Avoiding Cantakerousness

I recently finished reading Candide, by Voltaire, the humorously tragic story of a very unfortunate man. After a lifetime of calamities, he begins to question if his optimism has any grounding in reality. Is anyone genuinely happy? Voltaire’s parody is extreme in its portrayals as he seeks to disprove the statement that “all things work out for good”.

Life can certainly be a struggle. We should be grateful for the respites of happiness and comfort we receive. The story of Candide shows that much of our unhappiness emanates from moral evil.  However, we are reminded that our own ingratitude and criticism also bring misery.

Candide and his friend Martin, in their search for a happy man, decide to visit a rich man who had magnificent possessions. They discover that he, rather than gaining joy from his advantages, finds fault in most literature, music, and art, and is bored by his home and possessions.

Candide, naive and hopeful, says to Martin, “‘You must admit that there is the happiest man alive, he is superior to all he possesses.’

‘Don’t you see, said Martin, that he is disgusted with everything he possesses? Plato long ago said that the best stomachs are not those that reject all food.‘

‘But’, said Candide, ‘Isn’t there a pleasure in criticizing everything and discovering faults where other men detect beauties?’

‘That is to say,’ replied Martin, ‘there is a pleasure in not being pleased.”

Criticism, while not a “pleasure”, is attractive nonetheless. For those of us with a critical and discerning nature, It is difficult not to notice the negative, not to compare and contrast, not to see the “lack of ideal”.  And yet, in our criticism, we may leave less room for positivity or enjoyment.

A young father emailed me once and described what sounded from his tone like a desperate situation. He had what appeared, externally, to be a wonderful life – beautiful children, a marriage, and a good job. However, he explained that after work he dreads going home. He knows that as soon as he walks in the door he will be hit by a deluge of negativity and complaint. He said his wife’s attitude has spiraled to the point where she can no longer go five minutes without nagging, complaining, or arguing. I only got one side of the story and maybe the husband was a jerk, but we have all seen it – a once beautiful woman who gives in to negative thoughts and negative emotions. It ages her – it ages everyone around her. The male equivalent is the easily recognizable “grumpy old man”.

 At the end of the book Candide finally achieves what he has been seeking, sacrificing for, and suffering to find – the “love of his life” Lady Cunegonde.  He has followed her around the world, through many perils – the thought of her has been his point of hope. 

Voltaire writes, “It would be natural to suppose that, after so many disasters, Candide should lead the most pleasing life imaginable, married at last to his mistress…”

They began a life free from trauma and wickedness and settled into quiet tranquility.  However, instead of the pleasing life Candide had hoped for Voltaire tells us, “His wife daily grew uglier, and became more cantankerous and insufferable.”

She, like too many women and men, allowed her negative thoughts to transform what might have been a happy ending, into a life of disappointment and misery.

It is difficult for me not to notice things. I sympathize with Dostoyevsky who said, “To be acutely conscious is a disease, a real, honest-to-goodness disease.” 

But I have learned, and Candide reminded me, that if I don’t restrain this critical propensity – temper it, and learn self-control in what I choose to express – I may turn into that rich man or Lady Cunegonde. It takes an enormous amount of self-control to restrain our criticism.  Frankly, I find it easier to withstand a plate of homemade cookies than to not point out the poor writing in a popular movie, or the poor manners of the neighbor’s kids.  And I really like cookies.  Hormones, sickness, and justified injustices make exercising this self-control of criticism even more difficult. But just like those cookies will end up living on my thighs, negativity lives in our souls and darkens the world around us. 

“The soul becomes dyed by the color of its thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius 

Psychologists have shown that in order to maintain a positive relationship with others every negative interaction must be balanced by five positive interactions.  Negativity is unfortunately more potent than positivity.  This doesn’t mean we can never point out falsehoods or bad manners – it just means we should emphasize the positive more than the negative.  We should be more conscious of what we choose to express and follow up on necessary negativity with an increase in positivity. 

Ultimately Candide resigns himself to a life less than imagined.  He and his friend Martin determine, “We must work without arguing, that is the only way to make life bearable.”  Honestly, I found the book to be a caricature of life rather than an honest depiction.  Voltaire was trying to make a point that life was fateless and miserable, and he wouldn’t allow any truth, goodness, or hope to obstruct his mission. And yet, it reminded me of the suffering criticism and negativity can cause – life is difficult enough – let’s not ruin those respites of peace and happiness by being cantankerously critical. 

Melancholy Woman, Pablo Picasso

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