“Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression”
– Karl Marx
No, I have not read Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (or The German Ideology for that matter), though I really should. I am quoting from Muriel Barbery’s deliciously heady novel, The Elegance of The Hedgehog, which I have been reading for what seems like forever. It’s a dense delight for a lover of philosophy and of art, for those of us bitten by the bug of logolepsy and for anyone who enjoys their ontological theory served with a side of sardonicism as only the French know how to deliver. The title of this post is taken from the title of the preamble to Barbery’s novel and is a concept that has been on my mind all day.
On May 23, 2014, Elliot Rodger, a now infamous 22-year old went on a murderous rampage at the University of California at Santa Barbara, killing 7 people, including himself. Upon hearing of his alleged motive, my friend Gail mentioned something our yoga teacher, Kquvien, has often iterated: desire is the root of unhappiness. As soon as Gail said the aforementioned, these words of Marx’s that were imparted to me through the eloquent vessel that is Barbery, began to chime in my psyche and have been ringing there ever since. When one clings to deleterious desire, the outcome is oppression of one’s soul. Oppressors are most often the oppressed. Little did I know that in the video Rodger apparently released prior to his killing spree, he had categorically stated that he felt he had suffered “an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires.” That his intense desires could drive him to such lengths is, sadly, unsurprising to me.
Desire can be such a beautiful force: it spurs us on in our pursuits. Yet, desire unchecked and unbridled can drive us to the sort of destruction as is evidenced by Rodgers heinous act. That calibre of desire, that sort of sense of entitlement is one that blinds an individual into believing that life should follow the very specific idea etched in his/her mind. Dr. Evans Ogelby, the pastor at Emory Presbyterian (a church I visit on occasion) opined one Easter Sunday, that true faith requires the relinquishing of all hope: hoping for something means you are clinging to a specific, imagined and myopic outcome. In her words, we can only imagine what is within our realm of knowledge and yet the universe’s imagination for us unlimited. To have faith in life, to release ourself into the ebb and flow of life, to not drown in our disappointment or allow pleasure to pervade us to the point of madness, we have to accept the absurdity of life: that life is not fair and that it is not meant to be; that life is a concatenation of events, some of which are within our control, many of which are not. Or as de Botton writes (referenced here) “the universe is mightier than we are, …we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; … we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.”
A friend asked me how to curb disappointment when things don’t go our way. My response to him was that my understanding of the concept of vairagya (detachment) is not so much that one should learn not to be disappointed but rather that one must learn to cope with the pain of disappointment. We must not be afraid to feel a little pain. Pain is symptom not a malady and symptom never killed anyone. One of the opening scenes from Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind:
[Lawrence has just extinguished a match flame between his thumb and forefinger. William Potter surreptitiously attempts the same trick]
William Potter: Ooh! It damn well ‘urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts
William Potter: What’s the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
Invariably, however, as one practices coping with disappointment, one is less easily thrown into fits of anguish when ones expectations of life are not met . Life is a cycle of pleasure and pain. To move through life gracefully, it behooves us to learn to experience these dichotomies without drinking them in to the point of intoxication: rather, we should let them wash over us, leaving behind whatever residue they will without corroding the soul. And always, we should be thankful for them.
Life owes us nothing. We owe our existence everything. On contemplating the myth of Sisyphus, the greek mythological character who was doomed, as punishment for deceitfulness, to roll a burdensome boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action ad infinitum, Albert Camus writes:
All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Polemic though some of Camus’ ideas may be, the central tenet of his sentiments is one that resonates with me: acceptance of the absurdity in life is the first step in taking charge of one’s own fate. Paradoxical indeed– accepting that life throws boulders on our shoulders in a cyclical dance between desire and destiny enables us to take charge of that very destiny as that acceptance leads to contentment even as we struggle up the proverbial cliff. “The [repetitive] struggle itself toward the heights” is all in all what life is and life in and of itself is indeed “enough to fill a man’s heart”. Finding happiness in The Struggle is part and parcel of the struggle and, in a mise-en-abyme-esque way, one must imagine oneself happy if one accepts the challenge to take on the struggle until one’s light is snuffed out. If Sisyphus begrudgingly heaves that rock up the hill, constantly bemoaning his fate and filled with a bilious desire for a life other than his own, he too would have harvested a bitter oppression of his own cultivation. It’s a bromide, but it is a truth: our happiness is our choice; our happiness is our creation. We are at once infinitesimal, powerless and powerful beyond all measure.
“La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux”
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you cannot change it, change your attitude… You cannot control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them” – Dr. Maya Angelou