Theodore Dalrymple

Second opinion | 1 October 2005

Why do people insist on leading such terrible lives?

Why do people insist on leading such terrible lives? Why do they choose misery when contentment is so easily within their grasp? Why is complete disaster so attractive, and modest success so repellent? This, surely, is the question that any unprejudiced observer of British life must ask himself.

Personally, I think that soap operas have a lot to answer for. As is well known, each episode ends with a crisis, and since an episode lasts only 30 minutes, the impression is given that an interesting life, that is to say one worthy of portrayal on the little screen, must be nothing but a succession of sordid crises.

I don’t propose this as the whole answer to the puzzle, of course. But the desire to avoid boredom is one of man’s distinguishing features, which I am sure explains a lot of wars. Think of the tedium of life in the interior of Borneo or in the valleys of New Guinea without tribal conflict, head-shrinking, cannibalism, etc. The same applies, a fortiori, to the desolate cities and towns of Britain. How dull life would be without domestics: assaults, not servants, I mean.

Last week a patient of mine — who was suffering from, or at least complaining about, the kind of trivial physical symptoms that usually mean a life without purpose — described his life to me. He had been married for 15 years, and worked on an assembly line. It did sound pretty dull, and I told him so.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what all my friends say.’

‘Do they suggest anything?’

‘Yes, they tell me to enjoy myself and get a couple of girlfriends.’

The interesting question is why they recommended two, not one, girlfriends or mistresses. The answer, I think, is that while many men can manage to lead undetected a double life, sometimes for many years, none can lead a triple life, and so a couple of girlfriends guarantee that scenes, recriminations, tantrums, overdoses and so forth — all the dramatic incidents that persuade the bored that they are actually living — will take place.

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