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The Uncomfortable Truth

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The Uncomfortable Truth

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my new book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. The book comes out worldwide on May 14th. You can pre-order the book from Amazon or get a signed copy from Barnes and Noble. You can pre-order internationally from a list of vendors here.

If I worked at Starbucks, instead of writing people’s names on their coffee cup, I’d write the following:

One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.

Enjoy your fucking coffee.

I’d have to write it in really tiny lettering, of course. And it’d take a while to write, meaning the line of morning rush-hour customers would be backed out the door. Not exactly stellar customer service, either. This is probably just one of the reasons why I’m not employable.

But seriously, how could you tell someone, in good conscience, to “have a nice day” while knowing that all their thoughts and motivations stem from a never-ending need to avoid the inherent meaninglessness of human existence?

Because, in the infinite expanse of space/time, the universe does not care whether your mother’s hip replacement goes well, or your kids attend college, or your boss thinks you made a bitching spreadsheet. It doesn’t care if the Democrats or the Republicans win the presidential election. It doesn’t care if a celebrity gets caught doing cocaine while furiously masturbating in an airport bathroom (again). It doesn’t care if the forests burn or the ice melts or the waters rise or the air simmers or we all get vaporized by a superior alien race.

You care.

You care, and you desperately convince yourself that because you care, it all must have some great cosmic meaning behind it.

You care because, deep down, you need to feel that sense of importance in order to avoid the Uncomfortable Truth, to avoid the incomprehensibility of your existence, to avoid being crushed by the weight of your own material insignificance. And you—like me, like everyone—then project that imagined sense of importance onto the world around you because it gives you hope.

Is it too early to have this conversation? Here, have another coffee. I even made a winky-smiley face with the steamed milk. Isn’t it cute? Here, I’ll wait while you Instagram it.

Okay, where were we? Oh yeah! The incomprehensibility of your existence—right. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Mark, I believe we’re all here for a reason, and nothing is a coincidence, and everyone matters because all our actions affect somebody, and even if we can help one person, then it’s still worth it, right?”

Now, aren’t you just as cute as a button!

See, that’s your hope talking. That’s a story your mind spins to make it worth waking up in the morning: something needs to matter because without something mattering, then there’s no reason to go on living. And some form of simple altruism or a reduction in suffering is always our mind’s go-to for making it feel like it’s worth doing anything.

Our psyche needs hope to survive the way a fish needs water. Hope is the fuel for our mental engine. It’s the butter on our biscuit. It’s a lot of really cheesy metaphors. Without hope, your whole mental apparatus will stall out or starve. If we don’t believe there’s any hope that the future will be better than the present, that our life will improve in some way, then we spiritually die. After all, if there’s no hope of things ever being better, then why live—why do anything?

Here’s what a lot of people don’t get: the opposite of happiness is not anger or sadness.1 If you’re angry or sad, that means you still give a fuck about something. That means something still matters. That means you still have hope.2

No, the opposite of happiness is hopelessness, an endless gray horizon of resignation and indifference.3 It’s the belief that everything is fucked, so why do anything at all?

Hopelessness is a cold and bleak nihilism, a sense that there is no point, so fuck it—why not run with scissors or sleep with your boss’s wife or shoot up a school? It is the Uncomfortable Truth, a silent realization that in the face of infinity, everything we could possibly care about quickly approaches zero.

Hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression. It is the source of all misery and the cause of all addiction. This is not an overstatement.4 Chronic anxiety is a crisis of hope. It is the fear of a failed future. Depression is a crisis of hope. It is the belief in a meaningless future. Delusion, addiction, obsession—these are all the mind’s desperate and compulsive attempts at generating hope one neurotic tick or obsessive craving at a time.5

The avoidance of hopelessness—that is, the construction of hope—then becomes our mind’s primary project. All meaning, everything we understand about ourselves and the world, is constructed for the purpose of maintaining hope. Therefore, hope is the only thing any of us willingly dies for. Hope is what we believe to be greater than ourselves. Without it, we believe we are nothing.

When I was in college, my grandfather died. For a few years afterward, I had this intense feeling that I must live in such a way as to make him proud. This felt reasonable and obvious on some deep level, but it wasn’t. In fact, it made no logical sense at all. I hadn’t had a close relationship with my grandfather. We’d never talked on the phone. We hadn’t corresponded. I didn’t even see him the last five years or so that he was alive.

Not to mention: he was dead. How did my “living to make him proud” affect anything?

His death caused me to brush up against that Uncomfortable Truth. So, my mind got to work, looking to build hope out of the situation in order to sustain me, to keep any nihilism at bay. My mind decided that because my grandfather was now deprived of his ability to hope and aspire in his own life, it was important for me to carry on hope and aspiration in his honor. This was my mind’s bite-size piece of faith, my own personal mini-religion of purpose.

And it worked! For a short while, his death infused otherwise banal and empty experiences with import and meaning. And that meaning gave me hope. You’ve probably felt something similar when someone close to you passed away. It’s a common feeling. You tell yourself you’ll live in a way that will make your loved one proud. You tell yourself you will use your life to celebrate his. You tell yourself that this is an important and good thing.

And that “good thing” is what sustains us in these moments of existential terror. I walked around imagining that my grandfather was following me, like a really nosy ghost, constantly looking over my shoulder. This man whom I barely knew when he was alive was now somehow extremely concerned with how I did on my calculus exam. It was totally irrational.

Our psyches construct little narratives like this whenever they face adversity, these before/after stories we invent for ourselves. And we must keep these hope narratives alive, all the time, even if they become unreasonable or destructive, as they are the only stabilizing force protecting our minds from the Uncomfortable Truth.

These hope narratives are then what give our lives a sense of purpose. Not only do they imply that there is something better in the future, but also that it’s actually possible to go out and achieve that something. When people prattle on about needing to find their “life’s purpose,” what they really mean is that it’s no longer clear to them what matters, what is a worthy use of their limited time here on earth6–in short, what to hope for. They are struggling to see what the before/after of their lives should be.

That’s the hard part: finding that before/after for yourself. It’s difficult because there’s no way ever to know for sure if you’ve got it right. This is why a lot of people flock to religion because religions acknowledge this permanent state of unknowing and demands faith in the face of it. This is also probably partly why religious people suffer from depression and commit suicide in far fewer numbers than nonreligious people: that practiced faith protects them from the Uncomfortable Truth.7

But your hope narratives don’t need to be religious. They can be anything. This book is my little source of hope. It gives me purpose; it gives me meaning. And the narrative that I’ve constructed around that hope is that I believe this book might help some people, that it might make both my life and the world a little bit better.

Do I know that for sure? No. But it’s my little before/after story, and I’m sticking to it. It gets me up in the morning and gets me excited about my life. And not only is that not a bad thing, it’s the only thing.

For some people, the before/after story is raising their kids well. For others, it’s saving the environment. For others, it’s making a bunch of money and buying a big-ass boat. For others, it’s simply trying to improve their golf swing.

Whether we realize it or not, we all have these narratives we’ve elected to buy into for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if the way you get to hope is via religious faith or evidence-based theory or an intuition or a well-reasoned argument—they all produce the same result: you have some belief that (a) there is potential for growth or improvement or salvation in the future, and (b) there are ways we can navigate ourselves to get there. That’s it. Day after day, year after year, our lives are made up of the endless overlapping of these hope narratives. They are the psychological carrot at the end of the stick.

If this all sounds nihilistic, please, don’t get the wrong idea. This book is not an argument for nihilism. It is one against nihilism—both the nihilism within us and the growing sense of nihilism that seems to emerge with the modern world.8 And to successfully argue against nihilism, you must start at nihilism. You must start at the Uncomfortable Truth. From there, you must slowly build a convincing case for hope. And not just any hope, but a sustainable, benevolent form of hope. A hope that can bring us together rather than tear us apart. A hope that is robust and powerful, yet still grounded in reason and reality. A hope that can carry us to the end of our days with a sense of gratitude and satisfaction.

This is not easy to do (obviously). And in the twenty-first century, it’s arguably more difficult than ever. Nihilism and the pure indulgence of desire that accompanies it are gripping the modern world. It is power for the sake of power. Success for the sake of success. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure. Nihilism acknowledges no broader “why?” It adheres to no great truth or cause. It’s a simple “Because it feels good.” And this, as we’ll see, is what is making everything seem so bad.

This is an excerpt from the first chapter of my new book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. The book comes out worldwide on May 14th. You can pre-order the book from Amazon or get a signed copy from Barnes and Noble. You can pre-order internationally from a list of vendors here.

Footnotes

  1. See: A. J. Zautra, Emotions, Stress, and Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 15–22.
  2. I don’t use the word hope in this book in the way it is typically used academically. Most academics use “hope” to express a feeling of optimism: an expectation of or belief in the possibility of positive results. This definition is partial and limited. Optimism can feed hope, but it is not the same thing as hope. I can have no expectation for something better to happen, but I can still hope for it. And that hope can still give my life a sense of meaning and purpose despite all evidence to the contrary. No, by “hope,” I am referring to a motivation toward something perceived as valuable, what is sometimes described as “purpose” or “meaning” in the academic literature. As a result, for my discussions of hope, I’ll draw on research on motivation and value theory and, in many cases, try to fuse them together.
  3. M. W. Gallagher and S. J. Lopez, “Positive Expectancies and Mental Health: Identifying the Unique Contributions of Hope and Optimism,” Journal of Positive Psychology 4, no. 6 (2009): 548–56.
  4. This is almost certainly an overstatement.
  5. See Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973).
  6. Am I allowed to cite myself? Fuck it, I’m going to cite myself. See Mark Manson, “7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose,” MarkManson.net, September 18, 2014.
  7. For data on religiosity and suicide, see Kanita Dervic, MD, et al., “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” American Journal of Psychiatry 161, no. 12 (2004): 2303–8. For data on religiosity and depression, see Raphael Bonelli et al., “Religious and Spiritual Factors in Depression: Review and Integration of the Research,” Depression Research and Treatment vol. TK, no. TK (2012).
  8. Studies done in more than 132 countries show that the wealthier a country becomes, the more its population struggles with feelings of meaning and purpose. See Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener, “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life than Residents of Wealthy Nations,” Psychological Science 25, no. 2 (2014): 422–30.
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