How to live
Below are a series of entries on ways to live. It might seem presumptuous to write something like this, but they are intended to be a kind of personal archive of thought/ideas I’ve picked up and that seem to circulate in my mind and guide my action and judgements.
Caveat: These entries are not scholarly in nature, even though they deal with fields which can arguably only be approached in a scholarly mode, i.e., fields where precision/exactitude in interpretation is important. For example, I reference Daoist thoughts. I can only hope that my ignorance of these fields is in fact a virtue that allows for a more flexible reading, but it is more likely the case that I’ve misinterpreted these teachings.
On Education and Knowledge
I’m currently a teacher, and before that I was also a teacher somewhere else. Before that, I was a student. The only professional experience I’ve had is in education. So, I thought I’d start with that.
The wise person knows that they know nothing.
The classic Socratic paradox. May or may not have actually originated with Socrates. The best way to see the truth of this is to observe its inverse.
Unlearn what you already know.
Something I’ve picked up for cursory readings of Taoism and prolonged readings of Ursula K Le Guin novels!
I can’t remember where I came across it, but there is a story that illustrates the difference between a Confucian and Taoist approach to knowledge. Two people find a boulder blocking their path. The first, Confucian, analyses the situation carefully - they calculate the mass of the boulder, and apply their learning to constructing an apparatus which will lift the boulder from their path. The second, Taoist, observes that the boulder is also blocking a stream, which forks around the boulder. The Taoist sits back happily. They cannot move forward for now, but they can see that after 1,000 years the stream will have eroded the boulder and unblocked the path.
In both cases the boulder is removed. In the first it is through calculated action, in the second it is removed through inaction. Both cases are equally effective on a long enough time scale.
Knowledge, especially highly-specialised knowledge, can lead to many beneficial practical applications. It can also conceal a lot from us.
Educational Advice from John Cage
On Relationships with Others
The key term here is not ‘relationships’ but ‘others’.
I am that I am
And God said unto Moses, I am that I am
- Exodus 3:14
Who are you?
I am that I am, let me be, go on with your business.
This is the correct way to interpret this I think. It’s God saying that what she ‘is’ is already established through simple existence. We should apply this well to both our attempts to ‘know’ God (i.e., don’t attempt it), and to our attempts to ‘know’ others. The other is knowable only in part to us, any attempt to fully ‘define’ them is a kind of violence. This may sound frustrating at first. After all, if it’s our wife, our child, our father, we may really feel the need to ‘know’ them fully, we may expect them to always act in a familiar way. Really, though, the impossibility of fully knowing the other, what they’re thinking, feeling, doing, is a form of freedom.
God is saying you can never know me beyond knowing my existence. This means that we can never fully know what God really ‘wants’ of us. Similarly, we can never fully know what the other person expects or wants of us. In this way, God gives us the freedom and responsibility of interpretation. Our relationship to God/others shouldn’t be one of ‘calculation’ but of spontaneity.
In a similar vein to the above point, Jacques Derrida has written on hospitality in relation to the unknowable other. Hospitality only really becomes hospitality in the absence of ‘calculation’ about the other person’s desires, motivation, etc. He famously says that the guest who arrives at your door may be coming to shower you with gifts and gratitude, or may be coming to murder you. Hospitality can only exist against this background. This is why it is one of the most difficult practices, and one which should be celebrated when done well.
In a Different Voice
I don’t really know why, but the book “In a Different Voice” by Carol Gilligan has always stayed with me. It’s a book on moral psychology, and is notable, scientifically, for how it countered a prevalent theory of moral psychology at the time. This theory was by Lawrence Kohlberg and claimed there were six ‘stages’ of moral development:
- Obedience and punishment orientation - How can I avoid punishment?
- Self-interest orientation - What’s in it for me?
- Interpersonal accord and conformity - Social norms, good boy/girl attitude
- Authority and social-order maintaining orientation - law and order morality
- Social contract orientation
- Universal ethical principles
Your moral psychological ‘development’ is reflected by which stage matches your motivations for action, with 6 being the highest.
Anyway, in Gilligan’s research, she found that women consistently scored ’lower’ on the moral scale.
This wasn’t because women were less psychologically ‘developed’ than men, it was because the scale is ridiculous. (there are lots of other actual reasons too, just read the book)
It’s a beautiful scale, in its own way, and I would love if moral psychology could be so elegantly mapped out, defined, taught, and so on.
But it can’t. There is no map or fixed guide for navigating our relationships with others or for codifying our motivations.
The alternative ‘scale’ proposed by Gilligan is vague, but also that’s probably the point:
- self-other balance
These aren’t the exact terms Gilligan uses, but it’s how I think of it. The first ’level’ of moral development is self-interest. We put our own values and opinions before others. Think of the husband who demand his wife stay home and mind the children so he can go out and become the best architect or whatever - very morally under-developed.
The next ’level’ is prioritizing the other too much. In the same scenario above, the wife who loves and cares for her husband, and who decides to sacrifice her own needs to serve his, is more morally mature than him, but we can still see there is something wrong here.
The final level is a balancing of the self-other relationship, but I don’t really know what that means.
That’s why I like it as a theory of moral development. It leaves it up to you, but it does advocate working towards a ‘middle’ position, which I think is the foundation of morality. Sometimes people scoff at the ‘middle’ ground, seeing it as akin to ‘sitting on the fence’, but it is precisely in the middle, on the fence, where you have the best view of the whole field and can therefore make the soundest judgements.
On Raising Children
This is really not something I’m qualified to talk about. However, I wanted to include one thought by Hans-Georg Gadamer which is also relevant more generally.
Gadamer writes that we may try to spare children from this or that experience but that,
experience as a whole is not something that anybody can be spared.
This is true for our own, adult selves too. We may try to avoid difficult or unpleasant experiences, we may retreat into familiar comfort zones or into addictions or bad habits, but what we are trying to ’escape’ from can never be fully escaped from. We can never avoid the simple fact of existence and all the joy and suffering that it entails.
Another way of saying this is found in the movie Inside Out. The main character, Riley, when confronted with difficult, negative experiences (moving across the country as a child) begins to ‘shut down’. She enters a depressive phase, her ‘personality centers’ are forcibly stripped from her unconscious, since these are the features of her self that define her existence in the world. In other words, she flees from existence.
The lesson at the end of the movie is that her ‘sadness’ is an integral part of her identity. Sadness and negative experience are (if you’re lucky like her, I guess) what build community, since when others sense sadness and negativity they reach out and form connections.
For Gadamer, the self is formed through negativity. When things are going normally, we are ‘invisible’ to ourselves. We behave automatically (indeed, Riley’s unconscious is a well-oiled machine, aside from that niggling character Sadness). It is only when things fail, start to break down, that we are forced to turn inward and reflect on ourselves. In this way, our self first ‘appears’ to us, as a self, through these negative experiences. Through this reflection we learn and evolve and grow.
This cycle of negativity and growth is a natural feature of experience, and one we should struggle to embrace instead of pushing it aside with ‘distractions’.
There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
- Leonard Cohen
Related to the previous entry on raising children, the message here is that perfection, even if attainable, isn’t desirable. It is the cracks and faults in a thing that help illuminate it for us.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
- Samuel Beckett
In a reality where cracks and faults remain with us and haunt us, failure is an inevitable feature of existence. The task then is not to avoid failure - a futile endeavour - but to learn how to ‘fail better’.
If I am, then death is not.
Why should I fear death? If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not.
For Epicurus, ’life’ is a sensory experience. Death is the absence of sensation, and therefore it is not a feature of life.
But, you may argue, death is not simply the absence of sensation, it is also the cessation of sensation.
Well, to worry about that points us to another problem.
Let’s try to think about our sensory experience as a kind of waveform or signal. Our general experience will have a ‘baseline’ or ’natural’ waveform. The shape of this waveform is dictated by our bodies and their interactions with the natural environment. For example, when the light changes due to the motion of the sun, we may begin to feel more or less sleepy. When we work, our bodies use-up energy and we feel the need to eat. Our natural signal does fluctuate, but the fluctuations are patterned, periodic. Like the patterns of the seasons there is a regularity and familiarity to them.
However, beyond these ’natural’, periodic variations in sensation, we have found endless ways of modulating the signal. Imagine gorging on a particularly delicious piece of cake. All of a sudden, our baseline waveform spikes higher than we ever could have imagined. Soon, it returns back to its natural baseline and we feel dissatisfied. We crave another piece of cake to stimulate our sensations again. But, this second piece doesn’t modulate the signal quite as much as the first one, so we feel even more dissatisfied.
Fast-forward hundreds of years of ‘modern’ civilisation and our daily ’natural’ baseline is totally corrupted. We are constantly bombarded by signals that modulate and stimulate our sensations. If we’re materially fortunate, we can continue to artificially stimulate our pleasure and avoid really ‘coming down’. Eventually, though, something puts and end to all this noise - death. This is why we fear death today. Not because of something intrinsic about death itself (after all, it is a natural, essential feature of biological milieus), but because it signifies an end to our enjoyment.
So, learning to not fear death means also learning to pay more attention to how we experience pleasure in life. As I said, our natural signals are periodic, like sine waves, (as opposed to the ’noise’ signal of artificial stimulation), pleasures come and go. We feel hunger. This hunger can be satisfied by anything which eases this hunger - a simple slice of bread. Then, our hunger disappears, and returns again later. In which time we can again enjoy the bread. Accepting these cycles means accepting their end too.
Finally, when it comes to a question of the many forms of natural, extreme suffering we will still encounter, such as periods of illness, Epicurus says that nature has also provided a faculty to counter-balance these kinds of suffering - memory. In times of illness, Epicurus encourages us to remember and reflect on the good times we’ve spent with friends and family.
There is a well-known Buddhist parable about a man and a raft. I’ll try to paraphrase it:
There was a man who was on a journey somewhere. He was travelling through a forest. He came across a great river in his path. In order to cross it, he began to gather together materials from the forest and constructed a raft. The man was able to cross the river using this raft. On the other side, he stood admiring his creation and its success. He wondered about what to do with the raft now that he had crossed the river. He was proud of its craftsmanship and its beauty, so he decided to carry it with him. Weighed down by the raft, he was never able to complete his journey and died in the forest.
I’m not sure if I’ve retold the story properly, but this is how I remember it at least. I think its usually told as a way to understand various Buddhist ’techniques’ and ‘practices’ for attaining enlightenment. Once you’ve reached ’enlightenment’, you can then leave those techniques behind, like the man should have left the raft behind.
I usually think of this story when thinking about my ‘achievements’ or ‘failures’. Especially in the case of ‘achievements’ though. If we become too attached to our achievements, we become weighed down and defined by them. It is much lighter to leave them behind and move happily to the next thing.
I find that learning to let go of my ‘achievements’ is good practice for also letting go of my failures.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
One of the most famous parables in the bible. I’m not religious, but I always find this story so useful.
In order to understand it, we have to remember who the ‘Samaritans’ were to the audience here. They were one of the most hated, mis-trusted groups.
I’m pretty sure that every group or community or nation of peoples have their own version of ‘Samaritans’, not matter how ’enlightened’ they are. It seems to be an integral part of human social dynamics. A group is always defined by what it is ’not’. From my own experience, in Ireland and the U.K., for example, often Muslims are the mis-trusted group. In Ireland, specifically, it’s also the Irish Traveller community. The list of groups/identities we mis-trust or see as enemies is endless.
So, when thinking of the good Samaritan story, it’s helpful to imagine the Samaritan being someone who you are instinctively wary of. For me, maybe it’s right-wing groups in America, or TERFs.
Anyway, the point it that, if I were to fall and become injured, and another Irish person, or a communist, or even my father, without recognising me, all passed me by and avoided me, but then a TERF stopped to help me, then, my real ’neighbour’ is the TERF.
And, of course, vice-versa, I am only a good ’neighbour’ when I can reach out an help a fellow human, not matter who they are or what they stand for.
It’s a pretty big ask in these days of identity politics, but its exactly why I try to remember this story all the time. It helps me look beneath ‘identity’ to something more fundamental - neighbourliness.
Today, someone asked me about when I feel happy in life. I didn’t know what to answer at first. It’s not a question I usually ask myself.
For her, it was moments of intimacy, with a romantic partner, friends, family, etc. That’s a pretty good answer, but it’s not true for me.
In the end, all I could come up with as an answer were moments of ‘aesthetic’ beauty, both natural and created. For example, I really love cycling, especially when I am cycling somewhere unknown. I love to discover random pieces of natural beauty. I also love walking and hiking for similar reasons. I equally love ‘social’ modes of aesthetic beauty, both in the form of art and also in the form of human stories - I love listening to people talk about their lives. So, in the end, most of my ‘happiness’ comes in moments of relative passivity - listening to people talk, listening to music, watching movies, observing landscapes. She said that, for her, the problem with travelling somewhere, even somewhere beautiful, is always that you remember people you left behind and miss them. I never feel that way.
Thinking more about it now, I guess the happiness I feel in aesthetic beauty is more linked to the sense of ‘discovery’ than the specific aesthetic qualities. So, ’new’ things make me happy. Hmm, that’s possibly a symptom of growing up in a consumerist society (as a kid I really loved Christmas, the expectation of receiving something new and shiny). But, I hope it’s also a sign of a deeper human need for novelty and creativity. Discovery is a wonderful thing, and it can be endless.
In the end, though, my initial response to the question, which was the absence of a response, reflects my true opinion on happiness. It’s really not something worth thinking too much about or paying too much attention to. I feel it’s something that comes and goes quickly. We have to be thankful when it’s there, but also patient when it is not.