This is a thoughtful, personal and wise book that tackles the human experiences of infirmity, loneliness, grief, failure, injustice, absurdity and hope through a philosophical lens.
Setiya draws on the great philosophers of the ages, not always siding with them, pitting them against each other, questioning their assumptions and the social context which informed their work.
Most illuminating for me is his treatise on pain and infirmity. He himself suffers from chronic pain. He may have good days or peaceful stretches but the pain will never be gone for good. It will rear up again, debilitating, blocking access to any peace or happiness in his mind and he must simply do his best to manage it and to carry on living.
He digs into the idea that we feel through our bodies, they are the interface through which we experience the world. Without pain, the body does not draw attention to itself. “As we relax into our bodies, they disappear, becoming a transparent interface… Pain draws us back to our corporeality.”
Yet, when there is pain, it draws attention to itself, “taxing our capacity to engage with the world.” As he notes, “pain isn’t just bad in itself; it impedes one’s access to anything good.” We desperately look forward to when the pain will be gone, and how much we will be grateful and conscious of our pain-free body. That is the opposite of what happens. “For almost as soon as pain is gone, the body recedes into the background, no longer drawing focus, and the anticipated bliss dissolves.” His metaphors bring a visceral clarity as he notes that “attempting to dwell on the absence of pain is like turning on the lights to see the dark.”
He gently reminds us that we will all experience pain. If not now, then in old age. It is unavoidable. Once we accept that fact, we can have compassion for the pain of others. Throughout, his own story is visible but not overwhelming. It provides the thread that allows us to understand why he seeks answers. He outlines thought experiments and proceeds to unpack them and turn their premise on the head. He draws a line from these to real-world scenarios, such as is it better to fund research into the cure for an ailment that affects a majority versus a rare disease that affects a minority? Where does one draw a line?
From here, he dives into loneliness. The health repercussions of chronic loneliness are well-documented. Setiya arrives at this conclusion, “the way out of loneliness runs, ironically, through the needs of other people. It is about attending to them, not how they relate to you: concern for a potential friend, not a potential friendship.”
Again, his real-world applications look at how truly debilitating solitary confinement in prisons is and his stories about social programs that seek to reduce loneliness in communities are inspiring highlights.
An important and beautiful point he makes is about one of degrees. Connection forms in tiny moments, incremental first, that then broaden and thicken into friendships, relationships and communities. On the practical front, “listening by itself may be enough to forge connection. Doing it well takes courage and resilience. It can be a long, hard path from friendly greetings to close friendship. That path is paved with volunteer work, evening classes, amateur sports. It is paved by invitations offered, silences endured – an exposure of need that may be frightening and touched with shame. To overcome loneliness is to open oneself to others when what is opened is a wound.”
Grief, he notes, is deeply personal and lonesome. In the journey through grief, we must come to the point where we realise is our grief is not everyone’s grief. Anyone who can’t imagine how the world carries on living and laughing after our personal loss will know this feeling. Where do traditions and rituals have a place and what good do they do? What happens in their absence, as was the case for millions during the pandemic.
He addresses the different types of grief including “‘relational grief’, which marks a fractured relationship, grief at the harm that befalls someone who dies; and grief at the sheer loss of life. These forms of grief may interact and coincide but they are not the same.” He even takes on the school of stoicism and its perspective on grief. Can it make us immune? Where and how does it fall short?
In his exploration of failure, he looks to the idea of living well. Do we strive to be happy – that is largely pointless. What do we mean by living well? Isn’t it a wide enough concept to include many ways of living? That people have come to be classified as failures, rather than an action, event or a project, is a function of a moment in history, Setiya tells us.
A life is long and takes a circuitous path and is not pre-designed to move in a particular direction. These lessons are comforting and freeing.
After spending time on the personal, he asks the bigger questions such as what of the fact that we exist at all?
If philosophers and philosophy can feel removed from everyday life, Setiya bridges the gap between theory and the deeply personal. He engages in conversation with the writings of the philosophers and holds his own. Many of the discoveries in these pages become nuggets that help live better each day. It is difficult to broach these subjects or to even think rationally about them but he demystifies subjects that can be overwhelming. Life is indeed hard but Setiya guides us with a firm hand and comforting voice.