Wishful thinking: masochistic tendency
Carlos Basurto | Tuesday, October 24, 2023
There seems to be a trend that governs the human psyche, which, as with all other human matters, behaves in a rather contradictory way. Though I have heard it be defined and redefined throughout human history in a variety of manners, the rule can be surmised as follows: the amount one suffers is proportional to the distance between one’s ideals and reality.
Of course, this sounds rather intuitive. Obviously, the more reality does not match what one desires, the more one will suffer. The more I want something without having it, the worse I fair, no? While many may agree with its initial logic, it is in the conclusions to be derived from it that I find a most fascinating conundrum. Mainly, knowing this fact about yourself, then, how should you act?
If one is to take a pseudo-stoic position, then the logical step is to attempt the hardest to reduce the distance via absolute acceptance of reality. That is, if you can accept everything around you, especially all the most terrible things and the feelings they entail, then you shall suffer no more. This does not mean one is deprived of emotion, but rather that they and any misfortunes of existence are ultimately accepted. This way, all flows without resistance: you accept it all, so you have nothing to suffer for.
Still, this does not seem entirely appropriate in practice. When one comes to terms with all calamities regardless of their size, why would one ever attempt to change or better their circumstances? Through absolute acceptance, whatever is happening in their surroundings becomes irrelevant. In this method, it is not that ideals and reality match; instead, one ceases to have ideals altogether. There is no point in aspiring anymore because if you are truly at peace with everything, even if your world were to change, your contentment would neither increase nor decrease.
Nevertheless, one cannot reasonably seek the other extreme either — that of reducing the distance between one’s ideals and reality via changing reality into what one desires. One will never be in full control of existence so as to perpetually force it into their ideal circumstances. If anything, the search for absolute dominance of the universe will inevitably lead to ruin and further suffering. It also goes without saying that everyone has a different perfect world, so an impossible degree of compromise would be required to avoid a tremendous ideological clash.
So then, what is the answer? Somewhere in between these two extremes? Acquire both a degree of tranquil acceptance and of idealistic discomfort? It seems like a good start. Yet, there is a key component missing, and it can perhaps be found in the misguided approach we are taking regarding this rule. Thus far, we have only attempted to neutralize suffering altogether, though, is that what we should aim for?
Think, perhaps, of what would happen if either of the previously discussed options were viable. Even if one were capable of attaining such solutions, of claiming an absolute and ultimate acceptance of the universe or of conquering and enslaving entropy for oneself, we then run into a separate issue – one entrenched with our very humanity. As hinted at before, if one were to be completely devoid of the most minute of troubles, then there would be naught to do. Naught to fight for, naught to seek after, naught to dream. Certainly, abundant pain drowns us, yet pain in measure forces us to swim. If not for the instinctual ache of lack of oxygen, dragging us back up to breathe, what stops us from sinking?
Thus, I would argue that there is something inhuman about being deprived of some degree of suffering. Naturally, there are many caveats; for one, parameters must be considered: to compare the pain derived from the loss of a family member to that which emerges following a mediocre grade in an exam is ridiculous. Additionally, the aches of life are relative in the end — the struggles of some are completely unfamiliar to others. And yet, the conclusion is the same. Still, pain is pain. Still, hurt people are simply … people.
It is not an undiscussed subject that absolute “bliss” — referring to a complete lack of suffering — can only result in an absolute, somewhat contradictory boredom. Thinking back to our stated law, what shall we then do about it? How does one suffer without really suffering?
Because simply embracing any and all suffering is by no means a solution. One cannot simply “accept the pain” as is; such ideas belong only to those extremely privileged who have never encountered genuine, despairing misery.
So, pain but not to the extent of immobilizing you. So, relief but not to the point of drenching you in lethargy. Perhaps the takeaway from our duel with our inherent human torment is that it need not be a struggle but rather a dance. The frail balance may be found somewhere in the acceptance of agony to its most fulfilling degree: how much pain do you need to impulse you? To inspire you? To change you?
We need not serve suffering itself, for we can make agony work for us. Many of us already have and do on a daily basis. The key to this puzzle is one we already possess: this thing we call hope. Hope, when done right, can become the willful weaponization of the distance between this reality and your ideals, for you knowingly increase the distance so as to suffer with a goal. Compounded with action, it pushes us forward, unlike anything else. It surpasses logic; it suppresses hesitation; it separates the swimmers and the drowned. And above all else, it hurts. It hurts like all hell. But it hurts good.
Thus, hope. It may very well lead to failure, but that perhaps is the point. Hope hurts so much, but where would you be without it?
I think wishful thinking is inherently masochistic, but it seems in some way also necessary. Why, we are masochistic creatures.
Carlos A. Basurto is a sophomore at Notre Dame ready to delve into his philosophy major with the hopes of adding the burden of a Computer Science major on top of that. When not busy you can find him consuming yet another 3+ hour-long analysis video of a show he has yet to watch or masochistically completing every achievement from a variety of video games. Now, with the power to channel his least insane ideas, feel free to talk about them via email at [email protected].
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.