On Inevitability
March 28, 2020

Litost

A week ago, she scattered her father’s ashes at a park they frequented during her father’s declining years. The glorious setting sun gave a remarkable red hue to the daisies, but its vibrancy was masked by an ominous grey. Her father’s death had dulled her life eminently.

She felt extremely guilty for not having been beside her father during his final moments. On that fateful Monday morning, she had delivered porridge to him before rushing off to work. “Stay a little longer,” her father persuaded her, sensing his imminent death. He did not tell her, because he did not dare to do so. His final act of selfishness tore her heart and filled her with immeasurable guilt.

He had never dared to tell his daughter hard truths. He would shower her with lies and a false painting of reality, which made her weak in the face of the inevitable. I guess, her father’s death was momentous not only because of the death of her kin, but also because it was her first step towards confronting the inevitable.

She was devastated. She constantly blamed herself for not having been by her father’s side during his final moments; she regretted not having stayed a little longer to ease the immense loneliness intrinsic to death. Yes, death is the ultimate loneliness. Although death is an inevitable experience shared by all of men, no matter how articulate past accounts of deaths were, your own will be entirely unique and only yours to experience, making it an extremely lonely process.

Now that her source of false reality was gone, she had to face the inevitable all by herself. To the untrained eye, the inevitable will seem evitable. Fresh eyes will always be overwhelmed by the inevitable, and drown in litost. What is litost? It is an untranslatable Czech word. In the words of the great author Milan Kundera, “Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery,” and I would like to add one’s own ineptitude. Only through time and exposure will we be more accommodating to the inevitable and one’s own insufficiency.

Now that her false reality was gone, she was extremely fragile and handling the inevitable correctly became a battle of life and death.

The Confrontation

She worked as a waitress at a small cafe, which brought in a few customers, of which most came to see her. Why? She was neither beautiful nor charismatic. However, she knew how to listen to people. She rarely gave her opinions or lack thereof. She would look attentively into their eyes, without a tinge of doubt but with abundant curiosity. She would be amazed by their colourful lives, full of suffering and complaints, contrasting with her relatively peaceful one. And that really gave her customers the validation they needed, the feeling of superiority.

However, since the death of her father, her eyes had dulled, she no longer looked at her customers with curiosity but contempt. “How dare they come to me with their trivial problems!” she thought, but was too afraid to articulate. Her scornful eyes were piercing, scaring her customers. They stopped frequenting. That troubled her boss. Her boss knew that her only value to the cafe were her ears. She wasn’t a good waitress — she broke many cups and always spilt coffee on the table when serving it to her customers — but her boss often overlooked those mistakes because she was the cafe’s prime attraction. And once her only valuable asset had been destroyed, her boss saw little value in her.

“You’re utterly useless!” her boss lashed out at her. “Your terrible attitude is driving away my customers.”

She remained silent.

“What is your problem?” her boss continued to attack her.

She was at her tipping point and lashed back, “You have no idea what I’m going through! My father just died!”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?!”

She started sobbing profusely.

“Even if your father died, don’t bring it to the god damn workplace! You have your problems and I have mine, but do I go about flaunting it at work? Get a grip on yourself!”

She became extremely bitter. She reflected on the moment and was confronted by the inevitable. If she had known that this was going to happen, would she have told her boss earlier? No. She couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone about her father’s death. No one was at the level of intimacy with her allowing her to spontaneously tell them about the death of her father. Furthermore, telling someone so insignificant about her woes would diminish the sanctity of her father’s death, as though she was exchanging it for sympathy and compassion.

On the other hand, it was also inevitable that her boss would admonish her. Her work performance was subpar and her only value as a good listener was gone. Since she couldn’t bring herself to tell her boss about her father’s death, her boss would inevitably vituperate her. In other words, that confrontation was inevitable. That was her second experience with the inevitable and she was not handling it well. That day, she quit her job.

The Inevitable and Memories

The whimsical progression of time always seems to nibble away at our precious memories, sniggering while leaving us empty and remorseful. She was not spared. It had two months since her father’s death. Every day, she would try to conjure up the image of her father’s face, his demeanour, his verbal tics. She would often jot down the special moments that she had with him, often regretting not having done that while he was still alive. As hard as she tried, she only remembered very few moments with her father, mostly his final moments, when she knew that death was stealing him away from her. This thoroughly dismayed her and a pang of guilt would overwhelm her. The memories were locked up, out of her reach, no matter how desperately she grasped at them, they would never return to her.

One day, she could no longer visualise her father’s face. She cursed herself for being a Luddite, not having had a camera to capture moments precious to her. But that in itself was inevitable as well. She had never remotely considered getting one before her father’s death, and what strange twist of fate would change her decision if that idea had popped in her mind? But she was still too fragile to deal with the inevitable and crumbled in regret.

The “Paradox” between the Future and Eternal Return

Joseph E. Stiglitz mentioned something in his book “The Price of Inequality” that intrigued me. He talked about the framing effect: a cognitive bias where people make decisions based on options present, which subjects their decisions to external influences. Stiglitz describes how standard economic theory would suggest people “make decisions about how much to save on the basis of a careful evaluation of the benefits of consuming today versus consuming in the future,” yet reality proves otherwise. The reason is simple: they have no idea what life in the future would be like and would have little basis to judge how much to save now. Hence, they would blindly follow the savings plans that their firms offer. The future is contingent on the present but we are oblivious to what effect.

Instinctively, I thought of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

‘What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” — Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science

I realised that the idea of Eternal Return is incongruent with the future. With no idea how the future will turn out, it is impossible to decide for it, and thus it will be impossible for me to gnash my teeth or tremble in joy. Therefore, Nietzsche emphasised, “This life as you now live it and have lived it.”

However, I think the future can somehow be tied to the Eternal Return, the ultimate inevitability. That is through Nietzsche’s other idea: Amor Fati, or “love of fate.” Because of great uncertainty that the future imposes on us, Amor Fati teaches us to take it in our stride. Even if the uncertainty of the future, where all inevitability lies, overwhelms us, we have to embrace it. Even at the lowest points of our lives, when we would gnash our teeth in the face of the terrible inevitable, we have to understand that the inevitable is a precondition to life. Each time we face the inevitable, we are at a crossroad that decides how our future will play out. At this crossroad, when we consider the Eternal Return, our choice to wallow in suffering or live in accordance to Amor Fati will be a step closer towards nihilism or towards life affirmation. Unfortunately, we are more inclined towards the former and it takes a hardened, enlightened, and tamed mind to affirm life when facing the inevitable.

That, she was not. At each inevitable crossroad: her father’s death, the confrontation with her boss, the fading memories of her father, she edged closer towards nihilism. A month later, she went to the seashore. She put on her swimming suit, swallowed a bottle of sedatives, and swam out to sea. In the backdrop of the once again glorious setting sun, she slowly vanished beneath the surface.


Photo by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash

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