1. Unhappy ? Don't shoot the messenger !
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The Renaissance philosopher Michel
de Montaigne (1533–1592) spent most of his days in his library on the third floor of
a cylindrical tower at one corner of his castle, 30 km east of Bordeaux.
about a thousand books on philosophy, poetry, history and religion, which were
arranged on semicircular shelves against the wall of the tower room.
He also had 57 short inscriptions (taken from the Bible and the Classics) painted
across the wooden beams which supported the library ceiling. One of them (by
Sophocles) was :
The happiest life is to be without
When I read this in Alain de Botton's
book The Consolations of Philosophy my mind immediately cast back to my Dad's
pocket diary (the popular Dutch "Success Agenda") of 1981 (the year he
died). I still have it, it includes, besides addresses, birthdays of his family,
friends and staff, etc., two pages of short sayings my Dad had collected from various sources over the years. One of them read :
The fish has the water to swim in|
The bird has the air through which to fly
And man has his mind with which he is discontent . . . .
Why this negative view of the human mind (so contrary to most philosophers) ? I
understand and appreciate the intention above statements attempt to make,
but taken literally they are of course wrong, because they merely shoot the
It is not the mind which causes us unhappiness or any other emotion. It are our
circumstances (using the word in its widest possible sense) which are the cause for our
emotions. The mind merely interprets the circumstance and passes it on
to trigger the appropriate emotion.
circumstance > >
mind > > emotion
Without a mind (assuming that the rest of our brain still functions) we would
feel no emotions at all ! We would merely live like zombies.
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I am sure you have experienced proof of the above "chain reaction", but let me
give you a typical example.
About 20 odd years ago, teaching one of my Saturday afternoon bridge
classes at my home in Glenelg (a coastal suburb of Adelaide, South Australia)
there was a middle aged man in my class who was just divorced from his
"Michael", he said at the end of one
afternoon to me "these are the only three hours of the week
that I am not in total emotional agony over my present circumstance. My mind is
so busy figuring out this wonderful game of bridge that it has no time to focus
on anything else!"
Prince Andrei Bolkónsky, in Leo Tolstoy's epic masterpiece War and Peace, is in emotional agony after his broken off engagement with young, beautiful, lively Natasha.
Happiness he explains to his friend Pierre Bezúkhov, is the absence of agony.
Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendal (1783-1842), in his first published novel Armande (1827), expresses the same sentiment through Octave, the main character of the story.
The bottom line about changing the state of your emotions when you are unhappy,
distressed or discontent is simple : examine you current circumstance and
try to do something about that. Three common scenarios come to mind.
The first one is when there is a circumstance you can do absolutely
nothing about, a death in the family, a divorce. In such case try to find
temporary relief (like my bridge student in above example) by diverting the
mind to something totally different.
The second possibility is that your mind misinterpreted the
circumstance. For example you find your girlfriend in (what you believe to be) a far too
intimate conversation with another guy. Naturally this makes you unhappy, not to
say upset. But as you join the couple you suddenly find out that the supposed
contender is your girlfriend's brother. Immediately your emotions do a
dramatic about turn.
The third scenario is where you need to change your circumstance.
In its simplest form this may involve perhaps talking it out with someone who has
upset you with something. This almost always works.
In the ultimate
case, where the circumstance is your current life as a whole, there is
nothing but either bear it or change your life. A "sea change".
This may be relatively easy to achieve, or it may be agony,
like in my own case, where, after 15 years of regularly recurring deep
depressions in my former life as a professional geologist, I totally upended my
life and started from scratch an entirely new life in music. It was very painful,
especially for those so dear to me, and it was not easy, but it cured my
depressions and unhappiness forever!
Copyright © 2010 Michael Furstner