I write about bittersweetness a lot. It seems worth noticing that the essence of life is not doing away with every bad or unfortunate thing, or pretending we can completely avoid them, but rather in living with them decently when they occur.
Living like this, we have no choice but to do away with so much of our arrogance and need for security and certainty; and so living like this allows us to see all of the defense mechanisms we build up—ego, pride in whatever group or country or idea, all our prejudices—for the poisons that they are.
Yet sometimes it is worth wondering what unfortunate things we can avoid, and which we cannot. As I’ve heard it said: we are loveable for our imperfections, and in many ways the world is lovable and memorable because of those things that are imperfect and shoddy. And so: are the following observations a part of that inevitable imperfection? Is this the best we can do?
How men and women end up as gender caricatures; how this ruins good relationships and perpetuates bad ones; how this ruins communication between two people, from the moment they meet and forward, on up to how all relationships are portrayed culturally;
How politics is either extreme or, when “compromise” is reached, utterly mediocre and watered-down; how our language is merely used to evade, generalize, and say as little as possible; how corruption is assumed in all situations; how manipulation and expediency are assumed to be the motive of all actions, including those that would be considered genuine in any other setting;
How our popular culture is also utterly mediocre; how the most popular movies or songs are invariably some mixture of violent sex with sexy violence, bragging and irony, clever words and manipulative sounds; how the formulas and templates of storytelling, which once reflected a shared heritage and tradition, have degenerated simply into cliché stories populated by non-people, and punctuated by non-music;
How we become attached to our opinions and biases and favorite religions, attached to public figures, artists, movies, and music; how all aspects of identity, without exception and almost immediately, simply drive us apart; how, despite the altruism we pretend and the altruism we believe inherent in our most cherished beliefs, our kneejerk reaction is actually to be isolated into our ideological or preferential corners; how we actually seem to prefer being as selfish, judgmental, and condemnatory of others as possible;
How religions, born and grown from complexity and uncertainty and periods of change and growth, are so easily reinterpreted as simple, certain, and unchanging creeds and dogmas, thereby becoming more and more human, more and more about the ego and fear and rarely about actual transcendence, humility, empathy, or anything higher than our immediate impulses to self-preservation and the perpetual criticism of everyone who is not like us in even the smallest way;
How it is always easier to be selfish rather than selfless, and ignorant with excuses rather than to seek the mess of actual knowledge; how it is always easier to choose apparent certainty than it is to deal with doubts and uncertainties that cannot be resolved; how it is always easier to just be prejudiced in a million ways for a million reasons against a million people just because we are afraid and weak and can only cling to the cheapest and easiest and most unchallenging certainties and absolutes, all in the name of a sense of security and safety that doesn’t exist;
How, actually, all that allows us to engage in and experience the complexity and hugeness of our emotions and our minds and our lives—how our art, culture, politics, language, religion, and senses, are endlessly and perpetually cheapened and simplified, or just given the cheapest triggers to react to: bad movies, bad music, mediocre politics, inflammatory and dogmatic religion, the easiest and most mass-produced images and sounds and tastes, and the endless run for money, ambition, and supposed success;
How, actually, all that is complex and unable to be categorized and graphed, how all that is truly human and messy and frail and therefore worthy of compassion and love, humility and empathy, instead ends up simplified, cheapened, full of hatred and fear, and reduced to a pattern, a creed, an anthem, a formula, a false answer.
Is this the best we can do? Does the bittersweet and messy nature of life and our interactions with other people, with other cultures, and with our own past and our assumptions about the future, and the frailty of it all—does this make all of these unfortunate and ridiculous and tragically short-sighted elements of our culture inevitable?
A poet wrote of a “A condition of complete simplicity/Costing not less than everything.”[i] Is it possible for a few people, and then a few more, to see the “everything” mentioned above as actually nothing? Is it possible to slowly peel it all away?
And is part of the bittersweetness the struggle to do just that? And is part of the struggle and the bittersweetness to realize that such a condition of complete simplicity is not above suffering or hardship—or love and affection—but only the experience of all of those things more completely and fully than ever before, the unencumbered and total experience of actual life, suffering, love, and empathy? Is this not the best we can hope to do?
[i] T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets; “Little Gidding,” lines 253-254.