You don’t deserve to be happy

I feel like the language of deserving is fraught.

To deserve something implies that you have earned that thing, and that the thing that has been earned is still not yours.

It’s kind of like viewing the world as a series of IOUs, except there is no contract or agreement to document what is owed, and under what conditions.

When you deserve something, you feel like you are owed, but the one who owes (a person, an organization, the universe) is unaware of that fact.

The one who deserves is one who desires. Which means they don’t have the thing they want. They also don’t have any control over the thing they desire. By claiming to deserve a thing, there is a sense in which you are making a case, but that the ultimate decision about whether you receive the thing is not up to you. But when someone says they ‘deserve’ something, they are preparing a case that is never made. No judge ever receives their appeal.

Deserving is often just another word for resentment.

I hear a lot of people say they ‘deserve to be happy.’ But when we think carefully about the language of deserving, the idea of deserving happiness quickly stops making any sense.

Is happiness a thing that you can lack? Is it our responsibility to make a case to someone and pray that they agree with us?

No. Happiness is not a thing that one has. Happiness is a thing that one IS. You don’t deserve to be happy because there is no one to whom you can make an appeal. No one is holding out on you. As a state, whether you are happy or not is something that is entirely within your control.

To say you deserve to be happy is to say that the decision isn’t ultimately up to you. It puts you at the mercy of the universe.

To say that you deserve to be happy is simply to refuse responsibility for yourself. You don’t deserve to be happy, because it’s a choice — to be or not to be — that only you can make.

Is the denial of pain the denial of potential? A response to Mark Manson

Mark Manson tweeted something recently that’s been nagging at me. The sign of a good tweet.

To deny pain is to deny our own potential

@IAmMarkManson

Aphorisms like this have a lot of power on social media because, by virtue of how ambiguous they are, every reader can ‘see themselves’ in them. Super likable. Very shareable.

On the face of it, it sounds like just a different way of saying “no pain, no gain” — a truism with which very few would disagree.

But is what Manson says here simply a restatement of the fact that there is no growth without struggle? Or is it actually claiming something else? And if it’s claiming something else, is it right?

Don’t get me wrong. I like Mark a lot. I’ve read his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and I recommend it. There’s just something about this tweet (which I think is also a quote from his book) that, to me, doesn’t seem quite right.

The problem is that it’s unclear whether the issue is the denial of SOME pain or of ALL pain. If SOME pain, then the expression may be true, but only trivially so. It’s not actually useful until ‘pain’ is qualified either in terms of kind, degree, or both. If it is ALL pain, then it is clearly untrue because it is very easy to think of an example of pain which, if not denied, would absolutely interfere with the realization of one’s potential.

Athletes know that some pain is valuable for improving performance, but they also know that there are some kinds of pain that, if not denied, can be career ending.

This is different from saying “no pain, no gain” because in that case all it means is that no gain of any kind is possible without at least some pain.

I think what bothers me the most about Manson’s tweet is it’s ambiguity (what does ‘pain’ mean? what is our ‘potential’?) and the fact that it also involves human action (‘denial’), the meaning of which is contingent upon the meaning of those other ambiguous terms. In other words, the conceptual weight of the expression is simply not sufficient to justify a clear and specific meaning.

Okay, but who cares, right?

What worries me here is not that Mason’s quote is ambiguous, but that it’s ambiguity is one that I desperately want to resolve. Even if only trivially true in itself, there’s still value in Manson’s tweet because it underlines the importance of arriving at an understanding of each of its terms. Only if we know what it means to realize our potential and what pain is can we know the relation between those two things the the role we play in mediating them.