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Book Review: ‘Life Is Hard,’ by Kieran Setiya

And what does living well mean in practice? To Setiya, it lies in embracing one of the many possible “good-enough lives” instead of aching for a perfect one. Setiya’s liveliest writing is on the subject of infirmity, no doubt because of the chronic pain he has suffered for years. He recalls the agony and humiliation of an “apparently teenage urologist” inserting a camera into his urethra in one of many attempts to diagnose his condition. Later, hobbling back to his office in a University of Pittsburgh skyscraper, Setiya noticed “the turgid penis of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning looming over me as blood dripped into my underwear from mine.” Pain has not kept Setiya from working and spending time with his family, but it has, presumably, limited both.

Although “Life Is Hard” claims to be a work of accessible philosophy, many of its insights are borrowed from other areas — literature, journalism, disability studies. Historically, philosophers, with their focus on a “single, ideal life,” have had trouble accepting that people with impairments can still live well. Meanwhile, activists have argued that disability is not merely a physical problem, but a choice made by society not to accommodate different bodies. Setiya’s approach blends empathy with common sense. True, a person who is blind or lacks full movement may not be able to enjoy certain pleasures — at least, in the typical way. And suffering injury can be traumatic. But none of us can fit everything worth doing into one lifetime. Our possibilities and our choices are always limited, and we can live fully within those limits.

Setiya offers neither simple takeaways nor explicit instructions. Instead, he invites the reader to join him as he looks at life’s challenges — loneliness, injustice, grief — and in turning them over to examine every angle. Sometimes these twists make it difficult to grasp his ultimate point; in his discussion of the potential extinction of human beings, for instance, Setiya argues movingly that it is hard to find meaning in our actions without the promise of future societies who will enjoy the results. Then he argues the opposite: If our actions are not futile 20 generations before our extinction, they will have just as much importance for the last people on earth. Setiya is certainly right that we should work to reduce injustice, to “mend the future” no matter how long that future may last. Still, it is hard for many of us to quell the fear that it may be too late to prevent an ecological catastrophe, or to ignore our grief for what has already been lost.

The golden thread running through “Life Is Hard” is Setiya’s belief in the value of well-directed attention. Pain, as much as we wish to avoid it, forces us to remember that we are indelibly connected to our bodies. Ideally, it also helps us imagine what it is like to inhabit the bodies of others, imbuing us with “presumptive compassion for everyone else.” Listening carefully, whether to good friends or to strangers on a bus, can help us feel less lonely. “Close reading” other people, trying as hard as possible to see them in their full humanity, is a small step toward a more just world. By cultivating our sensitivity to ourselves and to others, we escape another destructive modern myth: that we are separate from other people, and that we can live well without caring for them.

Mindfulness is also Setiya’s answer to the threat of personal failure. If we can teach ourselves to notice all the splendid, varied incidents of our lives, he claims, we are much less likely to brand ourselves with a single label, winner or loser. He encourages readers to abandon simple narratives about success over the course of a lifetime. I suspect this is why Setiya so often finds his conclusions in poetry, not in philosophy: The experience of suffering leads to messy, counterintuitive truths.

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