It took 10 months for me to learn to tie a lace; I must have howled with rage and frustration. But one day I could tie my laces. That no one can take from you. I profoundly distrust the pedagogy of ease. – George Steiner
I’m on the third chapter of Alain de Botton’s The consolations of philosophy and this is about frustration.
The basic problem with life is that every once a while what we wish for is blocked by reality.
You really wanted that promotion, but someone else got it.
Or you wanted to get those tickets but they were sold out.
When this kind of stuff happens some people get angry.
It’s a natural response to being frustrated, they argue. If you don’t respond like that then you’re emotionally shut down – not in touch with your feelings – a robot.
de Botton draws on the Roman philosopher Seneca whose advice pretty much comes down to shit happens – so expect it to happen and then you won’t be surprised when it does happen.
Bad things can happen – in fact every bad thing that could happen to you could happen pretty much in the next minute.
So, prepare yourself and be ready for whatever might happen.
And then you won’t feel so bad?
Hmmm. Not sure about that last bit.
Seneca went through his share of troubles – he was exiled, brought back and finally ordered to kill himself by his former student, the Emperor Nero – and he did so – without falling apart.
The thing is, when you look at Seneca’s approach to dealing with frustration it really only applies to things that frustrate you – things that affect only you.
If you’re passed over, if you’re swindled out of a commission, if people use you and then discard you – then yes you can choose to be stoic and calm about it all.
But then there are times when you can be calm and very angry at the same time.
And those times are when, I suppose, you are in a situation where other people have absolute power over you and your family and your people.
The next chapter of de Botton’s book, which I think I will skip writing about, talks about what happened to the Native American population in the 1500s.
They were seen as non-human by the invading Spanish – and butchered and treated worse than animals – 70 million died out of a population of 80 million.
This might seem like a long time ago – but you have to then remember the history of slavery a few hundred years later.
And the guillotine and the inquisition were still there in the East in the last century.
Should the Indians and the slaves have just taken this stoically – accepted that bad things happen to them and their families and got on with living – or more often, dying?
How would you react?
But then, coming back to something approaching normality – you have frustrations that can be overcome – like building a bridge or inventing new things.
Being too stoic and accepting of everything might also mean that you never grow or learn or push yourself.
So, perhaps here’s a conclusion from the essay.
Most things are small things – don’t sweat the small stuff.
Many things can be overcome – don’t give up too soon.
But what’s not in the essay is when frustration should be absorbed and used and redirected.
Sometimes you should work to make change happen – and anger can drive you to do that – especially when things are unfair.
And sometimes you should go with the flow – accept reality and live the best you can.
As always – the approach you take depends on the situation you’re in.