Joseph Conrad, that wise man, offers us this:
"If one looks at life in its true aspect then everything loses much of its unpleasant importance and the atmosphere becomes cleared of what are only unimportant mists that drift past in imposing shapes. When once the truth is grasped that one's own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown the attainment of serenity is not very far off."
Joseph Conrad, Letter to Edward Garnett (March 23, 1896), in Edward Garnett, Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924 (1928), page 46.
"No man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge."
Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900), page 84.
Yes, recognition of our own follies and self-deceptions is a necessary precursor to any serenity we may be able to arrive at in life. And it is wonderful that Conrad speaks of attaining "serenity," not "happiness."
Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)
The above thoughts were prompted by coming across the following poem:
Engrossed in the day's 'news', I read
Of all in man that's vile and base;
Horrors confounding heart and head --
Massacre, murder, filth, disgrace:
Then paused. And thought did inward tend --
On my own past, and self, to dwell.
Whereat some inmate muttered, 'Friend,
If you and I plain truth must tell,
Everything human we comprehend,
Only too well, too well!'
Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (1950).
Each and every day we encounter the "incomprehensible" via the media and incorrectly conclude, as the saying goes, "Now I've seen it all!" No, we have not seen it all, and we never will see it all, given the by turns lovely and nasty inventiveness of human beings.
De la Mare's neat trick is the movement from "incomprehensible" in the title to "comprehend" in line 9: from "beyond the reach of intellect or research; unfathomable" (OED) (i.e., the daily horrors of the news) to "to take in, comprise, include, contain" (OED) (i.e., us). And, once the movement is made, one is in turn compelled to revisit "incomprehensible," which now turns out to refer not just to the contents of the daily news, but to each of us individually -- body, mind, and soul.
Robin Tanner, "Wiltshire Woodman" (1929)
All of this merits a return to the lovely three-sentence prose statement by Czeslaw Milosz.
To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.
Czeslaw Milosz (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass), Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998), page 60.
Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)