In praise of a little pessimism

skids expected
Oran Viriyincy

"Life is difficult."

Those are the opening words of M. Scott Peck's famous self-help book, The Road Less Traveled. Though Peck's book was a bestseller years ago, I hadn't heard of this tome until self-help scholar Christine Whelan mentioned it as one of the "self-help books that don't suck" (per a post I wrote earlier this year). Peck argues from his perspective as a psychiatrist that we can take control of our lives and achieve great things through self-discipline.

So how does that uplifting message mix with the downer of an opening line? The more I've been thinking about it, the more I appreciate the wisdom of a certain expectation that life is not going to be all peaches and cream. Much of our modern angst and unhappiness stems from the opposite mindset -- namely, that life will be easy.

It's easy to understand why we might adopt that paradigm. After all, despite ongoing economic woes, we live in a very rich society. Most of us have heat in the winter, indoor plumbing, and enough food to never experience real hunger. We not only experience a great deal of physical comfort, we have the possibility for self-actualization. We have a choice of professions, rather than being, say, tied to the land as serfs. So it's easy to believe that all of life should be easy. Any unmerited and undeserved strike from the universe is a cause of great complaint.

But when you expect that life will be difficult, you can deal with unmerited strikes for what they are. Of course they're unmerited! But life is difficult. So how can I deal with them rationally, and reach a solution I can live with?

For instance, maybe your company has announced there will be layoffs in the new year. Having this hang over your head -- will I have a job or not? -- can really destroy the holidays. You could easily spend the next two months thinking "why me?" and you'd have a good reason to. But if you start from the assumption that life is difficult, then a potential life disruption like this can be dealt with for what it is. You start figuring out how you might cope and what your life might look like on the other side.

What problem at work or at home might you tackle differently if you started from the expectation that "life is difficult"?