Our Joyless Escape From Life

Treat Thompson



This is a republishing of the Shoulders of Giants newsletter.

What we'll learn (in 4 minutes):

👨‍🏫 Topic: Treat Thompson on how running from our anxieties makes us miserable

🔍 Quote: Blaise Pascal on one of humanities biggest problems

📜 Passage: Joan Didion on not just enduring life, but being immersed in it

Our Joyless Escape From Life (3 min read)

We will lose everything we love.

From your pet to your parents, to your own life—all of it will be gone. It’s a hard idea to wrap our heads around.

It can drive us insane.

We want stability. We want guarantees. We want permanence.

We want the warmth and calmness of being 7 years old, never having a thought about something going wrong, because why would we?

We crave that protected existence—going through life with your hand held and a blindfold on.

But that’s not real. Eventually, the illusion gets lifted and we realize the facts of the universe.

And naturally, it’s scary. Our human fear of impermanence and unpredictability causes deep anxiety that pushes us to find an escape.

Our Escape

We escape life in so many ways. And whether or not it’s consciously, the goal is to separate ourselves from life.

We want to run away from the present.

Being Busy

Our favourite way of escaping is also the theme of modern life: busyness. And it’s not a coincidence.

Our shared anxiety has created a cult of productivity in society. It’s what we build our life around and how we assess our worth (sadly).

Soren Kierkegaard says we have a “culture of busy as a badge of honour.” In a way, it’s cool to be busy.

But being busy is a choice we make to our own downfall. Like Seneca said, “Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man.”

We don’t have to deal with our fears if we dominate our days with work and random tasks.

Like someone who’s too scared to go to the dentist. They never have to go if they “don’t have the time.”

You can run from a lot of problems just by being busy.

The Mental Escape

The easiest escape from the present is to live in your thoughts.

Some people run to the past to try to relive their memories and some try to go to the future by ambitiously dreaming.

But neither are satisfied.

The rememberers are the most unhappy because the past can never exist. The hopers have a more gratifying disappointment because at least there is a potential for something good to happen.

In either case, the present is too disturbing to focus on. Their only relief is clinging on to times that don’t exist.

Obsessing Over the Future

The most dangerous escape is dedicating your life to the future.

To end the unsettling feeling, we put our focus on whatever chapter is next in our life.

But the future can’t be experienced. Again, it doesn’t exist.

Chasing the future is like chasing your shadow.

You rush through your life—skipping over all the good parts, never taking in the beauty, never feeling the magic, never acknowledging what you have, giving it all up for something that you can never hold.

Your happiness, then, doesn't consist of anything real, it's based on hopes, guesses, and assumptions.

I'm not immune to it either. I’ve zoomed through stages in my life because the next stage seemed so much better.

When I was in university, I couldn’t wait to be done with it. I finished class and left campus to go straight home. I didn’t bother to build new relationships ... I already had friends. But I think back and feel sad. I have memories of my four years there, but I was never present. I never basked in that time period. I was always thinking about what was next.

We do it hoping to get rid of the impermanence and unpredictability we feel. But that can never happen. Everything in life is based on probability, except for the fact that we will die—that’s certain.

The Cure is Worse than the Disease

These escapes don’t do us any good. Our intention is to find comfort, but we end up miserable.

We leave the present and rob ourselves of the richness of life.

It’s a vicious cycle because our cure to the unsettling feelings makes us lonely, insecure, and unhappy. So there’s always something to run from.

Like Kierkegaard said, “our constant escapism from our own lives is our greatest source of unhappiness.”

Adding on to that, Alan Watts said life doesn’t get hard because of death, pain, and fear. It gets hard because when those things show up we remove ourselves from life.

We turn our existence into a dull and joyless daze by running away from life’s problems.

Wanting assurance in life is a contradiction. You can’t have security in a world defined by unpredictability, chaos, and flux.

Final Thoughts

If it’s not obvious by now, there is no way to escape our anxieties, and we wouldn’t want to anyway.

We want to be present. That’s where the joy is.

Alan Watts argues that “happiness isn’t a matter of improving our experience, or even confronting it, but remaining present with it in the fullest possible sense.”

We need to be able to live happily with our fears and without any assurance because that’s the reality of our world.

Accepting that life is not pure, simple, and permanent is better than pretending it is.

Featured Quote

All of humanity's problems stem from mans inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

- Blaise Pascal

Pascal is talking about how incapable we are of being present. We need to be distracted to forget about how uncomfortable we are with our existence.

Featured Passage

I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.

And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

- Joan Didion