Facing the Fickleness of Life

Coming to terms with the absence of intrinsic positive or negative meanings can be cathartic.

Dorra Laajimi
May 16, 2022
2 min read

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same."

“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” said grief-stricken Macbeth shortly after learning about his wife’s death. Time and again, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, affected by trials and tribulations, apprehend the arbitrariness of life and voice it in their soliloquies. Great affliction opens their eyes to the nature of existence and imbues them with skepticism. We learn from them how to take whatever befalls us with a grain of salt. Vicissitudes should not bring us down nor should victories get to our heads. Indeed, we should “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”

Coming to terms with the absence of intrinsic positive or negative meanings can be cathartic. Most people tend to go to extreme lengths to seek pleasure and stave off suffering while seeming to be oblivious of the idea that neither is inherently and undilutedly good or bad. Nothing has a predetermined and fixed value. It is rather we who confer our own meanings on experiences and can choose to treat them as debilitating or uplifting.  An occurrence is nothing other than what we make of it. This is redolent of the existentialist premise that “existence precedes essence”. We are catapulted into the world and saddled with the responsibility of creating our lots. In the words of the prophet of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, “life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.”

Over the course of our lives, we can manage to procure some joy and overcome adversity from time to time, but none of that is guaranteed and most things are actually out of our control. Hence, we should accept that life is absurd and our pursuits predominantly insignificant. We try to stay in charge while triumph and disaster take turns unremittingly. Professor of philosophy David Benatar argues that “we take ourselves very seriously” and “that there seems something futile about our endless strivings, which are not altogether different from a hamster on its wheel.” The futility of our efforts extends to their outcomes.

When we adopt this frame of mind, we grow to see success and failure as impermanent. We are always trying and we are always achieving small victories. In a similar vein, we never fall short of disappointing ourselves one way or the other. In Benatar’s words “much of our lives are filled with recurring activities” and “even if these mundane activities are thought to serve other goals, the attainment of those goals only yields further goals to be pursued.” Thus, we should come to terms with the fact that change is constant but its aftermath and the feelings it engenders fade away. Triumph should not delude us into thinking that we are in charge nor should defeat make us think that we have lost control.

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