Allow for a moment a thought experiment. Suppose a person could be raised in total isolation; an empty room devoid of any stimulus whatsoever. We’ll call the subject of this experiment Xeros. Now suppose Xeros was kept alive until adulthood, and on its 25th birthday, it is presented with some of the world’s greatest works of art. What emotion would Xeros experience? It may be reasoned that it would be startled by this sudden departure from total nothingness. Perhaps it could be argued that Xeros might experience an instinctual apprehension or even fear. The most reasonable outcome, however, is that it would experience exactly nothing at all. It is true that the light rays from the stimulus presented would be perceived by the eyes and processed in the brain as something, but exactly what, it simply would not know. The reason for Xeros’s apathy toward what is universally described as beauty by an enlightened population is its total lack of context.
Humans do not understand that something is beautiful on the sheer basis that it is objectively and absolutely beautiful, but rather that it is not all of the other things that are not objectively and absolutely beautiful. It is this contrast that is at the heart of all human endeavor towards happiness. There can only be happiness if it is known by contrast what not happiness is. Similarly, we cannot understand satiety without hunger, joy without pain, love without indifference.
This fact is concerning in a modern world where everything in our lives is an attempt to alleviate hardship. Every technological advancement is designed to mitigate suffering on large scales and small. When we are lonely, we can reach out to others through loosely connected webs of internet acquaintances. If we are bored and wish to be entertained, we have bespoke viewing lists on our televisions. If we crave love, we can be artificially matched (sometimes successfully) with a partner based on a few sentences of self-reported attributes that we allege to bring to the table in a relationship. In all cases, we can fulfill these desires using a device that fits in our front pocket and protects us from all manner of negative emotions.
If we understand, however, that all emotions are balanced by a contrasting emotion, we can see that this alleviation is a false pursuit. Any attempt to mitigate one emotion is an unknowing attempt to mitigate its counterpart. The reason why the social gatherings of yore were such convivial events is because they didn’t happen very often. The reason we used to read books—very large books—is because for many, it was their only form of entertainment. The reason why love was felt with such urgency and fervor was because it was truly rare; a blessing that nobody felt entitled to.
Millennials muddle through lackluster emotional investment in the world around them because their lives lack the hardships of yesterday that pave the way to appreciation. The way to correct this deficiency is asceticism, or self-denial—a self-imposed plunge into the depths of one emotion that allows for a meteoric bounce into its corresponding emotion. If we can imagine this as a pendulum swinging freely between good emotions and bad, self-denial is a concerted effort at swinging the pendulum hard in one direction so that it will swing hard in the other direction. And being that it is perhaps out of our control to naturally swing the pendulum further into the realm of positive emotion, it is far easier to swing the pendulum into the realm of the negative. In this way, self-denial can lead to seemingly impossible highs of human spirit. (I am referring to self-denial in terms of the negative simply to contrast it logically with the positive i.e. the emotions we are seeking.)
Take for example that as children, we are impulsive and volatile. As many can attest, the depression experienced by a child can be all consuming, yet we often crave the joy that can only be experienced by children. It’s as if the pendulum of emotion swings harder and further as young people and as we age it gradually loses momentum until it all but shudders to one side before flinching back to the other. It follows this pattern until our pendulums stop swinging all together, and we are dead. This explains why our elders are considered more “stable,” as their pendulums of emotion have all but stopped.
Reject this calmness, as it is the harbinger of death, and any “stability” can be seen as a step closer to the grave. Millennials have taken this step with their relentless (but not unpredictable) pursuit of convenience. They have deliberately taken us a step closer to the cowed, disinterested future-race envisioned by the dystopian greats of the Modern Era.
We should not fear the depths of our emotion because it is the big hearts that feel the hardest, and live the fullest. It is our most challenging of days that make emotional rewards possible. Advancements that seek to improve our lives are in all actuality inhibiting the pendulum’s natural swing into the negative emotional realm, and in doing so, rob it of the momentum necessary to swing into the positive realm. They bring the pendulum ever closer to bottom-dead-center. This explains the growing sense of meaninglessness and ennui in every succeeding generation who has at their fingertips the ability not to make themselves happy, but to make themselves less sad. But it is this pathological avoidance of hardship that indeed creates hardship. But not any like we’ve ever seen; a cerebral hardship that is unique to two classes of people: the young, and the dying.
Do not avoid hardship. Seek it out. Do not avoid pain. Seek it out. Do not avoid failure. Seek it out, because these emotions lay the groundwork for the most intense of positive emotions in the future—emotions that may be entirely foreign to today’s young people. Concerted self-denial is a way of forcing the pendulum to swing hard into the realm of negative emotions and is therefore a means of increasing our positive potential. As we age we must self-deny and simplify our lives in accordance with the waning of our emotional pendulum. Death cannot be avoided, but life can be fulfilled. In this way, we can live the fullest lives possible.