While at Shambhala Mountain Center, I took ruthless advantage of my “staff” discount and the broad selection of Buddhist books in their gift shop. I took home four. What struck me was the dearth of books who’s titles promised happiness, in one way or another. “How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life,” “The Happiness Project,” “How to Be an Adult in Relationships,” “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” “Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life,” “The Ultimate Happiness Prescription.” On and on and on.
Now I’m certain these are quite lovely books. I haven’t read any of them, but at least a few are by authors I respect based on their reputation and smaller articles of theirs I have read. And there were just as many scholarly texts next to them, musings on dzogchen and the seven points of mind training and commentaries on historic sutras and their interpretations, so on and so forth. There were also many good “manuals” regarding how to meditate and practice, along with various anthologies, and audience specific books about subjects like women in Zen, masculinity, Buddhist for teenagers, etc.
But no one ever writes a book with the title “Life Sucks, But That’s Okay: Deal.” And isn’t that what the Buddha taught? Life is suffering, this is why, we can handle that, and here’s how we do it. I wonder if this is a recent Western phenomena or a human thing. Do chipper titles sell more books? I mean, who would buy a book with the title “Life Sucks?” (FYI – There is one. It’s a graphic novel about Dave, “a poor vampire working at a convenience store.” Go figure. There are also a small number of books with “life sucks” in the title or subtitle, usually accompanied by “why” and “what you can do about it.” The graphic novel about poor vampire Dave sounds more interesting.)
Given humans’ biological negative bias (we pay more attention to the bad things than the good because the bad things are more likely to kill us) you’d think a cynical title would get a lot of attention. But attention is not the same as “pick me up and buy me.” Even among the self-help market, which sadly seems to absorb and dilute a lot of otherwise good dharma, telling someone their life sucks (even if them believing their life sucks is what got them to the bookstore anyway) is not a way to make friends. Everyone wants to believe their life is good (even if they secretly admit it sucks) because it affirms their choices and reinforces their ego. Some feel guilty admitting their life sucks, because, after all, they live in affluent, middle-class America and theoretically have everything they want (even though Buddha knows getting what we want doesn’t really do the trick), so why should they be unhappy?
So rather than a bundle of books telling us “Yeah, you’re right, life really does suck,” we have a bundle of books telling us “You should be happy because you’re smart/strong/brave/fortunate enough to be depressed/single/healthy/unhealthy/married/young/old and you can use that opportunity to become compassionate/wise/strong/calm/enlightened/happy/fearless/free.” Etc.
They’re not wrong. Exactly. They’re just preaching the choir. Very few people are going to buy a book they think might reaffirm their deepest fears. They want a security blanket and there are plenty for them to choose from.
Now, naturally, people do want to be happy. People do need to know how to deal with difficult relationships, handle depression, and understand their emotions. The thing that seems to unite all these books, however, is not their ability to help you be happy (as I’m sure many of them do), but their promise of happiness. I attribute this not to the authors, but rather mostly the publishers and marketers. And, of course, the people who buy the books based on the promise.
Not everyone is a cheerful cynical like me. Generally, I think life sucks. It sucks very often and very hard for a lot of people. (Although, relatively speaking, mine as a member of the aforementioned affluent, middle-class America probably sucks less than ninety-nine percent of the planet.) And I’m not going to say the fact that life sucks is a good thing. I’m not going to turn it around and say what a great opportunity it is (there are wiser people than me who have done that far more eloquently) and blah blah blah. No, it just plain old sucks. But you know, after a few critical needs are met, like basic food, shelter, and safety from violence, the fact that it sucks isn’t really a problem. (And some would argue before those needs…) It’s okay.
It’s okay not because it’s good or because it’s some kind of “opportunity,” but because it’s fundamentally workable. Because we can deal.
Dealing with the fact that life sucks is something we all do to a greater or lesser extent. The fact doesn't have to bother us. Chasing after promises of happiness isn’t dealing. That’s just attempting to escape the fundamental fact. But we can look long and hard at the fact and realize we’re still here. Bus’s willing, we’ll be here tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. So somehow we must have been dealing all along, right? How’s that?
Well, we all have the capacity to deal. We’re all just savvy enough and just kind enough to one another to have ensured the survival of our socially-dependent and physically-unimpressive species for the last several thousand years. It’s in all of us. And some of us, a precious few, have figured out how to deal so well, the fact stopped bothering them at all. It didn’t go away. They still got old, sick, and died, but they could deal because they recognized the fact life sucks is not fundamentally a problem. The problem is that we want it to stop. And let’s face it – that ain’t gonna happen. But that’s okay. ‘Cause we can deal.
Where’s the book telling us that?