Kierkegaard has an interesting passage in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” where he stumbles on a curious direction for his philosophy that I find immensely appealing.
I sat and smoked my cigar until I lapsed into thought … “You are going on,” I said to myself, “to become an old man, without being anything and without really undertaking to do anything. . . . [W]herever you look about you . . . you see the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railways, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by the telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who make spiritual existence in virtue of thought easier and easier, yet more and more significant. And what are you doing?” . . . [S]uddenly this thought flashed through my mind: “You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must . . . undertake to make something harder.â€ This notion pleased me immensely. . . . I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere.
This was true then, and as time marches on it only becomes more so. Think about all the effort you personally, and society as a whole, expends in trying to make their lives easier so that they can live easy. There is a huge amount of effort, but to what effect? Many times the technology allows us to experience a sort of increased acceleration towards certain aspects of our lives that can come easy and it becomes obsessive. This is why this passage is so great, because very rarely in life is the easy path, or the path that comes most natural to you, the most rewarding.
This is really the great tradition of philosophy, and one of the reasons why it is such a great discipline, to upend and destroy everyone’s “easy” reality. Really, isn’t that what Socrates was doing by questioning everything? If difficulty is measured in one’s frustration with a discussion, then I can tell you from experience that practicing the Socratic Method is one of the quickest ways to assure difficulty. Of course you can imagine a huge crowd of people, mulling about and living their lives as easy and without stress as possible, taking the path and routine most familiar to them, and the philosopher looking at all of them wanting to completely shake it all up and ruin their collective contentment.
Most people react with disgust when someone tries to wreck what contentment they have, when the boat is rocked by some external force. No one is immune from becoming complacent in their lives, to embrace the easy and sit idle, allowing time to march on, carrying them along for the ride. As I write this post, in fact, it is a continuing struggle for me personally (though there are bigger philosophical questions at the root of it for me, mainly escapism because of existentialist dread and the encroachment of nihilistic thought, more on that some other time).
If one were to imagine a single person doing what I just described, until all their time is used up and they are an old man/woman, then many would call that a “wasted” life. Sure, people assign all kinds of meaning to their lives to make it so their inner story is not one of “waste,” but that meaning can also be infected by the “easy” and then what you have left is even worse than a “wasted” life, you have a life where you lied to yourself and assigned meaning to a path that was way too easy.
Now this is not some kind of crazy “bucket list” pleading, where I tell you that you must “seize the day” and experience everything in life that you have ever wanted to before the end. Frankly that is garbage, similar to coming up with a new diet, gym schedule, and then trying to make yourself strictly follow this new life on January 1st every single year. That never works. Typically people require some kind of wall to be hit, and some kind of serious event to happen, before that kind of drastic change takes place (people collectively, i.e. government it becomes even worse, but that is a topic for another time).
What I am saying, and a somewhat practical approach to what Kierkegaard is saying, is to just always try and think about what you are doing and whether it comes easy to you. Challenge yourself by going down other paths every so often. If you shy away from a lot of social situations, force yourself to be in some every so often. If you always must have someone on the phone or near you, but are never alone, force yourself to be alone doing something that you like to do. If you find yourself always talking about shallow things with your friends, try introducing some deeper discussion. If you have the opposite problem, try and have some fun every so often. The more you exercise “the path least followed” muscle, the more rounded a person you become.
By doing these kinds of things it has an effect on all the people around you, and you do create “difficulties everywhere” because it is likely that the people around you are a lot like you. You end up strengthening the group this way, and imagine what it could do to society if we did try to make things more difficult everywhere?
Kierkegaard was right.