A while ago, somebody sent me a link to this article on Cracked that was something like “Five Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” I didn’t really care for it, and I’m not really sure how anybody looks at Alec Baldwin’s speech in the beginning of Glengarry, Glen Ross in its context and comes away thinking that the only reason you’d think his character was horrible was if you were a narcissist. He is literally arguing that you don’t matter unless you sell the most houses! That is an awful thing to believe, and also drives people to cheat Jonathon Pryce out of his life savings!
Anyway, those are actually five harsh truths that will make you an asshole. I have been meaning to write a response to it for a while, and I guess this is it. Five harsh truths that will ACTUALLY make you a better person, as opposed to a shitty, self-absorbed punk.
1. You Can’t Win
Imagine, for a minute, that you are a really good baseball player (maybe you actually are a really good baseball player, so maybe it’s easy for you to do that), and imagine that you want to prove to your best friend that you are the best baseball player — but your friend, he’s really good at rugby. So, what do you do? You can’t play baseball with him, because you know he’s not a baseball player, so beating him wouldn’t prove anything; and you can’t play rugby, because what does that have to do with baseball? Also you’d probably lose and be horribly injured, because rugby is a terrifying sport for maniacs.
So, now, imagine that you live in a world with six billion people, and each one is good at their own game, and all of those games are different. Congratulations! You are pretty much imagining the world the way it is. How are you going to beat all of these other people? You can try to make them play your game, but that wouldn’t prove anything; you can try to beat them at their game, but that also wouldn’t prove anything. It’s almost like there’s actually no point at all in trying to compete with other people, and that’s because there isn’t.
A lot of people are unhappy, and a lot of the time that’s because they’ve inherited the rules for somebody else’s game. You know, your parents try to teach you how to survive at life, but they teach you the rules to their games, not yours. And other people give you advice, but that’s advice that’s good for their games, not yours. Some of those rules are good, obviously, but not all of them, because every game is different; you got to spend a lot of time just throwing that kind of advice away.
And the other important thing to remember is that this metaphor is terrible, but it’s a terrible metaphor we make all the time. We talk about life like it’s a game, we talk about winning at it, we talk about competing at it, about failing and succeeding at it, but that’s nuts. Games are activities that we engage in where we try to achieve arbitrary victory conditions by subjecting ourselves to a bunch of made-up rules for no reason other than that it’s kind of entertaining. Importantly: that’s not what life is. Life is life! It’s not a game, or a battle, or any kind of competition. You can’t win at it, sorry.
The good news, though: you also can’t lose.
2. Nothing You Do Will Last
Sorry! I think this is something that everybody sort of knows about, but we don’t like to think about it, because it’s a huge bummer. But yeah, sorry, it pretty much doesn’t matter at all what you do. A tree is going to fall on your house, or your prize-winning sculpture will get lost at sea and land on the bottom of the ocean, or you’ll write a Nobel-prize winning novel and in a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years, no one’s even going to speak your language anymore. The floods will come and wash it away, or civilization will be destroyed by an asteroid.
It sounds depressing, I know, because you think to yourself “why should I even do it?” And that’s a good question. There’s probably a lot of stuff that you SHOULDN’T do, maybe a bunch of junk that isn’t really that important in the face of the imminent destruction of the world by fiery meteor. But there’s a lot of stuff that you should do because you like doing it.
Since the actual product doesn’t matter — because at the end of the day, it’s all pretty ephemeral — you can spend your time enjoying the process. Figure it this way: you’ve got to do something, right? And once you’ve finished painting the Mona Lisa (or whatever you’re painting), maybe it’s great, maybe it’s real nice to have…but you’ve still got to do something.
It may as well be something you enjoy, I think.
3. Nobody Gets What They Deserve
I don’t even know why anybody thinks this. Selective awareness, maybe. Look, for every smart, hard-working guy who gets rich by the sweat of his brow and the ingenuity of his brain, history has given us at least ten pompous, racist douchebags who kept slaves and kicked dogs and still died rich and happy. For every lazy punk that never went anywhere in life because he was a lazy punk, history has given us at least a hundred poor anonymous suckers who were diligent and kind and loved their families and they still died in filth and poverty. Mr. Rogers died from stomach cancer. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Antonin Scalia is probably going to live to be a million.
Now, maybe you’re Christian, and you believe in Heaven and Hell, and I think a lot of people take comfort in that idea, they’re comforted by the fact that since we know that when someone gets what they deserve on earth, it’s pretty much a lucky accident, it’s nice to think that after you die you go to exactly your correct place in an infinitely compassionate and wise and correct plan. SOMEONE passes judgment on you, and you get exactly what you deserve when that happens.
Which is fine, but if you do believe that, you’ve basically got to accept that people don’t get what they deserve here on earth. We wouldn’t need an eternal reward if we could rely on the temporal world to deal rewards out justly. And, importantly, since you and I aren’t infinitely wise and infinitely compassionate, we’ve got pretty much no idea what that plan is, or where anybody’s going to fit into it. So you and I, we can’t ever correctly say what someone deserves or doesn’t deserve, whether they got what was coming to them or not.
And if you don’t believe in Heaven and Hell, then I guess there just isn’t comfort in the idea that people get what’s coming to them, because look around! They don’t! Some people believe in “karma” — or, anyway, they believe in a thing that they call “karma” (I don’t think we in the West mean the same thing by it that it…means, specifically) — and they think that what goes around comes around, and if you do bad things then eventually you’ll suffer for it. Nope! I mean, MAYBE, but honestly, probably not. And even if there was such a thing as karma, I mean, how would we really KNOW what someone deserves? We barely understand ourselves, much less other people, much less the infinitely complex web of cause and effect that leads a person to take a particular action, and which might be important in terms of how we judge their desserts.
The thing about it is, the more you think about what people do and don’t deserve, the more frustrated you’re going to get when things seem like they aren’t fair. And the reason for that is that you and I, we don’t get to decide what people deserve; we can decide what we’ll do for them, or what we’ll do to them, and that’s the beginning and the end of our power over others. Bad actions ARE the bad consequence of bad actions. If you want to make the world a worse place, it’s pretty easy: just do bad things. It’s worse, good job! If you want it to be better, do good things. That’s what you have control over.
4. Nothing Will Make You Happy
We tend to think of the things that we don’t do on purpose as being things that happen TO us, rather than things that we DO. That’s why we talk about feelings like they’re states of being: “I AM happy,” “I AM sad,” et cetera. But happiness is a thing that’s happening in your brain, it’s a function that you body is performing, and that’s still you. Happiness isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something that you do to yourself.
And so, there’s no reason to wait to start doing it until you get a new iPod or a new job or a new wife, or whatever dumb thing that you want. You can start doing it right away! It can be tricky to start, because most of us spend our lives doing it accidentally, but we breathe accidentally, too, and you can definitely do that on purpose. Most of being happy involves chopping big problems up into small ones, dealing with the ones you can, letting go of the ones you can’t. A lot of it has to do with just noticing things that are pretty or interesting. A lot of it has to do with just being nice to people. It’s bonkers how much a cashier at the Wegmans will brighten up when you say, “Thank you very much,” like you really mean it. (I mean, figure they probably have got a pretty boring job, and see a lot of people who don’t like grocery shopping, but still, it can’t be THAT uncommon.)
A lot of unhappiness comes from wanting more than you’ve got (and a lot of wanting more than you’ve got comes from inheriting the rules of someone else’s game), and the two solutions to that are: 1) get more stuff (hard); 2) want less stuff (easy!). Anyway, feelings are just like anything you do in life: you get better at them the more you practice. If you practice being satisfied, you’ll get good at being satisfied. If you practice wanting a bunch of stuff that you haven’t got, you’ll get good at getting stuff, but you’ll also get good at wanting stuff.
No amount of stuff, no life change, no conversation that you wish you had with your dad, no chance to tell off your boss is going to make you happy. Liquor isn’t going to make you happy, sex isn’t going to make you happy, a half a million dollars’ worth of leather pants aren’t going to make you happy. You have to just sit down and do it yourself.
5. Some People Are Assholes
Most aren’t, though. Always look for the good; you’ll find it.