Inadequacy and the Problem of Misery

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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48 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    I’ve been there.
    It takes a certain strain of self-centeredness to think that you’re alone in thinking about this (ah, I laugh at myself, not at you!).

    But, still… if you have that human desire to change things yourself, rather than removing your responsibility by donating to have it done for you… Find something you’re good at. Really, really good. And do that. An example: That’s military grade computer vision. But what it does? Frees money for good things. There is a certain satisfaction in doing something yourself, even if it is foolish.

    Or, take this challenge: eat for $2 a day for a month (It’s not terribly hard). Donate the rest of your food bill. Or break bread with strangers, sit on a corner and have a chat.

    Or dress up as a gloomy goofy clown (more Marx than whiteface)… and go to a Children’s hospital.

    Helplessness is a state of mind — its cure is action.Report

  2. Nob Akimoto says:

    There’s a certain privilege, and a certain arrogance in the sort of misery you feel. I don’t mean this as a judgment. I’ve felt that misery, too. Sometimes it can be crushing. It’s also, I think, more a manifestation of self-loathing than perspective.

    It’s a sort of arrogation of the perspectives of the subaltern. A denial of aspirations and progress and yes, frivolity. Frivolousness is a sign of human progress.

    ….I don’t have an answer for you, Ethan. I wish I did.Report

  3. North says:

    Brutal. I don’t envy you your powerful social conscience and your high levels of humanistic empathy one bit.

    My own much lower levels of those characteristics rarely penetrate my cynical matter of factness and on the rare day that they do I am able to shrug and agree “yes, people die, are miserable, disease ridden and starving the whole world over. But… a smaller proportion of them are then every have been before. The vector is virtuous.” And then I sleep like a baby at night.Report

  4. Will H. says:

    It is a luxury to be able to consider such things.

    There is a distinct difference between sentiment and caring.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to Will H. says:

      Could you elaborate?Report

      • Will H. in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Sure; and thanks for giving me that opportunity. The initial statement was likely unduly harsh.

        The idea of such concerns as a luxury:
        You’re out of the line of fire. You’re in a safe enough position to be able to consider such things.
        Which isn’t exactly the case, fully. I’ve been in a number of extraordinarily dangerous situations, and often what keeps me going through that is a concern for others.

        Sentiment v. Caring:
        Sentiment is a passive state which operates internally.
        Caring is an active state which demands that it be expressed externally. See the last sentence to the previous section.

        Right now, I know of a pressure relief valve that leaks. There was no work order (a DWRQ) for that valve to be replaced in the last turnaround at that refinery. I was phased out of that area before I had a chance to submit another DWRQ for modification to authorize replacement.
        It will be four years until another turnaround at that unit.
        That weighs on me.
        Those men that work in that refinery have a right to work safely, to come home with the same body parts that they went to work with, and to exit that gate under their own power. I don’t want to be the one to take that away from them.

        That is, I understand where you’re coming from.
        I know this as “human frailty;” a part of the human condition; lacking the power and the means to do those things which we feel truly important to do, whether for ourselves or others.
        The solution is to embrace it; not to reject it. It’s a part of the journey. You don’t see the whole of the journey from where you stand. That too is human frailty.Report

        • Kim in reply to Will H. says:

          Can you give an anonymous tip?Report

          • Will H. in reply to Kim says:

            It’s not really that type of situation.
            They already know about it. It was an operator that worked on the unit that pointed it out to me.
            There’s just no work order for it.
            And the turnaround has been done for almost two months by now.

            The problem isn’t so much that it’s a leaker (which is definitely bad, because it affects process downstream), but the stuff that it’s leaking. That’s some bad stuff.Report

  5. NewDealer says:

    Welcome to humanity. You had a druken night of self-pity and wondering about the injustice of the world. Countless young people have had these thoughts, feelings, and conversations through the centuries. I’m sure people at Oxford in the 18th century felt conflicted thoughts about pretty snuff boxes while there was so much misery in the world. And they saw a lot more of it at hand.

    I believe the Buddha was correct when he said Life is Suffering. He was also probably correct when he said the Suffering is caused by Desire. This is a universal and axiomatic truth. Though obviously there are scales and life is a lot more painful for some then others. This is completely random chaos. There are many things I have seen and heard happen to people and I am very grateful that they have not happened to me. At least not yet.

    But we also need pleasure in life. Most humans were not meant or capable of living like acestic hermits and monks. We need to laugh and feel good and forget the pain of the world and our own lives. We need the company of friends and family. You probably have a point that if we spent even just a fraction of money from entertainment on fighting hunger and disease that we can do a lot of good but this does not mean we should all abstain from pleasure.

    “A man must have aunts & cousins, must buy carrots & turnips, must have barn & woodshed, must go to market & to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter & sleep & be inferior & silly.”-Ralph Waldo EmersonReport

    • “Though obviously there are scales and life is a lot more painful for some then others.”

      I have heard the claim that suffering is distinguishable from feeling pain. On an intuitive level, I think that claim is probably true, although I have a hard time defending it or even grasping it.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I can see how it is true.

        Perhaps suffering deals with your ability to get on and do things in life. A person might be in a great deal of pain (physical or psychological) but if he or she can get up, take care of themselves, and do what needs to be done; perhaps they are suffering less than the person who is bed-ridden and unable to take care of themselves for what ever reason.

        Though I have a hard time defending this as well.Report

  6. Tod Kelly says:

    It’s probably nothing more than the way my brain is hardwired, but I’ve always believed that the best response to the existence of misery is not, in fact, succumbing to misery yourself. Rather, I prefer the re-discovery of joys in everyday life. (I won’t bother you with what those things are for me.)

    One of the perverse side effects of the American belief that financial success equals happiness is its reverse corollary – that lack of wealth must equate to to unhappiness, and that where you are on that spectrum of poverty is directly proportionate to your level of misery. I have, over time, come to reject this commonly held assumption.

    Which is not to say that poverty is a good thing; part of what keeps me from being a social conservative is my belief that there are some conditions we as a society should not allow our fellow travelers to endure. And misery, of course, absolutely does exist – a quick glance at the parents in Newton this Christmas should be proof of that.

    This past decade I witnessed the gradual unwinding of each of my parents as a result of cancer. (They say that there is nothing so terrible as burying your own child, but I’m here to tell you that burying those that raised and cared for you with unconditional love is no picnic either.) The breaking down of their bodies and minds was a source of misery for each of them, and that misery was infectious to the many of us who loved them so. I can absolutely assure you that a time of mourning came with each bit of ash, be they buried or scattered. Eventually, however, the joy of who they were broke through the misery of what they endured – as is, I know, what they would have most preferred.

    If I may be allowed to quote from opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum:

    Jesus: “There will be poor always, but me you have not always.”

    Shatner/Kirk: “How we face death is at least as important as how we treat death.”

    Both of these sentiments are connected in my mind, and each speak volumes. As a young unbeliever, I used to find Jesus’s statement arrogant and self-serving. As an older man, however, I think he got it exactly right – if I’m willing to replace his divinity with the people and experiences I love and cherish.

    Empathize as you can, Ethan – it can lead you to great works. But always remember that empathy is (or at least should be) a two way street: a smiling, happy, and helpful young man serving soup will usually do far more to help those in need than will a mordant poet.

    Recognize misery, but cling to joy.Report

    • North in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Good response old boy.
      And a Shatner quote! +10 points to Gryphendor!Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I endorse this worldview.

      Recognize misery, but cling to joy.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      This is a great comment Tod.

      But also, and per my added preface, I am on the whole not usually like this. My cynicism and sometimes pessimistic feelings are definitely something to be combated, I think.

      And yet I feel that at the same time an unwillingness to grappled with these things by many people is part of the problem. Why must we collectively turn our backs?

      This is not to say that I couldn’t stand to be a much cheerier person. Anyone who knows me would agree with that (even though I prefer comics to Nietzsche, and video games to the news).Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Why must we collectively turn our backs?

        Who’s to say that we do? Collectively, maybe… but individually, people do what they feel like they can do. The summation of that is abysmally short, sure.

        But speaking for myself, I’m not Mother Theresa. I can work at my kids’ public school and support my wife choosing to spending a huge chunk of her time there and work as a volunteer for the city’s citizen disaster plan, but I have to draw lines, somewhere. I’m part of a community, but I’m also part of a family unit, and I’m an individual.

        Already I’m not putting enough away for my kids’ college tuition. I have obligations to them. I don’t buy new cars, I don’t go out to dinner often, I have virtually zero luxury expenditures. The only reason I have a nice TV is because I have generous relatives.

        I could certainly give more, yes.

        I could also go bonkers for never taking any time for myself, too.

        We aren’t communal animals like ants. I’d argue that we don’t even really want to be communal animals like ants, but I don’t think there are many people who would be arguing against me on that score.

        The needs of the many don’t always outweigh the needs of the few. Sometimes they do.

        I don’t know what to tell you except everybody has to figure this one out on their own.Report

        • “I don’t know what to tell you except everybody has to figure this one out on their own.”

          So my question is why the moral logic we use for gun control doesn’t apply here. What’s the determining distinction? The Joe Scarborough et al argument goes well beyond, “everyone figure it out for themselves.”Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Ethan Gach says:

            I don’t see that we have a moral obligation to cut down on unnecessary gun related deaths.

            I see that we have quite possibly a moral obligation to cut down on unnecessary harm, generally. Sure.

            But moral obligations… well, there’s two things here.

            One is that all moral obligations are held in conflict, just like rights. You have a whole bevy of moral obligations and as near as I can tell it’s always going to be impossible to meet all of them. We’re accursed creatures, Ethan. The human condition is not a solvable problem space. I don’t want to sound too pontificaty here but… you can accept that or live in misery.

            The second is that the consequence of our human condition not being solvable is that there’s no real way to determine that any given course of action is provably more optimal than another. We can all make guesses based upon our assumptions, but when it comes right down to it most of our wrangling about whose guesses are better (or best) comes down to us arguing about whose assumptions are better.

            You see it here all the time. Most of the threads come around to those discussions; arguments about assumptions, not about practicals.

            I find that I’m least dissatisfied with my own approach to things when I don’t assume that my assumptions are right, and I listen to arguments on individual cases, rather than Gigantic Struggles about Foundational Principles.

            Because really, sometimes… sometimes I suspect that one set of assumptions is fine for a particular problem and totally off base for another. The search for Truth isn’t about a search for Optimal Foundational Principles (not for me, anyway), because I don’t think there are any.

            I don’t know that I’m explaining this well.Report

            • Kim in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              ” The human condition is not a solvable problem space.”
              I don’t believe this. I think, we each make solutions, bridge gaps, solve problems. And, eventually, everything gets solved.

              Not that this makes people happy (people’s set point on happiness varies, but is relatively constant vis material needs). But it does reduce stress, and relieve unhappiness.Report

  7. Morzer says:

    Be grateful for the insights you were granted. Stop pitying yourself for having been open to the world. Take the insights you got and make something of them; turn them into useful action. Be grateful that you have the chance to do so. And, finally, for Pete’s sake, don’t walk around the block multiple times in dress shoes, no matter what the circumstances.Report

  8. Jaybird says:

    My suggestion is that The World is not your responsibility. Your room? That’s your responsibility. I’d suggest that, when you’re ready, you find someone else and share a mutual promise to take care of each other. If various other traits are aligned, you can make some new people (no worries if the traits don’t align, there’s always adoption) and then take care of these new people.

    It’s a small thing, but it’s a lifetime thing.Report

    • Roger in reply to Jaybird says:

      In the Land of Shmoos everybody’s problems are ours, and nothing ever gets solved. I’m with Jaybird. Start with your own room and work out cautiously from there.Report

  9. C - Zorra says:

    There is one very real thing you can do, which seems to be where your cri de cour started in the first place:

    Don’t consume Avengers and all the like junk. Put the money in a bag or a box and then give it to a school to buy real books with or even toilet paper.

    If I recall correctly, I got hipped to this site via Back of Town.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to C - Zorra says:

      On reflection, I think this post could be attached as a kind of epilogue to the Charity Roundtable of a month or so ago. It’s a real question how to wrestle with the problem of the coexistence of plenty and want. People can pursue more or less stringent responses, but it’s not clear that in the end any response by individuals in the wealthy world will be meaningful, to say nothing of being satisfactory. But if you think it’s worth doing something, as Jason pointed out, you might as well do what you can to make your contribution as meaningful as you can make it.Report

      • Jason’s initial post has affected me the most out of probably any other this year. And I have been channeling my contributions accordingly.Report

      • Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        All respect, but this is bullshit. I save 100 people per year from burning to death, with something I make? I’ve done some good. I save 1000 people from dysentery with something I make? I’ve done some good. (not mythical shit here, I know someone who’s helped with both of these, and I can cite the inventions).

        I think we ought to focus on how we can find the folks bright enough to -solve- the big problems, and then help them prioritize their time.Report

  10. Glyph says:

    I have struggled to formulate a response to this piece, as I have multiple responses, ranging from empathy (dark nights of the soul are no fun), to admonitions to suck it up and not be “that guy” – the one who turns a night of companionable drinking into a bitter and alienating rant – and please don’t think I have never been “that guy”, ‘cos I am sure I have at least once.

    Nobody wants to be that guy, and nobody wants to drink with that guy.

    But a couple things stick out to me on re-read:

    I was so angry, so anxious, so frightened. …I began contorting my body, breathing furiously and venomously, in an effort to distract my mind.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced panic attacks, but what you are describing does not sound too dissimilar. Anxiety is often the boon companion of depression, I find (often common around the holidays, or so the conventional wisdom goes). I don’t know if you are prone to any of these things, and I am not going to try to remotely diagnose you or prescribe pharmaceutical relief.

    But – I would strongly recommend getting sufficient sleep each night, and eating well, and getting exercise and fresh air and sunshine whenever possible (not sure where you are located, these last two may be in short supply in the winter months).

    Also, this:

    I was drunk…The uselessness of this approach drove me to fix a drink instead, and wait until it took the edge off my meditations.

    I also would advise you to consider your alcohol consumption. I am no teetotaller – far from it – so this is not intended as judgement or moralizing. But the older I get, the more alcohol’s negative emotional and physical side-effects become apparent to me. In my experience, alcohol consumption can worsen both depression and anxiety (I often find now that after a few drinks, I get a racing heartbeat, sweat and scattered thoughts when I try to sleep at night – and your body can’t really distinguish “existential/philosophical” stress, from physical/emotional stress). You may find moderating (fewer drinks, accompanied by more food/water, or reduced frequency) or eliminating your alcohol consumption to be beneficial.

    I don’t mean to downplay the philosophical factors in favor of biochemical ones. There’s no question that a spiritual crisis can precipitate a physical one. But they are not separate questions either, and I would advise you to take care of the thing that you CAN take care of – yourself. You’re no good to anyone else, if you let this thing capsize you.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Glyph says:

      Ditto on awareness of the effects of drinking to excess anymore. It’s not that I never do it, but I almost never do it to the extent that I used to do occasionally, and without even trying I always much more consciously consider whether I actually want to have the next one (which I often still do!). This change has been going on for a few years, but has accelerated over the last 18 months or so. I think it just comes naturally with age (to drinkers like ourselves); Ethan is considerably younger, I think, than I or Glyph, and moderation comes with age. Further, I’ve certainly had experiences like Ethan’s (though generally without the social conscience dimension – my sole mid-twenties alcohol-induced panic/asthma attack, for example, was neatly solipsistic and conscience-free), and I certainly wouldn’t say they are entirely without value in terms of gaining perspective. Smarter people, of course, are able to experience the same gains with less alcohol.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’ll second this MD. When I was young(er!), I could seemingly drink endlessly without ever losing motor control, psychological control, or even having a hangover. (Well, a hangover a few times.) Now, I have to impose limits on myself, even when I’m just drinking a few cocktails at home, in the form of one rule: no drinking after 9 pm. I just can’t process the stuff anymore and drinking later in the night often leaves me in really bad shape. That night and come the morn.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Stillwater says:

          I can drink late. I just have no interest in ever waking up with that feeling of wondering if I actually am going to be okay again. And the way to avoid that is to not come anywhere close to drinking the amount of alcohol that produces that effect.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Michael Drew says:

        It is absolutely a function of age. Until I was thirty, I thought hangovers were pretty much mostly-made-up things, most people pretending to feel awful (or at least playing it up) as a way to sort of brag about how much they drank the night before. I was always the first guy up after a night of heavy drinking (and we drank a LOT), bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to go get breakfast and coffee and get the day going, driving my hung-over friends crazy. I just had a real fast metabolism when I was younger, and I could put them away and only rarely suffer much in the way of consequences.

        I hit thirty, and I experienced real hangovers for the first time. They are no joke. And it really doesn’t take much now for me to know I drank the night before – like, anything more than two drinks and I will feel it to at least some degree the next day. I sleep TERRIBLY most times now when I drink at all, even just a couple.

        I have considered giving it up entirely, because it sometimes also inflames my sinuses bigtime now (apparently some alcohols have histamines, and in any case alcohol dries out the mucus membranes, which can cause irritation/inflammation). I haven’t taken that step yet, but it’s something I could see happening at some point, especially if the culture and state ever decides to permit me to use cannabis as a legal replacement relaxant and social lubricant, since I frankly enjoy it more and it has fewer deleterious side-effects IMO.

        But I do enjoy drinking, and it is very heavily embedded in the social fabric, so it’ll be hard to cut it out entirely.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Glyph says:

          I experienced real hangovers for the first time. They are no joke.

          For shizz. In college, I’d drink more than I ever, ever do now, and all I’d need in the morning was a Coke, three Advil, a lot of water, an orange, and a long, hard game of pick-up hoops in the hot sun; and I’d be ready to work another closing shift in the kitchen of my college job & then do it all again if I felt like it. Now I need the first three of those plus coffee and greasy food just to get my head to stop spinning if I don’t cut myself off at the right pint, er point.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Glyph says:

          That sounds familiar Glyph. I spent most of my twenties as a raft guide and living in ski towns. Lots of drinking. But I was always up early – dawn, no matter what, back then – rarely had a hangover, never had crazy behavior. It actually took a while to catch up to the changes I was going thru, being the creature of habit that I am. It took a few times getting DRUNK and feeling like shit in the morning before I made the connection. (Ahh. It was the BOOZE!) That was a sad day, actually. {{sniff}} I realized, in that moment, that I was now old.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Glyph says:



        • Just Me in reply to Glyph says:

          You know you are getting old when you talk about how drinking affects your sinuses.Report

    • Ethan Gach in reply to Glyph says:

      I’ll note two things for the record:

      Drinking is why I left the apartment but not why I continued to walk. That left me early in the night.

      My thinking about these things is unconnected to the drinking, except in so far as there are times when it grants and escape from them, or overwhelms my ability to ignore and/or cope with them.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Ethan, I don’t want to belabor the point, except to say that in no way am I imputing your thinking to the alcohol; just pointing out that not only is alcohol’s relief temporary (obviously, duh) but that in my experience its consumption can worsen the situation – both during the “high” (where you can obviously lose further control of your emotions) and during the “comedown” (whence, whether I feel “hungover” or not, I find any anxiety to not have merely “returned”, but to be greatly compounded by the physical aftereffects of even fairly mild (as little as 2-3 drinks) alcohol consumption – that is, I get all the physical (and therefore, mental) symptoms of anxiety (racing heart/thoughts, clamminess), even if I had nothing substantial to be anxious about in the first place (and so much the worse if I actually did, as do you).Report

  11. zic says:

    Ethan, are you well today?

    I hope so.

    Sometimes, something silly, like making cookies or snow angels helps. And if you make cookies, give some away. Giving is the best gift, the hedge against the darkness of our souls.Report

  12. Michael Drew says:

    On the substance of the piece, I’ll say that the thing that has always gotten me in terms of the global misery index is the number of people without access to (enough) clean water. The comfort we have in that regard I think provides a stark example of the kind of schism that got to Ethan this week. I know I don’t do my share to help fix it. My showers are too long, and for that matter I really don’t know how much difference it would make if they weren’t. I think the difference between myself (and I think many of the rest of us here) and Ethan is that it’s been quite a long time since I was not aware of and pretty much at peace with my own basic vileness. If I weren’t vile, I wouldn’t be so indifferent to doing the basic moral stuff that goes along with being an informed denizen of the rich world: figuring out what difference I could make toward this aspect of suffering that troubles me, and doing it. I’m too lazy and selfish, and I don’t. Ergo, I’m vile. I regard this fact with resignation.

    Why is this? I think it could have been otherwise. And surely it still can. There are personal events that occurred in my twenties that have something to do with it, I think – not that they constitute any kind of excuse. But I think one external event (again, not an excuse) caused my enduing sense of social helplessness/indifference more than any other: the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. I was casting about at that time, more or less without income, but I was still quite concerned about global poverty and, as I say, particularly the water question. In my low-key and desultory way, I was consciously undertaking to find out what kin of things I could do with my modest means that could contribute to helping those without enough clean water. Suddenly out of nowhere, the internet was filled with the new that 100,000+ people were wiped off the earth by a wall of (very unclean) water, and millions more had lost their very modest homes and sat poised without possesions buried in filth and debris on the edge of oblivion themselves. The absolute magnitude and arbitrary contingency (Big Contingency, I like to call it) of this event bowled me over and, I think, doused the remaining embers of my active conscience’s fading flame. How could individual empathy or action be meaningful in the face of literally seismic events like this, which, in all actuality, aren’t even really that rare? I think that moment signaled the start of a slow reorientation of my concerns about wellbeing back selfward, toward country, locality, family in particular, and self proper (who in all honesty, at that time may have needed the looking after I could give more than thirsty children in rural Africa or Calcutta). Of course I remain human, so of course I still feel empathy for great suffering anywhere. But since that Christmas, it’s just true that my inner bell doesn’t toll as loudly for distant others’ suffering as it once did.

    As I say, I’m at least somewhat vile and I know it. Perhaps one day I’ll be less so. But there it is.Report

    • Thanks for this comment Mike.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Ethan Gach says:

        Glad to share it. I did want to address your point, which was clear to me. I also thought that Glyph’s point about states of mind (however achieved) was apt, though. These issues confront us all. But experiences like the one you had this week are almost necessarily about us as much as being about the external stimulus that seems consciously to bring them about.

        Have a Happy New Year, Ethan, and all!Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I liked this comment.

      It’s chewy and revealing and talks about hard things.

      FWIW, I’ve been reading about this stuff (seismic calamity) since I was in my teens. It ruined any chance that I’d ever be a card-carrying treehugger (kind of hard to both anthropomorphize and love Mother Earth when the bitch is trying to kill us all the time), and ruined any chance that I’d ever fall for the “but think of the children” line. Long lines of dead ones march through my head from time to time.Report

  13. Ethan Gach says:

    Just to note: I added a preface to this post to help qualify my intent.Report