#27: The pain/pleasure paradox
On "the case for not being born," getting locked out of my apt, and My Octopus Teacher
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Good morning! The other day I took out a coat I hadn’t worn in half a year and in the pocket found a hand sanitizer I panic-bought in March. Isn’t that weird?
Anyway here’s Wonderwall.
In November 2017, The New Yorker published a story called “The Case for Not Being Born.” I clicked assuming it was satire, but instead found a dead-serious interview with a philosopher named David Benatar who thinks, essentially, that life isn’t worth it. “[Benatar] believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion,” wrote Joshua Rothman. At first I couldn’t tell how serious this guy was—I thought he might be a provocateur, using his ideas as a conduit to address poverty, war, or climate change, but no: In his book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, Benatar argues that birth is always harmful because life itself is—and this is my favorite phrase—“permeated by badness.”
Benatar is an anti-natalist, meaning he assigns a negative value to birth. Here’s how he sees it: We are constantly hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, bored, anxious, lonely, unsatisfied, manic, exhausted, itchy, sore, sad. We’re relentlessly forced to work, forced on relentless errands, stuck in lines, stuck in perpetual states of want. We want to sleep but can’t sleep well, need to wake up but don’t want to. We venerate youth, age incessantly, grieve death then die ourselves. People may think they’re happy, Benatar says, but they’re just lying to themselves about how unbearable life actually is. “Of course, life is not bad in every way,” he writes. “Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise—the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.”
His solution? Never be born in the first place.
“Office in a Small City” by Edward Hopper always reminds me of the loneliness inherent to the human experience.
Benatar didn’t invent anti-natalism. The term was coined by a Belgian philosopher named Théophile de Giraud who published a book on the topic in 2006, and you can find traces of it throughout history by other names. But Benatar is a big voice in the recent “rise of anti-natalism.” (Another voice? Raphael Samuel, who last year announced his plans to sue his parents for conceiving him without his consent.) In addition to finding this worldview unfortunate, I can’t help but find it funny. Maybe because I think it’s a bit true, as most dark humor is. Or maybe because the anti-natalist movement feels tragically ironic, like a Greek myth in which a group of men come together upon a mountaintop to agree that life is terrible, then promise to spread the word to anyone who thinks otherwise. Can you imagine if, after millions of years of roaming the planet, proliferating our species, tirelessly improving our tools and exerting dominion over the world, the logical conclusion of the “most intelligent creatures” on Earth was that actually, life was the worst and it’s all our parents’ fault? You have to admit it’s got a ring to it.
I never forgot that New Yorker piece. When Avi drove home to Detroit in September, leaving me alone in our apartment for two weeks, I thought of it often, especially the part where Benatar describes life as a series of inconveniences. With less to distract me and no company to keep, my day-to-day took on an insular rhythm that was initially freeing and eventually suffocating. When I was listless I had to focus myself, when I was depressed I had to self-soothe, when I was messy I had to clean it up. Of course this is always the case, but my quarantined solitude brought the monotony of existence into clearer focus. I recalled Benatar’s words: “The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling.” It still sounds like a punchline to me, but I think that’s why I like it.
I don’t agree though. Central to his theory is the idea that suffering is worse than joy is good, so better to not be born at all. He explains this by positing that no one would trade five minutes of the worst pain for five minutes of the greatest pleasure. But wouldn’t they? Why do people run marathons, or write novels, or maintain complicated friendships? The negotiation between pain and pleasure seems almost like an organizing principle for a life well lived. Thinking, on a micro level, of massaging a sore muscle, or scratching a mosquito bite, or putting a heating pad on my cramping uterus. Thinking, on a macro level, of finding my calling, or falling in love, or making and sharing art—all experiences which would be dulled if not for the pain that preceded them.
This isn’t to say I don’t think life can be and often is terrible. It just seems too simple a measuring unit for determining its value. Or maybe just too cruel. When Rothman asked Benatar if perhaps the solution is to improve the world, he replied, “It’ll never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt…. [U]npleasantness and suffering are too deeply written into the structure of sentient life to be eliminated.” A convenient answer, not without some merit, but definitely without a trace of imagination or nuance. I can’t help but see his mental framework as a consequence of a narrow mind rather than a clear one. Or maybe I’m just comforting myself. I’m sure that’s what he would say.
One morning while Avi was gone, in a decision I cannot explain, I went outside to install a rack on my bike in my pajamas and forgot my keys. I realized it right as the door closed behind me, and within seconds a confluence of emotions descended: sheepishness, dread, a pathetic trace of thrill. I went outside to call our super (who didn’t answer), and then management company (which was closed), and then maintenance guy (observing Shabbat), and then leasing agent, who said that, for some reason (could I believe it?) he had a key to every single building he leased except mine. I could believe it, actually.
While I waited for someone to call me back, I thought I might as well install the bike rack, so I laid everything out, feeling industrious, then realized I needed pliers, which I hadn’t grabbed. So I just sat there cross-legged on the sunny concrete in my sweatpants and Adidas slides and giant yellow t-shirt that said, I swear to god, WALK OF SHAME in all-caps. I looked at the trees, fucked around on my phone. Every so often I’d call someone and every time they wouldn’t answer. Hours passed.
At some point, my upstairs neighbor called down to tell me that he and his wife were leaving soon, and that I could hang out in their place with Gabriel until I got ahold of someone. For this I was inconsolably grateful, partially because of their kindness, but also because Gabriel is their pug I occasionally walk with a face like a velvet pillow. We sat around together all day while I listened intermittently to people’s answering machines. Around 2 p.m. I caved and ordered food as I was starving, and around 4 p.m. I finally admitted no one was going to call me back, so I called a locksmith, who arrived within half an hour, unlocked my door in under a minute, then charged me $160 dollars. You have to laugh.
I didn’t regret the day in the end, even though it cost me five days’ rent. I’m lucky in that it wasn’t that big of a deal, that I have kind neighbors, that pugs exist. The irony wasn’t lost on me, either. I asked for novelty and found it; I longed to not be locked in my apartment anymore and then got locked out. The experience was amusing, irritating, and memorable the way disruption can often be. It was mildly painful and mildly pleasurable in equal measure, not quite fitting into Benatar’s existential calculus, like so much of life doesn’t.
For instance, how would you label the time a hungover woman threw up on my brother on his subway commute, forcing him to call off his whole morning so he could run to a nearby dry cleaner and then buy a spare shirt in a hurry? I remember him calling me on his walk to the office from Uniqlo, feeling lighter from all his cancelled meetings, both of us laughing about how awful it was, but also kind of how pleasant it was to be reminded that even the most predictable day can veer off course. Or how about the time, just last week, when my wallet fell out of my coat pocket on a walk, and I spent all day retracing my steps in a panic, only to have a local person DM me five hours later that they’d found it. Avi and I walked over to their place to pick it up, gave them some edibles, had a lovely conversation. Are these stories permeated by badness or permeated by goodness? It must be a little bit of both.
In the height of my listless solitude in September—around the time I began to wonder, harmlessly but genuinely, what the point of life is—I watched My Octopus Teacher, the Netflix documentary about a man who befriends an octopus. It ended up being the perfect little vehicle for big questions: about loneliness and solitude, coexistence versus companionship, about the “point” of an octopus, which spends most of its short life hunting or being hunted, only to procreate and die soon after, which just feels so unfair. I loved it. Plus, the octopus looks like Bug.
After it ended I looked up a relevant piece I remembered reading in The London Review of Books in 2017. It’s called “The Sucker! The Sucker!” by Amia Srinivasan, and it’s one of those essays, somehow both poetic and academic, that makes you wonder how the hell someone wrote it, or even thought to write it. Naturally, it’s about the octopus—its strange history, unusual biology, and mysterious inner life. The part I remembered most is the idea that the octopus has a short life span (between one and four years, depending on the species) because, despite being a mollusk, it lacks a shell, but it lacks a shell for a reason. Srinivasan writes:
“In its early evolutionary history, the octopus gave up its protective, molluscan shell in order to embrace a life of unboundaried potential. But the cost was an increased vulnerability to toothy and bony predators. An animal with a soft body and no shell cannot expect to live long, and so harmful mutations that take effect only once it has been alive for a couple of years will soon spread through the population. The result is a life that is experientially rich but conspicuously brief.”
David Benatar would argue the octopus should never be born in the first place, right? I mean, surely the average life of an octopus is worse than the average life of a human. They dedicate their short existence to staving off starvation and hiding from sharks until they’ve successfully passed the survival torch so they can immediately die. But of course that’s missing something important about the richness of the tentacle, shell-free experience (may we all one day know it). This is why Benatar’s framing is inadequate at capturing existence in general. It looks only at the facts, bifurcating them into painful and pleasurable, instead of embracing how they intersect and rely on each other in surprising ways.
I’m both enamored by and terrified of these blurry lines. Nothing was more unnerving to me, in my early twenties, than the realization that growing up wasn’t about avoiding mistakes, but making them. I still think that’s awful, even if I also find it freeing. I’m endlessly drawn to these contradictions, like that living in the moment might mean forgetting it, or that closeness requires distance, or that fearing death makes us feel alive. How could you define any of these experiences as painful or pleasurable when they’re obviously and inherently both? Or as Boris from The Goldfinch put it, in a line I’ve never forgotten: “What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
1. This week’s Small Good Thing is a relatively new newsletter about grief. It’s called At the Bottom of Everything by a writer named Amy, who lost her husband suddenly in August and has been writing about it since. Amy is a reader of Maybe Baby and is hoping to connect with others out there grieving, or anyone processing the impossible. (Her writing is raw and beautiful.)
2. This one isn’t new but I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before: 56 hours of “Airplane Cabin,” my preferred version of white noise for sleeping, via this app for babies.
3. “Out There: On Not Finishing,” an essay by Devin Kelly for Longreads that made me cry and want to read it again.
“What happens if what you once used to make sense of things no longer helps you make sense of things? What happens if the patterns and habits and metaphors we lean on do not serve us in the moments we need them? What happens if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leave us lonely, wrestling with meaning? What then?”
4. Unfortunately, the movie Across the Universe, inspired by my running joke of asking Avi “Is this a song from that movie?” every time he plays a Beatles song, just to make him mad. The movie is awful!
5. This 10-minute video about a French butter house (which is so long and not that eventful but somehow I watched the whole thing?):
6. This listicle about the animals that live the longest, which I looked up as unnecessary research for my essay this week. The greenland shark has a minimum lifespan of 272 years???? And can live up to 392?
7. “Why Liberals Pretend to Have No Power,” a piece by Luke Savage for The Atlantic about the way corporate Democrats invoke the language of emergency to campaign but rarely act accordingly while doing their actual jobs.
8. Two songs care of Avi:
(which he recently put on in the car and which gave me such an intense rush of good-nostalgia that I immediately added to my “good mood” playlist)
(which he’s been playing on his guitar, prompting me to ask what it is every time, only to be disappointed every time he says it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers) (still like it)
9. “Working Vacation,” a wild ride of an essay inThe Baffler by Sasha Fletcher, which is actually an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World. This piece is impossible to explain, but made me want to write something with no regard for the rules.
10. An orange shortsuit from Livin Cool (shorts/sweatshirt), which I know is overpriced but I have to admit I’ve now worn for three days straight. I can’t remember a time in recent memory that a purchase has brought me genuine joy the way this stupid getup has.
11. The Google results for: “How many times a day is normal to pee” (between 6 and 8, as many as 10, which is just rude)
12. “Every Single Person Has a Right to Housing,” a piece by Alexis Zanghi for Jacobin about the not-so-radical idea that everyone deserves a decent place to live no matter their income, and also the need for more “third places,” defined as free, communal spaces that aren’t for living or working but simply existing.
13. One NBA finals basketball game, which led me down several rabbit holes as documented on Instagram. After the game finished we agreed to watch the next one then forgot.
14. The classic (terrible) video that went viral in 2007 of a woman stomping grapes for some winery contest and then falling off a wooden platform. I can’t remember how it came up except for that Avi was trying to make a joke about the karma she faced for her “cheating stomps.” (We googled to make sure she is okay and she is, but she broke two ribs!)
15. One bag of Haribo sour gummy bears, while writing this newsletter.
Okay that’s it for this week, thanks for reading!
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