I was on the phone today listening to a person tell me about a rough time they’d recently been having. Long before formally studying psychology I gained a reputation among friends as the person who would listen, and I’ll probably be listening long from now. The call today though was interesting in that, at a certain point, I made the observation that one shouldn’t give up all they had worked for simply because they were tired and times were rough. And since the person I was talking to shared the same religious beliefs that I do, I also made the observation that the Catholic view on suffering is that it is an ever present part of our world and not something that can be ignored.
Now whether you believe that suffering is inevitable or in a higher power is irrelevant to the rest of this post, as my message below simply boils down to the following observation on the human condition. Namely, the world often throws a myriad of challenges at us, and for some reason, we keep thinking that these challenges should go away or that things should “get easier”. And (some of us) are continually surprised when things don’t get easier as time goes on. Why is that?
While I can’t give you all the answers to our eternal optimism on the world, I can point out a few interesting things.
1. Life Milestones are set by humans, not nature, thus they have no special bearing on ease of life.
Very often while working toward one degree or another, I felt that my life would somehow be easier once I had achieved the goal. However as I worked my way through graduate school, I realized something: Human Determined Milestones are not discrete! Let me explain. When I was working toward my masters, I had two types of work I had to complete: Work for others (such as assignments, working on another’s research project, etc..) and work for myself (My own research, teaching prep, etc..). Traditionally one focuses much more on the work for oneself after the masters degree is completed – but unfortunately these two types of graduate work often overlap. Thus once I actually got my masters, I was already knee-deep in work for my PhD. Things didn’t get easier once the paper was in my hand – my challenges had already ramped up to the next level.
Similar things happen with other human milestones. The couple with communication problems may erroneously believe that things will get better once they move in together, not realizing that this milestone has no bearing on their communication abilities. Children often think that upon reaching a certain grade in school they will somehow be on “easy street” and that life will be all down hill (If you don’t believe me, find a high school senior and ask them about senioritis!). The plain truth is that life milestones that humans set don’t create an end and new beginning – they simply are markers along the same old road!
2. Natural Milestones are a b*tch…
So if you can’t depend on the milestones you create, what about the ones Mother Nature gives you? Well let’s think about that for a moment. When was the last time a natural milestone was something that brought you good things or made your life easier. Perhaps going in chronological order will be useful:
Puberty/Menarche: Oh baby, here’s a great thing to help you in life. Sure makes life easier being self-conscious about your body and having strange hormonal impulses, doesn’t it?
Age 20: From here on out, it’s physiologically down-hill: all systems within your body begin to experience problems. Hello aches, pains, strange sensations, and chronic back/foot/joint pain.
Age 35: OK, so the aches and pains are manageable, and if you’re in good shape, you don’t have them all that often at all. But you do now have higher infertility rates, which doesn’t make that whole “wait until I’m mature to have kids” thing all that easy. You’re probably better off though, because having a kid while still mentally a kid definitely wouldn’t have made things easier.
Age 50: Despite your best efforts, those aches and pains are present. Daily. Sorry.
Age 65: You’re an elder, and should be respected. People should try to make things easier for you. Too bad that the extra effort you need to put into living may require them to help. Life is still fulfilling, (hopefully) but probably not easier.
So the natural milestones are out. But maybe it’s not in the milestones, maybe it’s just having a realistic life outlook that will make things better right? Well, maybe not so much…
3. Clinically Depressed people have a more realistic view of the world than “healthy” people.
Wait, what?!? Yep, people who are clinically depressed actually have a more realistic view on how the world operates and their likelihoods to encounter problems in it. This can easily be interpreted as the inverse of my statement, namely “Healthy People Live In An Optimistic Dream World”. This may be why we expect things to get better – despite our experiences, we normally have some sort of mechanism that keeps us happy and well adjusted.
Now don’t get me wrong, you want to live in the optimistic dream world (as any depressed person will tell you), but perhaps this is the strongest reason why we expect things to get better when they probably won’t. If we expected things to stay the same or get worse, we’d be… depressed!
So here’s my advice: Be a realist, and understand that life challenges are normally. Developing good ways to work through them (as opposed to running from them or ignoring them) will make you much happier in the long run. So what ways have you developed to work through the rough times?