Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Why Is Life Filled with Suffering? Leo Tolstoy's Lessons on Failure, Identity, and Asking "Why?"

The big, unknowable questions in life are seductive, but without small, trivial questions as insulation, those large mysteries can consume us.

Yiyun Li: Here’s a writer I love -- actually, this is a man o’ war, and I borrowed words from my best friend Amy Leach, who is a beautiful nature writer. She wrote this line about the man o’ war: 'The man o’ war appears to be one individual, like Leo Tolstoy. But it’s actually many individuals living together as a colony, like Leo Tolstoy.'

So Tolstoy. He certainly had more big “whys" than anybody else in the world. So for years Tolstoy ended his journal each day with three letters: the initials for the Russian: "If I live". Every month he began with the note: “Nearer to death”.

So a few weeks ago I actually went to Russia and I visited Yasnaya Polyana, his estate outside Moscow, and there I learned that he had failed at many things in life. He failed as an educator. He failed at breeding horses. He failed at farming. And, of course, he also failed—you know, eventually—in his religious endeavor. Pretty much the only thing he didn’t fail at was to be a writer. And Isaac Babel, a Russian writer, one of my favorite writers, said, “If the world could write by itself it would write like Tolstoy.”

And I take that to mean: we know there are big whys and small whys in life. If the world wrote itself like Elizabeth Bowen or Portia [from 'Death of The Heart'], it would be all big whys. But with Tolstoy there’s the balance of big whys and small whys.

The big whys for many on a psychiatric ward, and to many people outside in the world, can be summarized as such: Why live? Why suffer? And why suffer on?

Not any one of us had an answer there, and I think particularly for those who have experienced mental illness there’s also another question we cannot answer: Why are you *you*? Why are you you? And there are many variations of the question: Why are you not happy? Why can’t you stay hopeful? Why can’t you see the bright side of the world? Why are you so selfish? Why can’t you just be like everyone else? Why can’t you be real? Why can’t you be rational?

The big whys are timeless questions. And in asking them, and in not being able to find answers, one puts oneself in a timeless trap. Anyone suffering a severe depression may have the experience of time coming to a stop. One day to the next, one minute to the next. Time, which is the most precious possession we have, becomes the most treacherous thing. Is time real? Is time rational? Is there a way for us to experience time in the real and rational manner? Time in the world of physics is probably one of the most democratic experiences. I would say Trump’s minute is as long as my minute. A dictator’s day is not one second longer than my day. But time experienced by each individual, as we all know, is so much less scientific and so much less reliable. 

In life there are big whys and small whys. Easily we look around at our lives and come up with abundant small whys: Why do I agree to eat at this restaurant but not the one across the street which was where I really wanted to go? Why do I read the news first thing in the morning when I know I shouldn’t because that makes me burn my children’s toast? Why do I want to train for a marathon? And here is one of my favorite whys, not asked by me but by an older man when he listened to my public reading, and he said, “Why did I tell myself this morning that the piece of cake I ate was good for me?”

But we don’t live to answer all these small whys. We shouldn’t. Any exhausted parent of a small child can relate to that. “Why do I have to wear shoes? Why do I have to brush my teeth? Why can’t I sleep in the dog bed with the puppy?”

And then there are the big whys. The big whys are not always answerable. In fact, we may say that there are big whys because they can't be answered. One of the dangers of living is that inevitably we run into people who think that every why has an answer—and they demand us to answer for them. And when we can’t provide a satisfactory answer they will do that for us, often with a hasty and judgmental answer.

Big whys are life and death, war and peace. But small whys—when we can find answers, or when we don’t even have to find answers but just acknowledge them—insulate and sustain us.

Novelist and author Yiyun Li has looked into the face of life's biggest questions. For two years, she lived in and out of psychiatric hospitals as she underwent treatment for suicidal depression. In this time, it was her love of literature that kept her afloat. One of Li's favorite writers, Isaac Babel, said, "If the world could write by itself it would write like Tolstoy." Li reflected on this. As Tolstoy wrote on the biggest topics, like war and peace, but also on the smallest trifles, she took it to mean that life's small questions are meant to insulate us from the big, unknowable ones. Tolstoy wrote the world as it is: a perfect balance of big and small, of answers and mystery. Too much big searching, says Li, and you can put yourself in a timeless trap. Yiyun Li's newest book is Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
Keep reading Show less

White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
Surprising Science
  • White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
  • Carbon is an essential component of life.
  • White dwarfs make carbon in their hot insides before the stars die.
Keep reading Show less

"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
Keep reading Show less

Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Keep reading Show less

How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

Quantcast