Nothing was bizarre about this particular night--Provolone lay in bed idly, a cool breeze caressing his forehead. He, and his perturbed family, were becoming painfully accustomed to his unusual self-destructive rituals. Prov’s constant lethargy and grouchiness were uncharacteristic, because he was widely known to be as a sociable and playful student.
Provolone was built like a brick shithouse: he had frizzy black hair that made him seem like a free-spirited hippie. His convex nose, paired with a jutting chin, was what rendered him comical in the eyes of others. His wandering pale green eyes gave him energetic but distracted look. But not anymore. Prov doesn’t strike people as energetic or comical nowadays. His eyes now appear dull and lazy, his shoulders stoop perpetually, and his wide grin has become a thing of the past.
Prov’s father, Howard Booker, has also grown weaker with time, but his stern and focused look has not diminished yet. Howard wears glasses that make his eyes look shrewd. When he converses with someone, his eyes don’t dare swerve left or right--he utters his words with incredible precision, precision that renders his tone robotic. Howard was thin as a rail so much so that his veins were drawn all over his body like rivers drawn on a map. His hair was shaven to barely a few millimeters in length. His wisdom and shrewdness were almost palpable; after all, that expected from a philosophy professor.
That night, as Prov aimlessly and almost mindlessly skimmed through his social media profiles, Howard opened the door slightly and glanced intently at his son, who was completely covered by a blue blanket, from head to toe. “Succumbing to your depression and lying nonchalantly in bed will only worsen the situation,” said Howard, slowly approaching Prov’s bed and sitting at the edge of the bed. “You have been indulging in the same routine for six months. Isn’t this sufficient proof that something needs to be changed?”
Prov slowly, but firmly, pulled the blanket off his face and looked at his father in desperation. “I am not sure anything can be changed at this point,” groaned Prov. “I try...I try really hard every day to get a glimpse of happiness, but it’s all for nothing.”
Just as Prov finished uttering these words with exasperation, his phone rang, and both Howard and Prov looked at the caller’s ID with curiosity--it was Demetri Rutherland, Prov’s childhood best friend. Prov indifferently silenced the phone, and sank back into thought. “I miss how simple and spontaneous my life used to be, the way I used to be,” Prov thought to himself, looking down at the ground morosely. Howard continued to sit still, as though he were planning to spend the rest of the night at the edge of Prov’s bed, but he had something else in mind.
Howard’s primary aim in life has always been, understandably, exploring how to live and how to die. Seeing his own son with a doleful look on his face, languishing in his grief every day caused Howard, who prided himself in being an unshakable mountain, grief beyond imagination. However, he took it up as his moral and parental responsibility and duty to guide his son through this--what he had hoped was--transient turmoil. Howard was neither a clinical psychologist nor a trained therapist to treat Prov’s profound depression, but he had always been intrigued about life, not only as a theatre for cheer and jubilance but for grandeur and inescapable tragedy as well.
Prov was adamant about staying in bed, and he covered himself with the blanket yet again. He did not behave this way to disregard his father: he simply could not bear the torment of being seen in such a desperate state. Howard, more determined than before, did not stir from Prov’s bed. He knew that if there were a panacea for Prov’s despondency, it was far from lying in bed without any purpose.
Purposelessness, Howard fervently believed, was one of the principal factors that made people miserable. Before Howard could dissuade Prov from going back to his aimless activity, the phone rang again, and Demetri’s goofy picture emerged. Prov grabbed the phone furiously, but on second thoughts said to himself, “Maybe talking to a friend will make me feel better.”
“What’s up,” answered Prov, with obvious irritation.
“Ah! Finally you humbled yourself and picked up my call!” responded Demetri.
“Sorry, I’ve been tired.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure! I’ll be at your place in 15 minutes.”
“I’m tired of your excuses, I’ll see you in 15, bye!” said Demetri, cutting him off. His voice was distorted by the noise surrounding him. After hearing the conversation, Howard, who had briefed Prov’s friends about his son’s dire condition, excused himself and went back to his office, where one couldn’t walk without stumbling over a book.
Prov finally stood up, scowling. He looked up to the sky, and the birds serenely soaring across it. Their freedom reflected in their carefree and boundless flight. He then looked down at the street and spotted three little boys; they were dressed in soccer outfits, each screaming and shouting gleefully, sending ripples of joy across the street. Prov could not help but envy their nonchalant nature, their deep engagement with the moment, and their fascinating enthusiasm for life. But he also felt a peculiar sympathy for them, because he could foresee an array of misfortune that would befall them one day--a toxic relationship, a dysfunctional or sick parent, or a debilitating illness.
As he brushed his teeth, Prov pondered over his reflection in the mirror. It had become unmistakably sullen and weary. He was disheartened by his new avatar; he felt embarrassed by his suffering and lonely at the same time. Then he heard the bell ring. “That is Demetri for sure,” thought Prov.
The moment Demetri spotted Prov at the doorway, he recognized the profound sadness in Prov’s face. He embraced Prov immediately, grinning widely.
Demetri was lanky, with elaborate eyebrows drawn above his energetic optimistic brown eyes. Despite being young, Demetri’s forehead was replete with wrinkles. He usually strolled with his arms swinging like a pendulum, and his jovial nature always drew people to him. Prov was particularly fond of Demetri and his playful spirit. As the two childhood friends strode across the neighborhood, the conversation sparked between them.
“It feels like eons have passed since I last spoke to you. I see your monk’s lifestyle is not limited only to your inexplicable isolation but your appearance as well. The facial hair you have grown looks like an army of ants conquering your face,” said Demetri with a guffaw, lighting his cigarette effortlessly.
Uninterested in responding to the taunt, Prov changed the subject and asked, “So how has the summer been treating you?”
“I’ve got my usual job as a cashier, and I’m trying to balance my summer courses with treating myself and going out with the boys every night,” responded Demetri in a haste, blowing smoke as he looked up at the sky.
Prov listened intently, and although part of him was delighted to hear of his friend’s happiness, a bigger part envied Demetri, because Demetri, unlike Prov, never had to try to derive happiness from anything he did.
Noticing his friend’s absentmindedness, Demetri, although well-intentioned, said, “So your
father told us about this depression you’ve got, man. I think we all have it, you just need to enjoy life more.” Prov’s face flushed with embarrassment and then disappointment, because he felt as if all his suffering and months of mental torture had been relegated and dismissed without a moment’s thought.
“Actually, depression is a serious mental disorder. It is caused by certain chemical imbalances in the brain, and if left untreated, it can lead to horrible consequences--like suicide,” Prov said resolutely, uttering each word clearly
“Yeah yeah… But you know, I feel it too sometimes, and it goes away when I watch a movie or something; you should definitely try that!” exclaimed Demetri enthusiastically, in a high-pitched voice.
Losing hope in the possibility of having his struggles understood, Prov decided to change the subject yet again, not because he didn’t want to verbalize his suffering, but because he sensed an air of indifference on his friend’s part.
Passing by the old neighborhood, Prov could not suppress the urge of his wandering eyes to scrutinize two gentlemen who happened to be standing under the tree down the street. The two were well dressed and charming; they were engaged in a heated argument about the recent refugee crisis that had swept through the country.
Despite being highly attentive and engrossed in their interaction, Prov did not pay attention to the content of their argument. Rather, he painfully analyzed their facial expressions and their gesticulation--the vigor and vivacity with which the two were arguing. As Demetri continued rambling about the girl who had smiled at him in the university cafeteria, Prov felt a searing envy for the two gentlemen. “I remember the vigor and liveliness with which I used to live my life,” Prov lamented in his mind, completely ignoring Demetri. “I can no longer care about my own best friend, let alone political issues,” thought Prov bitterly.
As the Demetri proceeded with his ranting and talked about frivolous subjects, Prov engaged in a relentless battle between an army of negative thoughts, unable to enjoy his time. What frustrated Prov even more was that he had always thought he had achieved mastery over his mind and his thoughts, but now he found himself stuck in never-ending spirals of negative and unwanted thoughts. He felt like he had lost his autonomy--and this frightened him.
At half-past nine, Prov returned home. His father always sat at the end of the living room at night, reading or watching his usual hyper-intellectual genres of books and documentaries. As Prov entered the house, Howard hoped to see him in a more composed state. But like most other similar nights, Prov entered the house almost surreptitiously, with slouched shoulders and slow steps, confirming Howard’s fears: Prov was returning with more hopelessness, pessimism, and melancholy despite leaving his bed.
Prov had developed a ritual before hitting the hay that involved intensely ambivalent feelings--he would reminisce about the not-too-long-ago pleasant past with great vividness and detail.
He would recall the time his friends had thrown him a wild birthday party, when he had traveled abroad with his school friends for weeks, when he had won a tennis championship at the district level, and other such memories. What linked all these unforgettably refreshing moments was the sense of euphoria and peace of mind they brought him. If Prov were to describe himself with one word in those moments, it would simply be “happy.”
But as much delight and positivity as this reminiscence brought to Prov’s heart, it imprisoned him at the same time--it painfully reminded him of how miserable and tormented he had become. He would compare himself to the way he used to be: relentlessly ambitious, perpetually cheerful, and unwaveringly optimistic. But now, the time frame of his interest had diminished. Prov, who used to outline a set of ambitious goals every six months, couldn’t even think about the next week, and sometimes, the next hour--the mental anguish would be so bewilderingly excruciating that he would become solely occupied with it and succumb to the pressure it was accompanied by.
Perplexity and anguish had not befallen only Prov that night, for on the other side of the house, Howard was also restlessly tossing and turning in the hopes of falling asleep. Howard had always taken pride in his only son; he would often talk about Prov in the company of complete strangers. But now silently witnessing his son deteriorate slowly but surely and listening to him rambling about suicide, he couldn’t brush off the image of his son hanging himself. Although he had faith in his son, that despicable image terrified him to the core. He had started sobbing uncontrollably by the crack of dawn because of the grotesqueness of that image in his mind.
Prov’s favorite part of the day was the one that followed his slumber. His mind would be perfectly placid and clear; his thoughts still like a serene ocean; his energy adequately balanced. But as soon as a moment or two would pass by, he would be hijacked by stubbornly negative thoughts--ones he had absolutely no control over. This morning, though, unlike other days, as Prov made his way to the kitchen, he stumbled into his father, who was supposed to be at work considering it was Thursday.
“D...dad?” mumbled Prov, knitting his thick eyebrows in frown.
“Good morning, son. I hope you had a good night’s sleep,” said Howard, grinning widely, as though there is something to celebrate.
“Why are you here?” responded Prov, hastily with a tinge of anger and irritation.
“I’m here to spend time with you,” responded Howard, emotionally but firmly, and stood up, wearing his slippers. Prov’s face shone with both delight and perplexity at his father’s unusual behavior. But he knew his father knew what he was doing, because Howard, the astute philosophy professor, always knew what he was doing.
Howard prompted his son to wear his clothes, because they would be embarking on a trip that would serve as a significant milestone in Prov’s eye opening discovery of life. Prov had never expected this; he considered this unexpected trip to be a mere obligatory trip between a father and his sick son.
While putting on a slick black shirt with a polo logo on it, Prov found himself dreading the future. It was a typical emotion that possessed Prov in the morning, given that mornings were the time Prov felt most like a defeatist--at least that’s how he had felt for the past six months.
“I know I have every reason to be content and happy--many intimate relationships, a cohesive family, a vibrant social life, a shredded body, and a bright academic future. Yet I’m hopelessly miserable,” thought Prov to himself, feeling an unbearable weight pressing against his chest and collapsing on his bed.
In the midst of this negative spiral of thoughts, while wearing and pondering his socks, as though analyzing the biggest mystery of his life, Prov spotted his father standing in the doorway.
Howard stood still as a rock, looking intently at his son, with incredible empathy. “I think it is safe to say you are in no mood to detach yourself from your bed, but I still maintain that the sight of the sea would bring comfort and peace to your distressed mind,” said Howard, pronouncing each syllable coolly.
“We both know it is only in my mind; even the sight of paradise won’t do me any good,” Prov responded, slowly and despondently, resting his forehead on his knuckles.
In that moment, Prov thought about his mother, who had passed away three years ago after struggling with a vicious brain cancer. She had been the most loving, caring, and tender-hearted human being he had ever known. Her face always shone with affection; her smile was radiant, and she sent ripples of her grace like waves wherever she set foot. Despite being a fervent atheist, Prov had a strange yet comforting image in his mind of his mother resting up in heaven in a white dress, with her melancholic eyes looking down morosely at her crushed little Prov. He imagined her soft voice telling him, “You will be fine, my beloved son.” He wanted to hear it so badly. But most importantly, he wanted to believe it.
Noticing his son preoccupied and disconcerted, Howard squeezed Prov’s left shoulder and quoted an aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Howard said it with so much conviction that Prov found himself believing it instantly. Although Prov would otherwise have regarded the aphorism as a mere banal cliché, one that he had heard repeatedly, this time, this particular time in this particular intense state of suffering, it struck him like a bolt of thunder. He began to feel, for the first time in months, a glimpse of genuine hope, a shred of meaning in his suffering. He felt like a thirsty nomad who, after crossing a fiery desert, had been offered a sip of cool water.
A multitude of questions were brimming inside Prov’s head at that moment, “How on earth will this debilitating demon make me stronger? Is it possible that I’m suffering for a reason?” As he paused for a moment, trying to collect his thoughts and calm himself, a more vicious and spine-chilling question surfaced, “How could it make me stronger if it does eventually kill me?”
Unable to fight this battalion of unnerving thoughts, Prov screamed loudly and almost violently, puzzling Howard as pangs of terror gripped his heart.
“I’m here with you son! I’ll always be with you!” exclaimed Howard impulsively, now sitting and embracing his son.
“What did I do to deserve this? Tell me! What?” shouted Prov, as though he was certain his father could give him an easy answer. “Nothing. I’m sorry you are coming to the painful realization that life is not fair at this young and delicate age. Life isn’t fair, but that does not mean it is not worth living either,” said Howard in a slow yet wise manner. “Now finish dressing up. Let’s leave this house that you must have come to resent by now.”
Prov said nothing and complied, knowing that arguing with his father was futile. Besides, given that the Prozac prescription and talk therapy had only mitigated the symptoms and not cured them, he knew this was a direction he was utterly oblivious to. Maybe, just maybe, there was something he could glean from his suffering.
As Prov finished dressing, he went to the mirror, and took a quick glance at himself--he still looked weary. But this time, he viewed his weary and disheveled appearance quite differently; he could not yet pinpoint how, but he recognized his tiredness as something worthy, something necessary even. He called for his father, and the trip began.
Before they embarked on the trip, Prov looked at his father’s black Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG strangely, walked toward it proudly, and asked his father, “Can I drive the car, please?”
“Are you sure you can drive?” asked Howard, knitting his eyebrows together.
“Absolutely,” responded Prov, with a resolute determination that surprised even him.
Prov’s passion for driving was recent and directly proportional to his misery. The more lost he felt, the more eager he became to drive, because driving gave him a sense of control over something. For six months, he felt like he and the way he felt were far from normal--out of control, in particular.
He felt like his thoughts and emotions were simply deviant, and he felt reluctant about calling himself autonomous. Prov reasoned that if he was partly made out of his thoughts, and he had no control over them, then there was really no self over which he had control. Hence, he concluded that he was merely an observer of a random stream of consciousness.
Prov fixed the seat swiftly, calmly adjusted the front mirror, and eventually ignitedthe engine--mundane tasks that had come to seem daunting to the exhausted Prov. And so the trip and the conversation commenced.
“This could very well be one of the worst trips you will take since you emerged from your mother’s womb,” said Howard suddenly, looking up the cloudless sky through the window.
“I don’t understand,” responded Prov, looking wonderingly at his father, who was lost in thought. “Why would it be? Aren’t we supposed to be going to the beach?”
“We are. But why should you suppose that it had to be a joyous trip?” asked Howard in a challenging yet witty tone.
“Well then why would you take me out while I’m severely depressed when you know it could be one of the worst trips of my life?” exclaimed Prov, evidently annoyed and frustrated with his father’s questioning.
“This was merely an example of what pessimism does for you--it prepares you for the worst, downsizes the stress of your expectations, and protects you from the agony of disappointment,” asserted Howard, emphasizing on the words “agony” and “stress,” two emotions that had been glued to Prov’s heart for months.
“So are you telling me that pessimism will help me? Am I not miserable enough that I need to be more pessimistic now?” asked Prov, irresponsibly increasing the car’s speed and losing his calm.
“I’ll elaborate on my point and clear any confusion you might have about pessimism, but only after you slow the car down, if you wish to reach the seashore in one piece,” said Howard good-humoredly, adjusting his posture as he usually did when he was about to deliver a lecture.
While keeping an eye on the road, Prov stole quick glances at his placid father. He was particularly awestruck by his father’s exceedingly dignified demeanor, his eloquence, and his majestic calm. “It seems to me that you are living in a painfully and absurdly optimistic frame of mind, son,” commenced Howard, adjusting the tone of his voice to a calmer one.
“If there were ever a person who was even slightly optimistic, that person is not going to be me,” muttered Prov in a melancholic voice.
“It is no fault of yours, I think, that you, someone who was markedly ambitious, have come to bear high expectations from the world. You were told, incessantly and persistently, that you can be whoever and whatever you want to be. Businesses trying desperately to sell you things understandably attached the element of hope and happiness to whatever they wanted to sell. You were promised eternal happiness from anything you could lavishly spend your money on--beauty products, cars, a house, a dazzling degree, and so on. Moreover, you as a child of this generation, fell prey to technology and its ability to beautify and embellish life in all its outlets,” articulated Howard with outstanding ease, gesticulating calmly to emphasize his point.
“The more time you spend on social media, the more you are convinced that people are not miserable but happy. People are almost coerced to project their most cheerful, polished, and successful side on social media, carefully excluding their tricky and unsound sides. Consequently, you wind up with the false and malicious notion that people are perpetually happy and secure, which is the polar opposite of the reality,” continued Howard, crossing his arms and shaking his head.
Provolone was listening keenly with rapt attention to every word Howard uttered. He felt strangely comforted by his father’s words, precisely because he was becoming more comfortable with his suffering. Subsequently, his thoughts immediately turned toward his social media profiles. “If anyone were to scroll through my social media profiles, they would come across countless posts where I appear unbelievably happy,” thought Prov, completely immersed in his thoughts. “Maybe that’s the case for majority of the people on social media; maybe they are as miserable and confused and lost as I am, but they are merely hiding it.” Prov knew his thoughts may be exaggerated, but he felt less alone.
After a one-hour drive, the two arrived at their destination: Howard feeling hyper-intellectual and ready to delve deeply into the subjects of pessimism and the modern world and Prov feeling fatigued but spirited enough to be keenly interested in his father’s words.
Howard’s choice of the destination of this trip, the beach, was far from arbitrary. He had chosen the beach--which was serene, empty, downbeat, and melancholic at the time--for a reason. He knew that the places where people imagined themselves the happiest tended to be places filled with people--a party with friends, a crowded nightclub, or lit streets filled with cheerful faces. But he knew that this prevented people from recognizing and appreciating the charm of other places, even if those places were calm, isolated, and spacious.
In these lonely places, Howard believed, we are encouraged to meet ourselves--a meeting that the routines and chores of everyday life prevent us from having--and examine ourselves. In these solitary empty places, we don’t have to pretend to be anything, not even happy. We can own up to the loneliness and sadness we may have kept hidden for the longest time.
As the two walked along the beach, the endless, boundless jewel-blue sea stretched before them. The waves created gentle ripples, producing sounds that soothed both souls. The air was pregnant with the smell of salt, and the sky hung like a curtain of silk. The two left footsteps across the beach, walking barefoot. Prov looked down at the golden sand, while Howard looked up at the cloudless sky.
“What I want to explain to you today is that we as a society can become a bit more cheerful if we learn how to be a bit more pessimistic,” suggested Howard, determined on explaining the bright side of pessimism to his dejected son. “In many texts and holy books, religions were adamant about spreading the message that the world we live in consists of immense suffering and pain. Therefore, before touching upon salvation and rules, religions were for the most part pessimistic about earthly existence. For example, the first Truth in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that all life is suffering, pain, and misery. Christianity placed great emphasis on the darker side of humanity. All this literature was helpful, because it kept our expectations in check.”
“But...isn’t being pessimistic unhealthy? Does it not bring out the worst in ourselves and our days?” asked Prov, his eyes beaming with childish inquisitiveness.
“For most of human history, we have been undoubtedly pessimistic. Religions inculcated in us the notion that life can be deviant, arduous, and unfair. It is only recently, around the advent of the Renaissance, that philosophers and thinkers started placing emphasis on happiness. It was not coincidental given that at the time, religion began to decline.”
“‘Oh happiness! Our being’s end and aim’ was passionately declared by the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope,” said Howard, reflecting his passion for memorizing and rehearsing aphorisms. “‘It was the best thing one could do to be always cheerful and not suffer any sullenness’ John Byrom had echoed. ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ is often cited as the chief cornerstone of the American dream.”
“Hmmmm,” murmured Prov, deciding not to interject so he could hear his father’s continuous stream of thoughts.
“So, as you can infer, the emphasis on happiness is not only a recent development but also unprecedented. And to answer your question, no, pessimism isn’t unhealthy--quite the contrary. In such a perfectionist and meritocratic world, there is colossal pressure on the individual to succeed, and parallelly the individual also has high expectations to achieve great things. Yet, statistically speaking, not everyone with a garage and high ambition will be able to build a multi-billion-dollar company.” Howard was referring to Steve Jobs, who was one of Prov’s idols.
“Pessimism’s primary role is to look at the world more critically and objectively and reduce one’s expectations about the world so that one does not face harsh disappointments every single day.”
Howard spoke with striking precision, eloquence, and fervor. He did so because of his great fondness for pessimism as a philosophy. In his everyday conversations, he often cited Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Pascal, and a range of other pessimistic philosophers that he belonged to. Despite being a pessimist, Howard did not strike as gloomy or low-spirited to people--his students revered and venerated him tremendously. One time they violently burst into tears because the semester had come to an end, which meant they would cease to be enlightened by his wit, vigorousness, and breadth of experience.
“One man who was acutely conscious of society’s recent infatuation with happiness and unrealistic expectations was the prominent psychologist William James, who came up with a helpful equation about happiness,” continued Howard animatedly.
“An equation?” asked Prov, looking at his excited father with wonder and inquisition.
“Yes. William James proposed that happiness was achievable, of course, but it is highly contingent upon our expectations. The equation is--happiness equals reality over expectations. This means there are two ways to achieve and sustain satisfaction: we can either change our reality or our expectations.
Pessimists know how to reduce expectations, and their justification for this is that reality and circumstances are sometimes impossible to alter. Expectations, pessimists argue, are within our reach; we can adjust them whenever and in whichever way we want. In addition, pessimists are mindful of a myriad of notions about life: they are aware that life will not always function the way they want it to; dissatisfaction and boredom are norm; relationships are tricky and difficult to manage and maintain; our jobs can be mediocre and dull; illnesses are just around the corner waiting to ambush us.”
Prov was dumbstruck, “I’m still 19...I haven’t seen much. Maybe it’s true that I’m expecting too much from life. Maybe that’s the source of my misery. Maybe it’s normal to be sad and bored,” thought Prov to himself, waiting impatiently for his father’s next words.“Saneca, an ingenious Roman Stoic philosopher, believed that in order to confront the tragedies of life, one had to follow philosophy as a discipline, and more importantly, to master pessimism.”
“He moreover wrote a book about anger. Nowadays, anger is associated with neuroticism and short temperaments, but Saneca thought this had no basis in reality. He had an interesting observation to share about the matter--he asked people, particularly in Northern Europe, why they didn’t get worked up when it rained. He said people didn’t get angry or worked up over the rain because they expected rain. Why get worked up about something you expect will happen? He believed we could adopt this shrewd and astute approach to all areas and aspects of life.”
“How do you mean?” asked Prov, knitting his brows together.
“Well, think about being stuck in traffic. People usually get infuriated at the traffic, at why people are inept at driving and so on. Saneca believed that this anger and irritability resulted from our excessive optimism and our distorted vision of what life really is. It results, in the case of our vexation at the traffic, from our optimistic and hopeful worldview that the world we live in should be mysteriously traffic-free. Thus, we believe we have the right and reason enough to get angry. This way, our expectations define what will ultimately sadden and anger us.”
“So tell me more about this Saneca guy, he seems fascinating,” Prov said. This was one of the few times when the depressed Prov was taking a genuine interest in anything. Under the malevolent influence of depression, his interest in life had dwindled, to the point that even his favorite activities--tennis, movies, reading, socializing--had become dull and wearisome. It was no surprise then that Howard became inwardly ecstatic, for he had not witnessed his son being interested in anything for a long while.
“Saneca, who is considered as a tragedian, encouraged us to think that our fate was tied to the hands of the goddess of Fortuna. The goddess of fortune was believed to be a woman who supervised and determined all of our destinies, and she was deemed to be the personification of luck in the ancient Roman religion implying that she could bring good or bad luck. However, she was considered to be wholly capricious--she was brutish, vain, and she may, at random and arbitrary points, decide to bestow someone with success or punish another with death. Moreover, in ancient Rome, she was ubiquitous: she was in statues, the backs of coins, and so on. Her chief message was that most of our lives are in the hands of somebody else, and no matter how much rational control we attempt to exert over our lives, at some point or the other, misfortune, which was derived from the name of the goddess, will befall us.”
“And how can we cope with such harsh hair-raising unpredictability?” asked Prov, his eyes wide open and his lower lip quivering.
“In order to try to cope with the sheer unpredictability of fortune, Saneca advised us to undertake what he called a premeditation exercise. It involves waking up every day and rehearsing and running through your day ahead. You should imagine every possible disaster that could befall you, not because they will necessarily happen, but simply to protect yourself from the excessive shock and sorrow if they do happen.
Howard then quoted Saneca, which was a fairly easy task for him, given that he regularly cited Saneca in his lectures, “‘The wise will start each day with the thought that Fortune gives us nothing that we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl...We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.’ In other words, we live in a very delicate and unpredictable world, and our ultimate job is to accept this and not be alarmed at misfortunes, given that they are the norm of the world.”
Howard then looked at his son and said, “Saneca also wrote that no one should have a child without being able to tolerate the idea that the child might be dead by evening.”
When he heard these words, Prov experienced a range of intense yet pleasant emotions. His depression had been momentarily abated. For when he listened to the bleak philosophy of Saneca and the tenets of pessimism, he felt less alone in his sadness. He had the eye-opening realization that sadness was not an anomaly. It is not a deviation from the norm. Prov reasoned that maybe that was the normal human condition, and one should accept it and even transcend it.
After the insightful conversation, strangely enough, Prov felt calmer and even a little wiser. The two were sitting in the swash zone, occasionally but vigorously throwing pebbles into the glittering sea. Prov’s shoulders were slouched--he was still a little exhausted--and Howard was sitting upright confidently. After a moment of perplexity, Prov exclaimed, “But what is the meaning of all this suffering? Why do I have to endure it at all?”
Howard was intrigued by his son’s musing, for the question of meaning was of particular interest to him. “Meaning, as opposed to pleasure or power is, in my view, the primary interest of humans, and it is strenuously most often pursued when one is trying to make sense of the injustice and pain in this world, so you are on the right track, my son,” said Howard, smiling compassionately at his crestfallen son. “I suspect there is no combination of words that can adequately and accurately portray the hideous experience of living in a Nazi concentration camp. Living there meant that your probability of dying was higher than that of living on any given day. Yet, despite the grotesqueness of their conditions, some found meaning in their indescribable suffering. Victor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was one of the few lucky enough to survive the holocaust and draw compelling psychological conclusions about suffering and its meaning.”
“Hmm...what kind of conclusions?” asked Prov, his attentiveness now at its peak.
“Well, first, Frankl made the interesting observation that those who survived the longest in the concentration camps were not those who possessed a more robust physical stamina. Those who managed to control their attitude towards their environment by finding meaning in their suffering and torment were the ones who survived the longest. In other words, as Nietzsche wisely put it, ‘he who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any “how”’. But the ‘why’ that one must live for is and should be different for everyone. The meaning of life, my son, is not a concrete or objective thing--it depends on the person in any given situation at any given moment. Most importantly, you should know that we are entitled to the freedom of finding meaning, even in the face of unchangeable suffering. Always remember that meaning can be found not in spite of suffering, but because of it.”
“Well, can you at least give me an example of how one can find meaning in their suffering? It does not seem feasible to me,” claimed Prov, waiting anxiously for a reply.
“Frankl narrated the story of an elderly general practitioner who had sunk into severe depression for more than two years. The old man’s depression resulted from the fact that he could not overcome the loss of his wife, whom he loved dearly and passionately. As the old man consulted Frankl and sought his help, Frankl abstained from telling him anything. Instead he wisely asked him a crucial question, ‘What would have happened if you had died first and your wife would have had to endure your death?’ To this the elderly man responded, ‘It would have been terrible for her; how she would have suffered!’ Then Frankl said to the elderly man, ‘She has been spared of this suffering, and it is you who have spared her this suffering. But now you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.’ Hearing this unexpected but powerful statement, the elderly practitioner, was speechless. Feeling a burden lift off his chest, he shook Frankl’s hand and left the office.”
Prov was trying to understand the relevance of the story to his situation, and although it made a little sense to him, he asked his father, “So what was the moral of the story?”
“Well we often hear of someone who is suffering greatly, and that suffering, after acquiring meaning, is not only reduced but also tolerable and bearable. The elderly practitioner was able--after two years of great suffering--to derive meaning from his torment: in his suffering, he had spared his wife pain she would have had to endure otherwise.”
Prov finally understood it: meaning is found not in spite of the suffering but because of it. After his father’s wise words, he now began longing for meaning in his life and in his suffering instead of relentlessly pursuing pleasure, and in that particular moment.
“So what is the meaning of my depression and my sadness?” asked Prov, sighing deeply.
“Depression is a very complicated illness, but part of it results from one trying too hard to be in a certain state. In other words, you feel the way you do because your reality has not lived up to your expectations of the world. Deep inside, you know something is wrong and something has gone adrift, but instead of pretending that all is good in your world, like most people do, you were brave and courageous enough to admit that something was awry, that something had gone quite wrong. So instead of deeming yourself as feeble or as a loser, you should know that you are depressed because you are true to who you are.” Despite being under the siege of depression for six months, Prov had never had the opportunity to view his depression from this angle, an angle that denoted nobility and growth. “So are you saying there is a silver lining in depression?” asked Prov with utmost seriousness, raising his eyebrow at his father.
“Indeed. Depression can be a helpful reminder that something is going wrong. It presents us with a great opportunity to recognize and address some serious and difficult life problems. Physical and mental pain are no doubt vastly different, but what they do have in common is that both emerge to signal the need for behavioral change.
Physical pain denotes injury, which will in turn prevent further injury and promote precautionary behavior. Depression, on the other hand, develops to force one into a process of self-awareness, self-development, and growth. A depressive state places one in an isolated frame of mind so one can distance themselves, properly process suppressed emotions, reprioritize and evaluate their needs, and develop an elaborate plan for a better future. Therefore, a depressive state invariably leads to a clearer understanding of ourselves, our surroundings, and even the extent of our morality and freedom,” said Howard, with a firm conviction. This was a conviction that solidified by his own experience with depression.
Provolone, meanwhile, felt his entire attitude towards life beginning to alter, expand, and deepen. During this stimulating conversation with his father, he had gained wisdom and confidence, and he now regarded himself as a deeper person. Howard, feeling like he had ignited a fire of self-discovery in his son, was satisfied.
“So to conclude our trip, son, I’m going to say this quite bluntly--those who tell you that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness are mere imbeciles. A healthy and well-adjusted person is destined to experience a wide range of emotional states. To narrow down the depth and range of one’s emotional life to a single domain, say happiness, will render one’s life shallow, for he will seldom experience something deeply. A life that lacks depth and profundity is by definition shallow and meaningless. There will be times when certain states may seem like they have been brought to bear, times when you feel the need to be angry, or sad, or compassionate, or anxious, or myriad other emotions. Life is so vast and beautiful and tragic that you have to be prepared for it my son, not by being happy, but by being a man who values purpose and meaning.”
The two strode proudly back toward their car silently without uttering a single word, but both their steps communicated confidence, depth, and purpose. The two hopped into the car as though an arduous mission had been accomplished. This time, however, Prov did not long to drive, perhaps because he did not feel the need to be in control of anything. Howard drove calmly, and occasionally glanced at Prov, who had shut his eyes, pushed his seat back, and put the recliner on. The window was open, and the blissful wind, besides making the tree branches dance, caressed Howard’s spirits. Both of them felt exalted and at peace. In that particular moment, they turned a blind eye to both, the future and the past, and they yielded to the precious present. The ride was long, soothing, and serene, and as much as the two had enjoyed their conversation hours ago, they appreciated the silence and tranquility this ride afforded them.
Upon returning home, Prov, although still suffering from depression, felt rejuvenated and liberated, in other words, comfortable in his sadness. Now his primary point of interest was not pleasure or power. It was meaning that he passionately longed for. That was why, contrary to his new developed habit, he grabbed his phone and called silly Demetri. This time however, not to seek pleasure or derive pure enjoyment--he did not expect much anyway--but to have a meaningful time with his childhood best friend, and maybe, as a by-product, happiness would come into view.