The absence of hardship is the hardship.
As 2020 slouches toward 2021, we’ll soon be inundated by pundits and journalists with tens of thousands of wasted words on worst year ever! and the meaning of it all, words typed by the very same pundits and journalists who’ve spent most of 2020 pumping up the fear, pushing the fear, addicting people to the fear, all in the mighty quest for clickbait advertising dollars so they can keep their jobs while the rest of us lose ours to the fear. That’s the meaning of it all. In the old times, we would have taken their pages and lined birdcages or wrapped greasy fish and chips in them, or even let our dogs shit on them as expressions of their true value and worth.
I’m a few days into the Apple News+ three-month holiday free trial and I can’t believe how uniform the media is, and how uniformly awful. Why would anyone willingly subject their eyeballs to this garbage, let alone pay for it? The thoughts of the thoughtless, the recycled talking points of the bureaucratic herd, the hagiographies of celebrities like saintly ikons, opinions from writers with the rhetorical skills of a four-year-old, bullshit financial advice for people without money, and of course the fear, the fear, keep pushing the fear.
Okay, so we can’t travel (full disclosure: I’m riding out the pandemic in Dubai), some of us can’t work (full disclosure: I retired this year. Yeah, great timing on my part), many of us are stuck at home, Californians are basically locked up by a megalomaniac slick haired villain right out of a Bond movie, and the government has finally discovered something it’s good at: taking away the rights of its citizens.
2020 has been a bad year, but the worst year ever? Hardly. Not even close. Only someone with the historical perspective of a New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, or Washington Post columnist could think that.
Nietzsche once pointed out that the absence of hardship is the hardship. We are a soft and complacent people, obese and overfed, glued to our screens watching TikTok videos, Zoom meetings, and playing Doom Eternal, our inner lives and inner strengths mush from a constant diet of the word and image virus, fast food, sugar, alcohol, and drugs, prescription and otherwise.
Let’s be honest: this was a society ripe for the takedown and many of us are simply tapping out because of zero takedown defense. If the biggest stressor in your life is the notifications on your phone, let’s just say you won’t be passing on anything useful for the evolutionary survival of the species. Not to mention you’ll be useless in the zombie apocalypse.
Social media has shown us exactly what a lack of hardship, real hardscrabble experience, results in. Imagine the historians of the future, if Twitter or the video of “Anaconda” is the only thing that survives our culture. Not exactly Aristotle and Sophocles. Or perhaps it’ll be just a few moldy surgical masks hidden in the dust of time, future humans wondering what the fuck…?
And the outrage! 2020 has been the year of outrage, what with the pandemic and the election, among other outrageous things the media shoved down our collective throats. Since that same media has infantilized culture, of course we shouldn’t expect an adult’s response to our problems.
Nietzsche may be my favorite philosopher, but he was also one of the shrewdest psychologists ever. Even better than Jordan Peterson (poor Jordan, like many academics, unable to apply his ideas to his own life). In The Joyous Science, Nietzsche’s 1882 masterpiece written after his recovery from a particularly bad illness, there’s a small section called “The Desire for Suffering.” If you’re wondering where all the woke bullshit came from (well, we know it came from brick-and-mortar academia, but I mean psychologically speaking), if you’re wondering where all the internet trolling comes from, if you’re wondering where all that outrage comes from, the answer isn’t in the New York Times, Teen Vogue, Vice or YouTube videos. Remember, this is from 1882, you know, like, before the internet.
Nietzsche points out that young people, “who can neither endure their boredom nor themselves,” having a desire to do something with their lives, must have a desire for suffering in order to motivate themselves to do something. “Hence the political demagoguery, hence the many false, imaginary, exaggerated ‘crises’ of every possible variety, and the blind willingness to believe in them.”
For Nietzsche, being young demands that unhappiness be something visible from without, so that the young, in their imaginations can make a dragon out of it so they might slay it, thus giving them purpose in life. And this was before “Game of Thrones.” If 2020 has given us anything, it’s given us dozens of imaginary dragons (not a bad name for a rock band) for the youngsters to slay. Nazis, fascists, transphobes, oh my! Slay those dragons, or at least get them canceled. Go forth mighty woke keyboard warriors of the world. The only thing you have to lose is your sanity.
The absence of hardship is the hardship. Nietzsche being Nietzsche, he not only diagnoses the disease, but presents us with the cure, all in a single paragraph. Take that, Paul Krugman. “If these youths with their addiction to hardship had the strength to do themselves some good, to draw upon their inner resources, they would also know how to create hardships of their very own,” instead of filling the world with outrage about their sense of hardship.
The young ones, he metaphorically points out, make a mural of other people’s unhappiness, because they’re always looking outside themselves, to others, they need others, always others, to distract from themselves and their lack of purpose. Like Wim Hof taking a cold shower and strolling through the snow naked, if they knew how to create their own hardships, perhaps, just perhaps, they would make murals of their accomplishments and happiness, instead of the unhappiness of others (and making the rest of us unhappy in the process).
As for 2021? I’m no Nietzsche, but here’s my advice: look inward, not outward. Stop staring at screens. Especially at the gym (if gyms are open in your state). Create your own struggles and hardships. Embrace discomfort. Take a cold shower. Stop consuming garbage in all its forms. Ignore the outrage and don’t add to it. Weakness signals a desire to submit to authority, any authority (and believe me, there’s plenty of people out there who want to play that role, Gavin Newsome). Build strength and stay strong. Strength is the desire to live by your own rules. Oh, and ignore the experts. Especially people like me.
Peace, brothers and sisters.