Photo: Wim Swinnen
We speak to Dirk De Wachter in his office at the University Psychiatric Center in Kortenberg, near Brussels. He looks surprisingly relaxed, fresh and cheerful. In 2021, the psychiatrist was diagnosed with cancer with metastases. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy. He has, in his own words, ‘relatively recovered’, but he doesn’t know if it will stay that way.
‘I have to wait and see if the treatment will give lasting results or not. I can’t fight it – that metaphor is mistakenly used often with cancer. I can only hope that the therapy was effective enough and accept that I have no control over it. So I don’t have to worry about that either. And it usually works. But sometimes it does me annoying. I am only human. I saw my illness as something that depends on chance. It’s no use deceiving yourself and thinking you can force happiness.’
Still, being happy with what you have and who you are doesn’t sound like music to De Wachter’s ears. ‘Everyone must have ambitions, and if you can’t manage it, you have to switch to plan B: settle for the ‘ordinary’. At least it seems that way. But the art of life is finding beauty in everyday things. Live your life as it is – you’ll make it.’
Should we be more resigned to our fate?
‘Nothing. Of course, I am in favor of being satisfied with the things that are there, and also being satisfied with what is not there. Here, people come to psychiatric centers who are unhappy because of their dissatisfaction and become ill because of it. Because they want too much of themselves, or because others want too much of them. For example in a work context. Pressure you put on yourself or social pressure – pressure from outside, that is – can become too heavy. You have to do even more, even better, and it’s never good enough. And in the end it is so exhausting that you fall.’
“We are social beings. We exist in the eyes of other people. “I become I, in front of the other,” said the French philosopher Levinas. And his German colleague Heidegger wrote: ‘Dasein is together with einander sein’. In other words, who I am is how I am ‘created’ by people around me: my parents and other people who raised me, but also colleagues, relatives and friends here and now. I am not separate from the world, but in the midst of it.’
‘Unfortunately, today we live in a world that focuses on competition, being competitive, ‘me-ness’. From the idea, which I think is an illusion, that anyone can do it. While I am convinced that ‘making’ has a lot to do with chance.’
Many people are under the delusion that they will make it, but don’t get there.
“Only a minority see the ‘American Dream’ come true. These successful people are usually very talented. But they often owe their success to random circumstances. By chance, they ended up in an industry that suddenly went trees. Or they have been given opportunities at home.’
“We like to pretend we’re making ourselves. People who get fame through social media and have a lot of followers and like can suddenly become famous. That’s the world we live in. And that in itself is perfectly fine. But the idea that everyone is great and can reach the top is, of course, nonsense. Only it is emphasized even more by those who have reached the top; they say they owe their success to their own achievements and efforts, their intelligence and talent. Of course that’s not true’.
‘Should all the people who haven’t made it be happy with what they are and what they have? That sounds too negative to me. The essence of life, in my opinion, is to treat each other with care. It means: to be able to be meaningful to the other, to do something for the other. That has been the success of the human phenomenon. Physically speaking, man is not a particularly strong animal. He would not survive against the elephant. But humans are a cooperative animal, and that makes us strong as a species. Cooperating is something we don’t do much anymore in Western culture. We primarily practice working alone, being competitive, trying to be the best at the expense of the other. Although I may be expressing myself a little too strongly now.’
You already mentioned Levinas and Heidegger as sources of inspiration. Can philosophy be a foothold in life?
‘Undoubtedly. The philosopher I know best is Emmanuel Levinas. He argues that being seen – when our gazes meet and are reciprocated – is the basis of our existence. You are not left alone, isolated, lonely and abandoned. Now let it be one of the dangers I speak critically about in a society that threatens to crumble. The German-American thinker Hannah Arendt also talks about this: the atomization of society, the ‘me-ness’, which goes too far and threatens to lead to great loneliness. We are so busy with our own little success that we suddenly see: oh, there is no one else here anymore.’
Is it against this that the young people react?
‘I think. And I hope so. I hope and believe that a turning point is coming. I share the progressive thinking of e.g. Steven Pinker, but in a less naive way. We must keep judging time harshly, again and again. What is difficult, we must dare to mention. Because the balance is fragile. Let me put it this way: We come to a viaduct that rises higher and higher above the ground, where the sun shines more and we don’t have wet feet and can enjoy a beautiful view. But the pillars are long and brittle, and we can fall deeper than ever. This is the price we pay for our progress’.
This is a fragment of the interview with Dirk De Wachter that appeared in the Psyche&Brein special on self-development. Order the thesis via magazinestore.be