It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.
—Woody Allen, What I’ve Learned
According to Peter Wessel Zapffe, Woody Allen is only partly right. Distraction is one way to suppress existential suffering, but there are three others: isolation, anchoring and sublimation.
Zapffe lays this out in his remarkable 1933 essay, ‘The Last Messiah’. In starkly poetic terms, he describes the psychological suffering that is unique to humans. This suffering, as he sees it, is the inevitable result of possessing a consciousness that can grasp the meaninglessness of existence and the inevitability of death. In response, individuals and society have built an impressive range of repressional strategies to manage these dangerous feelings. Zapffe describes what he believes are the four core strategies to repress the thoughts that threaten not only happiness, but the willingness to live.
Zapffe’s Four Repressional Strategies
By isolation I here mean a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling….
In everyday interaction, isolation is manifested in a general code of mutual silence… Among adults there are the rules of ‘tact,’ the mechanism being openly displayed when a man who weeps on the street is removed with police assistance.
Isolation is the refusal to give an audience to thoughts that break through the everyday world of routines and responsibility. Isolation simply responds with silence, hoping that the unpleasant truth will be gone as soon as possible.
Anchoring might be characterised as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness….
Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas.
Anchoring is the reliance on unquestionable beliefs and traditions to shield oneself from thoughts that would call life into question. If isolation is the refusal to acknowledge a troubling thought, anchoring is the belief that the thought can be rendered harmless by the protection offered by invincible and eternal truths: God, Nation, and so on. If one of these anchorings fails, it must be quickly replaced by another to prevent a crisis from appearing, whether in an individual or in a society.
A very popular mode of protection is distraction. One limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions….
The tactic is often fully conscious. Despair may dwell right underneath and break through in gushes, in a sudden sobbing. When all distractive options are expended, spleen sets in, ranging from mild indifference to fatal depression.
Distraction is perhaps the most common repression strategy, as it can take a nearly endless variety of forms. Disturbing thoughts are kept at bay by leaving no room for them to enter consciousness.
The fourth remedy against panic, sublimation, is a matter of transformation rather than repression. Through stylistic or artistic gifts can the very pain of living at times be converted into valuable experiences. Positive impulses engage the evil and put it to their own ends, fastening onto its pictorial, dramatic, heroic, lyric or even comic aspects.
If distraction is the most common repression strategy, then sublimation is the rarest. The raw materials of unhappy consciousness are used to build something that transcends this suffering. As Zapffe points out, in order for this strategy to be deployed the initial feeling must in some sense be ‘betrayed’ in order to look at it with detachment. This perspective renders the feeling benign enough to confront and transform into something else.
The most controversial part of Zapffe’s essay is the recommendation he offers at its conclusion: humankind should cease reproducing and peacefully eliminate itself. In his view, this is the only solution to suffering that must inevitably plague a species equipped with a form of consciousness that goes beyond the requirements of mere survival. He saw consciousness as a tragedy with no possible redemption.
However, Zapffe describes sublimation as ‘transformation rather than repression’, unlike the strategies of isolation, anchoring and distraction. Sublimation means confronting troubling thoughts in order to make use of them for creative purposes. The transformation of suffering through creative means is one aspect of a larger non-repressional perspective: self-transcendence. I want to highlight it (along with a second, humorous nihilism) as non-repressional strategies that can confront the worst parts of human existence without leading to the conclusion that human existence is a mistake that should be erased.
Self-transcendence (sometimes called just transcendence, or in my styling, (self) transcendence) is a perspective that urges us to look beyond the particular accidents of the time and place we are born into. Through self-transcendence we can see ourselves as inextricably enmeshed in a reality larger than the solitary self. This connection can be made manifest in a number of ways: through the universal language of art, through dedicating oneself to the pursuit of deep knowledge, through offering care and love to others, through recognizing a connection to non-human beings and nature, and through losing oneself in ego-less wonder.
Abraham Maslow spent a good deal of time writing about transcendence towards the end of his life. In contradiction to the hierarchy of needs he made famous, Maslow came to believe that self-transcendence, rather than self-actualization, represented the highest peak of human achievement.
The peak experience of transcendence does not rely on repressing the dark aspects of life. Maslow wrote that transcenders ‘can be more ecstatic, more rapturous’ than self-actualizers, ‘yet maybe more prone to a kind of cosmic-sadness over the stupidity of people, their self-defeat, their blindness, their cruelty to each other, their shortsightedness.’ Rather than turning away from the dark corners of human nature and the suffering of inner experience, transcenders resist despair, seeing beauty and meaning in the finite life given to humans. By seeing a connection between our lives and the totality of all that exists, meaning is created that can’t be erased by the changing moods of inner experience. As Alan Watts wrote, ‘We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.’
So we should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it.
—Seneca, ‘On Tranquility of Mind’
Laughing at the absurdities of life has a long tradition. The philosopher John Marmysz coined the term ‘humorous nihilism’ to describe a perspective that confronts the hard truths of existence and responds with laughter rather than tears.
Humorous nihilism shares with self-transcendence a refusal to look away from unpleasant realities. A laughing nihilist doesn't use protective beliefs to fend them off or drown them in an endless stream of sights and sounds. Instead, the darkest thoughts are used as material for humor.
If the human condition is viewed as a joke – something ludicrous, and necessarily marred by imperfection – then it makes sense to stop trying to treat it like a puzzle with some sort of clever solution. Perhaps it would instead be more appropriate simply to linger in the presence of that incongruous gap between the way the world actually is and the way we wish it to be, staring into the abyss with fearless amusement. In so doing, nihilists might extract pleasure from a situation that would otherwise only bring frustration and pain.
What makes Zapffe’s essay brilliant is his diagnosis of the human condition and the strategies individuals and societies use to fend off the troubling feelings that lay within. However, sharing his belief that human consciousness is a heavy burden does not automatically lead to sharing his belief that life must be doomed by it. The transformation of suffering and the meaning this struggle can bring are timeless themes from across human cultures, and they point toward a life philosophy that can withstand even the worst psychological suffering.