On Pain, Understanding, and The Illusion of Happiness

On Pain, Understanding, and The Illusion of Happiness

“A splendid fable…To believe that our lives are for the moment a simple sketch that will soon turn into something more intense…As if a prehistory composed of trivialities were supposed to be followed by a transfiguration, a definitive farewell to all human miseries.”

-Pascal Bruckner, Perpetual Euphoria

It seems that our culture is particularly obsessed with the dissemination of an idea of happiness, while not ever attempting to define what is meant by it.  Dating websites promise to help singles find it through a blissful life with a significant other, while a few prominent Christian personalities say it can be obtained through a theology of prosperity.  The unspoken promise of these messages is that happiness is an earthly phenomenon, and that it is accessible to everyone.  All that one must do to acquire it is to follow a prescribed path.

There are problems with this, however.  Immense material wealth has not been enough to stop the depression of countless celebrities.  In fact, there seems to be a positive correlation between the prosperity of a state and its suicide rate.  The pursuit of romantic love, – the idea of which Simon May has called “the ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment” – has likely left many times more people broken than it has fulfilled.  Maugham was right when he referred to these lost illusions as nails driven into our bodies upon the cross of life.

To understand better why these philosophies have failed to deliver on their promises, we must acknowledge that the notion of earthly happiness is a modern one.  Happiness, as we imagine it, was probably inconceivable – if not laughable – to our ancestors, whose short and difficult lives were primarily occupied with the necessities of survival.  However, over the last couple centuries, as technology improved living standards, and Enlightenment mentality took hold, the idea of a life without pain, without suffering, and without physical and psychological traumas was born.  As David Durst has written1:

“Philosophers prescribed the abolition of torture and slavery, doctors discovered vaccinations and the benefits of narcosis, psychologists sought to liberate the individual from the inner sufferings of mental disease, and politicians introduced systems of public insurance and welfare for the old, young, and unemployed.”

Yet, while our lives have become cleaner, safer, and more convenient, we are perhaps less happy than our exhausted and miserable ancestors.

The reason for this is that we have been deceived, not by advances in science or health, but by ourselves.  In his treatise On Pain, Ernst Jünger wrote that pain – what most people might consider to be the opposite of happiness – is ‘certain and unavoidable.’  We feed ourselves fictions, Jünger says, that “close with passages about heroes who, after having overcome many dangers, live out their lives in peace and happiness.”  The reality, according to Jünger, is, unfortunately, far different:  “[L]ife is without any such satisfying end.”

Indeed, history records no such ‘satisfying ends’ for even the greatest feats of man.  As Jünger notes, “Archaeology is actually a science dedicated to pain; in the layers of the earth, it uncovers empire after empire, of which we no longer know the names.”  If even our greatest civilizations inevitably decay and expire, how can the individual escape pain?

Coming to terms with the reality of pain is the surest way to navigate the travails of life while avoiding the perils of disillusionment and despair.  “[T]o live is to feel oneself lost2,” wrote Jose Ortega y Gasset, and “he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground.”

This philosophy was lost on me until the experience of my father’s long illness.  My father, who worked tirelessly for decades, had always imagined an active retirement.  Unfortunately, Parkinson’s stripped him of his faculties, and eventually reduced him to a life almost entirely of pain.  Rather than lament, however, the fate that had befallen him, he embraced his suffering, and by bearing his trials with serenity and patience he demonstrated wisdom largely incommunicable in words alone.  He may not have been happy, but he was at peace.

It was only after years of witnessing my father in this state that I was able to understand that Kierkegaard was incorrect when he said that, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”  No; the most painful state of being is the inability to accept that you are lost.  It is feeling self-pity over a future which you might have imagined, but which you were never guaranteed, much less entitled to have.

Rather than combating pain or trying vainly to eliminate it from our lives, we must accept it, and accept also that we are, as Gasset said, indeed lost.  We must unburden ourselves of the expectation of earthly happiness; from the expectations we demand of life, of others, and of the world.  Failure to do so will surely leave us feeling betrayed and disillusioned.  Instead, we must embrace a philosophy that teaches us to expect the most from ourselves, to bear our burdens patiently, and to use the time allotted us wisely, not in the pursuit of an illusion, but in the hope of understanding.


  1.  Jünger, Ernst.  2008.    On Pain. Candor, NY:  Telos Press Publishing.
  2.  Ortega y Gasset, Jose.  1932.  The Revolt of the Masses.  New York, NY;  WW Norton & Co.

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