Book IV.
 Life as Cheat

 

1. Why might you not feel equal to radical self-authorship? Maybe your personality needs an upgrade. Maybe your circumstances are dire. Maybe your thoughts are fighting with you. Or maybe you’ve decided that life is a cheat.

2. Many people have decided, quite consciously or just out of conscious awareness, that life has cheated them. It dropped them into a mean family. It gave them less than stellar looks. It set them up for a hard life leading inevitably to death.

3. This evaluation of life as a cheat is typically not a constant evaluation. We don’t feel this way about life every single minute. For portions of the day we smile, amuse ourselves, and feel fine. Then darkness suddenly strikes, just like that.

4. The moment before we were laughing. Now we feel as cold as ice. We’re likely to call this “depression.” We may think that we need a therapist or a pill. What we really need is to answer the question, “If life has cheated me, then what?”

5. What are some possible answers? Well, first is a rejection of the premise. “No, life has not cheated me. In order for it to have cheated me, it first needed to promise me something. But nothing was promised. So, no fraud was committed.”

6. I wasn’t promised good teeth. I wasn’t promised the upper classes. I wasn’t promised serenity. I wasn’t promised decent parents. So, as I wasn’t promised anything, I haven’t been cheated. I am challenged, not cheated, which is different.

7. Or you might reject the language. “Is ‘cheat’ the right word? Or is it closer to ‘disappointed’? ‘Cheat’ is such a big word, so hard to bear, so demoralizing! But ‘disappointed’—well, maybe I can deal with that. Who doesn’t get disappointed?”

8. Really, who doesn’t get disappointed? It starts so early, the disappointments. Hoping for a kind word and getting criticism instead. Hoping to win and coming in last. Disappointments inevitably mount up. But that is different from being cheated.

9. Or you might evaluate life more generously. You might say, “Well, yes, I can list all the blows, all the indignities, and all the disappointments. But there was also some beauty and some goodness and some happiness and some victories.”

10. You might shine a light on what is good and what is possible and what is available. This positive attitude is a decision you make to notice life’s warm bits, despite all the coldness. You say, “I choose to be a little bit upbeat, despite everything.”

11. Or you might decide that you haven’t been cheated at all. This might sound like: “I am free enough to live my life purposes, to tackle the project of my life, to find a measure of happiness, and to make myself proud. Where was I cheated?”

12. You had better do one of these or something similar or risk ruining your chances of ever experiencing life as meaningful. As long as “life has cheated me” remains stuck in your craw, you will feel that choking sensation as you choke on life.

13. Consider. Say that an experience did feel meaningful. Might you nevertheless denounce it as fraudulent? Yes, you might. It is completely possible to experience something as meaningful and then announce that it was not meaningful.

14. Or, say that an upcoming experience had the potential to feel meaningful. Might you actively prevent it from yielding that potential? Yes, by holding the conviction that, since life has cheated you, upcoming experiences can’t possibly matter.

15. We regularly refuse to allow experiences to feel meaningful and we regularly reject as meaningful experiences that felt meaningful. Why do we pull the pin on meaning even as we say that we crave it and would do anything to secure it?

16. We do this because we’ve evaluated life as a cheat. We believe that life has somehow failed us and so we stop believing in the possibility of meaning. We may not be aware that we have done this but it’s quite likely that we have.

17. Why might we not credit an experience as meaningful, even if we experienced it as such? The culprit is our evaluation of life. We’ve evaluated life as meaningless and a cheat. That evaluation forces us to label all experiences as meaningless.

18. So, despairingly, we do just that, even if we experienced the moment as meaningful. This tragic artifact of consciousness, that we are conscious of life not being just or measuring up, strikes even as we sit in the sunshine, having a good moment.

19. What could be more insidious? You chat with a child. It is enjoyable. It is more than that. It moves you. Then, as you walk away, you mutter, “Well, that was nothing special.” By habitually calling everything nothing, you make them nothing.

20. Or maybe you stop to add your name to a petition to put a candidate on the ballot. For a split second, you have a tiny belief in political action. Then you mutter, “Well, that was ridiculous.” Again, you turned something into nothing.

21. No experience can be credited as meaningful, even it if felt meaningful, to someone who has decided that life is meaningless. Every upcoming experience is already rendered meaningless to someone who has evaluated life as a cheat.

22. Say that, because you’ve experienced too much pain or been disappointed too often, you decide that nothing in life can ever feel genuinely enjoyable. As a result, you instantly sour experiences that might have felt joyful, raining on your own parade.

23. You ruin your chances for meaning by looking around and sighing, “Is this all there is? Really?” Or maybe you say, “Life is ridiculous and pathetic, and, to top it off, supremely hard. What a stupid game!” More meaning ruined.

24. How we evaluate life matters. We experience life against the backdrop of our evaluation of life. If that evaluation is negative, nothing has much of a chance of feeling positive. Isn’t depression just a persistent negative evaluation of life?

25. Why might you evaluate life that harshly? Maybe because you went unloved as a child. Maybe because you’ve spent a stupendous amount of your time just earning a living. Maybe because you see immorality rewarded. So many reasons!

26. Maybe you had dreams that never materialized and goals that you never reached. Maybe you had expected more out of life—more from it, more from others, and more from yourself. Maybe … this list is extremely long, isn’t it?

27. It is easy and maybe even inevitable to evaluate life as a cheat, maybe easier and more likely than evaluating it as worth the candle. But how many unfortunate consequences flow from that decision and from that negative evaluation!

28. Is such an evaluation incorrect? Maybe not. How can any life that comes with pain and sorrow and that ends in death not be judged a cheat? How can any life that comes with strange dreams and pestering thoughts not be judged harshly?

29. What other evaluation is possible? So, maybe you’ve appraised life correctly. But that is only the beginning of the conversation, not the end. Millions take it as the end of the story when it is only the beginning. Only the beginning!

30. This negative evaluation is only a bit of bedrock reality upon which you build your intentional life. Maybe you’ve appraised life correctly and there will be pain and there will be death and you’ll only get 6% of what you want. Maybe that’s true.

31. But, by taking that as the starting point and not as the end point, you pave the way to personal meaning. You say, with amazing modesty and with deep philosophical calm, “I have my serious work to get done as a principled human being.”

32. You opt for modesty. How charming can a sweet cottage feel if you had it in mind that you were supposed to live in a castle? With mature modesty come countless lovely moments that would have eluded your more grandiose self.

33. For we are indeed grandiose. That grandiosity harms us. How much meaning or pleasure can you extract from writing a workmanlike paragraph of prose if you had it in mind that you were supposed to write bestsellers and become famous?

34. How much meaning or pleasure can you extract from chatting with a friend if you had it in mind that you were supposed to be the center of a whirlwind of attention? That lovely chat gets swamped by rolling waves of unhealthy narcissism.

35. Modesty is a key. But to be modest doesn’t mean to settle. Not at all! There is no reason why the project of your life shouldn’t include ambition, desire, and everything else that nature has programmed you to crave. No settling needed!

36. First, you pull back the curtain to see if you’ve evaluated life negatively. This can feel like ripping off a bandage. It can hurt terribly to learn that you feel this way. Maybe you’ll want to scream, “Life has cheated me! I didn’t know I felt that way!”

37. Maybe you really didn’t know. Maybe you’re a software engineer, you write code day and night, you are well-paid and widely wanted, and the world is your oyster. Might you be holding life as a cheat despite all that? You might!

38. Maybe in those moments between code-writing thrills, when consciousness finds itself tumbling toward nothingness, when some original sadness comes back to haunt you, you arrive at an unconscious conclusion: I’ve been cheated!

39. Now, as a kirist, you make that evaluation conscious. If we wall off knowledge that upsets us, we fail to know that we have evaluated life as a fraud. Maybe we haven’t evaluated it that way and that would be splendid. But maybe we have!

40. So, now we bravely look. Shouldn’t we have gotten obvious clues from our behaviors? But we are very practiced at not looking in the mirror, so we didn’t quite notice that we were living with agitation and despair. Now we notice.

41. All that pointless drinking. All those escapades. All that sex with strangers. All that muffled sobbing. All that Net surfing. All that tossing and turning. Did we not see that something had to be going on beneath the surface? No, we didn’t.

42. Maybe you had glimpses. Maybe you came to negative conclusions about life but, supposing that it would do you no good to notice, or because you were just too embarrassed to admit it, you denied that you’d given life a thumb’s down.

43. But you had. And that negative evaluation couldn’t help but color everything. It colored your commute. It colored your free time. It made creating difficult. It made loving difficult. It made laughing difficult. It colored absolutely everything.

44. Now you can face that truth, that you consider life a cheat, and move on. Now you can say, “Well, it looks like I’ve concluded that life has cheated me. Let me say that as clearly and as openly as I can and get on with the project of my life!”

45. Evaluate life harshly, if you must. But leap right to the next step. Shout, “So be it! Here I am and I refuse to throw in the towel. I intend to live my life in a principled way, doing one right thing after another, to the best of my ability. Boom!”

46. Even though you may have ample reasons to feel that life is a cheat, you must, for the sake of experiencing meaning, for the sake of your emotional well- being, and because of some core moral imperative, move past that negative evaluation.

47. You announce, “Life may be a cheat, for which I have ample evidence. But despite being burdened with this absurd hand to play, I see a way to play it. I see what I can do today and I see what I can do tomorrow and I see how to live as a kirist.”

48. You counter your calculations about life with a dedication to your life as project. You make this leap even though you’ve been harmed, even though you’ve been badly disappointed, even though you find life taxing and unrewarding. You leap.

49. Because you know that how you evaluate life colors how you perceive your experiences, you attempt the odd work of thoughtfully deciding if you can evaluate life more positively. Maybe, just maybe, a more positive evaluation is possible.

50. And if it isn’t possible, you sigh and shrug. You say, “Sorry, life is a damned cheat. That’s the fact of the matter. And I had better deal with that reality as best as I can, following the guiding principles of self-obligation and self- authorship.”

51. You live your intentional life. And you keep checking for signs that your negative evaluation of life is creeping back in and undermining your efforts. You look for clues, which may be abundant, because that evaluation has a way of returning.

52. You check for a lack of motivation. If you feel unmotivated, you sit right up and exclaim, “Uh-oh. What’s going on here? Am I down on life again? Have I somehow forgotten that, even if I am down on life, I’m obliged to do the next right thing?”

53. You check to see if you’re despairing. Nowadays we call that “depression” and hope that a pill will make some difference. But you are wiser than that and say, “Hm, I’m very sad. Is that my feeling that life has cheated me coming back full bore?”

54. Maybe a compulsion has gotten hold of you. Maybe your drinking has gotten out of hand or maybe you feel in the grip of something you can’t name or escape. Check in. You may be running like mad from the feeling that life has failed you.

55. This checking in helps remind you that you refuse to be paralyzed by your sense of how life ought to be. That life ought to be fairer, that life ought to easier, that life ought to be rosier, must not stop you from living life intentionally.

56. Be careful of those “oughts” in your thinking. Yes, maybe your artwork ought to have been widely praised. Yes, maybe you ought to have been recognized. Yes, maybe you ought to be famous. Be careful! Those “oughts” are poison darts!

57. You remove their venom by saying, “What’s next?” The project of your life must continue. It must continue despite your negative evaluation of life, despite your sense that life ought to be different, despite your grieving.

58. It would be lovely if your evaluation of life were, “Life is just fine and dandy!” But if that isn’t your honest feeling, if in fact you see life as pointless, unfulfilling, even ridiculous, that negative evaluation must not be allowed to end the story.

59. Can you do that? Can you do something that amounts to your highest reach, the reach to pull yourself up when you don’t feel good about life? You know why to do it. But can you do it? Can you “transcend” your evaluation and opt to care?

60. Can you manage to care? Can you manage to care about humanity when humanity doesn’t care about you? Can you manage to care about justice when justice doesn’t care about you? Can you manage to care if the caring isn’t reciprocated?

61. Can you manage to care? Can you manage to care about this frail species, this flawed species, this vicious species, this unrepentant species, this dangerous species, maybe just for the sake of one child whose name you don’t even know?

62. Can you manage to care? Can you manage to care when caring is tiring? Can you manage to care when caring is a nuisance? Can you manage to care when caring provokes the wrath of your neighbors? Are you up for this heroism?

63. You know why to do it. You know that meaning will elude you if you don’t. You know that you’ll feel adrift if you don’t. You know that you won’t respect yourself if you don’t. You know why to do it. But can you do it? That’s a real question.

64. You could just exclaim, “Life is a cheat. It will rob me of loved ones. It will rob me of myself, and for all eternity. It refuses to provide me with enough meaning or even with any meaning. It just makes work for me and brings me pain. Damn it!”

65. Or you could paint this other picture, the kirist picture, a picture of a lone human being calmly answering the call to be good, on his or her own terms, in the face of everything, knowing that everything is a lot and maybe too much.

66. You acknowledge your evaluation of life, whatever that evaluation may be, and you put that evaluation off to one side, so far off that it doesn’t color your days, so far off that it hardly matters what that evaluation is. Off to the attic with it!

67. You treat your life as a project, an opportunity to make yourself proud, and an adventure foisted upon you by nature. You hold your conception of how you intend to live as more important than your evaluation of life as positive or negative.

68. Indeed, maybe you’re only down on life a little or only sometimes. Maybe you’ve judged life a six or a seven and not a zero. That will make your work easier! But easy or hard, the work remains, the work of doing the next right thing.

69. Yes, you may have been cheated. Maybe you were cheated in the looks department and you aren’t comely. That must not prevent you from doing the next right thing. You don’t want to sulk petulantly, as you know better than to do that.

70. Maybe you did some excellent research and someone stole your glory. You could have been Newton, Darwin, Einstein! But they robbed you. Do you want to grieve that for all eternity or move on and live? You know the right answer.

71. Maybe your parents were mean to you. You didn’t deserve that, you hate that, and it colors everything. But aren’t you obliged to author your own story in ways that make sense to you and that serve you, despite that terrible backstory?

72. Maybe you were born into a despised minority. That must be counted as cheating of the first order, mustn’t it? So much pain and suffering right from the moment of birth and year after year thereafter. But, now … how shall you live?

73. You must tolerate your negative evaluation and live richly. Consider the alternative: to not be able to tolerate it and to remain in a funk, sick to your stomach, half-ruined and holed up in an alley or living half a life. Consider that alternative.

74. It is such a self-kindness to sigh and say, “Yes, I genuinely feel this way, that life has failed me, but my head and my heart tell me that isn’t the end of the story. I can still live my many life purposes, which would make me happy and proud.”

75. Hate life, if you must. Live with permafrost, if you must. Hold a massive grudge, if you must. Judge that you’ve been treated unfairly, if that’s your calculation. Then do just one additional thing: do not allow any of that to be the end of the story.

76. I’ve been telling my grandkids about Joe the Apple, who, instead of hanging on his tree, drops down, walks off, and has adventures. They cheer him on and understand completely. Hanging from that tree is just the beginning of the story!

77. It is an act of genuine self-kindness to air your grievances against life and then get on with the business of living. By moving on, you trade the ice-coldness of grievance for the warmth of effort and the heat of life.

78. Billions of people are unwittingly holding a grudge against life. Some act it out in bar fights, some criticize everything, some shut down and live half-hearted versions of the life they might have lived. Paint a picture for them of another way to live.

79. They unconsciously suppose that denying their grudge is the answer. It isn’t. The answer is to announce what they feel, let the venom drain, make some peace with the painful facts of existence, and opt for a kirist life of self- commitment.

80. Raging at the facts of existence is not the answer. Nor is despairing. You shift your gaze away from how life ought to be and you focus on the imperative, rising up in you from your own sources of good, to proudly contribute.

81. If life looks rosy to you, that is wonderful and amazing. If it looks rocky to you, if you feel half-ruined by circumstance, if you hate the hand you’ve been dealt, announce that loudly and clearly and shout, “But that is not the end of the story!”

82. We are burdened by many powerful reasons not to bother. One of those powerful reasons is our sense that life is not a fair game. We throw up our hands and exclaim, “I will not play this rigged game!” But doesn’t that gesture feel terrible?

83. Maybe you can find no way to convince yourself that life matters. But that is not the end of the discussion. You move right along and decide that your efforts matter, whether or not life matters. That is the kirist leap: your efforts matter.

84. Is it absurd to affirm that your efforts matter? Perhaps. But if it is absurd, you simply laugh and say, “I’m comfortable with absurdity.” You say, “I take this life as an obligation of a certain sort, no matter how ridiculous that may be.”

85. You say, “My life is my project and I accept that absurd, unglamorous, heroic task. I am not really up to being a hero but so be it. I accept.” You do not let your sense that life is a cheat stop you from fulfilling your obligations to yourself.