Readings about assimilating the disparities in human experience
October 26, 2017 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I've seen a lot of discussion on this site about accepting the inherent unfairness of life. In addition to accepting the more surface disparities in life (such as the arbitrariness of people's financial status or mental and physical health), though, there's something related but a bit different that I've been thinking of. Each life consists of very good, very bad, and sometimes just plain confusing or mundane situations. How does one come to accept the fact that some people simply experience more 'very good' or 'very bad' things than others? I mean accept without a feeling of despair so one can live with that fact with understanding and insight. I've found Pema Chodron greatly helpful in this regard, but she can be general and abstract, as well as Buddhist in perspective in a way I'm not always seeking. I'm looking for any readings or even just anecdotes of how one can really grasp the varieties of human existence in an intelligent way.
posted by Tess to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Don't laugh, but Vulcan philosophy has some relevant insights. Mastery of the Unavoidable
posted by DrAstroZoom at 9:42 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Maybe this is less philosophical than what you're seeking, but Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers addresses some of these questions.
posted by beyond_pink at 9:44 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I like this old (supposedly) Taoist story

It’s a story of a farmer and his horse.

One day his horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.
But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”
And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”
Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

The point? Just like the yin-yang symbol, there is always good in bad and vice versa.
posted by 7life at 9:50 AM on October 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

I like the South Park episode where Cartman gets a theme park and Kyle gets a painful hemorrhoid.

Cartman is so happy because there are no lines and no people, but then he realizes that you need other people to help you run a theme park--you can't pull the lever if you're ON the ride, right? Apologies if you've seen it since it's very old now but in the end Cartman loses everything and Kyle's hemorrhoid heals. Cartman is MISERABLE because he felt the joy of the highest high and now has fallen so far.

I think of this all the time when I consider people with vast wealth, fame, or other things I might think I want. Since I do not have those things I will never have to worry about losing them, which hurts far worse than never having them at all despite the dumb saying about it being better to have loved and lost.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 11:13 AM on October 26, 2017

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

One of the best resources I've found to deal with this question, believe it or not, are the books of Vonnegut.

My sister and I were raised under identical circumstances.

Just a few of the unfortunate things I have experienced in my life that were out of my control:
Learning disabilities, physical health problems including an accident causing severe brain trauma, sexual assault, unstable and violent relationships, the government layoff of the best and most rewarding job of my life as a cancer researcher (thanks congress), depression, anxiety, PTSD, and the following happened in just the last two years: forced to move alone to a new place for a job I hate, the deaths of two of my closest friends, death of my 24 year old lifetime companion cat, I was diagnosed with a new health problem, and so on.

Unfortunate things my sister experienced: one time her dog died. Other than that, she married the first man she met and they are rich and live happily ever after. She admits that she has no empathy for others because she's never experienced pain.

I encourage you to read "The Sirens of Titan" and "Slaugterhouse-Five" by Vonnegut, as well as other of his books, as well as a good college evolutionary biology primer (understanding biology has been so helpful to me with this struggle to understand the unfairness of life).

Here is an excerpt I copied describing Vonnegut:
"In 1944, just a few months after his mother had committed suicide, he was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, where he was serving with the 106th Infantry Division of the US army. He was sent to Dresden and put to work in a factory that manufactured vitamins for pregnant women, and there he stayed until the Allies bombed the city in February 1945. Vonnegut escaped death by hiding in an underground meatlocker; when he emerged, he and his fellow prisoners were set to the hideous task of disinterring innumerable corpses from the devastation. It was, he later remarked with characteristic irony, an irony that dares us to be appalled by mere words in the face of truly appalling suffering, 'a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt'."(

In my life I use mindfulness based stress reduction to gain acceptance and self love. Here is a link to an online free resource:
And sometimes I yell at the universe. Both help.

Acceptance of the strange, twisting, amazing thing called life is hard. "Questioned repeatedly over the decades about whether he thought Dresden should have been bombed, Vonnegut's most significant response was that it had been bombed; the question for him was how one behaved after that."

So it goes.
posted by Arachnophile at 11:14 AM on October 26, 2017 [16 favorites]

My philosophy on this can be summarized by the toast also found in Wonder Woman: may we get what we want, may we get what we need, but may we never get what we deserve. Not to shame us all or anything but for me it’s kind of flipping it on its head...why on earth would life be, by default, fair or even joyful? Why would I, out of all of human history, deserve a luxury ride.

I am not nihilistic. I love my small and large joys. But that approach has weirdly comforted me through a lot. When I lost my daughter I was super angry, etc., of parents with healthy living kids. But I did also feel connected to the majority of mothers throughout history who experienced loss via plague, malnutrition, lack on antibiotics...etc.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:54 AM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

`You don't understand that what you decide in this shack of yours affects the lives and fates of millions of people? This is all monstrously wrong!''
``I don't know. I've never met all these people you speak of. And neither, I suspect, have you. They only exist in words we hear. It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people. Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their own eyes and ears.''

-Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, entire exerpt here.

I'd also read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, which discusses the unfairness of life, if a bit tangentally.

But at the end of the day you're asking for an intelligent way to deal with an emotional reaction to the absurdity of the human condition...philosophers have been fucking with this for ever. I don't know if it's possible to intellectually reconcile oneself to it so much that it no longer has an emotional impact.

I think that kind of emotional reaction is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. I think it's ok to mourn the unfairness and rage over it and celebrate it at different times (celebrate because the same kind of unfairness that causes some to suffer unduly allows others to be blessed greatly, and some to contribute greatly, and that's beautiful). And then put it away for a while and go on with your life. That's ok too.
posted by windykites at 4:02 PM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this as well, but then try to remind myself of that old chesnut about not comparing someone's outsides to your insides. You rarely know what, exactly, is going on in any person's life. E.g., on the surface, my present life looks pretty damn good. And it IS good in many, many ways (which I try hard to appreciate), BUT I am also dealing with a pretty devastating (emotionally) personal issue that very few people know about. And those people who DO know about it feel pretty sad on my behalf.

As to Arachnophile's example re: her/his sister -- which is a situation where the other person's interior world IS known and it still looks sparkly and full of rainbows -- well, that is a harder pill to swallow. But as Arachnophile points out, the sister is lacking in empathy, which is a beautiful human quality. And a new 'teacher' in my life has just this week reminded me that it is the difficulties in life that forge in us some of the most wonderful human qualities, another of them being resilience. To get to middle adulthood without having experienced hardships and, as a result, without having developed internal strength, resilience and (especially) empathy is kind of sad, when you think about it. I reflect back on myself in my early 20s when I was more like that and now think what an oblivious, unfeeling, and 'untested' lump of clay I was. Now, I am both stronger and more sensitive, having walked through some fires.

Of course, at some point, we feel we have learned our lessons rather well, thank you, and could use a damn break! And when that point is reached, I don't think we are wrong to spend some time feeling a bit sorry for ourselves. But, as my new 'teacher' has said, life is a yo-yo: you can't have the YO (ups) without the YO (downs). Each is a necessary part of the game. Enjoy -and learn from- ALL of it.
posted by Halo in reverse at 6:42 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

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