Psychological Immunity: Sufferings as the Gateway to Prolonged Happiness
Gilbert says that “the eye and the brain are conspirators, and, like most conspiracies, theirs is negotiated behind closed doors, in the back room, outside of our awareness” (145). In other words, the complex processes behind the human cognitive and emotional activity are difficult to understand. The human life is all about naiveté – as Gilbert writes, most humans are not aware of the ways, in which they perceive and structure the reality. Nor are they capable of making relevant and reasonable predictions regarding their future experiences, feelings, and actions. Despite the growing body of literature, the human brain remains one of the greatest enigmas for researchers and scientists, and no one can say with confidence that he/she knows everything about it. Not surprisingly, even the most counter-intuitive person claims that human psychology generate a wave of negative and positive responses. It has become quite fashionable to consider human behaviors through the prism of happiness. Happiness is treated as one of the most interesting and important objects of study in human psychology. Still, happiness cannot be separated from sufferings, while sufferings cannot always lead to happiness. Based on the analysis of Daniel Gilbert’s “Immune to Reality,” Susan Faludi’s “The Naked Citadel,” and Oliver Sacks’ “The Mind’s Eye,” sufferings do not guarantee happiness. They rather teach the human being to accept the inevitable and inescapable circumstances of life and translate them into a source of positive emotions.
The relationship between the human brain, cognition, and emotions is unpredictable, but it is clear that every human wants to be happy, positively oriented, and emotionally stable. Humans are willing to go to unbelievable lengths in their striving to create an atmosphere of positivity and happiness. The favorable facts are believed to generate positive views on the most gruesome reality (Gilbert, 2006, p. 135). As Gilbert writes, “we want to believe that we’re better without the fiancée who left us standing at the altar, and we will feel better as soon as we begin to discover facts that support this conclusion” (145). What Gilbert means is that, being faced with physical or emotional sufferings, the human brain tries to discover or cook up new facts, just to reinforce the sense of confidence that everything done in this life is done for the better. The only question is how far the human brain can go in cooking up favorable facts to satisfy the human ego, and how long it can sustain the seemingly positive effects of self-deception, even when the reality is obvious. The picture of the campus at the Citadel, the military academy described by Susan Faludi, justifies the importance of this question. The images of peaceful life on the campus look and sound favorable, but they cannot erase the drama of violence and gender discrimination moods that still dominate the hearts and minds of the cadets. Faludi is right: “The campus has a dreamy flattened quality, with its primary colors, checker-board courtyards, and story-book castle barracks. It feels more like an architect’s rendering of a campus – almost preternaturally clean, orderly, and antiseptic – than the merry real thing (p. 78). What Faludi means is that the preternaturally clean appearance of the campus does not help reduce the sense of disgust and misunderstanding, which lends its presence in all aspects of life at the Citadel. At times, the brain can be severely limited in its unique capability to cook up favorable facts and benefit from them. Faced with the dramatic view of the twitching limbs and cadets’ doughy faces (Faludi, 1994, p. 146), it fails to use its positive mood privileges. The reality becomes too gray and overwhelming, leaving no room for happiness. Still, chances are good because a person can transform even the most tragic experiences into a land of happy opportunities. Like an abandoned fiancée, a person who becomes blind later in life discovers and cooks up new favorable facts in order to avoid the depressive symptoms associated with blindness. In the words of Oliver Sacks, many individuals who become blind later life come to regard their blindness as a prerequisite for developing a better understanding of the inner and surrounding realities (p. 304). Speaking about a person, who became blind in adulthood, Sacks confirms that “blindness now becomes for him a dark, paradoxical gift” (p. 305). Blindness is not static; it is a process of discovering and cooking up new favorable facts, which reduce the feelings of tragedy and deficiency due to the loss of vision. Even in the most difficult situations, individuals can choose to act instead of being inactive. In case of failure, they are more likely to regret the courage of their inactivity than the cowardice of passivity and silence.
In the moment of truth, the most difficult choice is between inactivity and action; however, it is in the moment of truth that many individuals choose to act, as they are more likely to regret their active choices than the choices of inactivity. According to Gilbert, “in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did” (p. 138). Gilbert explains why people are regretful of their decision not to act. In his view the human psychological system finds it difficult to cope with the negative consequences of inactions (p. 138). To put it simply, inactivity leads to continued moral and emotional tortures, making a person guess what could have happened, had he/she been more decisive in his/her moves. An abandoned fiancée has better chances to consider the event as the beginning of a better life, contrary to the groom who may spend the rest of his life with a serious emotional trauma, as a result of his decision to abandon his lover. Yet, depending on the circumstances, this relationship of the human brain with the surrounding reality and future expectations may raise a number of questions. For instance, will a cadet at the Citadel regret his decision to express his views on gender discrimination openly more than the decision to remain silent? At times, activity may lead to unpredictable consequences, and these consequences can make the cadet reverse his decision. This is what happens with Susan Faludi, as she comes in touch with the cadet who seems to be ready to speak. “The great majority of the guys here are very misogynistic […] all they talk about is how girls are pigs and sluts,” says the cadet in his secret talk with Faludi (p. 82). At first, he agrees to meet Faludi and discuss the issue of gender discrimination on the campus, but later refuses. The young cadet may or may not regret his decision not to meet Faludi. The most obvious reality is that he already regrets the very fact of speaking to her about one of the most painful issues on the campus. Thus, it is difficult to say that activity is always better than inactivity, especially in case of physical and emotional violence. Will the cadets who torture the raccoon to death regret their activity in relation to the animal more than they regret their silence (Faludi, 1994, p. 86)? Will they regret their involvement in violence against other cadets more than their refusal to participate in violent actions? Most likely, they will, as long as violence is a part of the campus culture. From Faludi, “the group mentality that pervades the Citadel assures that any desire on the part of a cadet to speak out about the mounting violence will usually be squelched by the threat of ostracism and shame” (pp. 86-87). Still, it is good to know that the fear of rejection and shame is not the only reason to prefer activity to inactivity. When it comes to blindness, a person will choose to act because it gives him/her a sense of being alive. The blind act is committed by entering the world of mental and emotional images that enable them to create and maintain a complex world of associations (Sacks, 2003, p. 306). They will not regret their decision to think of their lives in the new ways. They may find it difficult to transform their lives and move to a new level of life performance, but they are ready to act, in order to survive. Their physical sufferings and emotional tortures are likely to pave the way towards designing a new vision of happiness and satisfaction.
Sufferings do not guarantee happiness; rather, they teach the human being to accept the inevitable circumstances of life and transform them into a potential source of positive emotions. It is through intense sufferings that many people manage to eradicate the processes leading to them (Gilbert, 2006, p. 140). Sufferings make it easier to predict and shape a person’s emotional future (Gilbert, 2006, p. 140). They transform the lives of people, making them open to positive changes. The case of the Citadel described suggests that intense sufferings may even lead to changes in the public realm (Faludi, 1994, p. 87). In 1992, the loyalists on the campus came to a reasonable conclusion that “the practice of physical abuse of freshmen, along with food and sleep deprivation, had gotten out of hand” (p. 87). Changes were made to the most traditional practices in order to reduce the risks of conflicts, hazing, and violence (Faludi, 1994, p. 87). Unfortunately, even these changes cannot guarantee absolute happiness on the campus. Memories are likely to become a serious barrier to living a life without regrets. This is also why a person who has lost his/her vision later in life may never be absolutely happy. However, through sufferings, blind people can achieve a new level of being. This sense of being is different from the happiness they could have experienced, had they been healthy. Sacks exclaims that blindness “is an astounding example of how an individual deprived of one form of perception could totally reshape himself to a new center, a new identity” (p. 305). Life changes after sufferings, leaving a deep scar on the human mentality. At the same time, these sufferings teach humans to live in peace with their own selves, while enjoying their lives to their fullest.
In conclusion, sufferings pave the way towards a new state of being, but they do not necessarily lead to happiness. The human mind is a complex mechanism, but it is meant to secure every human being from the unbearable pain and emotional losses. In a moment of tragedy, the human brain may even cook up new facts, just to assure the person that everything done in this life is done for the better. At the same time, it is in the moment of truth that most people prefer activity to inaction. Activity is associated with braveness, but inactivity grows from cowardice. Not surprisingly, a large number of people will most likely regret their inactivity rather than failed actions. Yet, even the greatest sufferings cannot guarantee happiness. Now the only question to be answered is whether humans are ready to accept their limited capacity to be happy and learn to live in peace with their own selves.