Life Is Hard cover

Life Is Hard - Book Summary

How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way

Duration: 19:13
Release Date: March 13, 2024
Book Author: Kieran Setiya
Categories: Mindfulness & Happiness, Philosophy
Duration: 19:13
Release Date: March 13, 2024
Book Author: Kieran Setiya
Categories: Mindfulness & Happiness, Philosophy

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we delve into "Life Is Hard" by Kieran Setiya. This thought-provoking work, published in 2022, embarks on a journey through the universal tribulations of the human experience, including infirmity, loneliness, grief, and failure, offering rich perspectives from philosophy, fiction, sports, history, and the author's personal life. Setiya's eloquent examination of these common struggles provides invaluable insights into how we can navigate life's challenges with grace and wisdom.

About the author, Kieran Setiya is not only a respected professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but a writer whose contributions have adorned publications such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, the TLS, the London Review of Books, the New York Times, Aeon, and the Yale Review. With "Life Is Hard," Setiya builds upon the foundation laid by his previous work, "Midlife," further establishing himself as a guiding voice in the realm of practical, accessible philosophy.

This book is a beacon for anyone who finds themselves feeling overwhelmed by the myriad hardships and injustices festering globally or wrestling with personal adversities. It also serves as a treasure trove for fans of philosophy that speaks directly to the soul, offering real-world applications and profound understandings. Join us as we unpack the lessons intertwined in the simple yet profound assertion that life is, indeed, hard, and explore Setiya's philosophical roadmap for living well amidst adversity.

Embrace the Challenge: Finding Meaning in Life's Toughest Moments

Life, with its myriad of twists and turns, brings with it an array of challenges that can sometimes feel insurmountable. From the sting of loneliness to the heavy burden of grief, the universal trials we face seem to demand more of us than we think we can give. Yet, it's within these moments of hardship that we find the opportunity to truly learn how to live well. Kieran Setiya's "Life Is Hard" takes us on a profound journey, unraveling the complexities of our human condition through a unique lens that blends philosophy, literature, sports, memoirs, and the raw insights of personal experiences.

Infirmity, loneliness, grief, failure — these are not just obstacles to be overcome but facets of life to be understood and accepted. Setiya's exploration into these realms is not about offering quick fixes or simplistic solutions. Instead, it encourages a deep dive into the heart of our struggles, suggesting that a thorough and honest examination of life's hardships can pave the way for genuine growth and fulfillment.

Through the wisdom of philosophers past and present, alongside vivid examples drawn from various aspects of culture, "Life Is Hard" engages with the idea that confronting our troubles head-on, rather than shying away from them, enables us to forge a path through the darkness. This book posits that by accepting the inevitability of suffering and striving to understand its nature, we can learn not just to endure but to live well, embracing the richness and complexity of the human experience, even when the going gets tough.

From Agony to Empathy: Life Lessons on the Bathroom Tiles

Kieran Setiya's life took an unexpected turn at the age of 27. Amid the dim lights of The Oaks, a Pittsburgh movie theater, he was struck by a sudden, sharp pain that would mark the beginning of his long-term battle with chronic pain. The agony sent him rushing to the bathroom, seeking refuge and a momentary escape. That night, sprawled on his bathroom floor, hallucinations kept him company — a testament to the relentless discomfort that had entered his life.

The journey through countless doctor visits and a myriad of tests led to one singular piece of advice: "Try to ignore it." And for the next 13 years, that's precisely what Setiya endeavored to do. The pain ebbed and flowed, disrupting sleep and demanding constant adjustments to his routine. Yet, it didn't deter him from carving out a meaningful existence. His career flourished, touching the heights of academia at MIT, and his personal life brimmed with acts of love, support, home-making, and social activism. When the pain intensified over a decade later, it guided him towards a new doctor, fresh perspectives, and the inspiration to pen "Life Is Hard."

Setiya's narrative is not just one of enduring pain, but of finding richness and joy in life despite its constraints. He underscores a fundamental truth: living with limitations, be they due to chronic pain, disabilities, or other conditions, doesn't preclude us from experiencing life's vast tapestry. Whether it's the adrenaline of a basketball game, the melodies of favorite tunes, the beauty of sunsets, or the depth of love, life remains abundant and fulfilling.

Acknowledging limitations isn't about dwelling on what we can't do but about embracing what we can. While a wheelchair user might not run, they can still find immense joy and fulfillment in other pursuits. Yet, it's crucial to recognize the disparity in how we navigate these challenges — accessibility to resources like affordable insulin or healthcare can significantly sway one's ability to live well with conditions like diabetes.

Beyond the personal growth and adaptations, Setiya's journey illustrates how suffering can foster a profound sense of empathy and solidarity. Having faced nights of hallucinatory torment, he emerged with a deepened compassion for others enduring their own forms of agony. This shared vulnerability to pain connects us, making the exploration of loneliness in the human experience even more pertinent. After all, it's through acknowledging and sharing in our collective struggles that we find strength and understanding.

Finding Connection in Unexpected Places

Loneliness, an affliction as old as time yet as contemporary as ever, inflicts pain not unlike the physical. The silent ache of feeling disconnected or unseen mirrors the discomfort we experience from a physical wound. This parallel isn't merely poetic but is supported by studies revealing how social rejection activates the same brain regions associated with physical pain. To unravel the enigma of loneliness and its profound impact, let's engage with the insights of two philosophical giants on the essence of friendship.

Aristotle, with his monumental contributions to a vast array of subjects, dedicated a significant part of his work, the Nicomachean Ethics, to probing the nature of friendship. He posited that the foundation of friendship lies in the virtues of the individuals involved. According to him, the more virtuous a person — be it through honesty, humor, or skill in their profession — the richer their friendships. This perspective, however, introduces a troubling implication: the potential for a transactional view of friendship, where the loss of virtues could equate to the loss of friends, a notion at odds with our understanding of true friendship as enduring and unconditional.

Enter Immanuel Kant, a luminary of the Enlightenment, who challenges this notion by asserting that every person possesses an intrinsic value he terms as "dignity." Unlike "price," which can be assigned to objects replaceable in nature, dignity is unconditional, not contingent on one’s virtues. In true friendships, as well as familial and romantic relationships, this dignity forms the bedrock of our interactions, fostering a sense of unconditional love and appreciation.

It's this recognition and appreciation of our inherent value, our dignity, that's missing in the throes of loneliness, making us feel as though we're fading into oblivion, unheard and unseen. The remedy, surprisingly simple yet profound, lies in fostering genuine connections with others, rooted not in seeking validation or a cure for our loneliness, but in genuine care and interest in the other person. Engaging in acts of kindness, whether it be a warm greeting to a neighbor, holding a door open, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen, can bridge the gap between isolation and belonging.

These seemingly minor acts of connection, when accumulated, can significantly distance us from the clutches of loneliness, drawing us closer to a sense of communal belonging and shared humanity. Thus, in a world that sometimes feels fragmented and cold, the warmth of human connection, found in the most unexpected of places, holds the key to not just enduring, but flourishing amidst life's myriad challenges.

Navigating the Unpredictable Seas of Grief

Grief, a companion to love, is as inevitable as it is painful. If you've ever encountered the conventional stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — it's time to set aside these neatly ordered categories. Grief defies such linear categorization, manifesting instead in unpredictable, tumultuous waves that vary widely from one individual to the next.

This complexity of grief is captured vividly in "The Unfortunates," an innovative work by British novelist B. S. Johnson. Published in 1969, this experimental novel confronts the reader with the nonlinear nature of mourning. Through its unique format — 27 loosely bound sections meant to be read in almost any sequence, save for the designated "First" and "Last" parts — Johnson articulates a poignant message about grief's erratic trajectory, imitating the way our memories and emotions scatter and reassemble in the face of loss.

Across the globe, various cultures have developed rituals and traditions to lend shape to the chaotic experience of grieving. From the Jewish practice of sitting shiva to the mourning customs of the West African Dahomey people, who incorporate song, dance, and revelry into their remembrances, these practices serve as a framework for processing loss collectively. Even in ancient times, the Greeks and Romans observed elaborate mourning rites, demonstrating humanity's long-standing need to find solace and structure amidst the turmoil of loss.

The depth of grief's impact is perhaps nowhere more palpable than in the personal account of French writer Annie Ernaux. In her book "I Remain in Darkness," Ernaux chronicles the harrowing decline of her mother into Alzheimer's disease. The title, echoing the last words penned by her mother, speaks volumes about the despair and displacement felt in the wake of a loved one's passing. Despite longing for her mother's suffering to end, Ernaux finds herself "overcome with grief" when the inevitable occurs. This contradiction captures the essence of grief — a pain born out of love and the profound connections forged in life.

Grieving, then, is not a journey away from joy but rather a testament to it. The richness of our relationships and the depth of our love lay the groundwork for the intensity of our grief. Thus, the pain of loss, while harrowing, is also a measure of a life well-lived, filled with love and connection. To love deeply is to risk profound sorrow at its loss, but it's a risk that imbues our existence with meaning and connection. In embracing grief, we acknowledge the full spectrum of the human experience, affirming that to experience such suffering is not a detour from life but an integral part of living fully.

Embrace the Journey, Not Just the Finish Line

Failure is an inevitable part of life, manifesting in small missteps like missing a turn or forgetting an anniversary, and in grand misadventures that feel like they define us. In the realm of sports, failure not only feels more public but can leave indelible marks on one's reputation. Consider the infamous moments in baseball history — "Merkle's Boner," the "Snodgrass Muff," or the "Curse of the Bambino." Each of these instances showcases how a single error can overshadow an entire career. And perhaps no story illustrates this more deeply than that of Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher whose pitch led to the "Shot Heard ’Round the World," marking him as a failure in the eyes of many.

Joshua Prager's "The Echoing Green" delves into this moment but chooses to paint a broader picture of both Branca's and Bobby Thomson's lives beyond that pivotal home run. By weaving intimate details about Branca's loving family and Thomson's complicated relationship with his father into the narrative, Prager challenges the notion that one event — no matter how significant — can define a person. His unique structuring, where personal vignettes interrupt the recounting of the game, serves as a powerful reminder that our lives are a tapestry of countless events, not a single thread of failure or success.

"The Mezzanine," a novella by Nicholson Baker, further explores this idea by focusing on the ordinary moments that make up a life. Set during a single lunch hour on an escalator, Baker's work is a meditation on the mundane — shoelaces, childhood memories, the design of everyday objects — highlighting the beauty in the fabric of daily existence. These seemingly trivial details underscore a profound truth: life is not about striving for a perfect narrative arc but appreciating the journey, with its myriad successes and failures.

This perspective on life and failure draws wisdom from ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita, which advises us to focus on our actions rather than their outcomes. Such a mindset encourages us to value the process over the end result, safeguarding us from the despair that often accompanies perceived failure.

In essence, life's richness lies not in its grand achievements but in the journey itself — the experiences, lessons, and moments of connection that fill our days. By shifting our focus from the destination to the path we take to get there, we can find joy and fulfillment in the seemingly inconsequential, building a life that's meaningful not for its high points but for the journey it represents.

Embracing Life: Beyond Suffering and Towards Well-Being

In the intricate dance of life, suffering appears to be a steadfast partner, its presence inevitable. Yet, it's within our power to choose how this dance unfolds, ensuring that suffering does not dictate the rhythm of our lives.

Consider illness and disability, challenges that might seem to narrow the horizon of our experiences. They indeed place certain activities beyond our reach, but they cannot diminish the richness of life in its entirety. There remains an abundance of joy to be found in other pursuits, highlighting the resilience of the human spirit in finding new paths to fulfillment.

Loneliness, with its cold embrace, can create a void within us, a gap that seems unbridgeable. Yet, this very void presents an opportunity to extend our hearts and hands to others. In acts of caring and kindness, we discover bridges to connection, transforming loneliness into an avenue for deepening human bonds.

Grief, the shadow cast by love, carries with it an acute pain, a reminder of the depth of our connections. It is a testament to having loved deeply and truly. Echoing the timeless words of Alfred Lord Tennyson, "It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all," we recognize grief as not just a loss but a reflection of love's profound impact on our lives.

And then there's failure, a common visitor in our daily endeavors. While we stumble and falter, success too makes its presence known, albeit less dramatically at times. Herein lies a choice — a choice to focus on the triumphs, no matter how small, rather than the setbacks. This choice shapes our perspective, encouraging a view of life that celebrates progress and resilience over perfection.

In sum, life, with its inevitable challenges, also presents endless possibilities for growth, connection, and joy. Each obstacle, be it illness, loneliness, grief, or failure, harbors within it the seeds of transformation. By recognizing and nurturing these seeds, we can transcend suffering and embrace a life marked by well-being and fulfillment.

Life Is Hard Quotes by Kieran Setiya

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