March 2023 – Our Friend, Futility

For this month’s article, I’m revisiting directly one of my favorite topics, being the boons of aligning with futility. I know that saying futility is full of gifts does not sound right (to say the least), nonetheless the assertion here is that futility, understood and approached properly, is a profound friend. Read through the following piece and hopefully you will come out with a different view of what futility actually is, and what it offers.

Otherwise, I hope that the change in season (such as it may be in your neck of the woods) is bringing energy, reflection, rightly accepted grief, and deeply welcomed joys.

A counterintuitive take on the friendship of futility.

“I am somewhat exhausted; I wonder how a battery feels when it pours electricity into a non-conductor?” ― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Dying Detective

Depression presents us with many things that seem self-contradictory: how can we know life is worthwhile on Monday, and then feel in a black hole on Friday? How can we get 9 hours of sleep and wake up exhausted? And how can the experience of futility be at all a friend?

Futility, as I have written before (here, here, here), and for the brave, an entire dissertation on the subject (here), is the pivot point of depression. Where there is futility there typically (but not always, as we’ll see below) follows the black dog of depression. But what actually is futility, and why is it an ally?

Futility simply defines the experience of the unbridgeable distance between the outcome of a goal and one’s current state of being. What we desire, as expressed in our goal, is futile when it is permanently unattainable. This can be either based in objective reality, or in a subjective reality that we believe defines the world as it is, but either way, we’re having the experience of an “irreducible discrepancy” between that which we desire and reality. I’ll assume that’s not popping with crystalline clarity, so, here’s some examples.

On the objective side of futility:

  • I am a five-foot-tall, 135-pound female, hence my goal of playing in the NBA is futile.
  • My beloved uncle has died, hence my goal of having a relationship with his living self is futile.
  • I am a psychiatrist who was committed to the theory that ulcers were caused by psychological stress, when actually it has been proven that they are caused by a bacteria or certain drugs. Hence my goal of building a practice based on treating ulcer patients psychotherapeutically is futile.

And on the subjective side:

  • I believe that I, as a person, can never experience happiness, despite having a reasonable level of resources of various kinds. Hence, my goal of living a happy life is experienced as objectively futile.
  • I know it’s true that my supervisors will never promote me, even though they have given me acceptable reviews, and detailed plans for improvement. Hence my goal of job advancement is experienced as objectively futile.
  • I am completely certain that the Universe is dark and malevolent. Hence my goal of living in a reality characterized by love and kindness is experienced as objectively futile.

Everyone has experienced the dismalness of the loss of a goal, or said another way, the loss of something (whether person, situation, or belief) that we have been attached to. If this is an attachment of any substance, then it hurts, and we start feeling grief in one of its emotions (usually sadness). If nothing gets in the way of that grief, we feel varying degrees of misery until the grief begins to lift and we come back to the world with an acceptance of the loss.

But if the loss is too big, involving something else that we cannot tolerate being gone, then the grieving process is halted and our system diverts into depression. A couple of examples: We are confronted with an error we made that lost a lot of money for our employer, yet we staked our goodness on our competence and the esteem of our supervisors, such that to grieve the error is experienced as synonymous with losing our lovability. Or, our uncle was the major source of a sense of meaning and protection in a world that seemed otherwise empty and disinterested in us, such that to grieve his death is identical with descending into a pointless existence. That is, in both cases the loss of the one is ungrievable because it is the loss of the other, which in a real way makes life possible. Hence depression steps in to jam up the grieving that becomes (or is experienced as) threatening to our survival.

But, given that definition of futility and its downstream effects, how can it be a friend? Well, futility’s friendliness is not measured in terms of pleasure or good feelings, but in terms of how it (when paired with unobstructed grief) points us to where we are out of line with reality, and pushes us to get into alignment. But why wouldn’t we want to hold onto our fantasies? Well, we certainly do want to hold fast to them, but by doing so we forfeit an authentic life, meaning, a life whose satisfaction comes from wisdom, accurate knowledge, attuned relationship, and a capacity for real love.

Of course, until challenged, our “fantasies” (whether dark or light) are lived without ambivalence as our reality, like the titular character at the beginning of the film, The Truman Show. In such a state, the problems and rewards of such fantasies are assumed to be the product of “reality as it is,” rather than the result of the fantasies themselves. It is not until the discrepancy between reality and fantasy is actually noticed that change is initiated; until we start experiencing the futility of those goals and attachments that define the fantasy, nothing changes.

But as humans, we were shaped through evolutionary time to value learning about reality more and more precisely, since that gave us survival advantage. Adaptation is not an interesting thing to humans, but rather something we are profoundly wired to do. We generate fantasies as lived theories of reality, but we are also built to test those theories against reality and adapt to what we learn is more real. If we didn’t do that as a species, we wouldn’t be a species anymore, certainly not with the hyper-complexity of hominids.

Hence, at the species and also individual levels, we don’t have a choice but to adapt to revealed realities (as mediated by the grief process), and in that adaptation become wiser, and therefore obtain the benefits of a wise life. Futility, then, is the agent of this process of advancing into wisdom.

The friendship of futility is difficult to cultivate, as it is a friend who does not play along with our fantasies, and does not support our preferred realities when those are out of joint with actual reality. Futility feels at times like a violation, or a judgement, or an affliction, and at those times it either is experienced as an enemy, or as the purveyor of an impersonal cold mathematics. Which is real experience, and as such needs to be respected and soothed. But if we get stuck in those reactions (of which depression is one form), we will miss out on the profound gifts that are offered to those who accept the friendship of futility, the profound boons of being guided step by painful step into wisdom. The more we allow our experiences of the futility of our fantasies to guide us, and learn how to tolerate and ultimately embrace futility with friendship, then what previously was an antagonist transforms into one of our deepest and most important teachers.

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