Can you ruin your life?

You might believe that you have. And you might be quite wrong about that.

Can you ruin your life?

No other places, always this
Your earthly landfall, and no ship exists
To take you from yourself. Ah! don’t you see
Just as you’ve ruined your life in this
One plot of ground you’ve ruined its worth
Everywhere now — over the whole earth.

The grim final lines of The City, as rendered in Lawrence Durrell’s free translation of Constantine Cavafy, draw their meaning from a concept that is at once familiar and obscure.

We all know what the author intends when he uses the phrase ruined your life. Some of us may wonder, as I did in my 20s about the time I encountered those lines, whether we have ruined, are ruining, or will ruin our own.

And yet the phrase doesn’t mean what we think it means. For one thing, its object, your life, does not carry, here, its primary meaning. To ruin something is to damage it beyond repair, but when we say that somebody has ruined her life we never mean that she has killed herself.

The phrase avails itself of a secondary meaning: a life is a way of living. Your life in this sense is the life you lead, which is the things you do, where you do them, who you do them with, and how these elements develop over time.

When we say of someone that he has ruined his life, we mean therefore that he has ruined his way of living. Expressed like that, the assertion does not seem so sombre. The ambiguity of the noun, life, lends it most of its gravity.

Ruination by comission

If what is ruined is a way of living, then our understanding meets a second obstacle: it is not immediately obvious what is the way of living that is ruined.

For example, consider the life of celebrated motorcycle racer Wayne Rainey, who was left permanently paraplegic after a race crash at the age of 32.

It is easy enough to imagine that the crash ruined Rainey’s life. It is much less clear that Rainey was the agent of the ruination: that he ruined his own life. After all, Rainey’s life – that is, his way of life – had been defined by the very acceptance of risk that set the scene for his injury.

If we want to say that Rainey’s racing ruined his life, then the life it ruined cannot have been his racing life. If he ruined his own life, then the life he ruined must have been the life he might have led if he had not gone racing.

Ruination by omission

When we examine the subject of Cavafy’s poem, we find ourselves in a similar place: if he has ruined his life, then the life he ruined was a life he never lived.

In a middle stanza, the poem alludes to its subject having spent so many years … spending and squandering, and nothing gained. This has been his way of life, it appears. And what is ruinous is that it will continue, even if this resident of Alexandria forsakes his city for another. For no ship exists that can take you from yourself, the poet argues.

In what sense, then, is the subject’s life ruined? His present way of life is resilient. Clearly, the ruined life is the life that he might have lived if he had not lived this one. Perhaps a life that had prioritised achievement, in which he had contributed something to his community that brought him recognition and respect: a business; a family; a work of art.

Unhappy choices

What is true of these examples is true of every assertion that a person has ruined their life – that is, every assertion that a person has engineered their own ruination. It is true whether we accuse ourselves, or are judged by others. The ruined life is always the life not lived: the life we might have had if we had chosen differently.

Our choices have led us to a place of unhappiness, and we assert of ourselves, or others may assert of us, that we could have avoided the unhappiness if we had corrected our behaviour in the past. Now, ruined, we can only live with our sorrow. I do not need to say of this fate that it is one to avoid. Non-controversially, a wise person resists every impulse to do things that will ruin his life, and does everything he can to immunise himself from ruin-by-omission.

A cautionary note

In a book-length exploration of error titled Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz observes of holding a mistaken belief that when you hold it you feel just the same as you would if it were not mistaken.

“When you are simply going about your business in a state that you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever,” Schulz proposes insightfully in the opening chapter.

“You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you’re on solid ground.” Being wrong feels like … being right.

If Schulz is right, then it is harder than we think to avoid behaviour that will ruin one’s life. If we believe that none of our behaviour is ruinous but but we are wrong, we won’t know we are wrong. We will believe, when it matters most to know we are wrong, that we are right.

A helpful corollary

In that part of the book where she develops this thought, Schulz places less emphasis on its corollary: if being wrong feels like being right, then being right must feel like being wrong.

If that is true of our beliefs and our judgments, it will be true also of our assessments, where the assessment does not rely solely on logic. For example, you might be wrong in your assessment that you have ruined your life, no matter how right about it you feel.

Very likely the thought passed through Rainey’s mind, when he was injured, that his life had been ruined. Thirty years later, comfortably off and widely admired, and racing go-karts for fun against former world champion friends, he may remember that thought as delusional.

Similarly, if the “you” of the poem was Cavafy himself, do we think that his self-assessment was sound? Answers welcome as comments.

*Image third from top: Wayne Rayney in 1990. Credit: Stefan Isaacs from Seattle, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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