Why you can't upset me
On social expectations, desires, and insatiable wants
A.: She is elated. She has just been rewarded a scholarship at the university she applied for. Look at how happy she is. It is a joy to behold!
A.: I am glad she made it. It all started by going out to talk to the professor who was here with us a couple of months ago. All it takes is a bit of courage.
A.: And what about you?
B.: What? I always am reserved. No need to go over the top with showing that I too partake in the magic of the moment.
A.: No, I was saying that you are not making any progress in your academic qualifications. She is bright and deserves what she gets. And you, an indubitable genius, have remained stagnant.
B.: It is what it is.
A.: Which is not good enough…
B.: Your intention is sincere, though your goal is dubious. I presume this is because you associate success, in the sense of an accomplishment in social status, with happiness. You witness how excited she is and feel the need to push me in that direction so that I too can feel the same way about myself.
A.: Yes, I believe you deserve better.
B.: You also used the word “genius” to reinforce your claim. You think that a genius reaches their full potential when they are recognised for what they are. And you imply that recognition can only come in the form of a rubber stamp of approval by an institution of higher education.
A.: We are talking about the best of the best here. Joining that club is no small feat. It is only right for what you have to offer.
B.: Well, let’s ignore the business practices and the marketing around the “best of the best” and focus generally on social expectations. Last time I checked, higher education is a lucrative industry built on a kernel of genuine science. In essence, you are telling me that unless I get validation from my peers, I will remain a genius manqué; one which is lacking in some important ways.
[ Read: Notes on Science and Scientism (2021-04-28) ]
A.: What is the point of being exceptional at something, if no one gets to witness it and reward you for it?
B.: We need to distinguish between the fact itself and the set of intersubjective notions fastened upon it. If I draw a painting that happens to be a masterpiece in terms of colour combinations, the finesse and overall technique in the strokes of the brush, the message it conveys, etc., it will be that way courtesy of its intrinsic qualities, not due to how it appeals to others. And its inherent qualities will remain constant regardless of whether the number of its admirers is zero or a million. The value you have in mind is of an extrinsic nature, such as how the price of a commodity is contingent on the quantity demanded, among others.
A.: But what good does it make to be great at something within your private sphere? No consequence, no impact. Your daily life will not be affected at all and you will end up doing work that is below your skill level; work which will ultimately detract from your ability to accomplish what you care about.
B.: Here you are introducing another criterion or, rather, an ulterior motive. First we must establish that skill and the recognition of skill are distinct magnitudes. Then we can argue that the latter is, at least in part, a matter of shared beliefs, which are influenced by factors that do not strictly pertain to the particularities of the subject. Secondly, you assume that everything is based on merit, yet you already know that my colleague got her chance by liaising with the right person. Sure, it is not outright fraudulent because she has what it takes, but it is not perfectly objective either. And on the point of merit, how many are admitted to the most prestigious universities due to their family’s status, wealth, and connections? When I think about past and present prime ministers in Greece, who all graduated from the same university and who are the scions of highly influential quasi-dynasties, “genius” is not the concept that comes to mind—nor is it accurate in descriptive terms.
A.: You have to take your chances in an imperfect world. It is that simple. Last week we hosted professors from the Ivy League. We had lunch with them on several occasions and went out for after-work drinks. You did not join us once. Not once! You may not realise it now, but time flies and you will regret this one day. It is a pity to let such a golden opportunity slip by. You could have conversed with them to show them what you’ve got. How often do you get to be face-to-face with someone from their milieu?
B.: My decision reveals my preference: I did not see the point of going down that path.
[ Read: Why I never call you (2021-06-05) ]
A.: So you are destined to be unhappy by getting less than you deserve. You will not admit to it now, but you will remember those words in a few years.
B.: I don’t think that is the case. If your happiness stems from social validation, it is specious. The slightest doubt can trigger your well concealed insecurity, sending you into crisis mode as you constantly seek to cling on to your gains. It is an incessant struggle to preserve a role or title or office that grants you agency. This is the same for all types of extrinsic evaluation, such as people obsessing about their performance on social media, where they post something and, depending on the reactions, they may delete it. A curated self is a fraud. You can never be happy with what is external to you, be it accolades or commodities or favourable opinions, because you know deep inside that you are not in control of them and you understand that you may lose them at any moment. Such is not true happiness. It is slow and subtle torment even though it is not recognised as such because its intersubjective interpretation is not based on its longer-term reality but only on the immediate stimulus it furnishes.
A.: Oh come on! You get a free pass to study whatever you want and you do not have to pay for it. Then you are gifted the perfect job for someone like you and are set for life. Don’t turn this into a matter of principle.
B.: Why not consider the underlying mechanics? If joining a university and pursuing a career is supposed to make you happy, then we can extend that to other types of achievement, such as the number of “Internet points” people care about—their followers, upvotes, likes, how many admirers their heavily edited selfie attracted—whether people are envious of their brand new car, how favourably they compare to their neighbour, and so on. If I want to spend my time doing scholarly work, I do it because of an internal impulse to express myself in that way. But if I am pursuing it for an ulterior motive, such as to make money, become famous, make new so-called “friends” who are nothing but sycophants, then I am inevitably exchanging my sanity for the ordeal of feeding an insatiable beast: that of desiring more and of becoming dependent on the desire, with all its fleeting rewards.
A.: Why must you always be so stubborn? Can’t you concede that this is jeopardising your prospects?
B.: For something to be considered harmful, it is in relation to another magnitude that is perceived as benign. In our case, we have the set of assumptions that genius entails success, success begets recognition, recognition leads to bliss. Yet I claim that this is not a genuinely benign condition, despite the fact that it is assumed as much. Consequently, if I do not consider this beneficial to me, I cannot expect its future absence to be inherently detrimental either. Think about this for a moment: currently I do not have that which is supposed to be good, yet I doing fine without it. If, however, I were to expect it to be realised and if that expectation were not met, then I would definitely be disappointed. As such, it is not the lack of something that troubles you, but your misplaced evaluation of it manifesting as an unfulfilled yearning.
A.: I won’t argue with you. Fine. So expectations can be troublesome. What about getting a decent job? Won’t that give you the luxury of free time and disposable income to do whatever you truly want?
B.: I think not. If you set yourself up to live with the role of the esteemed professor, you assume the responsibility of acting accordingly. What if you don’t feel like it? What if I enjoy studying but distaste the academic administrivia with every fibber of my being? What if I like writing but loath the etiquette, pretentiousness, humbuggery of symposia and conferences? You cannot have it à la carte. You are not getting paid to do whatever you want. You are an operator, a cog in a machine. Again, this brings us back to peer pressure, social validation, expectations…
A.: Aren’t you overthinking it though? Why care about expectations? Why bother with what others think?
B.: Your own expectations and what others think are distinct. It is possible for what you believe to be endogenous and thus truly yours to be but an induced want, clearly exogenous in nature, so that your expectations are, in effect, a reflection of what your social environment upholds as the norm. That granted, if your well-being hinges on what others think, you are in a precarious condition by default; a condition that causes you anxiety, not happiness. If, on the other hand, we are talking about your expectations, we have to carefully consider what is it that you truly want.
A.: Let’s say you want to go to a good university to devote your life to the field of study you always aspired to explore.
B.: Is the university a prerequisite to the study?
A.: It helps a lot.
B.: I am not asking about its utility, but its putative necessity.
A.: A university sets you up for success. It provides you with the right environment to remain focused on your goal and to have access to all the means for its fulfilment.
B.: Sure, a university can focus your mind on the task of learning a discipline, but here we are inquiring on its necessity. Put differently, is it possible to pursue studies without joining an institute of higher learning? Can you do it on your own, provided you are motivated, disciplined, or whatnot?
A.: Yes, that is possible, albeit more challenging.
B.: So the university is not a dependency, after all. Yet we treat it as such. Why do we need it? Perhaps because we have already internalised certain value judgements, such as the prestige that comes with a certificate of higher education, which we associate with being well-off, intelligent, diligent, and the like. Then we perceive of this apparent comfort and affluence as clear signs of happiness or of the presence of contributing factors to that end.
A.: Fair enough. It is not a necessity. So what?
B.: We are back to the point of yearning for things that are external to us. If all we do is labour to sustain those false dependencies, we get distracted from what really matters, which is our actual wellness.
A.: It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can just get to the university but otherwise be yourself.
B.: You think that you can disaggregate expectations and that you can expose yourself to dependencies, make a part of your experience contingent on them, yet remain in control of everything even though it is decisively external to you. What would really help you recognise the problem here is to liken expectations to addictions—and I am not talking about the obvious ones like drugs, tobacco, alcohol. Those who ultimately consume sugar and salt in every meal and every drink cannot just go on a diet that involves unprocessed food: the threshold for their satisfaction is no longer the basic need of survival but a voracious appetite for ever-more stimulating tastes. Those who must start their day with a cup of coffee at all costs, simply cannot operate without it and will walk around like zombies if they do not get their dose. And we can extend that to other senses, such as vision and how design or interfaces or aesthetics try to become ever more flamboyant or self-serving. You will hear people berating something for being bland or “vanilla”, implying that the extravagant is the baseline of acceptability, just how the ordinary taste of vanilla can only be rendered palatable by wanton use of deleterious extras. Would you provide credence to someone’s claims that they are in control when they are clearly dependent on these otherwise mundane items? Why trust them when they say that it is only those that they are dependent on? If a mere cup of coffee determines you, then chances are high that you also are but an avatar in a role-playing game of social expectations or are prone to become one. My point here is that you think of the faux necessity of the university—and I am being schematic by insisting on the university, as this is a broader issue—as an isolated event or some decontextualised presence, when in truth it is part of an unbreakable bundle that includes so much more than the item itself.
A.: So happiness is basically a form of self-sufficiency?
B.: Before we tackle that issue, consider everything that can make you unhappy due to a fault of your own. You decided to introduce yourself to your crush by sending a text message for which you never got a reply. Now you are sad. What is the source of your unhappiness? The fact that you did not get an answer or that you expected to get an answer? Was your mind already preparing for that scenario and were you thinking about what to reply next?
A.: It probably is the expectation that was miscalculated, because it is normal for someone not to reply to a stranger who is trying to be intrusive.
B.: If you had not succumbed to the misplaced desire, you would not have suffered the consequences of being attached to it. The same applies to every other case where you allow a fake dependency to determine you. At some point you must reflect with honesty on how you react to events in the world and how your choices fill you with grief and anxiety. If you sense you are essentially swayed to behave in a certain fashion by false wants, it means that you are inflicting damage upon yourself. That will not change magically just by forcing your way through it with grit and determination. It will only compound the problem and lead you to your downfall.
A.: False desires can be damaging when they make you feel bad. But what if they invigorate you? Since you brought up food, is not a chocolate delicious?
B.: Taste is like a habit. It can be learnt and can be adapted and retrained to a large degree. To someone who has been purified from the junk of the modern world, a snack that is typically considered tasty is anything but. In your example, most people will think of chocolate as enjoyable in the moment. But why is chocolate so harmful for you in reality? Because (i) it is not a true dependency in your life and (ii) it makes you yearn for more of it. The two combined suggest that what masquerades as a short-term satisfaction results in longer-term dissatisfaction because of the powerful pull of the desire it engenders. The same goes for the instant gratification of getting upvotes on the item you just posted online: the morning after—if not the very next hour—you want more of it and so you must post again to get your dose and each time attempt to embellish your publication a bit more to keep people engaged, or share what they want to see, at the times they want it, and so on. When you target an audience, you create a role-playing game and you make yourself dependent on the agency of the role you are assuming. Same for when you behave in a manner that is mimetic or otherwise hypocritical, so that you may gain the approval of your peers. Whatever the specifics, you are being forced to fill up a bottomless pit. It is futile. The fact that something feels gratifying initially, be it food, Internet points, opinions, certificates that adorn your office’s wall etc., does not mean that it is good to turn it into a dependency of yours.
A.: What, then, is happiness? What must we acquire?
B.: If you think of happiness as an acquisition, as some measurable quantity, perhaps a commodity you may purchase, then you fall into the trap I have just outlined. What we describe as happiness may be understood as a negative space, in that we can discern it without “it” being there. Happiness is the absence of false dependencies, which hinges on the realisation that willingly becoming determined by something external to you is an endless task. As an aside, this is how I also think of the truth, as a negative concept which derives from the absence of falsehoods or, at least, the justified and justifiable under the circumstances belief in their absence.
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A.: How do you know the difference between a true and a fake dependency?
B.: Some cases are straightforward. Food is a true dependency, though delicious tastes are not. Where things get tricky is on matters of ideas, such as with expectations. It is not always clear where the demarcation line should be drawn. Such is the purpose of leading a philosophical life. You adopt an inquisitive and dubitative disposition which helps you remain dispassionate about the beliefs you hold; beliefs that function, for all intents and purposes, as your most cherished possessions as you value having them. The intellectual is inclined to become attached to their works, their theories, their sense of certainty; an ersatz certitude whose power is drawn from intersubjective validation. To become dispassionate, to no longer be moved by changes in the status of those items, you must accept impermanence, which is another way of saying that you have to embrace uncertainty, including the possibility that this is wrong. When the loss of certainty no longer phases you, you have mastered the art of ataraxia, else tranquillity or non-disturbance, as you are not shocked, unsettled, disappointed by the alteration in the qualities of a magnitude that was perceived as permanent.
A.: So you are tying happiness to epistemology?
B.: Our discussion could be summarised as training yourself to become skilled at discerning the differences between reality and fantasy. If you think you must absolutely join the university as a prerequisite for studying, then you are conflating expectations, an imaginary world, with the actuality of things where it is entirely possible to study on your own. The same distinction should be made when differentiating between expressing your self with honesty and merely trying to fit in so as to accommodate some social demand. The former is real, the latter is fake. As already noted, I am being schematic here and do not mean to imply some simplistic, binary view of the world, though I hope you are following what I am saying.
A.: All clear. So unless someone becomes a philosopher, they cannot be happy?
B.: No. A philosophical lifestyle and being a philosopher are not identical, especially not for those who hold certificates qua philosophers and who help maintain the imaginary worlds I alluded to earlier. What you need is to change your attitude, your disposition towards knowledge, learning, behaving. Everyone can be dubitative, inquisitive, dialectical. It takes time and effort to become good at it, which is true for everything that requires skill.
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A.: So easy it takes a genius to understanding it!
B.: Even if true, it does not matter. Whether you learn it on your own or through someone else, you are perfectly capable of practising some basic techniques such as not insisting that your opinion is the one and only truth, not passing judgement on someone whom you do not know or for circumstances you are not aware of, not boarding the latest hype train, not consuming or accumulating stuff like a maniac. You get the idea. On your insistence about using the term “genius”, I challenge you to search how that is depicted in mainstream culture and whether it has anything to do with what I am asking here. All I want for myself is to be closer to my natural condition, to remain aloof like a dog, not be celebrated as some tragic figure, a great yet embattled mind.
A.: I understand now that you are not being stubborn and have good reasons to behave the way you do. Though I can’t help but feel angry for the missed opportunity. With this attitude, you will end up in the middle of nowhere and no one will think highly of you.
B.: Don’t worry, you are facing your unmet expectations. Being sceptical, not making bold assumptions, and not jumping into early conclusions can also help you deal with anger management. You will be more relaxed once you learn to let go. As for what others may think, that is their problem, not mine.
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A.: This is why you are always so composed. Do you ever get upset?
B.: In a profound sense? No. I try to remain detached. Though I can sense pressure and feel bad about it, such as when I am asked to behave like the persona of genius, or when I am expected to join someone’s birthday party and act all happy and cheerful, or when relatives inquire about my age in light of my relationship status. Ultimately though, even those do not phase me because I understand that they are the outcome of misplaced evaluations and I also am aware that I cannot control them. So why bother?
A.: Tell me more about impermanence. Is this basically a fancy word to talk about death?
B.: Death literally but also figuratively as signifying the end of a state of affairs. Think about your friends from high school. They are all alive, but the particular relationship you had back then and everything it made possible is no longer there and your experience cannot be re-enacted. Will you dwell on the fact that life moves on and what once was has since ceased to be? Will you insist on living in memories that have no correspondence to your current condition? Ours is a world of phenomenal differentiation. Things come and go. They grow and evolve until they wither away. What is constant in our life is how we cope with impermanence and how we may recognise it for what it is so that we can remain anchored in the present, in the temporal sense but also as that which has presence.
A.: Let’s say I want to follow your example, but wish to get up to speed fairly quickly. What do you think about getting some help, such as by taking the acid?
B.: I am suspicious of anything that promises to offer a shortcut to expertise and a direct conduit to wisdom. If you really want to achieve results, you start by assessing the requirements of the task at hand and then commit to it in earnest. You cannot have the fruit without the tree. To your question though, I have not tried it and have no experience with anything like it. In practical terms, if it can help you get started, such as by disentangling the falsehoods that prevent you from making the first step into a new world, then it may be worth it. This is only about getting started though. You will still need to put some serious effort into it to outgrow your initial condition. If, in other words, you always require psychedelics to reach a certain mental state you have effectively created yet another dependency.
A.: Can I tell my Ivy League friends about what transpired here? Inform them about the substantive part but also let them know you are the one who told me about it?
B.: That is your prerogative. I have no strong opinion on it, nor will I worry about it. It lies outside my control.
A.: Would you like to talk with them directly? I might forget some important detail.
B.: I can do that—it was never the issue. Whether they would listen is not my concern. I do not want to persuade anyone because I cannot determine with certainty that my claims are true. What if I’m wrong? All I want from you and your friends is to entertain the possibility that not everyone wants to be saved, moulded into someone else, refashioned, instrumentalised, and unleashed upon the unsuspecting crowds. Learn to let go. Let me be.