“If a little doesn’t satisfy you, then nothing will satisfy you—not even a lot; if enough isn’t enough, then nothing will be enough.”—Epicurus
You’ve all heard the old adage: the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Whenever someone’s said this to me (or someone I know), I’ve understood it to mean that one should think twice before making big life changes (e.g., changing careers, quitting a job, leaving a spouse, moving to a new city) because the good things over there are never as good as they look from here. Truth be told, I’ve never found this piece of wisdom particularly helpful, perhaps because I’m far too shortsighted (literally and figuratively) to get a good look at the grass over there on the other side of the proverbial fence. But I have benefited greatly from something the philosopher Horst Hutter once told me—something which is, I’ve recently realized, the flip-side of that old saw about superficially superior sod.
It was early 2004, we were at Horst and Francine’s place on Fairmount, drinking dep wine at the kitchen table, and I was in a bad way, bitching and complaining about the shortcomings of the academic life. I was profoundly disillusioned and, as a consequence, wondering aloud about what life might be like if I left academia and did something completely different. Horst listened patiently. And he didn’t disagree with me. All to the contrary, he said that the problems I had identified were real and, alas, inescapable features of the academic landscape. Even so, said he, with that adorably enigmatic smile of his: “Every garden has its serpent.”
Though it took another hour, another bottle, and a great deal of clarification, the full meaning of my sphinx-like mentor’s riddle eventually dawned on me. Here it is: (1) Problems and temptations are everywhere to be found, even in paradise. (2) The problems associated with an attractive new prospect aren’t always apparent when you’re peering over the proverbial fence. (3) Sticking with the serpent you know is often patently prudent. (4) It’s foolish to believe that any life change—no matter how drastic—will lead to a problem-free life. (5) A big change may or may not lead to a better life, but it will never lead to a problem-free life, because such a life is nowhere to be found in the City of Man. (6) Searching for a problem-free paradise may be the single most effective way to guarantee yourself a miserable life. (7) The best thing we can reasonably hope for when we’re contemplating a big change is to trade in one set of problems for another. This doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that change is futile. Nothing could be further from the truth! It merely means that if you’re unhappy with a major piece of your life (e.g., your relationship, your career, where you live, etc.), the proper question to ask isn’t “Where can I find a serpent-free paradise?” but rather “Where can I find a garden with a serpent I can live with?”
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)