I don’t believe despair is always useless. It can sometimes lead to change. When you offend someone you ask for forgiveness as a result of despair. The despair I think isn’t useful is the political atheism among my fellow youth.
The Buddha teaches that before we speak our words should pass through three filters. 1. Is it true ? 2. Is it useful ? 3. Is it kind ? It is possible for these questions to clash with each other. Sometimes when you tell the truth you will be unkind, but that doesn’t seem a good reason to me why we shouldn’t speak the truth. These questions are however guides to good speech. Political despair usually offends the second question. I would say the first question is the most important. I believe we can have truths that are not just useless, but maybe counterproductive to our flourishing. So truth and usefulness can be in conflict. However the usefulness of a truth can be in its interpretation. This is best illustrated through an example. Say you have a headache which gets worse. You go to the hospital and you are diagnosed with a tumour. The truth will be that you have a tumour. The usefulness of this truth will depend on how you react to the presence of the tumour. It could be a blessing to you in the sense that the tumour can be removed, and your headaches would go away. Or it could be a curse to you because the tumour can’t be removed and you would despair till you die. What is useful is what makes us survive or makes survival better. The two scenarios I mentioned earlier about tumours show in one case where truth can be useful and another in which it is actually harmful. I would want to add that the fact that the person will die in the second scenario isn’t what makes the truth about the tumour useless. I would venture to say that knowing you will die soon can be a blessing because it can make you put your house in order before you die. You can make good use of the remaining time by spending it with your family or those you love. The news of your impending death is not only useless but harmful when all you do is worry and get depressed. Don’t get me wrong. I think it is normal to get worried in the face of one’s death. Who wouldn’t be ? However a good case is to be made for tranquility in the face of our mortality. It’s harmful to be resentful and bitter in difficult times. Of course, you might have every reason to be bitter. Of course, you can cry why me. But being bitter only makes things worse.
Now I return to the political atheism of my fellow youth, which I think isn’t useful. It doesn’t survive the Buddha’s filter. I use the tumour diagnosis example to emphasize how counterproductive despair can be.
It’s not that I don’t see how someone can be led to political nihilism. I get it. This is similar to nihilism generally speaking. You find yourself in this world, conscious of your own mortality. You don’t know where you came from, nor where you are going. All that is certain is that you will die. The universe is so vast that nothing you do appears to matter. Even your planet is just a tiny speck in the expanse. You could decide that everything is meaningless and eat donuts on your couch, binge watching movies. But again, this would be a useless enterprise, and a inappropriate interpretation of being. I wouldn’t go into what I think is the appropriate interpretation here as it will take much space, and that isn’t what this essay is about.
One of the best adds I have ever seen was one that highlighted Africa’s problems. Bad roads. Filth. Unstable electricity. Slums. Poor drainage systems. It highlighted all these problems as opportunities, rather than as a call to despair. In Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order, he has a rule which says- Opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated. I haven’t read the book, and I hope I am not butchering the rule. But it seems to me that seeing problems, and even difficult ones as opportunities is the right perspective to adopt. And it actually works. It is also a way out of depression, generally speaking. I have found that usually no matter how bad things get around you, if you are doing some work that you belief is worthwhile you can whither the storm.
I am not saying that we can change everything that is going wrong. Or that things can’t go so wrong that the best answer is to flee. I have always said that I will live in Ghana. If I travel out it would be temporary. I see most people who want nothing other than to leave, as though that will solve all their problems. Of course there are good reasons to leave. What suprises me is that someone can pay so much money just to leave to an uncertain future, when a fraction of that same amount could be used to start a business in Ghana. The reason is always despair.
I have been thinking of the appeal of leaving a country one loves. I have been trying to answer the question: under what condition is someone justified to leave a country that he loves? And I am answering this question for myself. Not too long ago I listened to a podcast interview of the uber weightlifter Dr. Steffi Cohen by Tim Ferris. Steffi Cohen explained why she had to leave Venezuela, a country she loved. They had a very bad government. The government was so bad that they had famines, which the government tried to hide, if I remember correctly. This podcast led me to what I think to be the necessary condition to be hopeful in one’s nation. Freedom of speech. Maybe I am being naive. But I believe that if it is possible to talk about our problems openly there’s a possibility for change.
I don’t like the apparent righteousness that comes with critique. Of course, things can be going downhill. But critique doesn’t necessarily mean you can do any better. We should wonder why revolutions often lead to the kind of tyranny revolutionaries purport to change. And there are some of us who take our righteousness a little further. We will remain political atheists. We say all politicians are evil, but we won’t do anything to help the situation. We just throw our hands up, and wait for the moment we can again say I told you so, with relish.
I am not saying everyone should enter into politics. Nor am I saying that government shouldn’t be criticized. My point is that you should be worthy of criticizing others. My idea is ridiculous in some sense. A good question would be if we have to be perfect before we question the wisdom in the actions of others, particularly public servants. My answer will be no. I would only say that I would expect my life to be orderly enough before I set out to correct others. Besides, it works. Concentrating on yourself can help you become the change you want to see. It prepares you to be competent when you get into a position of influence because you would have been striving to be competent for a long time. You don’t want to be a loud talker but can’t do shit when the moment comes for you to perform. It is also better to concentrate on your own efforts for practical reasons; you can hardly change others.
This is why Jordan Peterson’s idea of personal responsibility resonates with me. You are not going to be responsible? What will you do? Blame your mum, dad, your family, your country? All with your grown up ass? Grow up. It is true that some people are victims to horrendous crimes. They have the right to complain. Sometimes things are so bad for people that I ask God why they have to suffer so much. I know a woman in her prime who had an accident which disfigured her face, she lost almost all her teeth, had to recuperate in the hospital for months. A few days ago I learnt she had been operated for fibroid. I kept asking God, WHY?! Why do all these awful things have to happen to a single person? So I am not saying look at the brighter side of everything. Things can be so fucked up you would have only the abyss to stare into. However, it is always better not to be resentful. It makes everything worse. My lady friend is a model of gratitude in the face of suffering. She inspires me so!
So if everything is going bonkers, work on your self. Work in silence. Dare to hope. And bid your time.
Thank you for reading.