Don’t let life make you sour, surly, bitter and cynical

Henry Miller’s warning against becoming sullen, cynical and bitter is as important as ever

For old people, bitterness is a one-way street and we know where it ends.

For old people, bitterness is a one-way street and we know where it ends.

 

“If you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.”

So wrote Henry Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer, in On Turning Eighty.

He saw not growing sour etc as one of the keys to a good life, including a good old age.

Fair enough and I have known people a third of that age who were “sour, surly, bitter and cynical” because the universe, busy with other things, had let them down.

Over time they had become so used to their sourness, surliness, bitterness and cynicism that they couldn’t let go of it – because then who would they be?

Forgiving and forgetting can be a challenge too far, depending on what you are being asked to forgive and forget

So I absolutely agree with Henry Miller on this point, for both the young and the old. For old people, bitterness is a one-way street and we know where it ends. Your enemies will die, either before or after you, and it’ll all happen soon enough so bitterness has no use anymore, unless you’re one of those people who actually enjoy chewing on it.

On other points in the same sentence (it’s a very long sentence) on how to live, I’m not so sure.

Miller suggests that it’s a good thing “if you can fall in love again and again”. Sounds like fun but the problem with “again and again” is that you could end up alone in your room staring at the wallpaper while your latest temporary lover disappears over the horizon.

He advocates that you “forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world” and I agree. Generally speaking, I have no objection to the fact that my parents, driven by culture and evolution, brought me into the world.

Harbouring a grudge against them for it is a waste of time and energy that people should have grown out of in their teenage years (though this is easier said than done if your parents did very bad things to you).

He also suggests that we should be “content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes”.

Sounds good - though in my case I find I can take only so much “getting nowhere” before I get impatient to get somewhere.

And then there’s his advice to “forgive as well as forget”. Forgiving and forgetting is great if you can do it and stewing over past wrongs does little good if you can’t do anything to put them right.

But forgiving and forgetting can be a challenge too far, depending on what you are being asked to forgive and forget.

Emotional energy

A middle way is to say that you heartily detest what someone has done, perhaps even that you heartily detest the person themselves, or the organisation they represent, but that you will no longer invest your emotional energy in thinking about them. Instead you turn your attention to what’s good in your life.

In this way you can save yourself from becoming sour, surly, bitter and cynical while reserving the right to have nothing to do with someone who did you wrong.

All his advice applies to people of all ages as Miller makes clear in his usual pugnacious pose in which he declares, among other things, that “Those who are truly decrepit, living corpses, so to speak, are the middle-aged, middle-class men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever ....” and there’s more in that vein.

In a way he is talking of a bygone age (he died in 1980) – middle-class, middle-aged men and women feel less secure, I think, than those he excoriated.

But the warning against becoming sullen and bitter is as important as ever. In a challenging world we need all the courage we can muster and getting caught up in, and overtaken by, sourness and bitterness is a defeat in itself.

You can read more of Henry Miller’s views on life, ageing and even the decrepitude of the middle classes (of which, like you, I am a member) on Maria Popova’s elegant and always original Brainpickings blog.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)

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