David Heinemeier Hansson

September 22, 2022

Misery starts when the struggle ends

In the essay "Can socialists be happy?", George Orwell makes the penetrating observation that while humans can imagine hell in minute detail, heaven escapes anything but the most fuzzy, vague descriptions. We can't conceive of happiness beyond a reprieve from what currently ails us. It's a profound conclusion that has far-reaching implications for both the utopianists and the rest of us.

It's also a direction continuation of Dostoevsky's charge in Notes From Underground that humans will reject the most rational design for a state of bliss, if it means feeling reduced to a piano key, played to someone else's tune. We crave not just autonomy, but a struggle, to prove that we are human.

(Notes from Underground is a remarkable book, and a mercifully short one too, compared to the rest of Dostoevsky's works. I can't recommend it highly enough. But if you want an even briefer introduction to the part that pertains to this discussion, Jordan Peterson has an excellent lecture on the topic.)

This yearning for an identity-defining struggle is so great that humans will invent one if need be. Our current culture is overrun with such imaginary struggles on all sides. Bredding pathological attacks on the pillars of society, and even civilization itself, in the search for a struggle worthy of the self-actualization needs present in especially the over-educated, spiritually-malnourished part of the populace.

It's also likely a key factor in why some of the cultural battles long since won still have outposts insisting we keep up the fight. Like the whole discussion about Covid, continued masking, and vaccinations in the US. Many European countries moved on from that in the beginning of the year, and the rest not long after. Yet the cultural skirmish around this question in the US still has outposts putting up the appearance of an existential fight, as those last Japanese islands after WWII had long ended.

Much of that longing for a struggle is subconscious, obviously. Manifesting itself in actions, but not in realizations. But there are also the overt confessions for participation in a struggle. Casey Neistat accounts his own yearning to have been part of New York City's worst time with Covid as a contrast to the relatively safe, comfortable living he had found in California in this ode to NYC.

The fascinating thing is that the search for a unique struggle is always ongoing. As the current woke regime of thought has become dominant in many segments of American culture, there's a new yearning for a counter reaction to this state of affairs. N.S. Lyons has a good piece on how a new counterculture is being sought in conservative, traditionalist thought and practice by a younger audience. One you'd think ought to be the last to find it appealing. But such is the conquering success of the current woke religion, its rapid ascendance to the throne of establishment thinking, that being transgressive is now defined as the act of wearing a cross and attending latin mass, as Lyons puts it.

When you look at the whole sum of it all, it's hard not to have the thought that we were broadly better off when the big, existential struggles were derived mostly from religious roleplaying. That the human need for a struggle might well have been better contained and channeled through universal religions with a predefined cast of supernatural characters, saints, parables, and purpose. That without a broad religious operating system, we end up chasing the same bugs in our innate psyche, but the modern fixes are often way worse.

In fact, it's a bit like the continued marveling at the pyramids. Our understanding of how exactly these majestic structures were built remain surprisingly poor. But the achievement is no less irrefutable. The big world religions that drove civilization forward (and at times held it back!) are poorly understood in their specific effects at the societal level, and we're only now beginning to see full consequences of their retreat.

Thomas Sowell makes this point about tradition, culture, and law in the book Knowledge And Decisions. The collective wisdom of the ages, as passed down to us through tradition, culture, and law, is often very hard to reason specifically about after the fact. But that doesn't mean the wisdom isn't present, just because it's difficult to articulate. The evolution and molding of societal mores across the ages might well be like the pyramids. Hard to understand after the fact, the subdivisions of reason lost to ages, but no less profound or structurally sound.

We live in strange times. It's hard to get a handle on what's up or down. But you could do much worse trying than by reading Orwell, Dostoevsky, and Sowell. Then thinking hard and long about how to guide your perhaps DNA-programmed yearning for a struggle towards something that won't tear down the pillars of civilization.

Good luck (and godspeed?).

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.