Two Stances Toward Hardship: Gloom & Vainglory

When it comes to hardships in one’s life, two basic “stances” are often adopted. One is gloom. The other is vainglory.

It’s gloom that one frequently hears about these days. In fact, one hears of gloom being not just a mood but a clincher. According to purveyors of doom, difficulties and hardships, being largely in evidence in their lives, trump most everything else. If, they say, something is feasible but the efforts expended would be onerous, then the action isn’t worth doing.

In reply to the gloomy ones, plucky interlocutors summarily discount, downgrade, or dismiss the very fact of hardship. That’s nothing, actually, they say. After all, these plucky ones insist, can’t you do anything you set your mind (or your will) to? Isn’t it really true that most things in life are easily accomplishable?

The plucky respondents are missing the point, which is not that life doesn’t present us with difficulties, hardships, and obstacles (for manifestly it does and about the reality of his own difficulties the gloomy person may be very clear-eyed) but rather that it can’t be presumed, as it is by the purveyors of gloom, that difficulty, on its own, is a clincher. That is, difficulty, on its own, is not a sufficient reason for refusing or neglecting to do the right thing.

Sometimes the gloomy person, when in the presence of an upbeat person, feels inspired, but here we must be careful about the source of that inspiration. For what may occur to the gloomy person is the thought, “Ah, well, now I see that there is hope after all. Things could take a positive turn. The wind at sea could pick up. Things could get better.” The concept of hope remains questionable, or so I think as I write today, just because it posits some external power or force as being that which acts to make the world, the one in which the gloomy person, inhabits better. If it does. The implication is that no effort on the part of the gloomy person is necessary.

The feeling of hope may foreclose the very possibility of what seems more sensible: the postulate that the person is gloomy because of his belief that he cannot act to overcome his difficulties or to nimbly move around certain obstacles. Just so long as he gives in to gloom, he will likely continue to find hardships “winning the day.” And just so long as he believes in hope, he may also, again and again, succumb to despair. Can one think of hope without also returning to despair?

We have seen that the gloomy person is first committed to believing that difficulty is a clincher and second that she may come to hang her thoughts on hope. But what about the vainglorious person? What can we say about this figure?

The Tibetan Buddhist thinker Chogyam Trungpa deserves credit for having coined, in the early 1970s, the term “spiritual materialism” to describe the form of consciousness of the person, being on a spiritual path, seeks to possess certain spiritual accomplishments. The spiritual materalist is very keen on having certain spiritual experiences; on seeing himself as making spiritual progress; on accruing certain spiritual rewards. The Buddhist Trungpa would succinctly say that the spiritual materialist, who is purportedly seeking to overcome the ego, is actually feeding ego. That’s the spiritual materialist’s paradox.

I submit that vainglory, which comes out in the writings of the ascetic Evagrius (345 – 399 CE), is a particular type of spiritual materialism. According to one scholar parsing Evagrius’s sense of vainglory, the latter is the desire to be rewarded for one’s virtues. Hence, the vainglorious person so conceived actually delights in her capacity to overcome difficulties and hardships or in her almost always doing the right thing. The trouble with vainglory is that, in addition to being distorted and therefore untrue, it breeds complacency, the self-satisfaction of occupying the high moral ground.

We are now faced with an interesting predicament. The gloomy person and the vainglorious person now seem not like two binary opposites but like two sides of the same coin. One wallows in misery while the other delights in his strength. The former wants his life to change (or–more clearly perhaps–the conditions surrounding himself to change) while the latter absolutely delights in the way he continues to act virtuously. How shall both gloom and vainglory be confronted? How let fall away without redoubling themselves or, indeed, with gloom giving way to vainglory or vainglory giving way to gloom? No general answer will do much good, only a specific course of action in which a person, long given over to gloom, sees his actions as mattering, only another specific line of investigation in which the vainglorious person comes to see that she has much to learn about the machinations of the self.

Whatever else ends up being said on the matter, one truth stares us in the face. The actual impediments to self-transformation are not difficulties or achievements per se but the persistence of gloominess and vainglory in our lives.