This is a collection of writings with some semblance of continuity on the most difficult question of all, "why bother?" They succintly capture the progression of my worldview through my struggles with depression. It shaped me into the existentialist that I am, which I think is, despite common misconceptions, the most optimistic philosophy of life.
The Beauty in Mediocrity
I am the poster child of a success-driven society. I was raised in South Korea, a country with incomparable academic pressure. In primary school, I received special education for high-performing STEM students. Later in high school, I was my grade's top-performing competitive mathematician.
All this academic success came at a cost. I had previously discussed my mental and physical health before. Only recently was I formally diagnosed with depression. I am fortunate that I am studying in a US college, where mental health services are readily available. In Korea, the situations are grim.
Korea has been the leading country in suicide rate in the developed world for a decade. For teens, suicide is the leading cause of death. For brevity, I will disregard issues such as poor mental health awareness. Instead, I will focus squarely on the success-driven culture which I believe is to be blamed for.
An excellent example that illustrates the seriousness of the issue is an indie film, Fourth Place, which was nominated for multiple awards for its sharp critique of Korean culture. In it, blatant physical child abuse is tolerated so as long as the child can win a medal in swimming competition to go to college. This critical sentiment is echoed by rapper Huckleberry P in Cooler than the Cool. The lyrics translate to:
Our country calls bronze medal unsatisfactory,
Without gold on our necks, there is no meaning.
Having grown up in this environment, I feel a deep, instinctual sense of guilt if I even dare to approach mediocrity. It is baked into our education to fear failures, to fear slipping grades, and to fear not having enough awards for our college admissions.
Then, it is not surprising that depression is omnipresent. Guilt, self-doubt, and demotivation are all textbook symptoms of depression. Take into consideration that these constant stressors exist from childhood, where kids are expected to learn foreign languages in kindergarten, to adulthood, where overworking is commonplace. Such high suicide rates seem plausible.
I speak as though Korea is the worse offender of a success-driven culture. It probably is. However, I believe this poison of success is widespread throughout most of the developed world. I observed this notion that everyone should strive to succeed in my time in China and the USA.
I suspect that it is an inherent feature of any heavily capitalistic society, which rewards successful people disproportionately more at the expense of those who are less successful.
Here is the thing: you will most likely be mediocre at most everything you do. This conclusion directly follows from drawing a bell curve and an exponentially decaying distribution, two most likely skill distribution in any given task. Not only that, even if you devote your life to be good at something, there are zero guarantees that you will be a star performer. By definition, most professionals are mediocre at their craft.
Why, then, do we expect everyone to be successful, to the point of systematically ailing our mental health?
Perhaps we should choose to appreciate a more abundant fact of live - mediocrity. Our parents are, most likely, mediocre parents. Yet we love our parents. (If you don't, my condolences for your bad luck.) Our beloved ones, our friends, our best and worst experiences, our talents and flaws, our exceptional ideas and our mundane discoveries, and everything, most likely, is mediocre.
From this perspective, the very premise of a success-driven culture is flawed. Instead, this realization opens us to a new possibility: excellence in mediocrity.
This new guiding philosophy in life is two-fold. First, we accept that we can be mediocre, heck, below-average in many things we strive to be good at, likely forever. Second, we also accept that a mediocre life can still be a heck of a good time. So as long as we strive to be marginally better than our past selves, we can find joy, beauty, and fulfillment from a mediocre existence.
A software engineering wisdom says that premature optimization is the root of all evil. Note the modifier "premature." Optimization is great; it's not so great in the prototyping stage though.
This is exactly what I am feeling in life. I have obsessed so much over the optimization of the minutiae of the daily grind that I have forgotten to stop and reflect if I am going in the right direction in the first place.
In the years spent reading self-help and productivity to chase the elusive 4.0 GPA and the prestigious college, peak performance and impressive portfolios, I have never sat down to ask why.
At best I defaulted to the answer of "because I should." But why? Perhaps because my parents and my teachers and everybody in this soul-sucking society told me to.
"You are smart" always leads to "so you should be successful as a lawyer, engineer at FAANG, or a professor."
Sometimes we hear certain ideas too often that it gets engrained into our bones and we think it's ours. And we never realize that we've been slowly poisoned, albeit unintentionally, the whole time.
I don't know anything. I don't know life at all and I am left confused and tired in a foreign land with no answers.
Living Without Hope
Every person who has their basic needs met with time to spare will inevitably have a dreaded visit from existential crisis. Me being me, a padentic over-thinker, it came and stayed in the form of major depression. I was paralyzed from acting on my worldly goals until I could figure out why I must bother to do anything.
There are, of course, numerous common advice given to a suicidal depressive. "Think about all the people that care about you!", you will often hear, willfully ignoring the fact that the dead cannot care. "You make the world a better place!" an argument goes, without a founding argument why making the world a better place is a "good" thing. Indeed, if nothing matters, then there's no point in improving it. Religious people turn to god, despite a lackluster set of evidence for its existence. Monks, philanthropists, philosophers, and scienctists all pursue some form of mental elevation that they believe is fundamentally more meaningful than the routine way of life. But is it? How can we verify that spiritual enlightment, charity, introspection, or research are inherently meaningful? Finally, your concerned friends and families will play the "if not" card. "If not for your current efforts, you will starve to death without a job in the future!" or "you will become poor!" or "you will live in your parents' basement!" To this, the depressive will respond with a dispassionate "so what?"There are, of course, numerous common advice given to a suicidal depressive. "Think about all the people that care about you!", you will often hear, willfully ignoring the fact that the dead cannot care. "You make the world a better place!" an argument goes, without a founding argument why making the world a better place is a "good" thing. Indeed, if nothing matters, then there's no point in improving it. Religious people turn to god, despite a lackluster set of evidence for its existence. Monks, philanthropists, philosophers, and scienctists all pursue some form of mental elevation that they believe is fundamentally more meaningful than the routine way of life. But is it? How can we verify that spiritual enlightment, charity, introspection, or research are inherently meaningful? Finally, your concerned friends and families will play the "if not" card. "If not for your current efforts, you will starve to death without a job in the future!" or "you will become poor!" or "you will live in your parents' basement!" To this, the depressive will respond with a dispassionate "so what?"
To a depressed person who has lost vitality, none of these help. At least not for me. No amount of effort from others and myself to inspire something worth living for in my life has failed. The only solution then, is to live and act without hope.
At a cursory glance this solution seems hopeless (it is) and nihilistic (it isn't). How can a person live without any hope at all? The answer, I found, in the absurdist literature of Albert Camus. Camus struggled with the absurdity of meaning-seeking life in a meaningless universe. Yet, he rejected suicide, for to commit suicide is to accept defeat. Furthermore, he rejected eluding ourselves into believing that the world has any meaning, for that is an intellectually irresponsible "philosophical suicide." The only solution is to face the abyss directly. We must acknowledge that nothing matters, that the universe doesn't care about our hopes and dreams, that it won't flinch if humanity is to self-destruct. And we must live on regardless.
Whenever people proclaimed meaning in life, I only found them to be either hypocritical or deluded. Camus doesn't strike me as such, for he doesn't pretend that there is any. The possibility to accept meaninglessness and yet thrive is a difficult yet liberating mindset shift, the vitality it provided only matched by prozac.
Why is living without hope so powerful? I can think of a few reasons.
- You are never let down by your hope for a better future being denied upon you. If something you strived to achieve is no longer possible, you do not take it as erasing your purpose in life. Instead, you can recognize that it is an uncontrollable whim of the universe.
- You are never disappointed by the result of your efforts. As your actions were never based on a hope for a better future, and for the sake of the actions themselves, you are sometimes pleasantly surprised but never let down. For example, many students believe that they will be happier once they get a perfect GPA, as I once used to believe, which is certainly not the case. To act without hope as a student means to study without the expectation that getting a higher grade will be of any benefit, yet to do it nonetheless.If no grand narrative matters in the end, you learn to appreciate the small joys of the present moment, for that is all there is to life. In this sense, a practical application of absurdism can involve a dose of mindfulness.If no grand narrative matters in the end, you learn to appreciate the small joys of the present moment, for that is all there is to life. In this sense, a practical application of absurdism can involve a dose of mindfulness.
- If no grand narrative matters in the end, you learn to appreciate the small joys of the present moment, for that is all there is to life. In this sense, a practical application of absurdism can involve a dose of mindfulness.
- Living without hope places emphasis on living only, which is ironically the best method to progress in our meaningless pursuits like our careers. You act without hope for the sake of acting.
- You become immune from the broader changes of the society going downhill, for you know that the universe doesn't listen to your wishes to begin with. What matters is that we live our fullest despite it all, the definition of which may depend on each individual.
Was Camus right in proclaiming that Sisyphus, the archetypical absurdist hero who must push a boulder up a mountain every day, must be happy? I think so. For whilst Sisyphus did not find a meaning in life, he did not need one to begin with. I will close my haphazard thoughts with a wish that we can all be as happy as Sisyphus.
Why Should I Bother?
I have a bit of a history with existential questions. having long since struggled with the void that one must face once worldly desires are met. I have been fortunate enough to not have to worry about my survival, and, thanks to my education, not worry too much about employment or wages. I have achieved things that my peers strive towards, like a 4.0 GPA and recognition for my craft. I have experienced a relationship and know it's not the fairy tails that adults like to portray it as to young people.
Yet, even in my worst days where I don't see the point of it all, one thing makes me move: a friend in need. They will motivate me to extraordinary feats unexpected of a depressed person. It is to reciprocate the help that they have given me.
If I reframe my daily actions as helping those I care about, then it makes everything easier.
I am not doing homework for the sake of graduating with a college degree to get a job. (That's such a depressing outlook! How do people live like that?) I am getting my obligations done so that I can help others learn from me in the future. Furthermore, by getting my work done, I am improving my ability to be more independent and therefore be more able to help others. In that sense, it is my obligation, as a young person, to help myself so that I can later help others.
I am not exploiting someone of their hard-earned money by providing a tutoring service. I am helping a student acquire the joy of learning and open up more opportunities in their life. (In an interesting irony, the fact that I care about not exploiting others in itself proves that I am not a complete nihilist.)
The mere act of talking with my family, spending time with them, and appreciating their hard work is helping them with their daily life.
The simple act of being a more functioning person helps inspire similar actions among those around me, creating a positive and constructive atmosphere. It's not selfish, therefore, to help myself.
From this framework, every single action is ultimately for the sake of mutual help. And, since it is the only remotely meaningful thing I could think of, it is the perspective that I much needed to get through the daily grind.