My mother passed away in August four days short of her 70th birthday. When we lose something we love, it’s easy to feel bitter, resentful, cheated. It’s easy to feel that life is cruel, systematically robbing us of everything good until we are left with nothing. And while these feelings are understandable—forgivable even—they miss far more than they capture about the human condition.
Today, when I look around, I see a lot of bitterness in the world. I see anger at injustice and at poverty. I see resentment at promises unfulfilled. I see blame being directed at people belonging to different generations, the “wrong” political parties, and different ethnicities. Everyone seems so unhappy, convinced that the world is in decline, ruined by those who came before to cheat us out of our birthright through the malice of prejudice and greed. Of course, there is some legitimacy to all of these complaints, and indeed it can be hard not to buckle under the onslaught of bad news that seems forever to pour down on our heads from the doom-laden buckets of cable news and social media. But while there is good reason for pessimism, there is equally good reason for optimism and gratitude; yet those are two things that I don’t see very much of at all.
I can already hear you scoffing. “Gratitude? I’m supposed to be grateful to the politicians that start wars abroad and oppress their citizens at home, to the corporations that scar the land and exploit workers, to the baby boomers who created many of the problems we face today?”
No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Just hear me out.
Fifteen hundred years ago, a Roman statesman named Boethius (480–524 A.D.) was imprisoned by his enemies, and while in confinement he wrote a little book called The Consolation of Philosophy. While this book is not so widely known today, for centuries it was one of the most popular books in the world, and for good reason. In it, Boethius recounts an imaginary conversation between himself and the personification of Philosophy. He begins by lamenting the injustice of his fate, only to be consoled by Philosophy pointing out that, despite appearances, he really has nothing to complain about after all. Good fortune, she observes, is fickle by nature. Anyone who chooses to enjoy the gifts of Fortune does so in the knowledge that sooner or later, they will be taken away.
In other words, we should focus on the good times while they last, not obsess over the end which must inevitably come. All good things are fleeting. We know this, and so should not be disappointed when our allotted time runs out. A child who is lucky enough to vacation at Disney World may be sad when it is time to go home, but the fact that a joyful experience does not last forever does not make it any less joyful. Only a fool would prefer never to experience anything good in the apprehension that it will one day disappear.
The Consolation of Philosophy makes many compelling points, but for me the most powerful is that life is a gift to be cherished. It may be an imperfect gift, at times even a frustrating one, but it is a gift nevertheless; and if we accept it, we should do so with appropriate gratitude and humility. Maybe you can’t afford a new house or to go to college, but if you’re reading this, chances are you can afford food and some sort of a roof over your head. Maybe there’s too much pollution and too many trees are chopped down, but the fact that trees exist at all is a miracle.
The great illness of our age is a myopia that prevents us from gaining the proper perspective over our place in history, or in the larger world. For too many people, yesterday may as well not have existed, never mind last year or last century. The crushing poverty of the 19th-century peasant or the modern Ethiopian are too remote for them even to consider. The fact that it takes two incomes to support a family (at least in the style to which we have grown accustomed) seems reason enough to rebel against civilization itself as a failed enterprise.
Bitterness arises because our expectations in life, poorly calibrated by Instagram and the promises of politicians and professors, are not being met. But why should they be? The world does not owe us anything. Our simple state of existing does not confer any obligations on others to satisfy our every want. No one has been cheated out of any birthright because, to put in bluntly, we have no birthrights to begin with.
We might easily have perished before drawing our first breath, as so many millions have over the course of human history. But no, instead we have the astonishing good fortune to be alive in a time of endless miracles and opportunities.
We can learn anything we want with the touch of a button. Food is so plentiful that the greatest health crisis we face comes from having too much of it. Modern medicine has extended both the length and quality of life, as well as virtually eliminating infant mortality. It’s never been easier or cheaper to travel the globe, experiencing other cultures and the wonders of nature. And for the first time in history, it’s possible to earn enough money to live on by playing games or watching movies for the amusement of others, all from the comfort of your own air-conditioned home, complete with hot and cold running water whenever you want it.
I realize that all this is in danger of coming across a bit glib. “Lower your expectation, shut up, and be grateful” is hardly satisfying advice to anyone, and the problems of today are made no less real by the observation that there have been worse difficulties in the past. I’m not saying to ignore them or to give up on campaigning to make the world a better place. In fact, my point is the opposite. For it is only through a sense of optimism that we can actually improve things.
We have to believe that things can get better before we can work to make them so. The alternative is the sort of nihilistic misery that leads to riots, looting, and the desire to tear down entire social structures with little regard for what comes next. After all, if the world is in unavoidable decline, there’s little reason not to be as destructive as possible. That we find an antidote to this attitude is, I believe, imperative to the survival of our civilization.
To that end, I propose the following: remember Boethius. Dispute his tragic and unjust end—he was tortured and executed shortly after The Consolation of Philosophy was written—he understood that our existence is a gift.
Life, in some ways, is as frustrating and full of loss today as it was in his time, but if we can attack these challenges with gratitude rather than resentment, with awe, joy and laughter rather than pessimism and grief, with a broader perspective than our own solipsism, then we can not only survive, but flourish. We can work to build things up rather than tear them down.
That’s the way we’ll get through the hard times. That’s the way we’ll make a better world for the future.