“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”C.S. Lewis (1889 – 1963)
We love to look for comfort, but seeking out comfort can lead to taking shortcuts and avoiding challenges. The comfortable path enables us to practice habits which reward instant gratification and that prevents any long term goals from ever coming to fruition. This isn’t to say that the way to success is paved by only misery and suffering. There is a balance to be found between living a comfortable life and living a meaningful life. That balance could never be achieved if one was aiming at comfort, but it could possibly be achieved through aiming at truth. Finding the truth gives us a realistic view of what is required for success and only there it is possible to make peace with the high price success and meaning demands. Living a significant life is expensive, and the price can only be paid if we know it exists. That price of meaning lies in the truth but is masked by comfort. The unfortunate part of it all, is that humans have a need to be comfortable. It feels so good, and on some level makes life worth living all on its own.
It’s worthwhile to chase truth because it will make us smarter, tougher, more creative and dangerous. If we know what is true and share it correctly with others, then they will give us money and opportunities. The pursuit of truth will give us access to unlimited worthwhile experiences. We will become the beings which shapes the world around them.
Chasing comfort is terrible because we stop failing and when we stop failing, we stop learning. We can think of being comfortable as being in an environment in which everything is acting as we expect. While that sounds like a great place to be, the problem is we never need to learn anything if everything is working out exactly as we expect. If there is no mismatch between the actual environment and our expected environment, then our brains find no use in learning something new. Why bother? Everything is working perfectly. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it amiright? But when we dwell in the realm of order we don’t fail and because we don’t fail, we don’t learn. If we don’t learn, then we can’t become the people we want to be. I go more in depth on this in my post about The Power of Failure. Humans are creatures of necessity and we only learn something new if we need to, so if everything around is is perfectly fine then there is no learning taking place.
Be mindful of when you want to take the comfortable path. It’s probably going to take you the long way and make your journey more difficult. I know this all too well from personal experience. When making decisions, I find it worthwhile to evaluate my own intentions so I don’t change my behavior solely because something is comfortable. I change to be effective, not to be comfortable because I believe the comfort will come as a byproduct of being more effective.
I really learned this lesson a few years deep into my college career. For a long time, I was a chronic procrastinator and I would always wait until the last minute to do my assignments. I remember back in middle school, whenever I would get a huge project assigned I just automatically thought that meant I was going to be miserable the night before it was due. Eventually, I decided to try things differently three years into college. When I got assignments I would do them the day they were assigned with the same tenacity and velocity that I would have if I worked on it the night before it was due. It was extremely uncomfortable at first, but I stuck with it for a month and found that I had way less stress and was more comfortable than I would have been if I focused on my momentary instantaneous comfort. I had years of experience with putting assignments off until the last minute and I was familiar with how prioritizing comfort felt, but that month felt so great that it was enough incentive to kick my chronic procrastination habit for good! Like everyone else, I am human and I will procrastinate occasionally, but I know first hand the value of not procrastinating. Nowadays, I never procrastinate projects that are important to me. The clear mind I have when I don’t procrastinate in conjunction with the additional time for revisions is a sure fire way to perform better with less stress.
The easy way out often leads back in.
The Last Man vs. The Superman
“Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process.”Robert Greene (1959 – )
In Nietzsche’s relatively poetic Thus Spake Zarathustra, a prophet named Zarathustra preaches to people in a town regarding his own wisdom accrued from his careful reflection upon a mountaintop. He delivers a powerful, but ill received, talk about the ways of The Superman and The Last Man to a crowd awaiting a performance of a tightrope walker.
The Superman-Last Man dichotomy is a huge idea but I want to highlight a few characteristics of each and how it explains our proclivity for comfort. The Übermensch, also translated to Beyond-Man or Superman, can be thought of as the man who is dedicated to the goal which he sets for himself. *Disclaimer: Nietzsche believed that men could create values for themselves and while this can be true for some men, it is not true for all so when I suggest that we should strive to be Übermensch, I mean that we should strive in a way that benefits ourselves, our families, and our communities.* I think Kyra explains the The Superman fantastically in her post when she said “all about challenging the status quo, and truly thinking about life beyond what he is told. The Superman goes on the tedious journey of creating a work that will outlast his life.” On the other hand, The Last Man is named appropriately so because he who lives like The Last Man will be the last of his kind. The Last Man takes no risks and engrosses themselves with distractions such as fancy careers, the latest social event, and happiness to avoid seriously thinking about the meaning of these things. The Last Man pursues only comfort and security, consumes more than he creates, and never challenges the axioms of his time. The Last Man resents his suffering and seeks to alleviate it while the Superman takes in his suffering and channels it into something more.
Appropriately enough, the tightrope walker is the only one who was receptive to the message Zarathustra was putting forward. Nietzsche did a fantastic job dramatizing the dichotomy of The Superman and The Last Man by juxtaposing the tightrope walker with the crowd. Not only was the tightrope walker the only person who understood the message, which suggests he’s closer to manifesting The Superman than anyone else, but he was already demonstrating the characteristics of The Superman by being the one who is giving the performance to the crowd.
Zarathustra describes man as “a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman-a rope over an abyss” and I believe that’s an accurate representation of existence of human beings. We are constantly trying to regulate and integrate our animalistic (Last Man-esque) tendencies by striving to bring out the best in ourselves and if we choose not to play that game, then we end up in an existential abyss where we are susceptible to pathological ideologies.
We either walk the tightrope or we get swallowed by pure chaos. Most of us choose to walk the tightrope, but the inconvenient truth is that walking towards The Superman end of the rope is a difficult endeavor. It’s much more comfortable to drift towards The Last Man end and it’s useful to keep this in mind. The choices we have to make to walk towards to Superman are always going to be difficult but that is the price to create something of worth and operate at the edge of your abilities. It’s painful in the moment, but something worthwhile always comes out the other side. Walking towards the Superman is like sitting on the edge of order and chaos, but we are imposing our will on the chaos we encounter and creating order of our own accord. This allows us to create and design the worlds we want to live in, but it comes from resisting the urge to drift towards The Last Man.
Life is tough and part of what makes it tough is being aware of our relative presence in the universe and the inevitable demise of ourselves and all of our loved ones. However, in a certain light death can seem like a sweet release from an exhausting existence so it’s not the only one to blame for the inherent unfair suffering of life. From a Piagetian perspective, babies initially don’t understand much about how to operate in the world, but over time they accommodate and assimilate new information to expand their sphere of competence. The steps of development can look something like: we think we understand, we realize that we don’t understand anything, we learn something new, we think we understand again, we repeat. Our lives are made up of times in which the world makes sense to us and our current frames of understanding are sufficient to operate powerfully in the world, and there are times when the world shows us it’s true complexity. In the times we are present to the complexity of the universe, we suffer. We realize our inadequacies, our insecurities, and vulnerabilities. This cycle is painful, but it’s built into life as we know it and it’s how we learn. Now, this isn’t to say suffering is the ONLY way to learn. We also learn to satiate curiosity but that can be in itself is dangerous.
The combination of all of these things contributes to what is known as the inherent suffering of life. It’s hard to be human and we all have different ways of dealing with it. The Norwegian metaphysicist Peter Zapffe categorized how we deal with the inherent suffering of life in four broad categories: isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation. The first three are characteristic of Nietzsche’s idea of The Last Man, while the fourth, sublimation, is characteristic of the Superman. Keep in mind that these methods never solve the problem of the inherent tragedy, but simply repress our awareness of it.
Zapffe’s 4 Methods of Repression
Have you ever looked at all the stuff you have to do and get really sleepy? That initial reaction to the tragedy of life is our proclivity towards what Zapffe refers to as Isolation. Zapffe defines isolation, in the context of a method of repression, as “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling.” Other examples of isolation include hitting the snooze button to stay in bed longer, keeping yourself away from things that scare you, or keeping your ears away from opposing views. Isolation is comfortable, it keeps us warm and justifies our preexisting ideas, but it’s dangerous. When we isolate ourselves we stop encountering the natural chaos of the universe and that prevents us from learning and learning is something we want to do, it gives us the tools we need to not suffer more than we already do. The key to learn more is to throw ourselves into challenging, complicated, and unknown situations. To hell with isolation!
Little kids are an interesting phenomena to observe because despite their lack of knowledge of the complex world around them, they manage to survive. How? The tragedy of life doesn’t hold back just because someone is a child but what the child does is combat the complexity of the world with the aid of an adult. The kid explores the world with their simple understanding and they are able to do so because the real complexity of the world is mediated by the more complex understanding of the adult. Since this is a winning strategy, the child learns to develop a want for adults to handle difficult and complex situations. The child uses the adult as a wall the protect itself from the overly complicated parts of existence and this “wall” is known as an anchor. The best part is that adults never stop doing this just because they “grow up.” They shift their anchor to something else like their childhood home, neighborhood or nation. Zapffe defined anchoring as “a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness…the happiest…protection against the cosmos that we ever get to know in life.” Anchoring explains how people can drift towards gangs or radical nationalist groups. It also explains people’s desire to cling to what they know. The unfortunate side effect of anchoring is similar to isolation – you cling to your walls, you stop encountering the unknown, you stop learning, you suffer more. It’s easy and comforting to cling to what we know, but it’s treating the symptom and not the disease. If we release our anchors, we can learn more things and become more competent and that competence will spill over into other parts of our lives.
Distraction is usually the preferred form of repression from people who often find themselves bored or those who feel like they need to “burn time.” Both of these characteristics are actually desires for existential distraction masqueraded as innocuous states of being. Zapffe defines distraction as “A very popular mode of protection [where] one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impression.” Modern technology is proof that Zapffe’s speculations of distraction being a popular option was correct. Our streaming services, social media, video games, and cell phones are just a few examples of modern tech that rewards us for distracted thinking and condition us to expect continuous information input. This isn’t a critique of modern technology, it’s just that these particular characteristics of modern technology were created by us to fulfill our desires for distraction. Our need for distraction is so deep that we’ve built machines that rewards us for not thinking about the inherent suffering of life. On a personal note, distraction drives me crazy. It’s such a plague to everything beautiful about human beings. When we ignore the distractions of this sort, we create something truly special.
Personally, I’m always at war with the side of myself that wants to drift towards The Last Man and it takes a tremendous effort to overcome it but the unfortunately reality is that people usually aren’t checking their own tendencies and allow their distraction to inhibit others. You see it in mindless entertainment, insatiable consumption, insufferable parties, and fake performances. Distraction is destructive but the payoff is massive – given we’re distracted properly. If we’re distracted, then we don’t have the burden of thinking about the tragedy of life, but we lose the ability to see life for what it truly is, in all it’s beauty and catastrophe and this blindness prevents us from bringing fourth our Jungian Self.
So what happens if isolation, anchoring and distraction aren’t enough? Zapffe describes a fourth method in which one transforms the problem into purpose. This is known as Sublimation. It is what people inevitably do when the other three methods aren’t sufficient. In an essay he wrote which regarded the four methods of repression, he says “the present essay is a typical example of sublimation. The author does not suffer. He is filling pages, and is going to be published in a journal.” I say that is a perfect example of sublimation. Sublimation is characteristic of The Superman, as mentioned above, because in order to create something that may outlast you, you must channel the inherent tragedy of life into something other than complete despair and anxiety. In order to create, we must sublimate. Sublimation can also be defined as channeling the energy from an inappropriate urge to an appropriate urge. In this case, the impact that the tragedy of life has on us can be channeled into something that can help others deal with the tragedy as well (an appropriate urge) rather than using it as an excuse to shoot up a school (an inappropriate urge). This is where creation is born. Creation can be seen as internalizing the world around us and transforming the parts of suffering into something novel and good. I like to think that I practice this with my blog, music, lesson plans, and my other creative endeavors. After all, most of my passions came to be because I was trying to deal with suffering and had a desire to alleviate that same suffering for others.
A fascinating feat of creation is that our creations are made by us but they take a life of their own once they are out in the world. Jawed Karin, Steve Chen, and Chad Hurley had no idea what they were really creating when they founded YouTube. Sure, YouTube is a place to upload videos but now that it’s out in the world it’s become much more than just a space to share videos. YouTube has become the modern Library of Alexandria, it’s the modern Gutenberg printing press but for the spoken word rather than the written word. Creations become something else as they live their lives and it’s impossible for us to know exactly what that is at the time of inception. All creation shares this peculiar characteristic – to come into a life of its own and impact the world in it’s own manner. The best part is that all human beings have this capacity and it is the best solution to repress the tragedy of life. We momentarily diverge our attention towards from the horrors and simultaneously create something which may contribute positively to the human experience.
We have a tendency towards comfortable things, and while the comfort can make life worth living, there is an expensive price to be paid for chasing what’s comfortable. When we are uncomfortable, we learn and when we learn, we don’t have to suffer more than we already do. Being comfortable stops us from expanding our spheres of competence but it also robs us of the highest potential within ourselves. It feels good to be The Last Man, but we will be the last of our kind if we give in to these tendencies. Strive to be the Superman, avoid all distractions, sublimate your tragedy, dive into the unknown, create something better for the world. That something can take the form of anything we please.