Progressing. Toward Misery?

Some words are burned into our psyche, but used for whatever purposes suit our secret feelings:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Well, yes. Of course. And these lofty words are sufficiently vague, easily misunderstood, as to justify our rejection of the laws of physics, the parameters of human nature, the limits of reality.  We take comfort in the certainty of the righteousness of our beliefs, and yet, things aren’t really working out terribly well as people demand their self-evident truths be accepted by everyone else, all of whom have self-evident truths of their own, which are often in conflict.

I awoke this morning to an email from Jordan Rushie, with the comment, “I’m not even shitting you.”  It included a link to a story about how a woman, “a feminist and atheist,” suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by “online harassment and Twitter trolls.”


Jordan’s “I’m not shitting you” was meant to convey the absurdity of her claim. I, on the other hand, don’t find it absurd at all. I don’t even find it surprising. There is nothing surprising about how a challenge to one’s assertions can bring about suffering. One of the tenets of progress is that everyone has a right to express one’s feelings without traumatic reaction. It’s similarly unsurprising that she refuses to be silenced.

Whatever we feel entitled to has become an unalienable right. We will not forego our rights, and anyone who disputes us violates those rights. There is a laundry list of words used to describe this violation: oppression, trauma, prejudice, hate.

There is a problem with this approach. It’s untenable. One person’s right infringes on another’s. Whose right wins?  Well, yours does, silly. The other person’s right is wrong; your entitlement prevails.

But we can’t all be the big shot in the private corner office. We can’t all be beloved on the twitters. The laws of physics preclude us from simultaneously occupying the same space.  Innate intelligence presents an insurmountable obstacle to all of us being the most successful person in the world.  Some just don’t have the smarts to get to Harvard, to get that gazillion dollar job, to impress the person we want to love us, to adore us, to admire us. We do not all have superpowers.  Some of us are condemned to live lives of quiet desperation.

Children will fall down on the playground and bruise their knee, no matter how hard parents try to prevent harm from happening.  Women will need to take leave from their jobs to bear children, because child-bearing is something only women can do.

If they choose not to have children, they will bear certain inevitable consequences, such as the loss of the joy of parenthood. Society will bear the loss of a laboring oar to pay for social security for people who already have more than a child today can hope to achieve. When these women take leave, businesses are supposed to pay them for the time they don’t work, because businesses magically make money to cover non-productive workers.

It’s not fair. None of it is fair.

School children are suffering an epidemic of anxiety and depression. Yet they graduate unable to write, cipher or think. It’s chalked up to performance anxiety, but they still can’t perform. They are being harmed by the best of intentions, the American dream that every child should go to college and work in that corner office making gazillions of dollars, while enjoying the love and adoration of someone whose life is dedicated to supporting their entitlement to the pursuit of happiness.  People who are fat, or unpleasant, or narcissistic, struggle to find that special someone, their soul mate, but the problem isn’t them. They are entitled to be fat, or unpleasant, or narcissistic, and they are also entitled to demand that life produce their mate, even if no one likes them.

We have more today than we have ever, as a society, had before, and yet less.  We’ve not achieved “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If anything, we seem to be getting further away from it.  There are pockets of success, though they seem to be fleeting.  There are so many great ideals in play, such as gender and racial equality, but which give rise to little more than conflict as entitlements clash. We are, as a society, pretty damn miserable. Progress isn’t working out nearly as well as it was supposed to.

It’s a terrible shame that Melody Hensley suffers from PTSD because of her experiences on twitter where her assertion of her rights resulted in a negative backlash, but the only cure is to silence the rights of others. She sounds pretty kooky, but aren’t kooky people allowed to be happy too?  Except everyone can’t be happy when their happiness is in conflict with someone else’s happiness.

It’s horrible that young students suffer outrageous rates of mental illness as well. What are we doing to them? How can we allow ourselves to harm children?  Especially since it’s for naught, as their trauma has failed miserably to turn them into smarter, better students. If anything, they’re far less educated than their predecessors.

What we are no longer capable of doing is assessing the viability of indulging our every whim, our right to personal happiness.  Progress cannot come at the expense of reality, no matter how strongly we feel that the things we wish for are right.  We are not entitled to every “right” that would make our world perfect.  We will not all get a corner office. Not everyone belongs in college. Some women are smarter than men, and some are not.

If we’re not going to be miserable, to make our children miserable, to suffer PTSD whenever someone tells us we’re stupid, evil or ugly, we’re going to have to be a little more realistic about achieving our perfect world.  It’s not going very well at the moment, and pushing your agenda isn’t going to change the laws of physics, no matter how much you feel entitled to pursue your happiness.

27 thoughts on “Progressing. Toward Misery?

  1. Ehud Gavron

    nota bene the children having this epidemic of anxiety, depression, and hence performance failure are US children. This “epidemic” seems to not affect members of other countries and cultures.

    Similarly the safe-space PTSD-causing desire to corner-office oneself above all others also appears to be a entitled-generation thing — in the US.

    Happy new year, unless your new year conflicts with mine, in which case, corner-office.

    on a strictly technical note in the time it took me to type the above at 60-80wpm the CAPTCHA timed out. Please consider setting it to be more Turing and human detecting. MG!

    1. SHG Post author

      People seem to think I have far greater influence over the captcha than I do. I, too, am its servant, and I welcome my captcha overlord.

      1. Keith

        Give me the keys to the kingdom and if vanquish this captcha tyrant.

        Until then…
        It’s a question as old as time and my (our) people have been learning, and passing to our children, these simple words for thousands of years:

        Ben Zoma says:
        Who is rich?
        The one who is appreciates what he has…
        (Talmud—Avot 4:1)

        I’ll teach them to mine. Problem solved?

        1. SHG Post author

          I’ll teach them to mine. Problem solved?

          Your children are still young. One of the saddest things I’ve come to realize is that our influence, our ability to teach our children the ancient virtues, isn’t as great as we think and hope it is. Parents of a certain persuasion tend to teach harder lessons, while the lessons taught by others tend to be easier, more palatable, more consistent with what they would prefer the world be like than what will work and bring them eventual happiness, comfort and satisfaction.

          By the time we parents realize this, our sphere of influence has already passed, and we can only watch and pray that we’ve achieved some small success.

          The captcha tyrant laughs at you as well.

          1. Keith

            I’m quite certain that one day, “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday”

            But that day ain’t here yet.

  2. Bruce Godfrey

    I concede your broad thesis, and ask consideration of the following: the grossly outrageous behavior of some online trolls – replete with rape threats, vulgarity within a local bus ride of obscenity, doxxing and in extreme cases SWAT-ting – also represents a fall from the norms of civilization, of classical concepts of virtue, at the same 9.8m/second-squared as that of our ability to cope with, well, that behavior.

    Ancient Rome, Greece, Jewish civilization and other societies understood and derived basic virtues (and complained in their day at times about how disappointingly corrupted the youth had become); Aesop’s moral fables predate even the Talmud. The virtues aren’t new. China probably covered them 500 years before then. We have fallen to the point where “values” are no longer a philosophical study of morally serious people but instead a trademarked lifestyle brand of an evangelical Christian subculture (“values voters”, etc.), or a poor synonym for “bargain.”

    Several months ago I did the unspeakable and walked around at the Columbia Mall in MD with my children. What struck me was seeing a store called “True Religion”; it sells jeans. The prior week I had passed by a store called “Justice” near opposing counsel’s office elsewhere; “Justice” sells not tort compensation awards, the passage of the Voting Rights Act or the incarceration of car theft rings, but rather cute clothes for the cute pre-teen spawn of the gentry. The screech for censorship, the behavior of trolls and the fact that hot pink smocks get sold for $25.00 at “Justice” derive from the same 9.8m/second-squared fall: we don’t really give a damn about the virtues any more. We can barely name them.

    1. SHG Post author

      I think history might surprise you as far as the fall of values. It’s happened with regularity, if not frequency, over the past few thousand years. It was common in America 250 years ago, and since. It’s hardly new.

      The difference is people didn’t curl into a ball and whine about it before, which is how we made it this far in a brutal universe. We fought back. We rejected the ruinous righteous when we realized it was nonsense. There have always been people telling other people how to behave, think, believe. They were entitled to dictate the rules of life because they were right, and anyone who didn’t comply was wrong and evil.

      We’re a tough and resilient species, and nature kept us in line no matter how far from values we strayed. It will do so again, whether by hard or soft means. Think variations on Malthus. On our present trajectory, we’re looking at a very hard fall before we will need to straighten up our self-serving bullshit.

  3. DaveL

    The laws of physics preclude us from simultaneously occupying the same space.

    Check your fermionic privilege.

    1. David M.

      One of my favorite pastimes is using quantum physics to fuck with philosophy grad students. Picking philosophy as a minor was worth it for this reason alone.

  4. Marc not-R


    You make the same mistake you attribute to Ms. Hensley – you had me right up to the last paragraph where you seem to say that there we are not “entitled” to pursue happiness. I agree with you contention that it is not going well with regards to our rights to life and liberty, but in the same way the Declaration asserts a right to life and liberty, it also presents the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right as well.

    What we don’t have a right to expect, and this is where Ms. Hensley (and most other “social justice warriors” – and I have no idea if Ms. Hensley considers herself one or not) go off the rails, is that there is a right is to happiness. There is not, only a right to pursue it.

    I will agree that the right to pursue happiness takes a back seat to life and liberty (Maslow and all that), but by denying there is a right to the pursuit, you fall into the trap of those who would seek to also restrain our rights to life and liberty, rights which you battle to secure every day.

    1. SHG Post author

      I suspect you jumped the shark on your reading of the last paragraph. Try it again with the lens of their pursuit being the imposition of their value judgments that bring misery to others.

      1. Marc not-R

        Would not be the first time I’ve been accused of jumping the shark . . ..

        The imposition of value judgments on others would not be the “pursuit of happiness” in my book – it would be an end product, part of her “happiness”. And she can say any damn fool thing she wants in pursuit of that happiness. But to the extent she seeks to impinge upon my rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of my happiness, then she would go to far, which sets up a conflict of rights. Fortunately (for lawyers – unfortunately for those who have to vindicate their rights because they have the physical and economic expense of the fight), we have courts that generally appear to reigning in these excesses.

        This very dielectic (and I use that term with a touch of sarcasm) is evidenced by Bennett’s battle over the revenge porn statutes. Franks and Citron are going around proposing to affect the liberty (at the very least) in pursuit of some form of “happy” – removing the revenge porn purveyors (which others have done without resorting to the blunt instrument of the revenge porn statutes). And Bennett is fighting the good fight to stop that nonsense.

        And you would have had me completely if the last sentence had read: ” It’s not going very well at the moment, and pushing your agenda isn’t going to change the laws of physics, no matter how much you feel entitled to your happiness.”

          1. Marc not-R

            Yeah, I thought about adding your name (or Ken White or Marc R, etc), but since I am in Texas and I didn’t want bricks thrown at me for giving you a tummy rub, I chose Bennett (even though he spells his first name kinda funny).

            And I like the captchas with the roman numerals or hexadecimal. Though you do have to pay attention to the operator . . .. I hate getting told I suck at math!

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