Had to share this almost too-good-to-be-true quote from Alain de Botton, in his introduction to The School of Life: An Emotional Education, p. 16-17:

The single greatest enemy of contemporary satisfaction may be the belief in human perfectibility. We have been driven to collective rage through the apparently generous yet in reality devastating idea that it might be within our natural remit to be completely and enduringly happy.

For thousands of years, we knew better. We might have been superstitious and credulous, but not without limit. All substantial endeavors — marriage, child-rearing, a career, politics — were understood to be sources of distinctive and elaborate misery. Buddhism described life itself as a vale of suffering; the Greeks insisted on the tragic structure of every human project; Christianity interpreted each of us as being marked by a divine curse.

First formulated by the philosopher St. Augustine in the closing days of the Roman Empire, “original sin” generously insisted that humanity was intrinsically, rather than accidentally, flawed. We suffer, feel lost and isolated, are racked with worry, miss our own talents, refuse love, lack empathy, obsess, and hate: These are not merely personal flaws, but constitute the essence of the human animal. We are broken creatures and have been since our expulsion from Eden, damned — to use the resonant Latin phrase — by peccatum originale [original sin]. Even without subscribing to the precise details of Augustine’s logic, we can appreciate his conclusion.

This should feel not like a punishing observation, but more like relief from the pressures of 200 years of scientifically mandated faith in the possibility of progress.

There can wisely be no “solutions,” no self-help, of a kind that removes problems altogether. What we can aim for, at best, is consolation — a word tellingly lacking in glamour. To believe in consolation means giving up on cures; it means accepting that life is a hospice rather than a hospital, but one we’d like to render as comfortable, as interesting, and as kind as possible.

A philosophy of consolation directs us to two important salves: understanding and companionship. Or grasping what our problem is, and knowing that we are not alone with it. Understanding does not magically remove the pain, but it has the power to reduce a range of secondary aggravations and fear. At least we know what is racking us and why. Our worst fears are held in check, and tears may be turned into bitter knowledge.

It helps immensely too to know that we are in company. Despite the upbeat tone of society in general, there is solace in the discovery that everyone else is, in private, of course as bewildered and regretful as we are. This is not Schadenfreude, simply profound relief that we are not the only ones.


Featured image via Suburban Fairytales