Always Look on the Dark Side of Life

Krista Tippet’s radio show “On Being” was a little too earnest for my tastes–or perhaps it was just her voice, or the connotation from its original title, “Speaking of Faith.” Still, I discovered by accident (on early Sunday morning grocery shopping trips) that it could be provocative in best way. The episode titled “Time Management for Mortals” with Oliver Burkeman was not especially so, but my ears pricked up when Tippett plugged his latest book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. S has often urged me to get help finding a brighter outlook, but I, yes, I can’t stand the positivity of self-help books. This one seemed written just for me.

I checked it out of the library.

Burkeman is a journalist specializing in psychology with a column in The Guardian titled, “This Column Will Change Your Life.” For The Antidote he traveled the world to meet leading thinkers of the “negative way to happiness” and to experience their methods for himself. Each of his chapters focuses on a different tradition or issue: stoicism, Buddhism, goal-setting, the self, insecurity, failure, death. I found myself in each chapter, with qualifiers of course


Forget Seneca. Shakespeare said it best through Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I found myself most clearly in Burkeman’s paragraph on the “double-edged” nature of reassurance: “When you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it. All too often, the Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best.” [34] When things were at their worst for our son, S would look to me for reassurance and expressed frustration that I didn’t provide it. Without having read Burkeman or Seneca, I already, somehow, understood the idea explained above. I understood there is no guarantee of ease, resolution, happiness. One can only forge ahead knowing that pain will eventually come–and pass on, too.


Burkeman goes to a meditation retreat in central Massachusetts. For a week, he and his cohort of meditators live in silence, doing a few chores, eating and sleeping, of course, but otherwise meditating, in half-hour segments, alternating between sitting and walking. The purpose of the experience, and of the practice of meditation generally, is to cultivate non-attachment: nonattachment to the self and to one’s thoughts. I need hardly say I am far from attempting any such practice. Leave me with my thoughts for a few moments, and I become desperate for a book, a magazine, a podcast (Wordle!) to occupy them. When I am forced to live with my thoughts I invariably direct them in a “productive” direction. No emptiness of mind, here.

Nevertheless, a quote from a this chapter rang true for me. Burkeman quotes a psychiatrist  on the intersection of Buddhist nonattachment  and the Oedipus myth: “The quintessential point…is that if you flee [your fate], it’ll come back to bite you. The very thing from which you’re in flight–well, it’s the fleeing that brings on the problem.” Using his own words, Burkeman avers that many of us who seek happiness are really “running away from things of which [we] are barely aware.” [56-57] Meditation is a way to stop the running. Though I have known the frustration (desperation?) of seeking an elusive contentment, it has been years since I did. If I no longer flee my fears, meditation has had nothing to do with it. More likely it has been that quintessentially Western contribution to the field of human betterment: psychotherapy.

There was another notable quote, too, this from a meditation guru: “Many western therapeutic methods focus on trying to successfully manage or modify our feeling states. The underlying assumption is that if our feelings can be altered [or] reduced, we will be more able to live meaningful and effective lives; that it is our feelings that hold us back.” He goes on to say that feelings are like weather, out of our control, even if we can dress accordingly and expect that it, too, shall pass. I have long since come to accept dark periods of sadness or discontent as a fact of life, something to accept, not rail against.


Burkeman doesn’t need to caution me against the downsides of goal setting. I’ve rarely done it. (There are notable exceptions both from the distant past and from more recent years.) I never thought it a virtue to passively accept what came my way, but apparently it was (is). In any event, it is later in the chapter, when Burkeman invokes the idea of uncertainty, that I became most interested.

Ever since 2009, when  I lost my job and, at the same time, read extensively about Maynard Keynes, uncertainty has been a key notion for me. How much can we really know about the effects of our actions? We must expect uncertainty and learn to live with it. As Burkeman quotes psychiatrist Erich Fromm: “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” To which Burkeman adds: “Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities–for success, for happiness, for really living–are waiting.” A more positive role for uncertainty that I had previously considered.

Overcoming the Self

I agreed with David Hume, quoted early in this chapter:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long as I am insensible to myself, and may be truly said not to exist…. [108]

Such is the materialist view, which I share. I well understand that my self is an illusion. Given the opportunity to consider it, I would recognize that the same applies for everyone else, too. And yet. Though I understand my actions as a product of “perceptions” and chemical interactions, I still judge myself harshly for errors and faux pas, still cringe at the memory of them and struggle to forgive myself. As if my self actually mattered.

I have not yet tackled the central task outlined in this chapter: dis-identifying my self from my thoughts. “You are not your mind,” teaches Ekhart Tolle. [113] “Become a witness to your thoughts,” writes Burkeman. [116] These are attitudes/practices I have yet to internalize.

The Hidden Benefits of Insecurity

Change is the one constant.

“The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life,” writes Alan Watts. “To be secure means to isolate and fortify the ‘I,’ but it is just this feeling of being an isolated ‘I’ which makes me feel lonely and afraid.” Madness is when we “circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl” trying to avoid “death, pain, fear, or hunger.” Better to approach life as a dance, “and when you are dancing, you are not intent on getting somewhere. The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.” [147-149]


Here’s a $10 word: kakorrhaphiophobia. (“Do you have kakorrhaphiophobia, Charlie Brown?”) I am not sure I have an unhealthy fear of failure. On the other hand, memories of past failures have an outsize influence on my present thoughts and actions. In at least three domains, perceived failure has led me to wall off that part of my life–the people, the pursuit–and live as if it never existed. Mine is more antipathy than fear of failure. Besides, fear can serve a useful function. Fear of heights, acrophobia, may keep a sufferer from experiencing the awe-inspiring vista of a mountain summit, but it will also keep her safe–and what’s wrong with the view from down on the ground?

Burkeman devotes several pages to explain the dichotomy between “fixed theory” and “incremental theory,” innate ability and learned ability. (False dichotomy: we all fall somewhere on a continuum between the two, he says.) “An incremental outlook is a happier way to be , even if it never results in any particularly outstanding success.” The “only precondition” for such an outlook, he writes, “is a heartfelt willingness to lose.” [175] As J. K. Rowling told the Harvard class of 2008 about her own failures: “I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive. Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations.” [178]

Memento Mori, or Death as a Way of Life

At 20, I couldn’t quite relate to Woody Allen’s obsession with death. This is odd because the year before I saw Annie Hall I read the book Alvy Singer picks off the bookstore shelf, Ernst Becker’s The Denial of Death. I had spent a lot of time contemplating death just a few months before. But then I got a girlfriend, and I became too obsessed with life-affirming activities to contemplate my own demise, or anyone else’s. In middle age, due to a sequence of unfortunate events, death became ever-present again, in fact, a near-daily preoccupation. More recently, it seems to have resolved into a more appropriate awareness of mortality without the accompanying dread.

In this chapter, Burkeman urges his American readers, especially, to take death more seriously as an inextricable part of life. He quotes philosopher-psychotherapist Lauren Tillinghast who suggests we look at life “like going to a really nice restaurant. You take it as a fact that the meal isn’t going to last forever. Never mind if that’s the way it should be, or whether you feel that you’re owed more meal, or you resent the fact that the meal isn’t eternal.” [192]

My own go-to metaphor is strikingly similar. Where others assume extending life is always the highest value, I like to think I am grown up enough to accept death, when it comes. Or, as I like to say, I will be able to leave the party before it ends.

Negative Capability

Burkeman tells us we don’t have to become wandering stoics or meditative monks to benefit from the ideas in his book. He concludes by sharing the small, doable ways he has found to practice negative capability in his own life. To make his position clear, he writes

The point here is not that negative capability is always superior to the positive kind. Optimism is wonderful; goals can sometimes be  useful; even positive thinking and positive visualization have their benefits. The problem is that we have developed the habit of chronically overvaluing positivity and the skills of ‘doing’ in how we think about happiness, and that we chronically undervalue negativity and the ‘not-doing’ skills, such as resting in uncertainty or getting friendly towards failure.

His project is one of balancing the scales. In it, he succeeds…unfailingly (so to speak).



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