According to one long-standing philosophical tradition, life totally sucks. The Thracians of ancient Europe were said to weep with sadness when babies were born, because of all the suffering they had ahead of them. (A modern book in the same vein has the splendidly grumpy title Better Never To Have Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence.) Most people know that old-school Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but it’s often forgotten that they see it as a bad thing: the point of all that meditation is to “step off the wheel of karma”, so that one day you’ll be spared the hassle of being reborn. And the Christian mystics known as the Gnostics, arguably the biggest downers of all time, held that “the world came about through a mistake”. Existence itself, they believed, was just a crappy, degraded version of nonexistence, which was perfect – and what made God so divine was precisely his pure nonexistence. Try that one on your local Richard Dawkins acolyte and wait for smoke to seep from their ears.
These misanthropic reflections might seem irrelevant to daily life, but as the philosopher Costica Bradatan argued in an excellent New York Times essay (with the curmudgeonly title Why Do Anything?) you may be more Gnostic than you realise. Consider the puzzle of procrastination: if you’re anything like me, part of the reason you procrastinate is perfectionism. You’ve some hazy outline of the end result in your mind, and it’s flawless. “The procrastinator is smitten by the perfect picture of that which is yet to be born,” Bradatan writes. “He falls under the spell of all that purity and splendour.” Then it dawns that you’re condemned to ruin that perfection: the actual real-world novel, PhD dissertation, house renovation or wedding can only be a depressingly messy approximation of that fantasy.
“It pains us unbearably to realise that, for all our good intentions, we are agents of degradation,” Bradatan says. Which sounds a bit overwrought, until you think back to the last time you truly struggled with procrastination: it really can feel like an existential struggle, out of all proportion with the matter at hand. I can’t wait to try out my new excuse for missing deadlines, replacing the usual dog-ate-my-homework cliches: “I’m sorry, I was smitten by the purity of nonexistence!”
There’s nothing new in the observation that perfectionism leads to procrastination, but too often we perfectionists are secretly proud of our affliction: we’re convinced that this time, finally, if we pulled out all the stops, we might get things exactly right. The bracing Gnostic response is: forget it. Creation is imperfect by definition; to bring something into being is unavoidably to screw it up. It’s not a question of “embracing failure”, but of seeing there’s no option but to embrace failure. I’m pretty sure the Gnostics didn’t intend it as motivational advice, but that’s the effect it has on me: it’s far easier to get things done, and to take interesting risks, if you’ve already failed. There’s no point worrying things might go wrong when they already have.