As usual, I’ll start with a disclaimer: I really like the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and I agree with a great deal of what he says…At least I think I do. I’m willing to admit that my version of what he said may not actually be what he said. I recently took a 4 week class on his major work The World as Will and Representation and unfortunately, the class seemed to be full of people who were vastly smarter than me. They all seemed to be right on with the professor but I had no clue what was going on most of the time. When I initially read The World as Will and Representation and another of his books, Studies in Pessimism years ago, I got a great deal more from the prefaces of the books that were written by Schopenhauer scholars than I did the actual writings of Schopenhauer. I’ve watched dozens and dozens of YouTube videos on Schopenhauer and gained a great deal but when I do the readings on my own I find myself asking “Where does he actually say the thing that they said he said on YouTube?”
Despite my potential complete misunderstanding of Schopenhauerian thought, when I’ve regurgitated my version to clients, it seems to be helpful. (insert the shoulder shrug emoji here). Having said that, I’ll now summarize the Brandonian version of Arthur Schopenhauer’s ideas, maybe incorrectly and from the therapeutic frame of reference which they were likely never meant to have. Please go easy on me.
Schopenhauer – The world is terrible. Every part of it is suffering. You will never escape that suffering and the terribleness of existence is the natural order of things. When you are happy or content, it is simply a momentary respite which will soon end and deliver you right back into misery. Peace is only the time between war, happiness is just the time between sorrow. You should probably kill yourself. You’d really be better off.
Wow. That was harsh right? Especially that last one. I’m quite aware that mentioning the “S” word in a psychotherapy context is a huge no no but to that I’d say two things: 1. Lemme finish! 2. Don’t kill the messenger; Schopenhauer said it, not me (I think).
Let’s unpack this idea with a real life counseling example. Concerning the recent news around of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the supreme court, a client of mine had this to say: “I come to therapy. I actively try put into practice all the things I gain here. I take medication to help manage the things that are less in my control. I diet. I exercise. I practice good sleep hygiene. I have healthy boundaries in my relationships. But at the end of the day, some man, a thousand miles away, that I’ll never meet can arbitrarily make a decision about me that essentially renders my thoughts and feelings and my rights and power completely null and void. All he had to do was flip the switch and suddenly I no longer matter. Monday, I’m valid, Tuesday, completely invalid. What’s the point? Why even bother?
As this was a stable, high functioning, long standing client with whom I have good rapport and who has a solid support system, I chose to take a LARGE therapeutic risk and invoke some Schopenhauerian pessimism. To my client I first simply said “Yeah. You’re right. Everything you said is objectively true. You can work hard and accomplish amazing feats of mental and emotional health only to have the rug pulled out from under you when you least expect it. Your progress and your hard work, in the grander scheme mean nothing. You will suffer and toil day in and day out only to die and be completely forgotten, likely in just a few short years and certainly in a few decades. Your corpse will rot and the leftovers will be eaten by bugs and worms who’s poop will eventually be the stuff that dirt is made of. There’s a misconception that therapy is about making people happy; it’s not. Therapy is about learning to suffer and enjoy truth. The real truth is that the world is awful. And if you are to live truthfully you must accept that awfulness as the natural, unavoidable state of things.” Referencing Schopenhauer more directly, I then said, “You have choices here, choose to accept the awfulness of the world and seek meaning and reprieve in art and music and the things that you find satisfying and fulfilling and meaningful. Or you could just kill yourself. It doesn’t really matter either way.”
Her response (as I braced for impact) was astoundingly positive; “This is why I come to you. No other therapist is going to be that blunt an honest and tell it like it really is”. Not only did she agree with the idea, she even felt better hearing it as she was already leaning in that direction and just needed someone else to validate such a morbid line of thought.
There’s a strange thing that happens when you accept life on life’s terms; it gets better. Certainly not perfect and not even all or most of the time but overall, it becomes more bearable. You understand that that stuff sucks and you embrace the suck. You learn to see fate as a rascally trickster who’s always out to get you and when she does, you shake your head playfully and say “DARN IT! GOT ME AGAIN!! You ol devil you!” You accept what has happened, regroup, try again and maybe even get a bit of a chuckle out of the whole situation. Life still sucks but you learn to appreciate more the moments that aren’t terrible. You gain a greater appreciation for art, for music, for friendship, good food…all the things that we’ve come up with as humans to deal with the awful truth that life is awful. The world doesn’t suddenly change into a bright ray of sunshine filled with rainbows and unicorns. It remains bleak and dark and full of pain but you look at it and say “Meh, that’s fine.” If you use it correctly, says Schopenhauer, you also gain a greater compassion for others. You come to realize that it’s not only you that’s suffering, it’s every other living being that exists. They’re suffering right along with you and like you, they barely have any idea what to do about it and they’re doing the best they can.
So there you have it. Life is terrible and it always will be. Suffering is the natural state of existence but there’s a paradoxical workaround via pessimism that enables it to be just bearable enough to keep going. Give up on the idea that it will get better and go practice some healthy pessimism. Embrace the idea that it won’t get better and ironically, it just might get a little better.
Unrelated Book Recommendation: The World a Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer
I guess that’s not so unrelated huh? Seems silly to mention a book and have that book be the principal work of the author you’re also discussing and then NOT encourage you to read it! Get ready though; This book is as boring as it is important.
Unrelated song: Caulk – Mommy
This song comes from the album “Learn to Take”, which I had on a home dubbed, unmarked cassette tape that I got from my boss at Subway (Wow, what an old timey sentence!) Because it was unmarked, I didn’t even know who the band was until about 10 years ago when I randomly found them on the internet!
(YouTube only had the full album available so I guess check out the whole thing rather than just one song? It’s all really good!)