The other day, I went for a five mile walk in the rain. Without an umbrella, without a hat, and without a raincoat, I marched stoically out into the August damp, heedless of my own comfort. Why do such a thing?
The Buddhists argue that the root of all suffering is attachment, that we are miserable because we have worldly desires which are not met. Eliminating the desire, consequently, eliminates the suffering, and we learn to be happy with what we have. In a typical excursion through heavy weather, we may find ourselves first hoping it doesn’t rain, then hoping that the rain doesn’t get worse, then flinching against the downpour, finally cursing the elements for failing to conform to our desires. But if you resist the urge to turn tail and run for shelter, you’ll find that a curious thing happens. Once your clothes become thoroughly wet and you lose all hope of preserving even a semblance of dryness, anxiety is replaced with calm and resentment is replaced with joy. Having failed to avoid or prevent the rain, you learn to enjoy it, and this enjoyment constitutes a type of freedom rarely discussed even in libertarian circles: the freedom not to have your emotional state dictated by exterior phenomena.
This is at least partially the idea behind some forms of religious asceticism, in which the devout purposefully abstain from worldly comforts or else deliberately inflict pain and hardship upon themselves. While it’s easy to overdo this sort of thing, there is something profound in the insight that happiness can be increased by consciously cultivating an indifference towards things most people regard as intolerable.
In the modern world, we can see asceticism paralleled, at least in limited circumstances, by psychology’s immersion therapy, in which an extreme phobia is treated by repeatedly exposing the patient to the thing which he fears, until the stimulus ceases to be effective. This works because extreme emotions simply cannot be sustained over a long period of time. It’s too exhausting to constantly be in a state of abject terror, and so the sensation gradually numbs until it becomes barely noticeable. Just like my aversion to being pelted with cold water while I walk wore down over the course of five miles into something downright pleasant.
All of which serpentine introduction brings me to my much-anticipated point. One of the consequences of living in a time and place characterized by every kind of abundance is that we’ve become so unused to discomfort that we’ve forgotten how to even tolerate it, and this applies to our emotional lives as well as our physical ones. We suppress any kind of negative feelings with medication, and when that doesn’t work we try to identify and destroy the source of our unease. Cancel culture, censorship, and hate speech laws are manifestations of a society that has forgotten how to withstand the stimulus of uncomfortable speech.
We fear being offended or insulted so much that we’re trying to erase any words or ideas that might cause anyone to feel bad.
On its face, this may seem like compassion, but in fact this line of thinking goes wrong in two important ways. First, it’s simply not possible, even with the most stringent totalitarian speech controls, to protect the sensitive from everything that might upset them. Second, even if you could, the effect of such a policy would instill such emotional fragility in the population that they would risk falling to pieces over the most minor of offenses, the threshold for which will drift ever downwards with time. We shouldn’t want emotional fragile citizens; we should want robust, resilient ones. My prescription, therefore, is a simple one: immersion therapy.
If you find yourself becoming easily offended by speech you disagree with, instead of avoiding it, seek it out. Surround yourself in dissenting, shocking, even repulsive opinions until they no longer bother you. Learn how to withstand offensive views without condoning or agreeing with them. Just as young friends often tease and mock each other as a way of preparing themselves to suffer more serious attacks, you can inoculate yourself against taking offense simply by being willing to go to some uncomfortable places. And once you stop taking offense at everything you hear, you will not only be a happier person, but you will be able to engage in more productive discussions about disagreements and maybe even change a few minds.
I should be clear here that I’m not suggesting that you go out and insult thin-skinned people in a misguided effort to toughen them up. Not only does this violate the norms of political and ethical society, it won’t work. For immersion therapy to be effective, it must be voluntarily chosen. To inflict it on an unwilling participant is cruel and potentially traumatic. If, however, you feel that the presence of disagreeable strangers on the internet is making you miserable, you might benefit from immersing yourself in their unpleasantness until your skin begins to thicken. It won’t be fun, but hey, if Medieval monks can put up with fasting and self-flagellation on the path to self-improvement, I think you can handle a few internet trolls. Just think of it as a lovely walk in the rain.