At 21, I looked back on my teenage self and said: “I thought I knew something about life back then—what a young fool I really was!” At 27, I did the same in respect to my 21 year old self. And now that I am 33, I look back on my 20s and think I was just beginning to figure life out. No doubt that once I reach my 40s, I will reflect on my current stage in life and see similar ignorance.
It is illuminating and ironic that no matter how old we are, there is always a sense in which we are fools: future experience adds up to show us how little we really knew at any particular time. Meanwhile, wisdom is something which few people ever seem to possess. It is rarely attained before middle age, and few of us exhibit much of it even in old age. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau, still only in his late twenties, remarked how little his elders had to teach him, despite their superior life experience.
In our unreflective time, any thoughtful young person has all the more reason to feel the same. Indeed, today, human beings, flooded on all sides by gadgets of distraction, are not much inclined to learn from experience or consider life in general. It is as if we ram our heads against the wall again and again, unaware that it hurts to do so, unsure why we do so. There has never been less of an appreciation for wisdom in our culture, or fewer old people who actually have much to teach the young. Moreover, facile psychiatrists are on hand to provide us with quick fixes for the problems of life: by simply swallowing some pill or other, we can become numb enough to endure. These secular priests are also happy to play the common rhetorical game of reducing whatever problem we have to a “chemical imbalance” or defect in our environment or background. So that, instead of changing and taking responsibly for our lives, everyone gets a free pass and we can get back to watching American Idol and eating Cheetos.
In the past, it was much more common for people to learn from experience—the old functions of both religion and philosophy, at their best—and to deal with the problems of life by endeavoring to live a balanced life. After all, only this makes life happy, or at least worth living. It is of the utmost importance to learn from experience, and to do so early in life, for we all naturally set out in life full of unrealistic expectations. We have zealous notions of happiness and fulfillment. We think we will make a fine place for our self in the world. We think that if we treat others well, they will treat us well too. For human beings are fundamentally good, governed by a sense of fairness and working together to realize the common good.
These are, in fact, nothing but illusions—what we want to be the case, not what is so. The world is a vast fraud, ruled by self-interest and essentially corrupt, as history shows on every page. Human beings are deft knaves and dissemblers, and hence the wisdom of the maxim that though your friends may seem sincere, it is only your enemies who are always so. It is well to trust people only insofar as they are essential to your own well-being. And rather than giving them “the benefit of the doubt,” give yourself the benefit of prudent distrust. People are quick to criticize politics and politicians, yet they would not be so if they were more cognizant of what frauds people are in general, as they would then have more realistic expectations from the political domain.
To see just what a sham human relations are in general, consider the common experience of being done wrong by another human being. Of course, no one can get through life without having been harmed by others a great deal; like pain and death, it is unavoidable. Now I have no doubt that your experiences here have not been so different from my own. For the most part, I have found that few people are willing to take responsibility for having done me wrong. It is far more common and natural for them to simply rationalize things; in other words, to basically lie to me and themselves. And there seem to be two reasons for this. In the first place, many people really are so blind as to have no clue about how their behavior affects others. In the second, people will know, but ignore the knowledge, for the reason that it is painful to confront, and they’d rather avoid confronting this pain than adhere to any sense of duty they pretended to feel toward me. Of course, everybody pretends to be good and just, and to take morality very seriously, but most of us are mere self-interested pretenders. Unless they are forced to do otherwise, people will often take doing the right thing about as seriously as they take saying “nice to meet you,” that often hollow but yet necessary phrase.
You are lucky if while you are still relatively young, you develop a habit of reflecting on your experiences and looking critically at other people. Otherwise, your future holds a most disenchanting education in store for you: your expectations from life and other people will collide with reality, resulting in considerable anguish and suffering. Is it not this that makes many middle-aged people and many of the old distinctly bitter and gloomy?
It has been my own difficult yet ultimately good fortune to have acquired a fair amount of dark knowledge while still fairly young. When I was an undergraduate, for example, I thought I foresaw an excellent career ahead of me as an English professor. After all, I had always loved good books and reading, and had a certain facility with words, so the choice seemed fitting. But once I got to graduate school, I saw that success in academia required a lot more than intellectual merit: sucking up to and playing politics with odious half-men and resentful feminists was indispensable. So I gave up the academic life. Now I am a writer and kind of roustabout whose goal is to survive while having as little to do with society as possible.
The reason is that I learned a lot from my time in academia. Having reflected on that experience, and on what I have known of human beings in general, I no longer believe there is any context in human affairs that is not human-all-too-human, to borrow an apt term from Nietzsche. It is simply not enough in life to be good or even great at something and also a decent human being. You have to level yourself down and play the petty games of the obtuse and vulgar majority, carefully dancing like a clown around their envy, resentment and herd touchiness generally: an affair that will be intolerable to the extent that you are made of better stuff than most people. These herd games vary, of course, according to time and place, but they are always insincere, even as people remain all smiles and so very good and just on the surface.
Learning from experience comes down to making your expectations consistent with reality. So, for example, just as I learned that my hope of finding a fulfilling and distinguished career working with others was a sham, so I have learned that my former goal of finding a woman who was not only attractive, but also intelligent and kind, was just another chimera, to be left behind like the baseball cards and action figures of my childhood. Besides the fact that attractive women in America tend to be boring, stupid and morally repugnant, just as smart, interesting and kind women tend to be fat and ugly, there is this significant problem: that real love is a lot of hard work and compromise, while contemporary social conditioning could not be more adverse to this.
Every man, like every woman, has unseemly elements in his nature; yet modern women, chasing their illusions of perfection, will not hang in there with you once your human-all-too-human side emerges. And in short, today people want only the good parts of dating and romance. They seem to think we can have the good things without accepting other’s deep flaws and imperfections. This is perfectly in keeping with the nature of a society modeled on convenience. Now if, like me, you don’t subscribe to this delusion, then the best you can do is to limit your expectations from dating and romance. Aim to meet your biological need for sex while now and then coming upon that rare woman whose company you can enjoy. Beyond this, you are searching for a phantom.
While it is quite unwise to expect much from life, and least of all from your fellow human beings, the best lot for anyone is to get satisfaction from ongoing constructive work. This essay may not be good news, but the act of composing it has engaged my mind, and thus afforded the sort of small satisfaction that, taken together with other ones, makes my life worth living, or at least bearable.
Read More: A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing