If we accept that most of life is suffering and we are goal seeking entities, then inquiries naturally follow about what sorts of goals and activities let us avoid boredom and suffering while experiencing joy. A recent conversation and extensive bout of reading has driven me to explore these questions in more deeply than I have previously. Below is my attempt to develop answers in which I will find recourse to extensive quotes from my most recent reading.
In The Reasons of Love, Harry G. Frankfurt describes boredom and its connection to goals and joy in the most beautiful manner I’ve seen to date. He paints boredom as not just an uncomfortable state of being, but as essentially an attack on our vitality and the death of our self:
It is an interesting question why a life in which activity is locally purposeful but nonetheless fundamentally aimless— having an immediate goal but no final end— should be considered undesirable. What would necessarily be so terrible about a life that is empty of meaning in this sense? The answer is, I think, that without final ends we would find nothing truly important either as an end or as a means. The importance to us of everything would depend upon the importance to us of something else. We would not really care about anything unequivocally and without conditions.
Naturally, if we understand accept Frankfurt’s description of boredom, we would want to figure out a way to prevent it and at the same time find a method for selecting a non-local goal (i.e. a final end). Thankfully, he doesn’t make us wait long, as he immediately turns to answering this question:
There must be certain things that we value and that we pursue for their own sakes. Now it is easy enough to understand how something comes to possess instrumental value. That is just a matter of its being causally efficacious in contributing to the fulfillment of a certain goal. But how is it that things may come to have for us a terminal value that is independent of their usefulness for pursuing further goals? In what acceptable way can our need for final ends be met?
This too makes a lot of sense, but we should investigate what Frankfurt means by love and the use he applies to it here. He does this most brilliantly in a separate work discussing the value of truth.
Love and Joy
In On Truth, which looks at the nature of truth and why we as humans should value it, Frankfurt finds it useful to build on the work of Spinoza, one of the first humanist philosophers in spirit:
Spinoza explained the nature of love as follows: “Love is nothing but Joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause” (Ethics, part III, proposition 13, scholium). As for the meaning of “joy,” he stipulated that it is “what follows that passion by which the…[individual] passes to a greater perfection” (Ethics, part III, proposition 11, scholium).
The above account is perhaps the single best explanation of joy and love that I have come across. I have added emphasis to three points above because the first two resonate deeply with me, but the third point on “necessarily striving to have present and preserve” does not. In fact, this having orientation to life in which we feel possessive towards the things that bring us joy is described in great depth by Erich Fromm in his landmark work, To Have or To Be, as one of the prominent causes of suffering in our world due to the fear and insecurity that it engenders.
By attaching our self to the things we have or can possess, such as Spinoza (Frankfurt) describes above, we live with the fear of losing those possessions and with them our identity and sense of self. Fromm describes this magnificently below where he contrasts the having mode of existence with the being mode:
If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I? Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living. Because I can lose what I have, I am necessarily constantly worried that I shall lose what I have. I am afraid of thieves, of economic changes, of revolutions, of sickness, of death, and I am afraid of love, of freedom, of growth, of change, of the unknown. Thus I am continuously worried, suffering from a chronic hypochondriasis, with regard not only to loss of health but to any other loss of what I have; I become defensive, hard, suspicious, lonely, driven by the need to have more in order to be better protected. Ibsen has given a beautiful description of this self-centered person in his Peer Gynt. The hero is filled only with himself; in his extreme egoism he believes that he is himself, because he is a “bundle of desires.” At the end of his life he recognizes that because of his property-structured existence, he has failed to be himself, that he is like an onion without a kernel, an unfinished man, who never was himself.
Earlier in To Have or To Be, Fromm does take the time to explain with a few examples just what types of activity might be included in “expressing our essential powers”.
It is easy to notice that all of the powers below “grow by practice” as Fromm describes above and so it is not difficult to use them as guideposts for other activities that are not included. The critical difference between activities that are classified as having or being modes of existence is the resultant “awareness of a more vigorously expansive ability to become and to continue as what we most truly are. Thus, feeling more fully ourselves. We feel more fully alive,” as Frankfurt described with reference to Spinoza above.
Fromm uses the Shabbat and Hebrew prophets as examples:
On the Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one’s essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing, making love (emphasis added). The Shabbat is a day of joy because on that day one is fully oneself. (p. 51)
The point with the Shabbat as described here is not that people have nothing, but that “one lives as if one has nothing”. These experiences cannot be taken from us because they are not “possessions” which we can be deprived of. Fromm continues on to describe the manner in which “being” was taken up after the loss of “everything the Jews had”:
The real successors to the Hebrew prophets were the great scholars, the rabbis, and none more clearly so than the founder of the Diaspora: Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakai. When the leaders of the war against the Romans (A.D. 70) had decided that it was better for all to die than to be defeated and lose their state, Rabbi Sakai committed “treason.” He secretly left Jerusalem, surrendered to the Roman general, and asked permission to found a Jewish university. This was the beginning of a rich Jewish tradition and, at the same time, of the loss of everything the Jews had had: their state, their temple, their priestly and military bureaucracy, their sacrificial animals, and their rituals. All were lost and they were left (as a group) with nothing except the ideal of being: knowing, learning, thinking, and hoping for the Messiah (emphasis added). (p. 53)
Moreover, Fromm later describes exactly what does differentiate pleasure from joy as he understands it, relying on none other than the same person Frankfurt did earlier - Spinoza:
Yet the distinction between joy and pleasure is crucial, particularly so in reference to the distinction between the being and the having modes. It is not easy to appreciate the difference, since we live in a world of “joyless pleasures.”
The only thing then left to consider is the “goal of becoming ourselves” and the “model of human nature we have set before us”. I believe this is best taken up by Nel Noddings’ in her work Caring, which lays out an ethical ideal predicated on just the type of loved described above by Frankfurt from which interest, joy, and our truest selves can spring forth.
The Ethical Ideal and Self
What is this “ethical ideal” I have referred to? When I reflect on the way I am in genuine caring relationships and caring situations— the natural quality of my engrossment, the shift of my energies toward the other and his projects— I form a picture of myself. This picture is incomplete so long as I see myself only as the one-caring. But as I reflect also on the way I am as cared-for, I see clearly my own longing to be received, understood, and accepted. There are cases in which I am not received, and many in which I fail to receive the other, but a picture of goodness begins to form. I see that when I am as I need the other to be toward me, I am the way I want to be— that is, I am closest to goodness when I accept and affirm the internal “I must.” Now it is certainly true that the “I must” can be rejected and, of course, it can grow quieter under the stress of living. I can talk myself out of the “I must,” detach myself from feeling and try to think my way to an ethical life. But this is just what I must not do if I value my ethical self.
By now we can see a somewhat hazy picture breaking through. In order to preserve the self and not allow boredom to destroy us, we must cultivate final ends. These final ends are found in love resulting from joy, which is “what we experience in the process of growing nearer to the goal of becoming ourselves”. This calls for us not to pursue pleasure and possession, but to make choices that favor relations of caring, our “basic reality”.
In the pursuit of caring relations, we necessarily develop obligations to those we care for. Noddings does an equally marvelous job of elucidating how these obligations arise and where the boundaries ought to be formed:
Now, this is very important, and we should try to say clearly what governs our obligation. On the basis of what has been developed so far, there seem to be two criteria: the existence of or potential for present relation, and the dynamic potential for growth in relation, including the potential for increased reciprocity and, perhaps, mutuality. The first criterion establishes an absolute obligation and the second serves to put our obligations into an order of priority.
What these two criteria clearly outline is a method for how and when to enter more deeply into caring relations - the ultimate source of joy, love, and growth of our truest selves. This is important because we are otherwise left to the tragic logic of utilitarianism with its impartiality and concern for all. That path quickly and dangerously leads us to become “happiness pumps” for all other sentient creatures in which we can quickly become depressed due to our helplessness: the belief that suffering personal, permanent, and pervasive.
Instead, we can engage actively with others on the basis of their presence in our lives in the here and now and the “dynamic potential for growth in relation, including the potential for increased reciprocity and, perhaps, mutuality”.
This valuing of caring as the preeminent method to achieving “self-actualization”, the highest form of “being” as Maslow put it, must always be done by keeping in “in mind, however, that the second criterion [of caring] binds us in proportion to the probability of increased response and to the imminence of that response,” as Noddings writes above. This is seconded quite clearly in another of Fromm’s passages from To Have or To Be:
The most relevant example for enjoyment without the craving to have what one enjoys may be found in interpersonal relations. A man and a woman may enjoy each other on many grounds; each may like the other’s attitudes, tastes, ideas, temperament, or whole personality. Yet only in those who must have what they like will this mutual enjoyment habitually result in the desire for sexual possession. For those in a dominant mode of being, the other person is enjoyable, and even erotically attractive, but she or he does not have to be “plucked,” to speak in terms of Tennyson’s poem [about a beautiful flower], in order to be enjoyed.
So while interpersonal relations are the source of our love, interest, joy, caring, and ultimately our final ends, we must be constantly vigilant as to not turn them into our greatest sources of misery as well. Striving to have others and possess those we love is not love at all, merely an appearance of it.
The above passage does give a quiet hint as to why people might pursue possessive having love over true, meaningful, being love. That is fear. However, whereas Fromm posits that fear of losing our “possessions” drives us to fortify our positions by gaining ever more and thereby driving competition and antagonism, fear also drives us to avoid being.
In order to be, we must “unmask” ourselves in front of others and allow them to see us as we really are. “This concept of being as ‘unmasking,’ as is expressed by Eckhart, is central in Spinoza’s and Marx’s thought and is the fundamental discovery of Freud” (p. 97). This unmasking requires “daring greatly” as Brene Brown has written about extensively.
Daring greatly can be threatening because we expose ourselves and open our inner worlds to others who are able to judge us, accept us, or reject us and possibly trample on our vulnerability. In seizing this mode of being, Noddings explains:
One under the guidance of an ethic of caring is tempted to retreat to a manageable world. Her public life is limited by her insistence upon meeting the other as one-caring. So long as this is possible, she may reach outward and enlarge her circles of caring. When this reaching out destroys or drastically reduces her actual caring, she retreats and renews her contact with those who address her. If the retreat becomes a flight, an avoidance of the call to care, her ethical ideal is diminished. Similarly, if the retreat is away from human beings and toward other objects of caring— ideas, animals, humanity-at-large, God— her ethical ideal is virtually shattered. This is not a judgment, for we can understand and sympathize with one who makes such a choice. It is more in the nature of a perception: we see clearly what has been lost in the choice. (p. 89-90)
And while the ethical ideal may be “shattered” and we may “see clearly what is lost”, Fromm assures us that:
The only threat to our security in being lies in ourselves: in lack of faith in life and in my productive powers; in regressive tendencies; in inner laziness and in the willingness to have others take over my life. But these dangers are not inherent in being, as the danger of losing is inherent in having. (p. 109-110)
Conclusion: Making the Change
Much of modern society is a never ending roller coaster of boredom, excitement, pleasure, and fear as discussed in depth above. None of these states and experiences need be innate to our existence. We can choose a radically different mode of living and being. We can choose to pursue activities that enlarge our capacities and inner powers towards “a greater perfection”, that form deeper, caring connections to others, that result in joy and love and ultimately a sense of vitality and exhilaration.
Ultimately, everything above requires a change of character. This change in character is possible. Not only is it the premise of the entire modern day field of positive psychology that character change is possible, but Fromm outlined the path to personal change quite perfectly over 40 years ago in 1976, when he drew on the Four Noble Truths from Buddhism, Marx, and Freud to write the following in To Have or To Be:
I suggest that human character can change if these conditions exist:
In following the above four step process of becoming a new person, Fromm held that the following qualities would be exhibited:
Any world in which the above qualities make up the majority of individuals’ beliefs and values is a world that would be radically different than our current reality. We desperately need this positive change. The above has been an outline focused on providing direction for change based on some of the brightest minds and their findings over the past century. So stop chasing the excitement and pleasure that ultimately leads to boredom and contraction of the self and instead choose to pursue joy and the ever enlargement of your capacity to be more fully human.