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How to Suffer Successfully

How to Suffer Successfully
By Elizabeth Filips • Issue #3 • View online
I’ve really needed some philosophy to distract myself this week. I’m adding all my notes. It’s a long one.
Book - How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton
Still reading - a bunch of “business books” for work
What I got from the book: a new outlook: how to deal with suffering. What “good” and “bad” suffering looks like. The value of reading. How and why to slow down and appreciate life.
Proust is a bit too cynical and definitely romanticised suffering (something a younger me greatly resonated with) I sadly now somehow feel as though I’ve lost one of my philosophy idols, at least in the sense that I adored him previously. 
My Actionable Takeaways:
  • Reading books and realising just how similar we are to everyone who has ever existed (at least for the last 20,000 years) can make you feel home everywhere, and more connected to the world
  • Fictional characters can help normalise those rarely talked about, but not rare feelings and thoughts
  • Art and books can help put a finger on feelings and thoughts we struggle to understand within ourselves
  • Be weary of consuming information, we tend to attribute importance to how long/detailed a story is. This can be used both ways: to reduce ‘important’ things and ‘the bigger picture’ to trivial matters, or to inflate issues that cannot be justified in the grand scheme of things to hold the importance attributed to them
  • Stop and smell the roses, there is beauty we take for granted and don’t consider, perhaps disperse small seconds of meditation-like-practices, noticing the smells, sensations around you to extend your experience of the world
  • It is foolish to think you’re too busy for the things you’re already doing, get over yourself and enjoy life
  • Without goals, life is miserable, to stop yourself heading for a mid-life crisis, do not design your life in a way that you soon get to a point where you know pretty much how everything will play out
  • Some form and extent of suffering is inevitable - try to use it to learn something, it will divert your attention, give you the motive to explore yourself and those around you
  • When you transform grief into an idea or plan, it becomes less painful
  • Do not reinvent the value of your level of interest on something based on how it feels towards you (or someone), stop being bitter
  • There’s little shame in not knowing something, own up to it, don’t try to appear as though you’ve already heard everything before
  • Do not try to justify your mistakes for your disdain of the ‘right’ thing to have been done, own up to it and move on
  • Realise that we all have ‘bad’ things to say about literally everyone else (that we generally don’t) therefore, when someone says something negative about us, do not take it to mean that they must hate us (although that can be the case) but realise that others, just as us, fully have the capacity to love and hate things about our person
  • Try to avoid cliches, use art to give the vocabulary, perspective, colours that you cannot find to understand and see the world
  • Someone who scorns friendship just as you do, and proceeds despite that to be your friend, is a great one
  • Be cautious of irrational things you do when you are not fully convinced, just because other’s are doing it (going on holiday, social media is a big one here)
  • Passion is greatly fueled by desire for something we are unsure we may have/do not yet have - use this to get what you want truly, do not fulfil your every small desire immediately, you are missing out on a lot of productive work with the energy of desire
  • Beware of the risk of thinking that you cannot do something just because other’s have done it better - Proust almost stopped Virginia Woolf from ever writing
How to Love Your Life
Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realise the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than of anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence
How to Take Your Time
“The more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated”
“It shows how vulnerable much of human experience is to abbreviation, how easily it can be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance.”
“Even if we had only forgotten to send Mother a birthday card, we would have to recognise a trace of our guilt in the death cries of Madame van Blarenberghe. “‘What have you done to me! What have you done to me!’ If we wanted to think about it,” wrote Proust, “perhaps there is no really loving mother who could not, on her dying day, and often long before, address this reproach to her son. The truth is that as we grow older, we kill all those who love us by the cares we give them, by the anxious tenderness we inspire in them and constantly arouse.”
“the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.”
“If we were unlikely to have had deep thoughts inspired by toilet soaps before, it could merely have been out of adherence to conventional notions about where to have such thoughts, a resistance to the spirit that had guided Flaubert in turning a newspaper story about the suicide of a young wife into Madame Bovary, or the spirit that had guided Proust in taking on the initially unprepossessing topic of falling asleep and devoting thirty pages to it.”
“It might be a Proustian slogan: n’allez pas trop vite. And an advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.”
“It can be soothing to identify with a description of a problem which makes a previous assessment look needlessly complicated.”
“And if there is no time, at least to resist the approach of Alfred Humblot at Ollendorf and Jacques Madeleine at Fasquelle, which Proust defined as “the self-satisfaction felt by ‘busy’ men—however idiotic their business—at ‘not having time’ to do what you are doing.”
How to Suffer Successfully
“A good way of evaluating the wisdom of someone’s ideas might be to undertake a careful examination of the state of their own mind and health.”
“While it is clear why someone might be interested in developing a Proustian approach to life, the sane would never harbour a desire to lead a life like Proust’s.”
“The truth is that as soon as I am better, because the life which makes me get better annoys you, you ruin everything until I am ill again”
“It is sad not to be able to have at the same time affection and health”
“Love is an incurable disease.”
“In love, there is permanent suffering.”
“Those who love and those who are happy are not the same.”
“Without pleasures, objectives, activities or ambitions, with the life ahead of me finished and with an awareness of the grief I cause my parents, I have little happiness.”
“To ask pity of our body is like discoursing in front of an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides”
“One thinks that people who are always ill don’t also have the illnesses of other people,” Proust tells Lucien Daudet, “but they do.”
“We suffer, therefore we think, and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context. It helps us to understand its origins, plot its dimensions, and reconcile ourselves to its presence.”
“because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as any of us can be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached”
“We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us”
“A woman whom we need and who makes us suffer elicits from us a whole gamut of feelings far more profound and more vital than does a man of genius who interests us.”
“for they are people who profess to understand the workings of the body, even though their knowledge has not primarily emerged from any pain in their own body”
“To believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not a greater folly still.”
“It is not the contented or the glowing who have left many of the profound testimonies of what it means to be alive. It seems that such knowledge has usually been the privileged preserve of, and the only blessing granted to, the violently miserable.”
“Though philosophers have traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, far greater wisdom would seem to lie in pursuing ways to be properly and productively unhappy.”
“Griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some of their power to injure our heart.”
“Because we always lack more than we have, and because there are always more people who don’t invite us than who do. Our sense of what is valuable will hence be radically distorted if we must perpetually condemn as tedious everything we lack, simply because we lack it.”
Bad sufferer 1:
Madam Verdurin (wants to party with the aristocrats, isn’t invited, and then says that they are boring anyway)
“Because we always lack more than we have, and because there are always more people who don’t invite us than who do. Our sense of what is valuable will hence be radically distorted if we must perpetually condemn as tedious everything we lack, simply because we lack it.”
Why should we reinvent the value or our level of interest in something just because of how it feels towards us?
Solution:
“she could learn to make light of her frustration, confess to it directly, even throw out a teasing remark to Swann asking him to return with a signed menu, and in the process might become so charming that an invitation to the Elysee would make its way to her after all.”
Bad Sufferer 2:
Francoise (refused to appear surprised and acted as though she knew everything being said to her, even though she was an uneducated maid and knew nothing of the arts)
“and because she could not, needed to flee her unbearable ignorance by surrounding herself with a less knowledge-laden environment.”
“However, the know-it-all has lost faith in acquiring knowledge by legitimate means”
Solution:
“A precondition of becoming knowledgeable may be a resignation and accommodation to the extent of one’s ignorance, an accommodation which requires a sense that this ignorance need not be permanent, or indeed need not be taken personally, as a reflection of one’s inherent capacities.”
Bad Sufferer 3:
Alfred Bloch (is prone to making gaffes and embarrassing himself) - comes super late to a family dinner and speaks of his disdain for watches and conventions rather than just saying sorry.
“Bloch acts with extreme self-assurance where lesser mortals would offer humble apologies, experiencing no apparent shame or embarrassment.”
“It simply seems that he cannot tolerate a situation where he has both tried to please and yet failed despite himself. ”
Solution:
“How much easier, then, to offend and at least be in control of his actions. If he cannot be on time for dinner and is rained upon, why not turn the insults of time and meteorology into his own successes, declaring that he has willed the very things that have been inflicted on him?”
Bad sufferer 4:
Andre’s mother (is dissatisfied with her miserable life so causes misery in others. Her husband isn’t interested in her so she ruins the plans of a couple in love)
Bad sufferer 5:
Charles Schwann (receives a letter from an anonymous person - clearly a friend, saying that his beloved Odette used to work in brothels)
“After all, there was not a single person he knew who might not, in certain circumstances, prove capable of shameful action. Must he then cease to see them all?”…“And he continued to shake hands with all the friends whom he had suspected, with the purely formal reservation that each one of them had possibly thought to drive him to despair.”
“he has missed out on what, for Proust, is the finest thing about betrayal and jealousy—its ability to generate the intellectual motivation necessary to investigate the hidden sides of others.”
“Though we sometimes suspect that people are hiding things from us, it is not until we are in love that we feel an urgency to press our inquiries, and in seeking answers, we are apt to discover the extent to which people disguise and conceal their real lives.”
“We imagine that we know exactly what things are and people think, for the simple reason that we do not care about them. But as soon as we have a desire to know, as the jealous man has, then it becomes a kaleidoscope in which we can no longer distinguish anything.”
Solution:
“To respond to the unexpected and hurtful behaviour of others with something more than a wipe of the glasses, to see it as a chance to expand our understanding, even if, as Proust warns us, “when we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture-chambers or skeletons.”
“To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through our coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals, and to avoid the ingratitude of those who blame the peas, the bores, the time, and the weather”
How to Express Your Emotions
“We stay on the outside of our impressions, as if staring at them through a frosted window, superficially related to them, yet estranged from whatever has eluded casual definition.”
“The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones.”
“Clichés are detrimental insofar as they inspire us to believe that they adequately describe a situation while merely grazing its surface.”
“So if speaking in clichés is problematic, it is because the world itself contains a far broader range of rainfalls, moons, sunshines, and emotions than stock expressions either capture or teach us to expect”
We all want to be heroes, thoughts like this aren’t rare, they’re just rarely discussed - “She would then be able to mourn her family affectionately for many years, and cause universal stupefaction in her village by getting out of bed to conduct the obsequies, crushed but courageous, moribund but erect.”
Trying to find socially acceptable, cliche reasoning for what irrationally is universal and normal “feels so much love for her boyfriend is that he has had a very close shave this morning, and that she adores smooth skin.” “The implication is that his cleverness counts for little in her particular enthusiasm; if he refused to shave ever again, she might leave him tomorrow.”
“If Albertine could accept that her reactions only demonstrated that a feeling of love can have an extraordinary number of origins, some more valid than others, then she might calmly evaluate the foundations of her relationship and identify the role which she wished good shaving to play in her emotional life.”
Impressionism captures a dimension of visual reality that had escaped previous artists, according to Proust we are all in the habit of “we are all in the habit of giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.”
“surrealism. If his work seems unusual, it is because he is attempting to paint something of what we actually see when we look around, rather than what we know we see.”
“Elstir’s achievement is to hang on to the original muddle, and to set down in paint a visual impression before it has been overruled by what he knows”
“Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us”
How to be a Good Friend
“The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist”
“In spite of its limitations as a forum in which to express complex ideas in rich, precise language, friendship could still be defended on the grounds that it provides us with a chance to communicate our most intimate, honest thoughts to people and, for once, reveal exactly what is on our minds.”
“Because the rhythm of a conversation makes no allowance for dead periods, because the presence of others calls for continuous responses, we are left to regret the inanity of what we have said, and the missed opportunity of what we have not”
“By contrast, a book provides for a distillation of our sporadic mind, a record of its most vital manifestations, a concentration of inspired moments that might originally have arisen across a multitude of years and been separated by extended stretches of bovine gazing. To meet an author whose books one has enjoyed must, in this view, necessarily be a disappointment”
“how much is on our minds—in particular, how many thoughts we have about our friends which, though true, could potentially be hurtful and, though honest, could seem unkind.”
“our evaluation of how ready others would be to break off a friendship if ever we dared express these honest thoughts to them—an evaluation made in part according to our sense of how lovable we are, and of whether our qualities would be enough to ensure that we could stay friends with people even if we had momentarily irritated them by revealing our disapproval of their fiancée or lyric poetry.”
“There seems a gap between what others need to hear from us in order to trust that we like them, and the extent of the negative thoughts we know we can feel toward them and still like them”
“the pursuit of affection and the pursuit of truth were fundamentally rather than occasionally incompatible.”
“His previously diagnosed case of low self-esteem (“If only I could value myself more! Alas! It is impossible”) bred an exaggerated notion of how friendly he would need to be in order to have any friends.”
“There is a lack of tact in people who in their conversation look not to please others, but to elucidate, egoistically, points that they are interested in.” Conversation required an abdication of oneself in the name of pleasing companions:”
“artists as “creatures who talk of precisely the things one shouldn’t mention”
“the scorners of friendship can … be the finest friends in the world,” perhaps because these scorners approach the bond with more realistic expectations. They avoid talking at length about themselves, not because they think the subject unimportant, but rather because they recognize it as too important to be placed at the mercy of the haphazard, fleeting, and ultimately superficial medium that is conversation”
How to Open Your Eyes
“These paintings were windows onto a world at once recognizably our own, yet uncommonly, wonderfully tempting.”
“Once he had been dazzled by this opulent depiction of what he called mediocrity, this appetising depiction of a life he had found insipid, this great art of nature he had thought paltry, I should say to him: Are you happy”
“Because Chardin had shown him that the kind of environment in which he lived could, for a fraction of the cost, have many of the charms he had previously associated only with palaces and the princely life”
“When you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself, this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.”
“We might caricature the history of art as a succession of geniuses engaged in pointing out different elements worthy of our attention”
“The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”
“By a quirk of physiology, a cake that has not crossed his lips since childhood, and therefore remains uncorrupted by later associations, has the ability to carry him back to Combray days, introducing him to a stream of rich and intimate memories.”
“Whatever the efforts of certain great artists to open our eyes to our world, they cannot prevent us from being surrounded by numerous less helpful images that, with no sinister intentions and often with great artistry, nevertheless have the effect of suggesting to us that there is a depressing gap between our own life and the realm of beauty”
“our objection to the speedboat may stem from nothing other than a stubborn adherence to ancient images of beauty and a resistance to a process of active appreciation which even Veronese and Carpaccio would have undertaken had they been in our place”
“One sees people who are doubtful whether the sight of the sea and the sound of its waves are really enjoyable, but who become convinced that they are—and also convinced of the rare quality of their wholly detached tastes—when they have agreed to pay a hundred francs a day for a room in a hotel which will enable them to enjoy this sight and sound.”
How to be Happy in Love
“He will soon forget what there is to be grateful for because the memory of Gilberte-less life will fade, and with it, evidence of what there is to savour”
“We only really know what is new, what suddenly introduces to our sensibility a change of tone which strikes us, that for which habit has not yet substituted its pale fac-similes.“
“Which suggests that having something physically present sets up far from ideal circumstances in which to notice it. Presence may in fact be the very element that encourages us to ignore or neglect it, because we feel we have done all the work simply in securing visual contact”
“It would help us pay more attention to things, lovers in particular. Deprivation quickly drives us into a process of appreciation”
“we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t”
“may ironically be that we do not know him or her well enough. Whereas the initial novelty of the relationship could leave us in no doubt as to our ignorance, the subsequent reliable physical presence of the lover and the routines of communal life can delude us into thinking that we have achieved genuine, and dull, familiarity; whereas it may be no more than a fake sense of familiarity that physical presence fosters”
“There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: “No, this evening I shan’t be free.”
“Like every obstacle in the way of possessing something…, poverty, more generous than opulence, gives women far more than the clothes they cannot afford to buy: the desire for those clothes which creates a genuine, detailed, thorough knowledge of them.”
“They therefore have no opportunity to suffer the interval between desire and gratification which the less privileged endure, and which, for all its apparent unpleasantness, has the incalculable benefit of allowing people to know and fall deeply in love with paintings in Dresden, hats, dressing gowns, and someone who isn’t free this evening.”
“Women who are to some extent resistant, whom one cannot possess at once, whom one does not even know at first whether one will ever possess, are the only interesting ones”
“The outcome is clear, and therefore real, lasting desire unlikely”
“Afraid of losing her, we forget all the others. Sure of keeping her, we compare her with those others whom at once we prefer to her.”
How to Put Books Down
“There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.”
“We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so”
“a good book might also stop us from thinking ourselves, because it would strike us as so perfect, as so inherently superior to anything our own minds could come up with. In short, a good book might silence us.”
“Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf”
“Walter Benjamin’s assessment of why people become writers: because they are unable to find a book already written that they are completely happy with. And the difficulty for Virginia was that, for a time at least, she thought she had found one”
“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures—there’s something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that.”
Wow, you made it. Thanks :)
Book - How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton

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Elizabeth Filips

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