Seriousness Is A Problem
Simone de Beauvoir cautions us about getting too serious. Here’s why, and a few ideas from existentialism about what to do about it.
In the Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir demonstrates the breadth of her understanding of the world with a short treatise full of deep and meaningful concepts. In this work in particular, I was stunned to find such new concepts in the field of moral philosophy. Beauvoir’s approach involves looking at the basic qualities a person may have in contemporary parlance with almost no technical jargon. The most resonant of these qualities, for me, was seriousness. This article will walk through why it’s a problem to be too serious and end up with a few ways to spend more time in a healthier mindset.
It strikes me that, though ethics is quite literally the study of how to become a better person, we in the field do not spend much time thinking about day-to-day subjects such as laughter or moods. And in two degrees in philosophy, one of which was specifically designed to explain ethics to me, nobody really did much with Simone de Beauvoir’s thinking — which is a shame, because it is both more coherent and more relevant than the work of many leading ethicists.
Why is seriousness a problem?
Imagine a world in which everyone wanted to be good. These people choose for themselves what they want to become, but everyone is receptive to how their language treats the various traits and qualities they possess because it’s unavoidable. So language is intentionally or unintentionally manufactured to glorify certain traits, occupations, or behaviors.
This pattern of seeing good and naming it ends up creating a situation in which everyone wants to do the same handful of things which are highly regarded. However, it is not ideal for so many people to end up being swayed by this system of speaking and thinking to pursue things which are not natural to them. So even though everyone in this hypothetical world wants to be good, not everyone can, because a lot of people are forced to do things which are not so glamorous.
To de Beauvoir, this innate tendency of language to almost accidentally moralize in the abstract is perhaps the core problematic for modern society. Everyone is encouraged to take life seriously, to strive to be what he or she is not. Take a moment to think about what it generally means to you to be serious about something.
If it’s a relationship that comes to mind first, we tend to think of close romances and/or marriages. If what is considered serious is a job, or a task, we think of something important to us, something like being a doctor or a nuclear power generator technician — mistakes in these fields are extremely costly.
Seriousness at its heart is about trying to get something right; it is about principle. If a person is considered serious, or if an attitude is, then the quality we’re envisioning for that person (whether temporarily or characteristically) involves a certain brittle and narrow focus and a drive to execute the task correctly, along with a fairly high level of emotional attachment.
Seriousness at heart is about trying to get something right; it is about principle.
But seriousness is also inappropriate much of the time. What de Beauvoir has for us is something like a balance of qualities, a charcuterie board of virtues to strive for. And in the end, none of us gets where we want to be precisely, but moral philosophy has always acknowledged this difficulty, all the way back to Aristotle who famously said that we study the good not to learn what it is, but to become better.
We study the good not to learn what it is, but to become better.
The serious man for de Beauvoir is the man responsible for the Holocaust. He is the man who beats his children, the man who conducts business, and the man who goes to war. The fragile nature of seriousness is borne out by the circumstances under which it is observed — the spirits which break and splinter under stress are themselves serious!
How can we prevent ourselves from becoming too serious? The present moment in history, dubbed the “age of outrage,” has been developed by a variety of actors including 24-hour news media establishments and Russian internet trolls. People do not tend to smile as they walk down the street — good news and bad news all amount to the same general thing: more seriousness.
Worry is an emotion which comes along with the serious attitude. Many of us know it to be a problematic state of affairs, and yet we persist in it. We invest our emotions, our time, and our energy into this pathetic and self-absorbed activity. We even spend our money on stultifying pills to help lessen anxiety, and yet the seriousness remains. Yes, of course there are matters of life and death afoot. It would not do to fail to be careful in public during the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, life can end at any moment. It seems, upon consideration, that a serious death might be the worst death of all.
The alternative to seriousness
How can we thwart this ultramodern vice? It has been shown that women do not like to date serious men, and it is obvious that children prefer to spend their time with adults who know how to make and take a joke. If laughter is the best medicine, it is because laughter is the treatment for an overly serious attitude. A good laugh can shatter even the most depressing rumination, leading to a rebirth of sorts.
But seriousness is also political. The world itself is in the grip of a staggering array of serious problems at the highest levels; COVID-19 may not ever really go away — but climate change and geopolitics promise a slow return to peace even if it does. As our friends and family members pass away from these globetrotting maladies and the world continues to get darker as epidemics of opioid use and right-wing politics increase, what levity is left to us?
The realities of these problems must not be allowed to detract from our recognition of humanity in one another and in ourselves. Each of us, as Camus reminds us (here is a piece about happiness for Camus), carries the spark of inevitable happiness. Regardless of how the problems confronting the human race play out, we must understand that we will always find happiness. And with that, we must remember that we’re happy, goofy beings who fall down all the time. We may march toward an apocalypse, but we will do so grinning and making jokes.
Regardless of how the problems confronting the human race play out, we must understand that we will always find happiness.
Remember: levity is key
To me, it almost seems as though I’ve had a brush with a very scary disease of the mind, in which the very feel of life changes and the natural impulse is to attempt to retake control of the situation. But having control of one’s life is a difficult thing and it is rather plain to see that, for me at least, this effort to control has actually backfired and taken away the enjoyment that could have been.
I’ve recently picked tennis back up, and despite all the problems in life, I make an effort to enjoy it as much as possible. I don’t play competitively, I just hit around with a few friends of mine who have varying levels of expertise, on down to my nieces who are just learning the game. It’s beautiful, now that my competitive ego has moved aside. I almost couldn’t enjoy the game anymore as a youth because I always felt I could have done better. I used to play tournaments and try to compete, but it was self destructive, and mainly because I took it too seriously.
One of my first philosophy teachers said that happiness is simple: you just find something that makes you happy and do it occasionally. That seems to me, still, to be a bit of an oversimplification, as I study the philosophical concept of happiness some fifteen-odd years later. For now, my efforts are directed at the minimization of the serious mindset as it appears in my day-to-day life.
My strategy for doing this will involve attempting to find the joke in situations where I feel overly-committed and/or vulnerable, instead of bearing down with reason and attempting to take the problem seriously until it goes away (via my own effort or otherwise!).
By the way, I’m not sure about you, but my results with the serious approach were mixed in the first place. Half the time I would end up worried about something that wasn’t really a problem at all. The other half, just doing what came naturally to me would tend to unearth resolutions to problems I’d never have thought of in my serious mindset. That’s right, a professional philosopher in charge of a magazine called Serious Philosophy (as a joke) refuses to take things too seriously, whenever he can remember why he shouldn’t.
Here’s the quick version of the strategy to circumvent seriousness:
Ask yourself, when you become upset: what’s bothering me about this?
2. So what?
When you find the answer, unpack it a bit by asking: so what?
3. And the joke is?!
Put the effort in to figure out what the hang-up is and laugh about it.
4. Remember the context.
Everything that happens to you is part of your life. Use your memories to make funny connections.
The strategy isn’t something to observe religiously, but I’ve been doing it for a few weeks now and I find that it does seem to be helping me enjoy living a bit more than I was before. Things seem to be fun again, after several weeks of doomsday and drudgery.
Materially, nothing has changed. My world is still as full of problems as anyone’s — indeed, as everyone’s — but I find that I don’t tend to kick myself as much anymore. I’m able to relax more completely. In most things, it’s best to avoid competitive activity. That doesn’t mean don’t work hard, and it certainly doesn’t mean nothing matters or that you shouldn’t care about your life.
That being said, we all need to let go every once in awhile. You can’t control everything that happens in your life. It’s much more fun to just goof around with it, and sometimes the best things happen without much effort at all.