This statement will seem foreign to modern ears in a time when the idea of cultivating virtue or building character is unheard of: knowing who you are is less important than knowing who you should be.
Since the word should has been practically stricken from our language as hate-speech, people are left drifting, trying to find out who they are and to find meaning in their lives. But if there isn’t any ideal to aspire to, why does it matter anyway? Many people don’t bother with “who am I?” and skip right to “what do I want?”
If self-fulfillment and the pursuit of pleasure are the only goals worth pursuing in modern culture, you can see where the entitlement epidemic comes from and why people are so upset when life is hard and they do not get what they want. From the reactions of politicians and mainstream media to the 2016 election, it’s evident they expected to get what they wanted and were shocked they didn’t.
If everyone expects to get what they want and if pleasure is our god, it makes sense that suffering is considered the great enemy. Of course, you must do all possible to avoid suffering in your own life. If you want to feel virtuous (in the absence of practicing any real virtue), then you only have to champion some cause that claims to eradicate the suffering of others (this can consist of posting on social media, or if you’re feeling energetic, protesting, looting, and destroying private property to make your voice heard).
Even people who reject the entitlement mentality when it comes to thinking you should get something for nothing, that you should live a charmed life without having to work for it, fall for it in another form, one that says “if you work hard, then you are entitled to an easy life, to succeed and prosper, and not have bad things happen to you.” It’s a prosperity gospel that can be religious or thoroughly materialistic and divorced from religion. A capitalistic, free-market gospel of work ethic and the American dream: work hard and you will be rewarded with a good life, lots of material things and success. When you work hard and fail to get ahead, it can be depressing, and if you believe you were entitled to succeed, it can fill you with anger and resentment.
Something many people fail to realize, despite the oft repeated “life isn’t fair,” is that it’s true. Life just is hard. If you’ve been taught that it shouldn’t be that way and you expect it not to be that way, you are in for a terrible disappointment. Sometimes anger is described as a strong desire for something mixed with grief or disappointment: in other words, you didn’t get what you really wanted. Is all the anger in the world, all the protesters throwing fits and setting things on fire, just an adult-sized toddler’s tantrum that life is harder than expected and they didn’t get want they wanted? Still wanting to somehow feel good about themselves some claim their temper tantrums are about trying to right wrongs, fight injustice, and change the world.
In a fallen world, bad things will continue to happen, even to good people. We can, and should, help our neighbors where we can to ease their burdens, and hopefully, they will do the same for us. This is part of what community is supposed to do for us and part of why it’s near absence in the modern world is so bad for people. If a suffering or burden shared is halved and a joy shared is doubled, you can see why lacking community makes us more unhappy on whole. The current push to consider the world your “community” and everyone in it your “neighbor” isn’t possible for human beings. We aren’t built to care about people we don’t know, can’t ever know; compassion needs to be human-sized. A single person cannot feel for 7 billion people.
We cannot hope to eradicate suffering from existence, either our own or the world’s. If we make human suffering the great enemy we must defeat, we will fail and only unleash injustice and more human suffering in our pursuit of this goal. We make life’s hardships harder by failing to accept them as a normal part of reality, and by internally rebelling against them as unfair, unjust, and undeserved (which they may be, but does that matter?), we only create more self-inflicted pain and suffer more than we would otherwise. The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of suffering is the root of, ironically, so much suffering and unhappiness in the modern world.
Our world, our lives, will never be perfect. The best we can hope for is to strive for self-improvement (if not perfection), but that needs an objective goal to strive towards. Without something like Christian moral standards, what goal can we have? If we do know who we should be, the next thing to do is to treat well our families, friends, and our actual neighbors, to share their burdens and joys, to create community where we can. Unfortunately, suffering is and will always be a part of human experience, but if everyone would strive for goodness and be kind to their neighbors, the world would take care of itself.