Misery is a Virtue

“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”

Proverbs 31:6-7

    There’s this popular pseudo-Eastern philopsychical notion that the Way to Happiness is to lower your standards. In the East, this is called Letting Go Of Attachment/Desire or some such, and typically involves living naked in a cave and eating nettles and birdshit. In the West, we say “Be content with what you have”, or some such trite homily, and the idea is to shut up and tolerate whatever abuse and exploitation are imposed on you by bitch Fortune, your neighbors, or the government. You don’t get to live in a cave, though – that wouldn’t get any taxes paid.

    Think you should work hard to make a better life? Forget it, you’ll never be happy, don’t be so shallow. Rather get rich by inventing or creating something than stay poor slaving for someone else? Well, it’s okay to chase your dreams, provided your happiness isn’t riding on the outcome. Tired of struggling just to survive while working sixty hours a week and paying half your income in taxes, while sleazeball lawyers “work” six hours a week and pay lower taxes than you on their $400,000 a year incomes? Shut the fuck up and be content with what you have. Dying of cancer because you couldn’t afford routine screening, while some seventy year old whore gets her face lifted for the third time in a futile attempt to get her husband to quit staring at twenty year olds? Don’t worry, be happy.

    If watching the poor get poorer while the rich get more arrogant, seeing corporations steal with impunity and dodge taxes, watching judges scoff at the law while murderers are set free and honest citizens face draconian fines for the pettiest of infractions, being deprived of any meaningful political choice while one corrupt regime after another squanders the resources of the present and future – if these things should make you a little uneasy, there’s something wrong with you. You’re not unhappy because you’re getting the shaft and the world is going to hell, you’re unhappy because there’s a chemical “imbalance” in your brain. If your head was on straight, you’d be happy regardless of how badly you’re treated, and if not, you need to be drugged until you accept your lot in life.

    Way back when, Aldous Huxley anticipated much of modern culture. In his (then) futuristic novel “Brave New World”, he predicted a society where the populace is kept relaxed and docile by the ubiquitous ingestion of a drug called soma. Instead of just one such drug, we have a hatful of them – paxil, zoloft, valium, xanax, librium, prozac, welbutrin, elavil, ambien, the list goes on and on… if one doesn’t work, there’s always another one to try. We even have herbal tranquilizers for those who don’t want to pay for patent medicine, Ritalin for nonconforming children, marijuana for nonconformist adults, and much worse things for those who like a bit of adventure along with their escape.

    Our government is pleased to have as many citizens sedated and tranquilized as possible; they even spend our money to encourage any of us who might still be unhappy to get ourselves medicated, and to persuade us that Depression Is An Illness and it’s abnormal to be unhappy. Do the politicians really care if we’re unhappy? If they did, maybe they would stop screwing us over.

    The real function of antidespressants is to keep resentment under control. It’s okay for the public to be annoyed at the currently dominant political party, but if too many people feel miserable and hopeless under the two-party plutocracy, they might get out of hand and actually demand real change. That would never do.

    People who are not unhappy don’t go to protests or organize third parties. They don’t riot or arm themselves in militias and they don’t resist force with force. Would popular pressure have forced FDR to reform the labor laws if the unemployed had been sitting in their shacks being mellow instead of going to Socialist rallies and marching on Washington? Maybe not. Would the Vietnam War have been cut short without urban riots and unruly demonstrations? Not likely. Would the American colonists have revolted against George III if they’d had Prozac in the medicine cabinet to keep them calm? Hell no.

    Not that there’s any conspiracy. I have nothing against plausible conspiracy theories – there’s nothing in life more predictable than that people conspire – but any conspiracy that requires a large number of people with dubious integrity to keep a secret for a long time is bullshit. Actually it’s very unlikely that anyone in the drug companies or in the various government agencies that encourage drug use has ever given a moment’s thought to the sociopolitical implications of “treating” discontent with sedatives – they’re just trying to maximize profits and justify budgets, respectively. The system works because we, as a culture, have given up on the idea of taking responsibility for solving problems – both in our personal lives and in society in general.

    Most people just don’t see anything suspicious or inappropriate about using drugs to deal with unhappiness. They might wish that their personal circumstances would improve, but they see the task as too overwhelming, too risky, or just plain hopeless. This might very well be true; in a country with declining standards of living for most inhabitants and rapidly multiplying government restrictions, it can be quite difficult to get anywhere. Legal political action is worthless, the two-party plutocracy having long since become utterly nonresponsive to public needs. The only realistic recourse for the American people, as a whole, is armed revolt, but that’s a course of action for the angry and the desperate; it’s not a course of action for the drugged and placid. One must be unhappy to be inspired to struggle for change, and doubly unhappy to purposefully put one’s life in danger for it.

    Revolution, and all other kinds of progress, are driven by unhappiness. People who are satisfied with the status quo aren’t going to bust their nuts or go out on a limb to achieve anything better. Every invention, every business enterprise, every accumulation of capital, every reform in government and religion, every major human accomplishment, has been the work of people who weren’t happy with the labor they had to do, the amount of wealth they had, or the way they were being treated – and did something about it, instead of taking drugs to make them feel better.

    For the past three thousand years or so, the dominant religions of the Orient have advocated giving up the desire for improvement, as the best way to achieve happiness. This is not dissimilar to what tranquilizers do – give up the discontentment, the struggle for more, and accept whatever you’re stuck with. It is, in truth, a better way to be happy. It’s easier, quicker, more reliable, and more lasting. To actually change one’s circumstances is generally hard, patient work, and uncertain at best; moreover, most people do indeed find that when (if) they have gotten what they thought they wanted, they are not satisfied with it for long. One of the few people I’ve ever met who seemed genuinely happy was a homeless vagrant, who wandered the world free of all obligations. But that attitude doesn’t favor progress.

    While Easterners have (perhaps) lived and died in greater contentment, it’s restless, displeased Westerners that have built modern civilization – nearly all the innovations, in both technology and society, for the past two millennia have been Western. It was men unhappy with what they had, men driven to seek for more, who explored the globe, settled and cultivated the New World, harnessed the power of coal and steam, broke the ancient bonds of despotism and slavery, and, with all of our wars and exploitations and other missteps, created a world of miracles and abundance, where food, water, literacy, and even electric power can be taken for granted and premature death is the exception, not the rule.

    If we’re not happy with it, we should at least be thankful to all the generations of malcontents before us, who gave us our world, that we don’t have to live in theirs.

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