Sometimes, often times really, we yearn for a changed perspective, as if it is the panacea for all human suffering. Suffering is after all categorically evil. No one sound of mind would ever pursue their own unhappiness, said Socrates. Suffering is bad, and one has the absolute moral responsibility to prevent suffering when there is nothing of comparable moral significance at risk, said Singer. The promise of eternal bliss in the next life functions as supreme motivator for the endurance of all things individually qualifying or negating in this life, says Christianity (or at least some interpretations of Christian dogma). All you need to do (unless there is an underlying physiological cause) as Epictetus said of old, is change your perspective. For, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. …Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, ‘You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.’And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” (Epictetus, The Enchiridion)
Put simply, ‘people are disturbed not by things but by their attitudes towards things’. Philosophically I’d agree. Still, and here I allude to practices adopted in philosophical counselling, how is one to change her perspective? Stoicism has a handful of practises which have become commonplace. A great deal of human suffering is bourn out of taking one’s good fortune – whatever that good fortune amounts to – for granted. As a result one doesn’t recognize, or value what one has; instead one tends to seek and focus on all that one does not have and viscerally experience a sense of lacking. Spending some time each day visualizing what could go wrong in your life involves attuning oneself to the experience of true loss: the loss of what one already has but is out of sync with. One can always imagine how one’s life can be worse; in truth (and I’ll admit to feeling uneasy and arrogant in my good fortune when uttering such words) dire poverty can be made worse by ill-health, and ill-health can be made worse by unbearable pain, and so on. Another technique is to realize that though we cannot change certain events – what is in existential parlance, the factical – we most certainly can take charge of how the factical is experienced. After all, human experience is constitutive of human understanding. “Failure” to get into graduate school, for instance, is experienced as a loss only if you already value acquiring such an education. If one could alter your perspective, challenge the underlying beliefs and inter-related values that inform this perspective, you’d be liberated from your suffering. After all, acquiring a graduate degree is neither here nor there independently of the context of its valuableness. If then, one could be convinced that the knowledge gained is limited to its professional application, and that there seems no data to support the advantage of acquiring employment or advancing in the ranks thereafter, it would make little rational sense to despair. Indeed, one might see this snag in the road as a blessing that opportuned this realization which ultimately saved you both time and money. In principle we can adopt this strategy for any experience of loss, failure, or hurt; indeed, anything that is experienced as the source of suffering. Happiness, then, is a choice.
So off you go on your merry road looking to invest your new-found positive energies in something else. But what has value? What is worthy of pursuit? Reason, practical reason, seems to be the guide when endeavoring to map a path to some empirical destination. That is, practical questions must be informed by practical means. Instead of furthering your education and working towards a particular professional path, you must now not only determine how to get to where you’re going, but you need to reconsider where you’re going? Is it a professional career that will be your focus? This is valued because it will provide the means for socio-economic status. But there are certain professional careers that will bring greater fortune, harder, more rigorous or demanding work, travel, little time, interesting relations and challenges and so on. How shall one choose amongst the seriously wide range of possibilities? I suppose one can narrow down what seemingly appears to be a daunting freedom to do whatever you want with doing what you can do. What you can do will be decided both on the basis of what skills, knowledge and experience you already possess, and what potential skills and knowledge you esteem you have the potential to cultivate. But, of course, none of this makes any sense outside of context. One’s potentialities must be the kinds of things that can be translated in a profession which is both in demand and matches a life-style fitting with your overall philosophy of life; namely, with what you take to be an overall good life.
Great strategy! But what happened to happiness? Where’d it go? It seems that the so-called trials of life have been usurped by this ratiocinated process. But isn’t that what we were after? Did we not aim to dispense with all human suffering irrespective of its kind and source? And yet it would seem that we have inadvertently thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Those delectable moments do not, as it were, speak to our intellect, but rather to our visceral comportment in the world amongst others. Once we enter the game of deliberative engagement we become specimens of a life to be scrutinized spectatorially from a position of detachment. Indeed, coming to the right decision is decidedly coming to a decision that anyone would have come to engaged in a deliberative discourse abiding by basic rules of judgment and reason. To then propose a way of life and corresponding practices and activities best suited to such a life should be something that one could recommend to anyone in the same or similar circumstances. This position of detachment certainly appeases any sense of anguish one might experience but it also makes my life a project to be mastered and not lived! What a stale and uninviting way to live!
As Nietzsche says, “All actions may be referred back to valuations, and all valuations are either one’s own or adopted, the latter being by far the more numerous. Why do we adopt them? Through fear, i.e. we think it more advisable to pretend that they are our own, and so well do we accustom ourselves to do so that it at last becomes second nature to us.” (The Dawn) Valuation grounded in anything beyond subjective immersedness – be that rationalized standards/principles of a Kantian or Platonic variety or Tradition and custom, or the entire God corpus (metaphysics of God and the ethics of Christianity) – is a case of the latter; i.e. adopting valuations not one’s own. Gaining credibility in one’s own eyes demands taking on the consequence of this realization head-on and accept, viscerally inhabit, the abound freedom to e-valuate without recourse to those rules of judgment and inference. Only a will to power, with the courage of a lion and the innocence of a babe, can accelerate this move so that one doesn’t asphyxiate as the rope from around one’s neck slowly loosens its grip. Careful not to move too quickly that in the process you hang yourself instead!
To be continued…