What to do with those pesky dreams of a better life
As we suffer through life, we are consoled by the dream that some day, we might finally find some state of happiness and fulfillment. We might dream of winning the lottery, of becoming a celebrated writer, of finding true love… The more we suffer in life, the more feverishly we hold on to that dream. But in these moments our dreams also make us suffer, as we feel we are far removed from realizing them, and we doubt if they will ever be realized. We could go even further and say that this distance from the dream is not merely a secondary, but a primary source of our suffering. Is the poor man unhappy simply because he is poor? It’s easy to imagine a caveman being perfectly happy with a fraction of the material wealth a modern poor man has. Or is the poor man unhappy because he dreams of becoming a rich man, but knows that it will most likely never happen for him?
So dreams are a double-edged sword: at the same time they give us hope for the future they make us suffer with anxiety and doubt if this future will ever come. Is the solution then to give up on our dreams, and strive for contentment instead?
We all know someone who has given up on their dreams, or might have done ourselves to some extent, and we know that giving up doesn’t lead to some Zen-like state of contentment, but to sadness, cynicism and bitterness. Why? Because in practice, we find it impossible to stop fantasizing. Only the content of our fantasies change: since we accept that happiness is impossible for us, in our fantasies it is others that are happy instead of us, or even stole that happiness from us. We fantasize that Kim Kardashian has a perfect life and follow her every insta post to enjoy vicariously through her, while at the same time hating her for not having deserved it. Or we fantasize that we could have been happy if not for some obstacle. You could have been wealthy if not for capitalist exploitation holding you down. You could have been a ballet dancer if you never got pregnant, etc, etc.
Alternatively we could courageously chase our dreams and work to realize them. But then when we actually do reach them, we discover that it doesn’t really scratch the itch like we thought it would. Ballet dancing has its ugly side, it doesn’t suddenly make your dead father proud of you, or fix your love life. As soon as we realize our dream, we discover that it didn’t fulfill us like we thought it would, and we need to quickly come up with an even bigger dream if we want to sustain our desire.
By this time we might start to suspect that this state of happiness we dream of is actually impossible to achieve, which it is. The enjoyment you get from fantasizing about a complete enjoyment is not some taste of the real thing, it is actually the only enjoyment a neurotic is ever going to get. This is why it’s impossible to give up on the fantasy, even as you give up on trying to realize it.
Knowing this, chasing your dreams is downright dangerous from the perspective of maximizing enjoyment. If we realize a dream, we can’t enjoy it anymore because we know it doesn’t bring the desired fulfillment. Realizing too many dreams might confront us with the impossibility of our desire, which risks killing all fantasy since we can’t fool ourselves anymore, and we lose what little enjoyment we had. Maybe it’s best, then, to not chase our dreams and accept the frustration that comes with that.
But of course we can’t, we must choose truth over enjoyment, even if it destroys us. How do we choose truth by realizing our fantasies? Precisely because it confronts us with the truth of our desire: namely that desire is fundamentally impossible (if it weren’t, it would be simple need, not desire proper).
Here another trap awaits us though: we can’t expect some kind of reward for our sacrifice. We can’t imagine that our suffering is somehow noble, that others should admire us, that we will be rid of anxiety and frustration afterwards. This would just be another fantasy that will tempt us to enjoy it rather than realize it.
So how can we ever achieve this crazy sacrifice that gains us nothing? Maybe the answer is to find a way to somehow enjoy our own self-destruction. To be clear, this should not be confused with some kind of suicidal attitude: “self-destruction” is meant here not in the literal sense, but in the much more radical sense of destroying your symbolic identity, your little place in the world, your small comforts. Since we logically cannot imagine our own non-existence, suicide is always based on a false fantasy of achieving peace, an escape from suffering. Rather, we should strive to become undead by pursuing our fantasies to the very end.
Originally published at https://maarten.substack.com on July 5, 2022.