Picture a measuring glass. Add water to the halfway mark. Is the glass half-full? Or, is it half-empty? This metaphor for looking at life is a popular and philosophical question about how you view and engage with the world. Should you be at least stoic if not optimistic when looking at the content of your life? Do you view the world filled with rewards and countless options? Or do you engage it pessimistically (and angrily) as a ruthless and unfair competition that never ends no matter how much work you put into it? I believe that seeing it as half full requires behavioral mastery.
To see and engage with this metaphor as I do, try viewing your life through the emancipated mind of the autonomous subject. I see autonomy as a daily choice and commitment that takes place in real-time in a pragmatic world. Behavioral mastery, both tangible (e.g., playing an instrument) and immaterial (e.g., patience, self-motivation, courage) takes skill. And what does skill take? Time and development. (Carefully plotted benchmarks indicating day-to-day progress are especially useful if Scoreboard points aren’t being awarded.) Much confidence and satisfaction accompany behavioral mastery. Even more: Like Camus, you may be able to imagine Sisyphus smiling, despite the daily hard labor to which he was sentenced.
Let me explain more about what I mean and remind you of the value of two practices I never forego.
Freedom is not unconditional. Here, in America, both the course and the experience of our lives are dependent on our response to the challenge of our emancipation. And it is a challenge. While we’re free to live a life of our design, we are bound irrevocably to the needs of a living system that keeps the entire biological enterprise going. Moreover, there is no indelible line between nature and nurture (or its lack). Even as adults, it’s not easy to recognize where we are coming from or if determined internally and externally.
For example, we’re expected to be in possession of our lives. But how much intentional objectivity and control do we have in the matter? Aren’t we driven by the deeply embedded-in-our-neurons conditioning we’re born to? And are our immediate senses rational? Does our ancient programming provide us with the right information for today’s complex world? How do we know if the headlines are accurate or fake? Is our temperament a gift or a problem?
Finally, most of us here are not tasked with the physical heavy lifting that characterizes the dailiness to which Sisyphus was sentenced. But no matter our place in the Scoreboard pecking order or our education and opportunities, all of us shoulder an excessive subjective burden as well as ego-driven pressures that make us anxious. This anxious subjectivity is built of the obsessive needs, destabilizing fears, insatiable desires, bent behaviors and compromised judgment of an ego that is dysfunctional.
To be an autonomous subject here in America where we’re fated to be (conditionally) free, we must instantiate an emancipated mind. How do we do this? We learn through practice how to integrate the critical thought and reflective intelligence of the autonomous subject with the emotional intelligence of our biological (and ultimately biographical) enterprise.
As I said upfront, I think of autonomy and life as a daily practice. Let me describe two of them.
First: Appreciate the day. To do it well, head into each day recognizing that the day is your canvas. Recognize yourself as someone in touch with the rhythms and cycles of the day, the hour, the moment, completing each cycle, dawn to dusk, enjoying now, no longer under the illusion that there is a once-and-for-all, permanently rewarding end or an afterlife that will be easier. At day’s end, recognize it as a completion, an accomplishment. At the very least, this effort will contribute to your emotional stability. At best, this effort will enable you to imagine yourself as a Sisyphus who, present in each moment, enjoys the beauty, pleasure and “implacable grandeur” of existence.
Second: Discipline yourself. Go to the drawing board. Recall that the emancipated mind for which we struggle is mastery, a skill acquired through discipline and serious effort. Most of us most of the time are successful with our primary institutional roles. However, in environments where we do not “fit” so comfortably or where there is no structured program for accomplishment, our successes may be fewer. To succeed, we must turn ourselves over to or insert ourselves into a structure or program that will allow us to show up as disciplined. Is there any reason to believe that even well-conceived structures will not have to be redesigned and redesigned as we face inertia, criticism, novelty, complexity, disappointment, ambivalence, breakdowns, and stumbling blocks?
The anxiety I described is likely to be a life sentence unless we learn to view our lives through the emancipated mind of the autonomous subject. However, when we “lose” the dysfunctional ego as we engage the benign indifference of the universe—timely, openly, in each moment—much of our anxiety lifts and we discover the many joys of our finitude. “For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” Albert Camus.