In an ideal world, how we were made or determined by nature and culture would guide us to a mature autonomy and a fulfilling, satisfying and equanimous life. But many of the prehistoric instincts with which we’re born and many of the beliefs to which we were exposed and have now metabolized, are not necessarily a resonant fit for the nation and the world we live in today.
In today’s world the realities of life and our subjective experience of them are presented to us in a relentless barrage of moments. The pace was once much slower. Still, subjective experience then was just as relentless and probably as anguished as it is now. We can’t get away from our sense of ourselves though it is far from objective.
At the very best, our informed and adaptive engagement with each challenge will produce a favorable balance of situational success over a lifetime. It will also include, and this is critical, an ability to recover from the anger, suffering and disappointment accompanying the thwarted desires that are bound to happen to each of us many times. These situational moments are often accompanied by a sense of powerlessness, too, not to mention the pain of the harshly self-critical, unforgiving mental state that may keep us awake at night.
But think about it. Isn’t there a real chance that we’ve reached adulthood without a carefully acquired philosophy of life that opened our minds and hearts to possibilities beyond dead metaphors and meaningless cliches about loss and disappointment, success and failure, and even good and bad? How often do we examine our experience, fears and desires in light of the entirety of our responsibility for our way of being in the world? Isn’t there a real chance that what could have been our unique promise was merely processed and focused on goals—images and acquisitions—that stand in for thinking for ourselves?
Moreover, even though we may have taken on these goals without due diligence, they now seem to be self-evident truths about what’s important and meaningful. As a result of this mass processing, which inevitably closes as many doors as it opens, whole vistas of possibilities have been made invisible and whole inventions of language have been made silent. In other words, way too often we’ve wasted the opportunity to live a life as artists, authors, architects and poets of our own becoming.
To those who find a one-size-fits-all identity to be a poor fit, I address my posts and make my case for acquiring a philosophy of life. For example, all of us have been trained to hide our unpreparedness and awkwardness with badges of achievement, or with compensating rhetoric, or with our sentimental journeys about the good old times or our climb up the ladder of success.
However, the philosophy of life I teach asks us to challenge the givens with which we customarily identify our opportunities and ourselves. It takes effort, of course. But there are also great rewards for those who learn a more open and satisfying description of how individuals can successfully make their way in the world and, at the same time, satisfy the desire to live a life of their own design.
I have been offering classes and coursework in this philosophy of life for 37 years. Its many students have acquired the ability to go beyond Manichean choices of conformity or rebellion in favor of a mature autonomy that can successfully negotiate the realities with which we are presented, including the experience of ourselves. This mature autonomy utilizes a pragmatic method for thinking and, based on this utility, observes and evaluates the opportunities and constraints for individuation emerging from our common democratic inheritance.
Students have acquired a deliberately courageous quality of communication, a primary means for effectively engaging the rivalry, the reflexive and deliberate antagonism prevalent in human conditions and circumstances and a critical, creative and informed mind. It is a mind open to the insights and transformations that arise from the students’ participation in principled practices, whether they be enacted in person or by the written (or texted) word.
Of course, there is no hard and fast recipe, science or religion for such resourcefulness and competence. Instead, these students have learned that autonomy is an art to be mastered, an art committed to excellence and virtue as regulative ideals for human performance, regulative in the sense that they bring forth courage and generosity from the human heart, in dialogue, in relationship and importantly in solitude.
This is an art of both acceptance and change, self-discovery and self-creation, and antagonism and love. An art that recognizes human fallibility in making decisions, exercising judgment, taking action and predicting and evaluating consequences. An art that recognizes the incremental and repetitive effort it takes to rewire reflexive fears, superstitions and appetites that no longer resonate with the world in which we find ourselves.
In sum, a mature autonomy, while it would seem to be a birthright and its value inarguable, is an extraordinary personal achievement, requiring considerable intellectual integrity, sincerity, nerve and heartfulness. It takes integrity, courage and a deep generosity of feeling to carve out a decent and contributory life against much that is antagonistic and/or seemingly “fixed.” Indeed, a mature autonomy based on this philosophy of life is like life itself, an experiment, the coalescence of nature, history and language. That it exists at all is a function of contingency, an accident, a magnificent turn of events. How the philosophy of life will evolve, how long it will last, and what will happen to the art of acquiring it, who is to say?
I think of this philosophy as a lifetime adventure whose challenges are ours to meet. I have great respect for those who have chosen to take this journey with me.