, even if they constitute the laws according to which their most complex consequences, namely ourselves, destroy their unfolded beauty in reality. There is no personal being there, none of the superstitious remnants of past ages of human folly, with their moral judgments and crosses and crescents and candles; but there is inspiration, and beauty.
So peace, love, joy and bliss are available to us at many levels, depending on our predilections and preferences and interests — even in a world of violence, horror, and ongoing and oncoming catastrophe. But depression, or at least, certain knowledge of great tragedy, is unavoidable too: and, I would say, is necessary to understand and overcome if one is to live fully.
Indeed, depression is written into the nature of the universe. Love is not so written, though it unfolds in us as a consequence of this nature; nor morality, nor pain, nor suffering. Depression, however, is so written: the thermodynamic heat death of the universe will come, one way or another, to claim human and whatever other civilizations ever exist. Just as no loving creator, but only a malevolent one could create our world of violence, poverty, and war, nor could such a loving creator ever make such a universe, doomed to decay and oblivion.
To understand the world, you must know that it is terrible beyond comprehension. This is true not just of physics, but of human individuals, and human society too.
While love, concern, sympathy, and care are not written in the constitution of the world, they are its consequences. Conscious beings evolving out of it become aware of their own strange place in this universe, born and evolved as exiles on these inhospitable shores. Death, fear, and suffering await, and reason finds that other beings share the same fate as us. Evolutionary solidarity combines with cold rationality to demand that the suffering of one conscious being is the suffering of all, and the joy and flourishing of one is the joy and flourishing of all. Love is not written in the constitution of the universe, but it is written in the constitution of every conscious, subjective, solipsistic universe that evolves out of it. Death is not the heat death of this universe, but its utter annihilation, and an annihilation that will come shortly enough for us too. Depression, or at least consciousness of mortality, is written into the nature of your personal universe, as well as that of the physical universe.
But this recognition of shared consciousness, mortality, and suffering, is the rational basis of sympathy, caring, and love. It is aggravated by the knowledge of suffering. It is shocked by the knowledge of systematic social oppression. It is infuriated by the continuance of injustice. It is outraged at the thought of physical aggression or violence. And it is apoplectic against violent aggression in the form of war. Those who are relatively rich, or powerful, or live in certain geographical regions, may think that such catastrophes do not affect them. But even there economic institutions crush the soul, via the need to sell one’s labour, via mind-numbing work, via obedience to usually illegitimate authority, via participation in destructive systems and corporations, via the manipulations and subterfuge of capitalism and markets, via the system which threatens to consume humanity. Only the ignorant or the foolish can analyse the world around them — even the rich western corporate utopia that a minority find themselves in — and find it other than a valley of tears. Peronal lives may sometimes be a garden of delight, but at the social scale the situation, and the outlook, has usually been bleak.
In these circumstances, the most immediate source or depression — human society — is also the most tractable. Fixing human society is a ridiculous idea, surely! But fixing the fundamental sources of depression in realms at other scales — individual mortality, cosmic absurdity — are entirely impossible.
These twin primordial catastrophes — your imminent oncoming death, and the nothingness at the end of the universe — are the rationalist version of the fall of man. They are the fruit of knowledge achieved by conscious beings, and they transform the practice of living: from a frolicking in delight in the garden of sensual pleasure, to a struggle of purpose and survival as exiles on inhospitable shores, individual, social, and universal.
One may indeed still frolic in the garden, at least until human civilization makes the garden uninhabitable; and indeed, never forget to frolic as best you can! But to remain here represents a failure to grow up, a failure to mature, a failure to live fully. We are faced with the certainty of tragedy at almost every scale, except the social scale, where tragedy is only highly probable. That is precisely the scale which depresses us so much, because every missed opportunity, every failed election, every stymied reform, every bigoted reactionary and ignorant blowhard and ignored comment and ineffective activism represents, in the final analysis, a theft from the human potential in our short lives, on a small planet, in an unfathomable universe.
And if we do spend our short, insignificant lives attempting to improve that fate of that society, preserving and improving its glories, its rationalities, its joys and its beauties — and ending its greed, its hypocrisy, its violence, its war, its exploitation, its inequality, its injustices — what better achievement could we hope to build? What other achievement could be more worthwhile? And not doing so, guaranteeing the worst possible outcome — why then would life have been worth living at all?
What else could give meaning to human life once we have rejected, as irrational and unbelievable, the magical fairytales of eternal life and eternal justice with which past superstitions have attempted to comfort us? In fact those superstitions induced us to accept injustice in this world, for better luck in the next. There is no such world, and if we shall ever again enter the celestial city, we shall have built it ourselves.
But that means dedication; it also means conflict and argument; civilizing, to be sure, but not without personal costs. If we are serious about building a society in which human potentials can be realised, then this entails a revolutionary transformation of social institutions. This is to be expected: the universe is an uncompromising place, and human society has been uncompromising with its planet. We must be uncompromising in forging a compromise between our species and the rest of the world; in ending the rapacious systems of environmental destruction and human exploitation which ruin the planet and our selves.
Love — arising rationally from our nature, as an answer to the fundamental questions of human existence — leads us to a hard place, to an extreme place, to a place laced with outrage, fear, incomprehension, frustration, anger, impatience, rage, probable defeat, and potential doom; but it is this place, and only this place, from which we can really see the stars, from which we may survey the coastline of these inhospitable shores, and from which we can really walk towards a better future — one consciously created for ourselves, so that human beings may flourish.
To be truly happy, you must understand that the world is terrible.