Think with me a moment about a sad fact of life–together we can decide how to best to work around it:
The higher you fly, the farther there is to fall. Every uptick in luck is packaged with a potential downturn of equal magnitude. From cradle to grave sooner or later one has to relinquish every uplifting gain. Merce Cunningham cultivated flawless physical form, but did not get to keep it ’til the end. Beauties don’t get to keep their beauty. Geniuses don’t get to keep their wits. The higher your star rises in your youth, the greater the loss you experience as your star falls. If you buy a pet dog, it comes packaged with a pet dog’s death, and the more adorable the pet the more devastating the death. All windfalls and gifts are a devil’s bargain, bought at the expense of losing it later.
To deal with the downs that accompany life’s ups, we get philosophical. Got to take the good with the bad, the fleas (or death) with the dog. Adversity teaches wisdom. It’s how we learn compassion for the suffering of others and the cyclical nature of life. A life of constant uplift would be shallow.
Anyone who reads my columns knows I don’t shirk the philosophical approach. But none of us embrace it wholeheartedly. We prefer up to down by a lot.
For a moment then, let’s suspend that philosophical commitment to embracing the downturns. Let’s see if we can figure out how to beat the system.
If you could engineer a life’s fortunes how would you maximize the ups and minimize the downs? The trick would be to sustain the uplift as long as you can and shrink the downfall to an instant. Your life you would go from uplift to uplift either on a constant slope or with plateaus. Then you would be blessed by a sudden death. You would collapse all of your altitude loss into a fleeting moment so you don’t have to experience the dashed expectations, the grief, the confiscation.
The dream life goes from strength to greater strength, joy to greater joy and ends with a heart attack in your sleep. And the nightmare life is one in which you climb very very fast to very high heights of success and then slowly, heartbreakingly over the course of your long life you lose one thing after another.
My father who died of cancer said that with cancer, death approaches slowly from the front, and with heart attacks, death jumps you from behind. Designing a life’s fortune, this expectation factor is important too. The dream (though shallow) life would be lived without awareness of death–no idea that it’s coming or when.
According to legend, Buddha’s father tried to design this dream life for his son. It had been prophesied that Buddha would either be a great teacher or great king. His father wanted him to be a great king and tried to steer him clear of the kinds of downers that would make him suffer. Growing up, Buddha was kept ignorant about old age, disease and death. But curiosity got the better of him. He escaped the idyllic compound his father had built for him and witnessed all three. He then committed himself to the same exercise we’re engaged in here, trying to figure out how to minimize suffering.
He tried the existing approaches. One was hedonism. Since you’re going to die anyway, rev your highs to the skies while you can. Don’t avoid climbing to precarious heights. Don’t worry about falling. Let today’s pleasure be a substitute for tomorrow’s pleasure.
The hedonist’s dream is for today’s highs to stay high, but in reality they rarely do. We get jaded. The old highs down-calibrate to become the new ho-hums. We call this the happiness treadmill, the strong tendency to notice happiness only when it increases and therefore to try to increase it, like running to stay in place on a treadmill. That’s why heroin users increase their doses. It’s either that or let yourself level out to a maintenance dose, or pay off all the highs with the downer of recovery.
Buddha also tried asceticism. If every up you experience raises your standards and expectations and makes you vulnerable to a fall, simply avoid the ups. That way when its time to surrender life’s highs, you have very little to surrender.
Given the happiness treadmill, there are two versions of the ascetic life. One is to stay low and feel it as low. The other is to calibrate the lows so that the low actually feels high. Enjoy simple pleasures.
What Buddha settled upon is often interpreted as experiencing the uplift and downfall together, like mourning your old dog’s death the day you buy her as a young puppy. You hear it in a line like this:
“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai Buddhist master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
As with asceticism there are two versions. One is to average the ups and their accompanying downs so that you end up with level-headed contentment always. It’s like cultivating moderate jadedness.
The other version is captured in Achaan Chaa’s last line: “When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.” It’s like he enjoys the glass more–really gets high off on it, precisely because he knows it is eventually going down.
This brings me to a key concept from economics. It’s the difference between substitutes and complements. Substitutes are “instead of’s.” Complements are “also’s.” The economic textbook example of a substitute is consumption of hot dogs and hamburgers. The more hot dogs you consume, the less hamburgers. In contrast, hot dogs and hot dog buns are complements. The more hot dogs you consume the more hot dog buns you consume.
We can apply substitute and complement logic to the relationship between today’s happiness and tomorrow’s. Hedonists assume they’ll treat today’s ups as a substitute for tomorrow’s, and so they aim to really get high today so they won’t be disappointed tomorrow. Ascetics assume they’ll treat today’s ups as a complement for tomorrow’s. They aim low today so they won’t be disappointed tomorrow.
Achaan Chaa seems to be encouraging this kind of blended hedonistic asceticism. Like the hedonists you make today’s ups a substitute for tomorrow’s ups. But like the ascetics you expect tomorrow’s decline to be disappointing so you don’t allow yourself to get too high today. Don’t get high on heroin. Get high on a goblet, precisely because you expect it to break.
Expectation is what Buddha said is the source of suffering. Though at least in Achaan Chaa’s interpretation, expectation of what drives the whole philosophy. It’s precisely because he expected the goblet to break that he enjoys it.. Maybe what Buddha meant causes suffering is expectation of highs, not lows. After all, what drove him to his campaign in the first place? A sobering change in expectation about our fates when he witnessed aging, illness, and death.
I think Buddhism’s understanding of expectation’s role in human life tends to be too glib. Yes expecting too much causes suffering. But expecting too little does too. Expectation isn’t some tacked on human fallibility, it’s central to all human and indeed all living behavior. Everything from evolutionary adaptation to scientific reasoning is all about expectation, anticipating tomorrow, gaining predictive utility. The question isn’t whether to expect but what to expect.
A Buddhist will often say, it’s not exactly expectation really. Rather, it’s attachment to expectation that causes suffering. Attachment sounds like expecting your expectations to be met. Sorry, I don’t think eliminating expectations that your expectations will met is either possible nor the route to ending suffering. What, after all is an expectation if you don’t somehow expect it to be met? I mean what kind of sense does it make to say “I expect to keep improving my skills but it won’t happen.”
But in a way Buddhism has it right. It says expect the unexpected. That’s what’s known as a “liar’s paradox,” a statement that when applied to itself contradicts itself. The original liar’s paradox is the statement “I am lying,” but there are many moral principles that have the same structure. When you apply them to themselves they’re self-contradicting or hypocritical: Do NOT be negative. You SHOULDN’T be judgmental. COMMIT yourself to flexibility. BE INTOLERANT of intolerance.
If a moral principle can be stated as a liar’s paradox (the way these were) it’s not a moral principle, it’s a moral dilemma. Do NOT be negative, for example raises the dilemma about when to be negative. And EXPECT the unexpected works the same way. Short of having a father who protects you from all downers, the trick in life is expectation management, knowing when to expect and when not to expect.
I hope this didn’t bring you down. If it did, I suggest you go find yourself a goblet, and if you’re at all hedonically inclined maybe fill it with some red wine. I expect you’ll enjoy it. And I also expect that all of us will be managing expectations, cradle to grave.