Ten brief lessons in autonomy
LESSON ONE: Achieving our country depends on the autonomous subject’s performative response to a variety of societal expectations. We are asked to responsibly process the impersonal forms of self-possession and to particularize their use under the specific conditions and circumstances asking us for a response. This form of self-possession (qualified individual freedom) is foundational to regulating the emergent order of the American experiment with a society of autonomous subjects.
LESSON TWO: Qualified individual freedom in America is regulated by this country’s cultural matrix composed of its founding documents, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as well as its political, economic and social institutions, its arts and sciences, its enforcement of its laws, conventions, customs, normatives, etc. To compensate for the absence of a naturally (or supernaturally) permanent foundational governor/soul, we are asked to oversee our own behavior by following these forms and, by virtue of our intellectual and emotional regulation, transform the responsiveness of the naked animal into that of a civilized citizen capable of tolerating the angst that accompanies such responsibility.
LESSON THREE: Human beings are not born humane, cultured and autonomously responsible. We’re born with uncivilized natural instincts and must be educated to understand our civil and rational duties and possibilities. Every day, we must wrest control from the brutality, timidity or waywardness of these programmed biological urges (this systemically determined behavior) and focus our energy on the transformative behavior that defines our national experiment in autonomous citizenship. Critical to the success of this responsibility is the ability to reset our own determination (how we’re already set in our ways) in the event of a warranted call for it.
These efforts to qualify our individual freedom—that is be our own person and live a life worth living as one of us—are the foundation of our unique self-possession and, as I said, of the American experiment in a society of autonomous subjects. For example, in this country, we have expectations. Like it or not, parents are to protect their children, officials of our institutions are to act fairly, companies are to be responsible to their stockholders, legislators to their electors and good citizens to vote. And there’s more. We’re also expected to be courteous, to lend a hand, to provide customer service, to recycle, and to honor the terms of a contract and pay our bills on time.
The key to the autonomous subject’s efficacy with the use of itself to oversee itself is to recognize that the grammar it uses is internal to the mechanism of oversight. If we are unable to use an elegant grammatically tooled autonomy to process how we see, perceive, communicate and feel, our ability to extend and defend ourselves may be atonal and dissonant—that is, limited to reflexive antagonism or fear-of-missing-out conformity.
LESSON SIX: When we learn to oversee ourselves in an artful and responsible manner, we are better able to assimilate into the ways and means of civilized society and participate in the necessary resistance to the entropy of the national experiment. In short, this pragmatic and artful process is a survival strategy for both subject and experiment.
LESSON SEVEN: It is also an opportunity to recognize yourself differently, i.e., re-present yourself to yourself as the posited form of the subject in relief. Critically, this re-presentation of yourself includes revisioning the perspectival ground on which to stand your self-regulative processing. It includes a new recognition of your ego-function. It also includes recognizing a maladaptation I term “dispossession” which I believe is the cause of much misdirection and emotional distemper in our lives.
This revision of perspective, this recognition of “dispossession” and this new understanding of the ego-function are fundamental to the efficacy of your performative responsibility including your oversight of the dysfunction of your ego, as well as finding your way to contribute your utility and conscience and, given the genius of the process, enjoying your life.
LESSON NINE: As you learn how to locate yourself into this order of things, you’ll find yourself with what I believe is a noble sense of purpose, an uncommon ability to manage your own obligations and to contribute to the lives of others. In other words, think of these historical forms in terms of tools to help you enjoy the enrichment of fulfilling your life, e.g., experiencing a significant degree of life-satisfaction, joy, too, and importantly, equanimity.
LESSON TEN: But hear this: We are biological systems which run themselves. Blood pumps. Lungs breathe. Small wounds to the skin heal themselves. We can’t get taller or shorter and how much we can control the efficacy of our eyes and ears, for instance, is limited. The best we can offer ourselves and our country is to follow the forms and accept or tolerate and live gracefully with the rest. Happily, self-possession itself is a substantial accomplishment that can always be counted on to eliminate the fear of missing out, to lift the spirit and to ease the anxiety.
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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.
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