Frustration as knowledge

Frustration as knowledge

The frustration a young man expressed to me the other day is endemic to us all, I am sure. He had chosen a path of study, but upon arriving there had come to discover that it was absolutely not to his liking – not his chosen métier. Now what? He has told his friends, his parents, his classmates — he had, in fact, told the whole world. 

Put yourself “in his shoes,” as they say. You now feel imprisoned by your own words. How can I possibly embarrass everyone (meaning myself) by withdrawing from school? How can I move from law to art history? It is a dilemma that we most certainly all face: how do you tell your betrothed, for example, as you approach the marriage ceremony that the one you actually love is not you — hard if not impossible to do.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) in her seminal book “The Age of Innocence” draws this occurrence to our attention most dramatically: “Newland Archer spends his wedding in a dissociative state, almost completely oblivious to the ceremony happening around him — his feeling of unreality sharpened by the mere appearance of Ellen Olenska’s aunt at the ceremony. He is marrying one woman when he loves another. In their first moment together as newlyweds, Newland is overtaken by a sense of despair at his situation, but he hides this from May Welland and pretends nothing is wrong.” (1) 

This could be a metaphor taken from the lives of many of us: we make decisions to embark on life paths that are not of our own choosing. But, we then suffer from the consequences and live out unrequited lives of frustration and guilt: the frustration at not doing what we want and the guilt at being too weak to alter the course of our choices.

This does not have to be the case, but it does require a modicum of thought before we make seemingly irrevocable decisions. How? The simple answer is critical thinking. Reflect on what you want and where you would like the course of your life to flow. You must do this before making any major decision. We spend little time at a tender age to reflect on which direction we would like to see our interests and desires flourish. Youth is a time of great experimentation but it is the time that is the most easily manipulated due to immaturity and ignorance. Young people have access to the universe in their cell phones but they are still not being trained to think. 

You would almost come to the conclusion that there is some insidious conspiracy at work to continue the flow of modern-day slaves for the capitalistic system as it exists today. We are told to be individuals but it not our intrinsic nature. We want to belong and yet be an individual at the same time and, curiously, this is possible if we choose wisely. 

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) leads the way is his study on suicide: “Egoistic and anomic suicide are modern phenomena: they occur because individuals are insufficiently attached to, or regulated by social groups. For instance, Durkheim found that the risk of suicide is much higher among Protestants than among Catholics or Jews. The reason, he suggested, is that the latter groups bind their members more closely together: they support a more intense collective life than does the typical Protestant church. 

But if religions protect individuals against self-destruction, he argued, it is not because they preach respect for one’s person. What matters is not so much the nature of any shared beliefs or rites, but the fact that they are shared. With egoistic suicide the individual becomes so disengaged from his fellows that he fails to see any point in life. He wallows in melancholy. 

By contrast, anomic suicide is a product of anger and frustration. The individual takes his life because an insupportable gap arises between his ambitions or desires and his means of fulfilling them. He considers himself to have failed in life—relative to others and to his own expectations. The self-absorption is as great as in egoistic suicide but its origins are subtly different. It becomes prevalent only under social systems such as market capitalism that fail to set sufficient boundaries for individuals—that leave individuals the taxing task of regulating their own passions.” (2) The point being that we all live in a social structure that is fraught with its own levels of pain and ennui. We can, after trial and error, however, find what is best for us in “our own piece of life.” 

We do not have to live frustrated lives, but we do have to learn to critically think beforehand. It is a learned skill and not necessarily innate. The great journalist and executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, (3) leaves us with a thought: Before finding a mentor, I feel it’s essential to really find your own calling and passion. From my experience, this will become a guiding bond in this kind of relationship. Be curious and engaged – and push yourself actively. Be as good as you can at what you love to do, and you will certainly get a mentor’s attention. (Parts of this essay were first published in January 2020)

A closing thought: The art of thinking critically is a learned skill, but that is the point – it can be learned. It is not the private domain of a few intellectuals, but the preserve of us all. It is a practice that we must do every single day, in what we eat, how we consume, and how we act. It simply requires practice and more practice. 

To sum up: This week we spoke about the frustration that we all feel due to free will. It is up to the individual to contemplate how to achieve our given life mission.  

To be noted: Never rush into falling in love, because love never runs out. Let love be the one to knock at your door: besides true love is worth waiting for.

Just for fun:

For reflection:

This week on your thoughtful walk, please reflect on how you can enhance your critical thinking skills.

Every day look for something magical and beautiful

Don’t be a wage slave – critical thinking is great!

Quote: I must believe in my capacity to find the truth within.


1) The Age of Innocence (ISBN: 978-0-19-479216-5)

2) Emile Durkheim