On the Duality of Life

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Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final

Ranier Maria Rilke

Regardless of who we are or where we are born, we cannot escape one of the most inevitable experiences in life, the certainty of suffering. While we desperately try to find stability, we soon realize the inherent state of change and decay in the world. Birth and death, love and loss, pain and pleasure – life is an intricate interconnected web of opposing forces. 

Faced with the negative aspects of this duality we are given two options – to escape or to embrace. Nietzsche argued that personal transcendence and fulfilment require us to overcome our difficulties. To affirm both the good and the bad experiences is to accept and acknowledge our existence as human beings. As Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays,

We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of dischords as well as different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use all of them and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance with our life.

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The French philosopher Albert Camus reflects on the story of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus who was condemned by Zeus for his deception and immoral behaviour. His eternal punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it fall down once he reached the top of the summit.

Camus uses this story as an analogy of his philosophy of absurdity. The Myth of Sisyphus represents the conflict between our innate search for meaning and order and the seemingly random and indifferent nature of the universe. Despite the absurdity of Sisyphus’ punishment, he writes ‘we must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ Camus believes that the best alternative for Sisyphus is to accept and come to terms with his circumstances embodying the notion of amor fati – loving one’s fate.

We can also opt to find meaning in our suffering, and seek for the lessons it can teach us. We can tolerate these hardships if they are the necessary steps, we must endure to reach a higher-level goal. Fulfilment comes to us not when we take the path that is most convenient but rather the road less travelled.

Compare the euphoria one gets after a tough hike up a mountain versus an individual who takes a car or gondola. It is precisely the trials and tribulations we endure during the difficult hike which makes our enjoyment of the peak so much more meaningful.

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An appropriate metaphor for these philosophical ideas is that of the artist. An artist can use difficulty and hardship as resources for their creation. They turn melancholy, sadness and confusion into beauty and awe. As Nietzsche brilliantly writes,  “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” We are attracted to great art because it accurately depicts the vast range of emotions we experience – from hope, to sorrow and self-understanding.

Alain de Botton notes in his book The Consolations of Philosophy,  

What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image. Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with, and confused by it.

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Hence, I think it is important to remember that what seems immediately pleasurable to us may not be good for us down the road, whereas unpleasant experiences may be help us cultivate the positive virtues we need.

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