The Paradox of Sense of Life

How to Achieve a Benevolent Sense of Life, Part 4

This is part four of a five-part series.

Many years ago, I was at a point in my career when I had stuck my neck out to take a stand on principle, under conditions that I knew could be bad for my career and my pocketbook. Which is no big deal because I’ve done it before and gotten pretty comfortable with it. It never turns out as badly as it might seem. (More on that later.)

At the time, though, I was talking with a friend and expressed some frustration at the fact that there were a few people in my field who agreed with me and were in a much better position to take the risk—better off financially and more established in their professional positions—but who were staying cautiously on the sidelines. Why was it that I, with the most to lose, was the least reticent about joining the fray?

Then my friend made an observation that cleared up the paradox. Those who were in a more stable and secure position, he explained, had gotten there precisely because they sought out stability and security, because they had avoided a path that would have required them to stick their necks out more often. Having gotten where they were by being cautious and circumspect, you couldn’t expect them to change their approach now. The very thing that made it safer for them to take risks made them less likely to actually do so. By contrast, my tendency not to shy away from a good fight was probably one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy the kind of safe sinecure that might offer me more protection. It’s all part of the same paradox: part of reason I enjoyed less protection was because I felt less psychological need for it.

This is a wider pattern that applies not only to sense of life but to the level of happiness that people report in their lives. It’s something that frequently confounds psychological researchers. Often, the people who are seemingly most comfortable and prosperous express less satisfaction with their lives, while those whose lives are more tumultuous are more hopeful and more fulfilled—which is precisely why they are content being in the thick of things.

From the perspective of malevolent sense of life versus benevolent sense of life, this makes sense. A malevolent sense of life convinces you that the world is a dangerous and unpleasant place that is ready to crush you at every turn—which makes you want to sequester yourself in the quietest, most comfortable, most secure nook of the world that you can find. Hence the gap I’ve often observed in which those who express a malevolent view of the world often live in very pleasant circumstances in their own daily life. Whereas those with a benevolent sense of life are more likely to take risks and go outside their comfort zone and subject themselves fully to the vicissitudes of life.

For fans of Ayn Rand’s novels, think of Peter Keating versus Howard Roark. Keating schemes his way quickly into wealth and prestige, into luxury and security, while Roark lives on the edge, enduring years of struggle and rejection. But who is happier? And in the end, who is more successful?

The point here is that the function of a benevolent sense of life is not to help you make yourself safe and comfortable within a little cocoon. That is what the malevolent sense of life holds out to you as the essence of human happiness. Rather, the function of a benevolent sense of life is to help you treat the world as a realm in which you can go out and take risks to get what you really want out of life.

The purpose of a benevolent sense of life is not to shield you from shocks but to teach you how to plow through them with cheerful indifference.

This brings me back to the observation I ended with in the previous installment of this series. I warned against the unpleasantness that people introduce into their own lives out of fear, by staying in a job they hate, for example, rather than taking the risk of changing jobs or careers or going out on their own. I cautioned that following my advice “can mean facing a lot of difficulties, going through a lot of ups and downs, and just plain getting knocked for a loop every once in a while. Which can end up being a very good thing for your sense of life. To someone struggling with a malevolent sense of life, I know that statement makes no sense.”

So let me explain it. The great paradox of sense of life is that when you have a malevolent sense of life, the last thing you want to do is to take risks and launch big new undertakings. Your sense of life is showing you a world full of red lights, warning against forward motion. But precisely for that reason, the best thing you can do is to move forward and take on a task that is really difficult.

This is sort of like the advice to conquer your fears by experiencing the thing you fear in its most extreme form. If you’re afraid of heights, as I am, go rock climbing or go up in a hot air balloon—or there’s my own solution: spend two weeks up on your roof rebuilding the decorative trim on the edge. That is, do some activity that requires you to experience heights, hopefully in a safe way, so that your exaggerated fears are replaced by direct experience of the prosaic reality.

I thought of this recently when I saw a listicle on the advantages of having lived through poverty. One of the items really rang true: “Once things have been really bad, you’re not as frightened of tough times and risks…. [W]hen the storm blows in, the lightning flashes, and the tide gets high, you know that you can swim even if you get swept off the boat because you have done it before.”

Spoken like a man who has achieved a benevolent sense of life.

As for myself, I’ve never been poor. (I’ve been broke, which is a very different thing.) Nor am I suggesting that anyone should seek to become poor just to experience these “benefits.” I won’t say that it’s good to fail—it’s always better to succeed. But it is good to risk failure and stretch yourself out to the limits of what you can do. Confronting the up and downs, the risks and reversals of life shows you that you can survive them, that those red lights your sense of life shows you out in the world do not actually have to keep you from moving.

There’s a line from Kipling’s poem “If” that I didn’t understand when I first read it but which has struck me as more and more important over the years.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same….

The point Kipling was making is that there is rarely such a thing as a permanent, irreversible victory, or a permanent, unrecoverable defeat. There are high points and low points, but the next day you always go back to the same basic work. Every achievement has to be maintained with further effort, and every loss can be recovered with further effort.

So my most important advice about how to achieve a benevolent sense of life is: do difficult things. It will teach you how to confront the highs and the lows and to keep them in perspective.

You can see why I didn’t offer this advice first. It’s something you have to work your way up to. You start by looking out at the world to find and observe what it good there, which is what I recommended in Part 2 of this series. Then you focus on introducing benevolence in your manners and in the way you live your everyday life, which is what I recommended in Part 3. Then you are ready to go out and attempt big and challenging goals of your own, as a way of demonstrating that success and achievement are possible.

The point of this is not just to show you that the world is a better place than you imagined. The point is to demonstrate to yourself how much you are capable of.

Some years ago, I was talking with my wife about planning what I needed to do for the coming year, and in discussing one particularly big task I caught myself uttering the following paradoxical statement: “It’s going to be difficult, but that’s easy.” How is the difficult easy? What I meant by “difficult” was that it was a big job that was going to require a lot of time and effort. But I knew from experience that with the application of time and effort I could accomplish the goal, which is what made it “easy.” If you know how to do something and all that is required is to put in time and effort, that is not a fundamental challenge. The real challenge is doing something that you don’t know how to do. To continue my paradoxical formulation: The difficult is easy, but the impossible—now that’s difficult.

This is what you are trying to learn by doing difficult things.

Notice that this takes to its logical conclusion my earlier contention that sense of life is less about the circumstances of the world around you than it is about your response. Part of the paradox of sense of life is that it seems like you are rendering a judgment on the world—but you are really rendering a judgment on yourself and your own ability to cope with the world.

Self-esteem and benevolent sense-of-life are two perspectives on the same fact. Self-esteem says: I am capable of succeeding in the world. A benevolent sense of life says: the world is a place in which I am capable of succeeding. While you can’t directly or immediately change the circumstances of the world as a whole, you are in direct and immediate control of your own thoughts and actions. So it makes sense to start working from that end.

Just as a child gains self-esteem not from empty affirmations and exaggerated praise but by learning skills, overcoming challenges, and racking up real achievements, so a benevolent sense of life is earned, not by avoiding risks and difficulties and negative situations, but by taking them head-on and getting through them.

As always, achieving a benevolent sense of life is not just about giving yourself a top-down pep talk. It’s about changing your actions and your actual experience of life from the bottom up.

It will be helpful to examine in a little more detail exactly how a sense of life is formed and changed, so we can better understand what you need to do to make sure these lessons about a benevolent sense of life will stick fast. That is what I will address in the final installment of this series.

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