Does this post address your sex life or how you spend your money? No, it does not, because conversations about these topics are usually non-starters. Few people from any walk of life want to listen to sermonizing about whom we should or should not have sex with, or how we should spend our money. But many of us are open to conversations about not making the world an even colder and meaner place.
In fact, we who study Autonomy and Life know that the behavioral standards we place upon ourselves are guided by our ever-present and self-aware conscious control of our individual freedom, as well as by our reason and the reach of our own humanity.
We are keen to explore the opportunity and willing to bear the burden of individual freedom in America. Our autonomy is not a game—a contest to be won. It is a responsibility, a serious business to manage. And to a great extent, people-at-large accept this burden which is, after all, fundamental to living in America. Think about it. Don’t most of us wish to be known as individuals free to steward our independent agency (to think for ourselves), our moral personage and our biographical entrepreneurship? Of course, there is a difference between knowing what is right and doing the right thing. In other words, whether or not most of us actually practice this behavioral gold is another matter.
We have developed a governing philosophy that stands as a referential authority for our authentic representation of the autonomous individual. Of course, such authenticity is hard work especially when we’re at the effect of our animal instincts and the torpor that accompanies inertia. Still, to paraphrase John le Carré in the Secret Pilgrim, “If we regret things about how we’ve lived our lives, it’s probably because we wasted our time and skills. All the false alleys, and bogus friends, the misapplication of our energies. All the delusions we had about who we were.”
So, how does our philosophically and socially constructed referential authority begin? It begins with the intent not to demean others by word or deed, by attitude or intonation, by arrogance or a willed ignorance. We know that our words and civil behavior can inspire and expand not only our own possibilities but also those who depend on us. (We also know that words and uncivil behavior are the stuff of inquisitions, hatred and violence.)
Our referential authority for our authentic representation of the autonomous individual also demands that we be respectful, courteous, receptive and thoughtful. These are not submissive practices that reduce our ability to express ourselves. We employ them purposefully to temper the human capacity for cruelty and indifference so that we don’t regret the mean and small life we’ve begotten ourselves, or inflicted on others by such merciless practices.
The call on us for integrity, leadership and toleration requires self-rule, as does the call for courage and creative resourcefulness. We live in an endlessly competitive and often harsh social environment. It takes energy and resolve to stand tall, to pull our weight, to hold ourselves responsible for our behavior and accountable for its consequences. Interestingly, when we conduct ourselves well, we serve not only the social good but also our own self-interest; behavioral gold is the means to flourishing.
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Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.