Arguing With Reality (Bearing the Unbearable)

December 30, 2011

“Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all that we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten? I can’t bear thinking that existence is so insubstantial, a stone thrown in a pond that leaves no ripple.” Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin

Just because you can’t bear it, doesn’t mean that it’s not the case. To think otherwise, is to argue with reality.

To these impulses, we should think like one of Lincoln’s biographers,who responding to the President’s claim that European allies seemed to care more about tiny Northern defeats than his major victories, said simply: “Unreasonable it may have been, but it it was a reality.”

Soldiers can be refreshingly full of this pragmatism. After the Vietnam War, Col. Harry G. Summers argued with a North Vietnamese colonel, and tried to point out that the US was never beaten on the battlefield. The man replied: “That is true. It is also irrelevant.”

That some thought seems unbearable—be it insignificance or unfairness—is exactly why we must struggle with it and try to. Because our opinion on it has nothing to do with whether we have to put up with it.  It’s a good metaphor for what life in this universe is: a situation we’re stuck with. We were born far along in its existence and we will die long before it changes or ends. Its conditions were created in a distant past beyond our comprehension through organic, emergent forces powerful beyond our measure. The sooner we can get over this, come to terms with it, and accept our infinitesimalness, the sooner we may be able to live properly and with perspective.

It doesn’t extend that everything is meaningless or without purpose, rather that those human notions count only in the immediate present. Your opinion. Your technicalities. Your endless objections. They have no effect. There is no grand record that you may enter them into. What you have is in front of you. What you have is what happens. Focus on that. For it is all that you control.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

37 responses to Arguing With Reality (Bearing the Unbearable)

  1. first

  2. I posted this on the old FB, saying, “I love this writer’s meditations on our own insignificance.” Here’s the conversation that ensued:

    Respondent: I don’t know. When you start with a quotation cited from “Rin Tin Tin,” you kind of lost me from “hello.”

    Me: To discount something entirely because of its source is one step away from judging a book by its cover. Sometimes it might be the right thing to do, but not always.

    R: Agreed. But you still have to respect the power of first impressions. And choosing a strange source is a bit different from the choice of cover art. Besides, the author is supposed to grab the potential reader, not worry him. Can’t count how many books I passed over at the library yesterday, just not being intrigued by the cover.

    M: This begs the question: is it the writer’s problem, for having lost a reader — or the reader’s problem, for having lost a book?

    R: Good question. It depends on how badly the author wants to capture readers. I can’t imagine being held accountable as a reader for being sure I did not ‘miss’ something. I’d consume myself just searching. I think that’s the real opportunity cost. Better question: At what point do you stop reading an article or a book? What’s the psychological sunk cost of starting to read? And finding your worst fears realized?

    M: I struggle with this a lot. I have a lot of trouble not finishing something, even if I strongly suspect that it won’t be worth my time.

    Thought you might find it interesting.

      • Sorry, by “the old FB” I mean Facebook.

        • The funny thing is that it is a very good book. The dog is fascinating too

          • As a side-note, the respondent in that conversation is a professor at my old school. He’s a fairly sharp guy (as professors tend to be).

            The thing to watch out for though, as we get older, is to not get too secure in our own brilliance. We start to think that if we haven’t learned something by now then it must not be worth considering. After all, we’re great, right?

            Anyway, thanks so much for blogging about stuff that makes me think.

  3. Actuality should be distinguished from reality. Reality is the narrative mind generates that may or may not involve actuality, which is what really happened. Distinguishing between the two can be very difficult, impossible even for most.

  4. Agree with you 110% bro. If I can have a rotation of 5 or more 9 1/2’s to 10’s and make 200k+ in passive income via affiliate networks, adwords, and geoarbitrage while pounding shots with my boys, what does the future or past even matter?? Fuck do I care if I’m remembered by some turds 100 years from now. They’ll probably be fags and losers anyway.

  5. In the last 2 years many European politicians and pundits have been saying that markets are acting irrationally and therefore politicians have to send a “strong signal” to calm markets. When their “strong signal” (there have been several) fails to achieve anything, they blame it on the irrationality of markets, as if to say, “We are in this situation, but we shouldn’t be here, this shouldn’t have happened, so it doesn’t count.” But it did happen, so what’s the point in discussing whether it should have happened?

  6. Steven Soderbergh, in his brilliant film Schizopolis, creates an idea called Eventualism. It’s a dogma that states (read this carefully) that something will eventually happen. Genius.

  7. While I agree with the post to an extent, the dissonance between the reality of existence and our belief in own significance is what provides fuel for human life- art, love, war, etc. being products of this dissonance. “Arguing with reality” is what separates humans from the millions of other forms of life on earth and, ultimately, is what humans do best.

    • This is so very wrong

      • How so? If you actually read my comment, you’d realize what I meant: general confusion (whether subconscious or not) over death and self-significance is “the immediate present” for many, and is an enormous, driving force for people. I’m not advocating it as a way of life, simply saying that it exists and will undoubtedly come into contact with everyone, Neo-Stoic or otherwise. Understanding this may even assist in rationalizing the seemingly inexplicable actions of people.

        • It may be a disagreement over the word “best.” That being said, stories are not the fuel. They are the justifications we come up with after the fact. The real fuel for why we do things, as you know, is much deeper and much more biological.

  8. I fucking love this article, thanks for posting.

  9. Strange, not even once God is mentioned. Are you so confident about his absence ?
    For many, including me, his luck is unbearable. It is unacceptable to assume our loved ones just vanish ! God is as black matter astronomers look for to justify what they see in stars.

  10. Look around! World is too perfect to be by an accident.
    Story about matter evolving to life is equally naive as artificial inteligence. There is no artificial inteligence, there is only inteligence of live creatures ! Life and inteligence are just two examples of miracles we omit to acknoledge. Ofcourse it is not a complete proof but sufficient hint that God exists !

    • Hey bro, ever consider that the universe only exists because we can observe it? It seems miraculously designed to support life, but if it weren’t able to support life, and we weren’t here to wonder about it, it would not exist.

      So, there could be a infinite number of failed “universes” that never turned out like ours did. But if nobody’s around to observe them, they don’t matter.

      Put another way, if I hook up a threesome with two 9’s or 10’s but don’t tell my boys or post a field report online, it’s as if I stayed in and played Skyrim that night.

    • No, no it’s not anywhere close to be as naive as that. One of the most freeing bits of advice I’ve ever gotten is “You can’t reason a person out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.” So I don’t argue about God with people–because, by definition, a faith based position and reason are mutually exclusive. Enjoy. I wish you the best with it, but you’ll get no further comment from me.

    • And I thought I was daft.

  11. I’m great because I make the people around me great. Sorry, I’m weird. I’m just a bartender.

  12. When someone argues of how there must be a God because the Earth is ‘perfect’, I point out the countless instances of rape, starvation, mass murder and living torture (i.e. sex trafficking) accumulated through the centuries. If they second-guess that, they’ve failed at empathy.

    • Hey bro, do you control if random people starve, get raped, killed or tortured? That’s right fag, you don’t. Therefore, these things are neither “good” nor “bad”, and have nothing to do with God. Every moment that you live in accordance with nature is a moment of perfection, and that’s all you need to and can control.

  13. For some reason this post made me think of philosophical underpinnings of Milan Kundera’s novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. Have you read that?

    • I haven’t. Should I?

      • Well I think it’s an OK book and worth some time. It’s known as his most famous work.

        Quoting wikipedia on the book:

        “Challenging Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence (the idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum), the story’s thematic meditations posit the alternative; that each person has only one life to live, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again — thus the “lightness” of being.

        In contrast, the concept of eternal recurrence imposes a “heaviness” on our lives and on the decisions we make (to borrow from Nietzsche’s metaphor, it gives them “weight”.) Nietzsche believed this heaviness could be either a tremendous burden or great benefit depending on the individual’s perspective.”

        I mean, you may not think that this theme converges on what you’re saying here, but your post did make me think about the book.

  14. Agreed, it is a great book. And it has a clarifying refrain/manta throughout.
    ‘Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!’
    ‘Must it be? It must be! It must be!’

  15. how bout you write something concrete, pragmatic, and realistic for once?

    Vague, ambiguous words may sound appealing….doesn’t add intrinsic value to fluff.

  16. There’s a saying the military has: “you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.”

  17. People can’t bear it. They try to make sense of it by making up all those elaborate myths. I heard a radio show where a person felt that he knew enough about what heaven was like that he could describe it. It was as though someone asked you if you’ve ever been to the beach and you went on to describe in full detail.

    so sad. I don’t know if we could ever change such view points. You can’t argue with someone like that. You pointing out that we’re animals like every other one ever found on this planet is pointless.