A wise man once told me that if he could wish one thing upon his worst enemy, it would be that he was forced to receive whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. Your first thought is probably, “This guy sounds like the best enemy ever. Let’s tie him to the nearest set of train tracks and get the ball rolling.”
But not so fast. Yeah, on the surface this sounds great. You might imagine yourself diving into a swimming pool full of money like you’re Scrooge McDuck. Or maybe you imagine yourself driving a car with really big, shiny wheels! I imagine myself having much more pronounced cheekbones, because lets be honest — Don Draper is an attractive guy. It sounds like paradise, right?
But then I started thinking. What am I missing here? Is there any situation I couldn’t handle if I had anything I wanted? What tribulations could life possibly throw at me that I couldn’t overcome with a snap of my fingers? And then it hit me.
I’m convinced this condition would be awesome for about the first year or so, but then with each progressive day it would feel more and more like a curse, albeit a strange one. We appreciate the things we want because on a personal level there is a scarcity of them. Have you ever had to go to the bathroom so badly that your kidneys actually started hurting? Maybe you were driving, needing to go so badly that you were sweating, your kidneys were screaming “Are we there yet?!” from the backseat, and filled with desperation, you reached for that empty bottle of Diet Peach Snapple on the passenger side floor board. In that context, you feel an unusual appreciation for bathrooms. But if you matched that level of enthusiasm every time you saw a bathroom under normal circumstances, you’d look like an outpatient from the local mental hospital.
And this applies to everything. A sixteen-year-old kid who works all summer to save up for the down payment on his first car will appreciate it, wash it, vacuum it out, and hang a little pine tree from the rear view mirror for good measure. A sixteen-year-old kid whose rich parents buy him his dream car is left with no sense of appreciation and oftentimes a sense of complacency.
If every time you ever wanted something it just appeared in front of you, think of all the great feelings you would miss out on over the course of your life. Absolutely everything would lose its value. You’d never again feel a sense of achievement or satisfaction, and that sounds like a great thing to wish upon your worst enemy.
The ancient philosopher Pyyrho would have loved this irony. He lived during the Hellenistic Age, a time of chaos and political uncertainty; his aim, like many other philosophers of the Hellenistic Age, was to create a method for the average citizen to cope with this chaos and uncertainty. Pyyrho’s method was called Skepticism. He asked questions like, “How can we know what is truly good in reality?” and “How can we know we aren’t falsely deeming something as ‘good’ just because it seems like it should be?”
According to Aristocles, “Pyrrho declared all things to be equally indifferent, indeterminate and un-judged and that for that reason neither our senses nor our opinions are reliably true or false.”
When applied to the lives of regular people, the goal of skepticism was to achieveataraxia, a word that the Greeks used that meant a “complete freedom from disturbance.” Pyyrho thought that having negative feelings when things happen to you comes from making negative judgments about those things. But how can we be so arrogant as to assume that we know for certain whether these things are going to be bad things in the long run?
Pyyrho said to suspend all judgments. Because by suspending all of them, you suspend the negative ones, and by suspending them you are impervious to them. Think of all the ways this applies to you! You got fired from your job? Seems bad, but in six months you might find a job that is twice as fulfilling as your last job. Your spouse leaves you? Seems bad, but you might meet the love of your life the next day. You contract a terrible illness? Seems bad, but what if it motivated you to live a healthier lifestyle and made you appreciate every second of life after you beat it? Was that illness still a bad thing?
Something that seems good is not always good. Something that seems bad is not always bad, and even if it is bad, adversity is what strengthens you to better navigate future problems in your life. Your level of success is not determined by whether there are hurdles in your path, but by how well you jump over them.
Philosophize This! Has something ever happened to you that seems terrible at first, but ends up being something great?