March 5, 2021
“The man who can center his thoughts and hopes upon something transcending self,” Bertrand Russell once observed, “can find a certain peace in the ordinary troubles of life which is impossible to the pure egoist.”
It is advice that is as obvious as it is true, but still hard to accept as a native New Yorker. I have lived in this city my whole life and could never escape the paradoxes and contradictions that abound here.
New Yorkers have a swagger: we all think that we are superstars while simultaneously being aware of the real superstars in our midst.
We strut and saunter along 5th avenue; but assailed by large billboards, film sets, and Trump Towers that serve to remind us of our smallness, without that feeling of sublimity standing next to an ocean.
Alongside our impotent swaggering, we are also hyper aware of how dangerous it can be to live here. Though crime has decreased over the decades, its potential is omnipresent as income inequality has increased.
My neighborhood has police officers perpetually patrolling, and rich neighborhoods have motionless security guards that can be found inside and outside every doorway.
Can anyone live in a city with such glaring disparities and successfully adopt Russell’s wisdom as one’s own? Any attempt is probably foredoomed to fail. The only thing that seems to transcend the self in New York is wealth, which is often how our humanity is gauged. Just compare how crimes are prosecuted on Wall Street compared to Washington Heights.
It is said that money and fame are not necessary to happiness, and that’s surely true. The lucky among us have found it in ordinary trips to the movies, gatherings amongst friends, and birthday parties.
But even in the midst of enjoying these activities, the irrepressible thought in the back of everyone’s mind is how much more happy they could be if they had more money. The thought can drive us all mad, especially in New York, the capital of capitalism. Frank Sinatra once crooned in his famous song about New York, “If I can make it there. I’ll make it anywhere,” which is inspiring until you listen to his next four words, “It’s up to you.” It is up to us, New Yorkers, to make it happen. That song inspired me more than a decade ago, but I was unaware of how many people weren’t making it happen.
Can anyone be truly happy knowing that they are perceived as failures?
As a person of the Left, I have found solace in the knowledge that we are not a collection of atomized individuals but, on the contrary, a society. There are laws in the books that make it difficult for us to rise out of our stations.
The middle classes live with the perpetual fear of falling, which creates a mindset of contempt for the lower classes whose ranks they do not wish to join; and admiration for the higher classes above them who have the wealth in which no concern whatsoever is shown as to how they achieved it; whether or not it was by hard work or by accumulating interest.
On the left, we understand that our society is rigged, which may help us “find a certain peace in the ordinary troubles of life.” The troubles remain, nevertheless.
The pressures of our political economy persist, and if we do not work extraordinarily hard on accumulation, we fall behind in the rat race and experience troubles all the more. The rat race diverts our efforts from changing our society and getting rid of the misery-creating laws.
What can we do?
Barbara Ehrenreich ended her book Bright-sided with this message:
Happiness is not, of course, guaranteed even to those who are affluent, successful, and well-loved. But that happiness is not the inevitable outcome of happy circumstances does not mean we can find it by journeying inward to revise our thoughts and feelings. The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the “first responders”! We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but —if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness—we can have a good time trying.
In conjunction with Bertrand Russell’s, I think her approach is correct: Let us not beat ourselves up for circumstances not of our choosing. Instead, let us find joy in the work that is needed to change these circumstances—for ourselves and others. We may not succeed, and many a pragmatic person has concluded as much and has either given up or decided to spend their life trying to join the ranks of the rich.
However, the rest of us, who still care about each other despite the pressure pushing us in the opposite direction, should adopt Gramsci’s words as our collective credo, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
Let’s expand our ranks and our concerns beyond ourselves, and strive to make the world a better place, and “have a good time trying.”