The title isn’t mine, to begin with. I came across it online recently and it really spoke to me. I generally think that “wise adages” and oft-repeated platitudes are oversimplifications. With that said, there are not many that give me pause like this one.
By the time you reach adulthood, you have been hurt. It has happened more than once and it has probably changed you. The relentless passage of time can dull these hurts and make them less and less relevant. It seems, though, that the most important of them stay (or at least hold influence) with us for a while. When do we learn something useful from these psychic injuries? When do they cause us to regress? What determines which outcome will occur? Perhaps most importantly, do we have a finite endurance for pain of this type before we break?
The optimist in me claims that we have an unbelievable amount of resilience and adaptability. Look at the countless examples of horrendous adversity surpassed by human beings of various backgrounds, educations and experiences. Consider the relentless empathy expressed by those who received nothing but torture in return. Pain and hurt are unpleasant (but necessary) trials to becoming truly and fully self-actualized. The night is darkest just before the dawn, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and blah, blah, blah. Remember what I said above about platitudes being of limited utility? The optimistic estimation of our emotional endurance often seems to rely on feel-good cereal box slogans. What if the people who faced those unbelievable adversities were simply exceptional? I don’t think of myself as exceptional in much of anything.
The cynic points out that the failures we don’t hear about are as important as the successes we do hear about. It may well be that people succumbing to a string of hurts is simply less interesting and less publicized than the accounts of heroic perseverance that we have come to rely on. Humans are fragile and the world is a jungle. Reducing a healthy, well-adjusted altruist to a dysfunctional, angry malcontent is not difficult. The solution, therefore, is simple: turn away from caring and carry only low (or no) expectations of yourself, others and the world around you. You will never have a sad day.
You will also never have a happy day. You see now that the cynical solution to pain is to ADOPT heartlessness as a viewpoint. A state of non-feeling and a lack of empathy are protective reactions to painful trauma and are not inevitable endpoints. I would not venture so far as to say that becoming heartless is wholly a choice, but rather that heartlessness is a (temporarily) pragmatic reaction to an aversive situation. The heartless were not thrust into unavoidably into their state of being: they simply made a dollars-and-cents decision to give up on the possibility of happiness if it meant risking hurt.
“Heartless” carries all kinds of negative, moustache-twirling connotations. But, is it a wise decision to harden yourself to prevent future hurts? To what degree should this hardening go and what sacrifices are warranted? I cannot say that a scorched-earth policy towards my emotions and hopes is one that I view with much enthusiasm. It is also extremely difficult to maintain indefinitely. Holding a grudge against everyone and everything as a protective psychological measure is costly, difficult and unrealistic. In a reality that is in constant flux, why is holding a decidedly pessimistic view any more realistic than an overly rosy one? Misanthropes sneer at those with too much faith in humanity, but neither side has it exactly right. The world that we inhabit is disordered, unpredictable and crazy. Believing that it all fits either a positive or a negative trend is therefore silly (see “Everything Happens For a Reason And Other Lies”). Furthermore, how able are you to hold a grudge against someone for a disappointment that they have yet to be responsible for?
If you have any kind of reading comprehension, I think that it is clear where I am heading with all of this. Obviously, there is some amount of common sense that must be practiced in choosing whom you hold close and paths you wish to follow. Frivolously getting involved with someone who has hurt you repeatedly or expecting that someone will act in an unrealistic manner is not what I am advocating. What I am advocating is that the heartless once DID get hurt as a result of them caring a lot about something. Whether they cared “too much” is irrelevant: we often cannot control what we care about until we are awfully hurt. After this happens, the tendency is often to adopt non-feeling and low expectations as a shield. I would even venture that doing so is a normal, expected part of the healing process. To continue into the long-term with this strategy is, however, a conscious choice that is enormously costly.
I feel as though I often write these entries with a middle, moderate viewpoint in between two competing and extreme ideas. In this case, I am firmly advocating one side: heartlessness is destructive and self-inflicted. You must always be willing to take that leap of faith, to be vulnerable and to realize that getting hurt is an ever-present, perpetual danger.
And that’s okay.