On a small plot of land in the monotonous countryside of central Europe, amid the warehouses of a former military barracks, a nexus of geographically concentrated evil would arise, denser and darker than anything the world had ever seen. Over the span of four years, more than 1.3 million people would be systematically sorted, enslaved, tortured, and murdered here, and it would all happen in an area slightly larger than Central Park in Manhattan. And no one would do anything to stop it.
Except for one man.
It is the stuff of fairy tales and comic books: a hero marches headlong into the fiery jaws of hell to confront some great manifestation of evil. The odds are impossible. The rationale is laughable. Yet our fantastical hero never hesitates, never flinches. He stands tall and slays the dragon, crushes the demon invaders, saves the planet and maybe even a princess or two.
And for a brief time, there is hope.
But this is not a story of hope. This is a story of everything being completely and utterly fucked. Fucked in proportions and on scales that today, with the comfort of our free Wi-Fi and oversize Snuggie blankets, you and I can hardly imagine.
Witold Pilecki was already a war hero before he decided to sneak into Auschwitz. As a young man, Pilecki had been a decorated officer in the Polish-Soviet War of 1918. He had kicked the Communists in the nuts before most people even knew what a pinko Commie bastard was. After the war, Pilecki moved to the Polish countryside, married a schoolteacher, and had two kids. He enjoyed riding horses and wearing fancy hats and smoking cigars. Life was simple and good.
Then that whole Hitler thing happened, and before Poland could get both its boots on, the Nazis had already Blitzkrieged through half the country. Poland lost its entire territory in a little more than a month. It wasn’t exactly a fair fight: while the Nazis invaded in the west, the Soviets invaded in the east. It was like being stuck between a rock and a hard place—except the rock was a megalomaniacal mass murderer trying to conquer the world and the hard place was rampant, senseless genocide. I’m still not sure which was which.
Early on, the Soviets were actually far crueler than the Nazis. They had done this shit before, you know—the whole “overthrow a government and enslave a population to your faulty ideology” thing. The Nazis were still somewhat imperialist virgins (which, when you look at pictures of Hitler’s mustache, isn’t hard to imagine). In those first months of the war, it’s estimated that the Soviets rounded up over a million Polish citizens and sent them east. Think about that for a second. A million people, in a matter of months, just gone. Some didn’t stop until they hit the gulags in Siberia; others were found in mass graves decades later. Many are still unaccounted for to this day.
Pilecki fought in those battles—against both the Germans and the Soviets. And after their defeat, he and fellow Polish officers started an underground resistance group in Warsaw. They called themselves the Secret Polish Army.
In the spring of 1940, the Secret Polish Army got wind of the fact that the Germans were building a massive prison complex outside some backwater town in the southern part of the country. The Germans named this new prison complex Auschwitz. By the summer of 1940, thousands of military officers and leading Polish nationals were disappearing from western Poland. Fears arose among the resistance that the same mass incarceration that had occurred in the east with the Soviets was now on the menu in the west. Pilecki and his crew suspected that Auschwitz, a prison the size of a small town, was likely involved in the disappearances and that it might already house thousands of former Polish soldiers.
That’s when Pilecki volunteered to sneak into Auschwitz. Initially, it was a rescue mission—he would allow himself to get arrested, and once there, he would organize with other Polish soldiers, coordinate a mutiny, and break out of the prison camp.
It was a mission so suicidal that he might as well have asked his commander permission to drink a bucket of bleach. His superiors thought he was crazy, and told him as much.
But, as the weeks went by, the problem only grew worse: thousands of elite Poles were disappearing, and Auschwitz was still a huge blind spot in the Allied intelligence network. The Allies had no idea what was going on there and little chance of finding out. Eventually, Pilecki’s commanders relented. One evening, at a routine checkpoint in Warsaw, Pilecki let himself be arrested by the SS for violating curfew. And soon, he was on his way to Auschwitz, the only man known ever to have voluntarily entered a Nazi concentration camp.
Once he got there, he saw that the reality of Auschwitz was far worse than anyone had suspected. Prisoners were routinely shot in roll call lineups for transgressions as minor as fidgeting or not standing up straight. The manual labor was grueling and endless. Men were literally worked to death, often performing tasks that were useless or meant nothing. The first month Pilecki was there, a full third of the men in his barracks died of exhaustion or pneumonia or were shot. Regardless, by the end of the 1940, Pilecki, the comic book superhero motherfucker, had still somehow set up an espionage operation.
Oh, Pilecki—you titan, you champion, flying above the abyss—how did you manage to create an intelligence network by embedding messages in laundry baskets? How did you build your own transistor radio out of spare parts and stolen batteries, MacGyver-style, and then successfully transmit plans for an attack on the prison camp to the Secret Polish Army in Warsaw? How did you create smuggling rings to bring in food, medicine, and clothing for prisoners, saving countless lives and delivering hope to the remotest desert of the human heart? What did this world do to deserve you?
Over the course of two years, Pilecki built an entire resistance unit within Auschwitz. There was a chain of command, with ranks and officers; a logistics network; and lines of communication to the outside world. And all this went undiscovered by the SS guards for almost two years. Pilecki’s ultimate aim was to foment a full-scale revolt within the camp. With help and coordination from the outside, he believed he could stoke a prison break, overrun the undermanned SS guards, and release tens of thousands of highly trained Polish guerrilla fighters into the wild. He sent his plans and reports to Warsaw. For months, he waited. For months, he survived.
But then came the Jews. First, in buses. Then, packed in train cars. Soon, they were arriving by the tens of thousands, an undulating current of people floating in an ocean of death and despair. Stripped of all family possessions and dignity, they filed mechanically into the newly renovated “shower” barracks, where they were gassed and their bodies burned.
Pilecki’s reports to the outside became frantic. They’re murdering tens of thousands of people here each day. Mostly Jews. The death toll could potentially be in the millions. He pleaded with the Secret Polish Army to liberate the camp at once. He said if you can’t liberate the camp, then at least bomb it. For God’s sake, at least destroy the gas chambers. At least.
The Secret Polish Army received his messages but figured he was exaggerating. In the farthest reaches of their minds, nothing could be that fucked. Nothing.
Pilecki was the first person ever to alert the world to the Holocaust. His intelligence was forwarded through the various resistance groups around Poland, then on to the Polish government-in-exile in the United Kingdom, who then passed his reports to the Allied Command in London. The information eventually even made its way to Eisenhower and Churchill.
They, too, figured Pilecki had to be exaggerating.
In 1943, Pilecki realized that his plans of a mutiny and prison break were never going to happen: The Secret Polish Army wasn’t coming. The Americans and British weren’t coming. And in all likelihood, it was the Soviets who were coming—and they would be worse. Pilecki decided that remaining inside the camp was too risky. It was time to escape.
He made it look easy, of course. First, he faked illness and got himself admitted to the camp’s hospital. From there, he lied to the doctors about what work group he was supposed to return to, saying he had the night shift at the bakery, which was on the edge of camp, near the river. When the doctors discharged him, he headed to the bakery, where he proceeded to “work” until 2:00 a.m., when the last batch of bread finished baking. From there, it was just a matter of cutting the telephone wire, silently prying open the back door, changing into stolen civilian clothes without the SS guards noticing, sprinting to the river a mile away while being shot at, and then navigating his way back to civilization via the stars.
Today, much in our world appears to be fucked. Not Nazi Holocaust–level fucked (not even close), but still, pretty fucked nonetheless.
Stories such as Pilecki’s inspire us. They give us hope. They make us say, “Well, damn, things were way worse then, and that guy transcended it all. What have I done lately?”—which, in this couch-potato-pundit era of tweetstorms and outrage porn is probably what we should be asking ourselves. When we zoom out and get perspective, we realize that while heroes like Pilecki save the world, we swat at gnats and complain that the AC isn’t high enough.
Pilecki’s story is the single most heroic thing I’ve ever come across in my life. Because heroism isn’t just bravery or guts or shrewd maneuvering. These things are common and are often used in unheroic ways. No, being heroic is the ability to conjure hope where there is none. To strike a match to light up the void. To show us a possibility for a better world—not a better world we want to exist, but a better world we didn’t know could exist. To take a situation where everything seems to be absolutely fucked and still somehow make it good.
Bravery is common. Resilience is common. But heroism has a philosophical component to it. There’s some great “Why?” that heroes bring to the table—some incredible cause or belief that goes unshaken, no matter what. And this is why, as a culture, we are so desperate for a hero today: not because things are necessarily so bad, but because we’ve lost the clear “Why?” that drove previous generations.
We are a culture in need not of peace or prosperity or new hood ornaments for our electric cars. We have all that. We are a culture in need of something far more precarious. We are a culture and a people in need of hope.
After witnessing years of war, torture, death, and genocide, Pilecki never lost hope. Despite losing his country, his family, his friends, and nearly his own life, he never lost hope. Even after the war, while enduring Soviet domination, he never lost the hope of a free and independent Poland. He never lost the hope of a quiet and happy life for his children. He never lost the hope of being able to save a few more lives, of helping a few more people.
After the war, Pilecki returned to Warsaw and continued spying, this time on the Communist Party, which had just come to power there. Again, he would be the first person to notify the West of an ongoing evil, in this case that the Soviets had infiltrated the Polish government and rigged its elections. He would also be the first to document the Soviet atrocities committed in the east during the war.
This time, though, he was discovered. He was warned that he was about to be arrested, and he had a chance to flee to Italy. Yet, Pilecki declined—he would rather stay and die Polish than run and live as something he didn’t recognize. A free and independent Poland, by then, was his only source of hope. Without it, he was nothing.
And thus, his hope would also be his undoing. The Communists captured Pilecki in 1947, and they didn’t go easy on him. He was tortured for almost a year, so harshly and consistently that he told his wife that “Auschwitz was just a trifle” by comparison.
Still, he never cooperated with his interrogators.
Eventually, realizing they could get no information from him, the Communists decided to make an example of him. In 1948, they held a show trial and charged Pilecki with everything from falsifying documents and violating curfew to engaging in espionage and treason. A month later, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On the final day of the trial, Pilecki was allowed to speak. He stated that his allegiance had always been to Poland and its people, that he had never harmed or betrayed any Polish citizen, and that he regretted nothing. He concluded his statement with “I have tried to live my life such that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”
And if that’s not the most hardcore thing you’ve ever heard, then I want some of what you’re having.
How May I Help You?
If I worked at Starbucks, instead of writing people’s names on their coffee cup, I’d write the following:
One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.
Enjoy your fucking coffee.
I’d have to write it in really tiny lettering, of course. And it’d take a while to write, meaning the line of morning rush-hour customers would be backed out the door. Not exactly stellar customer service, either. This is probably just one of the reasons why I’m not employable.
But seriously, how could you tell someone, in good conscience, to “have a nice day” while knowing that all their thoughts and motivations stem from a never-ending need to avoid the inherent meaninglessness of human existence?
Because, in the infinite expanse of space/time, the universe does not care whether your mother’s hip replacement goes well, or your kids attend college, or your boss thinks you made a bitching spreadsheet. It doesn’t care if the Democrats or the Republicans win the presidential election. It doesn’t care if a celebrity gets caught doing cocaine while furiously masturbating in an airport bathroom (again). It doesn’t care if the forests burn or the ice melts or the waters rise or the air simmers or we all get vaporized by a superior alien race.
You care, and you desperately convince yourself that because you care, it all must have some great cosmic meaning behind it.
You care because, deep down, you need to feel that sense of importance in order to avoid the Uncomfortable Truth, to avoid the incomprehensibility of your existence, to avoid being crushed by the weight of your own material insignificance. And you—like me, like everyone—then project that imagined sense of importance onto the world around you because it gives you hope.
Is it too early to have this conversation? Here, have another coffee. I even made a winky-smiley face with the steamed milk. Isn’t it cute? I’ll wait while you Instagram it.
Okay, where were we? Oh yeah! The incomprehensibility of your existence—right. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, Mark, I believe we’re all here for a reason, and nothing is a coincidence, and everyone matters because all our actions affect somebody, and even if we can help one person, then it’s still worth it, right?”
Now, aren’t you just as cute as a button!
See, that’s your hope talking. That’s a story your mind spins to make it worth waking up in the morning: something needs to matter because without something mattering, then there’s no reason to go on living. And some form of simple altruism or a reduction in suffering is always our mind’s go-to for making it feel like it’s worth doing anything.
Our psyche needs hope to survive the way a fish needs water. Hope is the fuel for our mental engine. It’s the butter on our biscuit. It’s a lot of really cheesy metaphors. Without hope, your whole mental apparatus will stall out or starve. If we don’t believe there’s any hope that the future will be better than the present, that our lives will improve in some way, then we spiritually die. After all, if there’s no hope of things ever being better, then why live—why do anything?
Here’s what a lot of people don’t get: the opposite of happiness is not anger or sadness.¹ If you’re angry or sad, that means you still give a fuck about something. That means something still matters. That means you still have hope.²
No, the opposite of happiness is hopelessness, an endless gray horizon of resignation and indifference.³ It’s the belief that everything is fucked, so why do anything at all?
Hopelessness is a cold and bleak nihilism, a sense that there is no point, so fuck it—why not run with scissors or sleep with your boss’s wife or shoot up a school? It is the Uncomfortable Truth, a silent realization that in the face of infinity, everything we could possibly care about quickly approaches zero.
Hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression. It is the source of all misery and the cause of all addiction. This is not an overstatement.⁴ Chronic anxiety is a crisis of hope. It is the fear of a failed future. Depression is a crisis of hope. It is the belief in a meaningless future. Delusion, addiction, obsession—these are all the mind’s desperate and compulsive attempts at generating hope one neurotic tic or obsessive craving at a time.⁵
The avoidance of hopelessness—that is, the construction of hope—then becomes our mind’s primary project. All meaning, everything we understand about ourselves and the world, is constructed for the purpose of maintaining hope. Therefore, hope is the only thing any of us willingly dies for. Hope is what we believe to be greater than ourselves. Without it, we believe we are nothing.
When I was in college, my grandfather died. For a few years afterward, I had this intense feeling that I must live in such a way as to make him proud. This felt reasonable and obvious on some deep level, but it wasn’t. In fact, it made no logical sense at all. I hadn’t had a close relationship with my grandfather. We’d never talked on the phone. We hadn’t corresponded. I didn’t even see him the last five years or so that he was alive.
Not to mention: he was dead. How did my “living to make him proud” affect anything?
His death caused me to brush up against that Uncomfortable Truth. So, my mind got to work, looking to build hope out of the situation in order to sustain me, to keep any nihilism at bay. My mind decided that because my grandfather was now deprived of his ability to hope and aspire in his own life, it was important for me to carry on hope and aspiration in his honor. This was my mind’s bite-size piece of faith, my own personal mini-religion of purpose.
And it worked! For a short while, his death infused otherwise banal and empty experiences with import and meaning. And that meaning gave me hope. You’ve probably felt something similar when someone close to you passed away. It’s a common feeling. You tell yourself you’ll live in a way that will make your loved one proud. You tell yourself you will use your life to celebrate his. You tell yourself that this is an important and good thing.
And that “good thing” is what sustains us in these moments of existential terror. I walked around imagining that my grandfather was following me, like a really nosy ghost, constantly looking over my shoulder. This man whom I barely knew when he was alive was now somehow extremely concerned with how I did on my calculus exam. It was totally irrational.
Our psyches construct little narratives like this whenever they face adversity, these before/after stories we invent for ourselves. And we must keep these hope narratives alive, all the time, even if they become unreasonable or destructive, as they are the only stabilizing force protecting our minds from the Uncomfortable Truth.
These hope narratives are then what give our lives a sense of purpose. Not only do they imply that there is something better in the future, but also that it’s actually possible to go out and achieve that something. When people prattle on about needing to find their “life’s purpose,” what they really mean is that it’s no longer clear to them what matters, what is a worthy use of their limited time here on earth⁶—in short, what to hope for. They are struggling to see what the before/after of their lives should be.
That’s the hard part: finding that before/after for yourself. It’s difficult because there’s no way ever to know for sure if you’ve got it right. This is why a lot of people flock to religion, because religions acknowledge this permanent state of unknowing and demand faith in the face of it. This is also probably partly why religious people suffer from depression and commit suicide in far fewer numbers than nonreligious people: that practiced faith protects them from the Uncomfortable Truth.⁷
But your hope narratives don’t need to be religious. They can be anything. This book is my little source of hope. It gives me purpose; it gives me meaning. And the narrative that I’ve constructed around that hope is that I believe this book might help some people, that it might make both my life and the world a little bit better.
Do I know that for sure? No. But it’s my little before/after story, and I’m sticking to it. It gets me up in the morning and gets me excited about my life. And not only is that not a bad thing, it’s the only thing.
For some people, the before/after story is raising their kids well. For others, it’s saving the environment. For others, it’s making a bunch of money and having a big-ass boat. For others, it’s simply trying to improve their golf swing.
Whether we realize it or not, we all have these narratives we’ve elected to buy into for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if the way you get to hope is via religious faith or evidence-based theory or an intuition or a well-reasoned argument—they all produce the same result: you have some belief that (a) there is potential for growth or improvement or salvation in the future, and (b) there are ways we can navigate ourselves to get there. That’s it. Day after day, year after year, our lives are made up of the endless overlapping of these hope narratives. They are the psychological carrot at the end of the stick.
If this all sounds nihilistic, please, don’t get the wrong idea. This book is not an argument for nihilism. It is one against nihilism—both the nihilism within us and the growing sense of nihilism that seems to emerge with the modern world.⁸ And to successfully argue against nihilism, you must start at nihilism. You must start at the Uncomfortable Truth. From there, you must slowly build a convincing case for hope. And not just any hope, but a sustainable, benevolent form of hope. A hope that can bring us together rather than tear us apart. A hope that is robust and powerful, yet still grounded in reason and reality. A hope that can carry us to the end of our days with a sense of gratitude and satisfaction.
This is not easy to do (obviously). And in the twenty-first century, it’s arguably more difficult than ever. Nihilism and the pure indulgence of desire that accompanies it are gripping the modern world. It is power for the sake of power. Success for the sake of success. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure. Nihilism acknowledges no broader “Why?” It adheres to no great truth or cause. It’s a simple “Because it feels good.” And this, as we’ll see, is what is making everything seem so bad.
The Paradox of Progress
We live in an interesting time in that, materially, things are arguably better than they have ever been before, yet we all seem to be losing our minds thinking the world is one giant toilet bowl about to be flushed. An irrational sense of hopelessness is spreading across the rich, developed world. It’s a paradox of progress: the better things get, the more anxious and desperate we all seem to feel.⁹
In recent years, writers such as Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling have been making the case that we’re wrong to feel so pessimistic, that things are, in fact, the best they’ve ever been and likely going to get even better.¹⁰ Both men have filled long, heavy books with many charts and graphs that start at one corner and always seem somehow to end up in the opposite corner.¹¹ Both men have explained, at length, the biases and incorrect assumptions we all carry that cause us to feel that things are much worse than they are. Progress, they argue, has continued, uninterrupted, throughout modern history. People are more educated and literate than ever before.¹² Violence has trended down for decades, possibly centuries.¹³ Racism, sexism, discrimination, and violence against women are at their lowest points in recorded history.¹⁴ We have more rights than ever before.¹⁵ Half the planet has access to the internet.¹⁶ Extreme poverty is at an all-time low worldwide.¹⁷ Wars are smaller and less frequent than at any other time in recorded history.¹⁸ Children are dying less, and people are living longer.¹⁹ There’s more wealth than ever before.²⁰ We’ve, like, cured a bunch of diseases and stuff.²¹
And they’re right. It’s important to know these facts. But reading these books is also kind of like listening to your Uncle Larry prattle on about how much worse things were when he was your age. Even though he’s right, it doesn’t necessarily make you feel any better about your problems.
Because, for all the good news being published today, here are some other surprising statistics: in the United States, symptoms of depression and anxiety are on an eighty-year upswing among young people and a twenty-year upswing among the adult population.²² Not only are people experiencing depression in greater numbers, but they’re experiencing it at earlier ages, with each generation.²³ Since 1985, men and women have reported lower levels of life satisfaction.²⁴ Part of that is probably because stress levels have risen over the past thirty years.²⁵ Drug overdoses have recently hit an all-time high as the opioid crisis has wrecked much of the United States and Canada.²⁶ Across the U.S. population, feelings of loneliness and social isolation are up. Nearly half of all Americans now report feeling isolated, left out, or alone in their lives.²⁷ Social trust is also not only down across the developed world but plummeting, meaning fewer people than ever trust their government, the media, or one another.²⁸ In the 1980s, when researchers asked survey participants how many people they had discussed important personal matters with over the previous six months, the most common answer was “three.” By 2006, the most common answer was “zero.”²⁹
Meanwhile, the environment is completely fucked. Nutjobs either have access to nuclear weapons or are a hop, skip, and a jump away from getting them. Extremism across the world continues to grow—in all forms, on both the right and the left, both religious and secular. Conspiracy theorists, citizen militias, survivalists, and “preppers” (as in, prepping for Armageddon) are all becoming more popular subcultures, to the point where they are borderline mainstream.
Basically, we are the safest and most prosperous humans in the history of the world, yet we are feeling more hopeless than ever before. The better things get, the more we seem to despair. It’s the paradox of progress. And perhaps it can be summed up in one startling fact: the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you are to commit suicide.³⁰
The incredible progress made in health, safety, and material wealth over the past few hundred years is not to be denied. But these are statistics about the past, not the future. And that’s where hope inevitably must be found: in our visions of the future.
Because hope is not based on statistics. Hope doesn’t care about the downward trend of gun-related deaths or car accident fatalities. It doesn’t care that there wasn’t a commercial plane crash last year or that literacy hit an all-time high in Mongolia (well, unless you’re Mongolian).³¹
Hope doesn’t care about the problems that have already been solved. Hope cares only about the problems that still need to be solved. Because the better the world gets, the more we have to lose. And the more we have to lose, the less we feel we have to hope for.
To build and maintain hope, we need three things: a sense of control, a belief in the value of something, and a community.³² “Control” means we feel as though we’re in control of our own life, that we can affect our fate. “Values” means we find something important enough to work toward, something better, that’s worth striving for. And “community” means we are part of a group that values the same things we do and is working toward achieving those things. Without a community, we feel isolated, and our values cease to mean anything. Without values, nothing appears worth pursuing. And without control, we feel powerless to pursue anything. Lose any of the three, and you lose the other two. Lose any of the three, and you lose hope.
For us to understand why we’re suffering through such a crisis of hope today, we need to understand the mechanics of hope, how it is generated and maintained. The next three chapters will look at how we develop these three areas of our lives: our sense of control (chapter 2), our values (chapter 3), and our communities (chapter 4).
We will then return to the original question: what is happening in our world that is causing us to feel worse despite everything consistently getting better?
And the answer might surprise you.