Let’s admit it: life is hard. Most people struggle to live a safe life, stay healthy and care for family members. On a larger scale, climate change is happening, Ukraine is under attack, authoritarianism is gaining ground around the world, and a pandemic has rocked society. How are we supposed to feel good about all of this?
Well, maybe you’re not feeling well. But you can still have a good life. That’s a central message of Life Is Hard, a new book by MIT Professor Kieran Setiya recently published by Riverhead Books. In it, Setiya promises no solutions to the problems of life itself. Instead, he develops an approach to grappling with them: recognizing our problems, reflecting on them, and committing to helping others can make things seem more manageable.
“A certain kind of realism about how hard life is can be grounding and empowering rather than despairing, and I want readers to take the book with them,” says Setiya, professor and chief of philosophy in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy .
Today, when even a Twitter session can leave us feeling overwhelmed, Setiya wants to instill in readers a sense of excitement and perhaps a renewed determination to make the world a better place.
“As crushing as the weight of doomsurfing and the perception of injustice in the world around us is,” Setiya says, “we are forced to strike a balance between trying to do something about injustice without our own difficulties as self-pity reject life.”
A certain recognition of reality
Setiya’s book consists of seven main chapters, each dealing with a different topic: pain, loneliness, grief, failure, injustice, absurdity and hope. (Setiya does not consider hope a problem per se, but suggests that we apply it critically.) These chapters form a moral arc that bends from the personal to the social: One way to take better care of yourself is to take care of yourself to take care of others.
Life Is Hard also emphasizes three overarching ideas. First, we should accept that there is adversity. As Setiya puts it, this is a “rejection of the pursuit of an ideal life and skepticism about the power of positive thinking to try to live your best life”. Striving for perfection usually turns out to be counterproductive.
“These aren’t just pop culture slogans,” says Setiya. “They have a long history, dating back to Aristotle and ancient Greek philosophy, which suggested that in order to guide our lives, we should begin with a template of the best life you can imagine. I think that’s a problematic approach to life because we almost always find ourselves in circumstances where we can’t achieve that. Some acknowledgment of reality is an essential first step in living our lives well.”
A second idea is that a state of happiness is not the same as a good life. We should not seek lasting bliss, but rather stay grounded as happiness comes and goes. As Setiya says, “How you feel is one thing. Whether you actually lead a good life is another.”
Setiya’s third guiding principle is that focusing too much on our own feelings undermines our efforts to live well; we should take care of others.
“Living in the world as it is isn’t just about treating yourself well, it’s about thinking about what you owe other people,” says Setiya. He adds, “One of the problems with self-help is that it’s — to put it bluntly — it’s kind of selfish. It’s a focus only on your own life.”
Pain without end – and how to deal with it
In Life Is Hard, Setiya explores philosophical and literary texts, finds life lessons in baseball, and delves into his own well-being. Setiya has suffered from chronic pelvic pain for 18 years, something no doctor has been able to treat. This has led to major sleep problems, among other things.
So: how to live when every day is a litany of pain? For one thing, the philosophical reflection helped Setiya understand the psychological burden of chronic pain, including the feeling that it will never end.
“When you think about why chronic pain is so bad, a lot of the difficulty lies in its temporal form, in the fact that it’s projected into the future and the past,” Setiya suggests. “If you just experienced a series of moments of self-contained pain, it wouldn’t be so bad. What makes it so difficult is the way the future seems obscured by pain and you don’t feel like your body is pain free.”
To deal with that, Setiya says, you should try to break that time span into smaller chunks.
“You can have a pretty great day while having some level of pain,” notes Setiya. “And all this just one day at a time. So if you can segment your life into one-day chunks, you can lessen the power of pain and the shadow it casts on the future.”
Furthermore, Setiya writes in the book, while discussing “moral theory” in philosophy, pain teaches us “about our relationship to others and their relationship to us. If anything of value has emerged from my experience of chronic pain, it is a presumed compassion for everyone else.” Essentially, don’t make the mistake of believing that other people are pain-free themselves.
“Maybe they have it much worse,” says Setiya. “They can’t tell what’s wrong with me, I can’t tell what’s wrong with them. Recognizing the invisibility of different types of suffering can open up the possibility for other people to experience all kinds of difficulties, perhaps not chronic pain, but loneliness or sadness or injustice. That’s part of the power of reflecting on life’s hardships to transform us ethically. There’s a lot more to living well than what my body is feeling right now.”
From the personal to the political
Beyond the pain, Setiya breaks conventional wisdom on issues such as personal failure. Too often, Setiya believes, we judge ourselves as success or failure and by a single metric like wealth or career status. This often happens when we view our lives as a coherent narrative – something Setiya deeply doubts.
“The idea is that we should tell our life to ourselves as a story in which we are the heroes, often a quest narrative in which a central project defines our life,” says Setiya. “I don’t think we have to live like that, and I don’t think we should. When you allow one central project to dictate your life, you can’t just succeed or fail or see yourself as a winner or a loser. You lose touch with the wide variety of things in your life, the small things you do, the attachments and connections you have with other people.” Hopefully our lives are too diverse to be summed up in one narrative.
“It’s really important to resist that idea,” Setiya says.
Meanwhile, Setiya works to deal with injustice of all kinds by being involved in society and standing up for others. Take climate change, Setiya’s main topic for civic engagement.
“The causes are collective and the solutions will be collective action, including at the local level,” says Setiya. “The thing is to find a group if, like me, you’re not a real leader.” A few years ago, Setiya founded Fossil Free MIT, a student group working to change the institute’s climate plans, and participated in its activities as a faculty member.
“A few hundred students could make a real difference in an institution that has a real impact on the world,” says Setiya. “Working with other people reduces anxiety, it’s actually calming to work with other people on these issues. So I think it’s a win-win to get involved. You may feel like you’re not doing enough, but that’s part of the field. No one feels they are doing enough, not even activists putting their lives on it.”
Similarly, he adds, every doomsurfing session about political trends like the threat to democracy means you spend more time being inactive, in a sense.
“You’re only cementing your own sense of powerlessness,” Setiya says. “It’s not that we should have any illusions about how much power each of us has. It’s just that we don’t have one, and whatever power we have, we don’t use it when we’re staring at the screen dazed and horrified. The horror is on something. It’s not a mistake to react with anger and deep concern and sadness when you’re watching the news, but getting lost down that particular rabbit hole isn’t the right way to react.”
Written for a general audience, Life Is Hard has received praise from many publications. “Attentive readers of this humane, intelligent book will walk away with a firmer understanding and better descriptions of what ails them or what they value,” says a recent review The economist.
For his part, Setiya adds something else for the readers. Trying to live a realistic, grounded, socially generous life is an ongoing effort, and it’s no more likely to be perfect than anything else we try.
“There are ways to connect those kinds of concerns and try to find a coherent path where you find a place for everyone in your life, with some kind of acceptance,” Setiya says. “You’ll probably never get it exactly right, and that’s okay too.”