Is the glass half empty or half full? (ft. Schopenhauer and Tolstoy)

“Nonetheless, everyone desires to achieve old age, that is to say a condition in which one can say: ‘Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse—until at last the worst of all arrives.’” –On the Suffering of the World, Arthur Schopenhauer

I think that feeling creeps in on us from time to time or after dramatic events like the death of a loved one…that feeling of hopelessness and frustration. It seems to me that this feeling is the cause of “mid-life” and “existential” crises and, rightfully so, the reality of death and suffering should cause us to change.

Arthur Schopenhauer knows and expresses that feeling as well as any I’ve come across, and after reading his essays I have to say that I learned something that has changed my perspective radically.
Schopenhauer starts by looking at things from this outlook: The only thing promised in life is death, and before that, rejection and suffering. For him, evil is a positive force that needs to be fought against by minimizing suffering and promoting peace. (This is antithetical to Aquinas’s view which says that evil is a negative, it is a lack of goodness—like coldness isn’t a positive thing, but just a lack of heat.)

Leo Tolstoy, whom I’ve also read this year, echoes the starting point of Schopenhauer when he writes in his essay, “The Confessions”: “My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink and sleep and I could not help breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping; but there was no life in me because I had no desires whose gratification I would have deemed it reasonable to fulfill.”

From the get-go, Tolstoy and Schopenhauer say we’re doomed to fail. It will all come crashing down eventually, and there’s really no reason to go forward with anything.

Now, this is all quite depressing stuff, so why am I saying that it changed me so deeply? Well, the answer to that starts with another quote, “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”

In my short life experience, a lot of things always come down to black and white decisions. Heaven or hell, right or wrong, love or hate, etc. And in answer to the question ,“Is the glass half full or half empty?”, it really is a matter of perspective. You can look at the glass as either; it’s a choice. And isn’t that the same with life? If we think that we’re owed something then sure, life does look like a never-ending series of letdowns, but if we start by seeing that we are nothing and that everything that life (and by life, I mean God) gives us is a gift, then what’s there to complain about?

And isn’t it true that we’re nothing? Augustine wrote that “We carry with us the shadow of non-being.” And in answer to God’s powerful response to Job’s queries, Job can only say, “I am nothing.” And the book of Acts says, “But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24). Or finally, St. Ignatius of Loyola comments, “For myself, I am convinced that I am nothing but an obstacle for God’s grace.”

We can look at the glass half empty or half full, but when we understand that we don’t deserve anything … not even our very existence, then the truth is that the glass is half full and we really should be thankful for it. Starting with humility demolishes a litany of sins that we are all guilty of, and as a seminarian of four years, I can tell you that the one we’re guilty of most is complaining. But complaining doesn’t have ground to stand on when humility is in our hearts. (Who cares what he or she said or that you had to sit through this or that class? Shouldn’t I be happy that I have a bed to sleep in and food in my stomach and an eternal Father who loves me?)

So, that’s the first lesson I’ve learned on spiritual year thus far: Humility, and knowing that we don’t deserve anything, is the start to a happy life.

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