sisyphus

Today we ask that you examine the belief that “Life is a struggle.”

This belief is so widespread, so universal, that it really is not questioned.  Religious people believe it.  Atheists believe it.  People in different cultures all around the world believe it.

So it must be true.

Everywhere, humans find evidence for this belief.  In the “Darwinian” natural world, where animals struggle to survive and procreate.  In their own lives.  Life is a struggle.  It does not matter if you are a monkey or a man, if you are rich or poor.  Ask a rich man about his life, and he will tell you all about his struggles.  Ask a poor man, and you will hear the same.  Struggle is the basis of all human drama, of every story ever written.

So it must be true, then, that life is a struggle.

But you know, animals do not have this story.  Even the animals in the nature documentaries — the gazelle eaten by the cheetah, the endangered species threatened by man, the Antarctic penguin who must raise his chicks in the icy darkness.  None of these creatures go around thinking “Life is a struggle.”

It is the human who looks at the penguin and creates a narrative about how hard it is.  The penguin is not thinking “Oh, this is so hard.”  The penguin is just doing what a penguin does, and doesn’t have a story about it.

The penguin isn’t wishing he could live in a warmer climate where it would be so nice and easy.  The penguin doesn’t see himself as a victim of circumstance.

Only humans do this.

Therefore, the belief that “Life is a struggle” is a construct of the human mind.  It has no independent existence outside the human mind.

Animals do not believe it.  Babies do not believe it, even if they are hungry, tired, or uncomfortable.  A baby just cries.  It is the parent of the crying baby who believes that life is a struggle.

A corollary to the belief that “Life is a struggle” is the belief that “Struggle is virtuous.”

The hero of any myth is someone who struggles, and it is always a virtuous struggle.  The more someone struggles, the more they are perceived as virtuous.

Humans perceive the penguin who struggles to raise his chicks in the Antarctic winter as having a certain nobility.

The penguin knows nothing of this.  He does not think he is “noble.”  He is just doing what a penguin does.

However, if humans believe that struggle is virtuous, then this incentivizes and validates the experience of struggle.

Humans are usually suspicious and judgmental about anyone who isn’t struggling enough, in their opinion.  Such a person is lazy, or lucky.  Either way, there is something ignoble about it.

People wear their struggles as a source of pride.  Yes, they are overworked and exhausted.  Yes, parenting children is terribly hard, a daily struggle.  Yes, they have doggedly worked their way up from poverty.  Yes, they don’t have time to sleep.  Yes, they are sick — who wouldn’t get sick from all that hard work, exhaustion, and misery.

But if you suggest that there might be another way to live, one that doesn’t involve so much struggle — just watch the offense, the outrage!  How dare you!   Who do you think you are!

Sure, maybe life is easy for you, but you know nothing of their struggles.  Clearly you are not a good person — not the way they are.  You must be a very selfish, lazy person if you think that maybe they don’t need to be struggling as much as they do.

So just take a look at this.  What is going on here?

This is not to say that life is not challenging.  Life is challenging.  People can and do experience extreme adversity, and there is no question that this can trigger enormous growth.

But extreme adversity in of itself does not always better people’s characters or make them more virtuous.  Sometimes all it does is lock people into a victim identity, a trauma identity, where they feel so brutalized by the cruelty of existence that they sink into despair and bitterness.

Struggle does not always make people virtuous.  Sometimes it just makes them physically and mentally ill.

Consider war veterans.  Prior to the wars of the later twentieth century, going to war as as soldier was generally considered ennobling, a sign of manly virtue — the struggle that would make a man out of you.  Now it is understood that in many cases it causes profound mental and physical illness, without necessarily ennobling anyone.

So just look at this.

Maybe struggle, in of itself, is not virtuous.  Maybe it would be healthy to stop associating struggle with virtue.

On a deeper level, maybe life itself is not a struggle.

Life is life.  Some days it is challenging, other days less so.  The penguins make through the winter, and frolic in the ocean during the summer.

Some days you are sick, others you are well.  Life has rhythms and tides.

But if you believe that life is a struggle, and struggle is virtuous — one thing is certain.

You will be creating struggle and drama in your life where it might not otherwise exist.

No penguin is capable of making life harder than it is at any given moment.  But humans make life harder for themselves all the time, because of their stories and beliefs.

So just look at this.

And if you can, begin to question the beliefs that “Life is a struggle,” and “Struggle is virtuous.”

This doesn’t mean you won’t face challenge and adversity.

But if you perceive it differently — that is everything.

 

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