Philosophy Tuesday

With this post marking the 400th Philosophy Tuesday post* it has to do something special and fundamental… so let’s dive some more into our identities.  Because it’s hard to get any more at the root of so much of our lives than that of our identities.  I’ve talked about them a bunch already and explored many of their facets (this post links to many of them), but one side I haven’t really delved into yet is this.

Our identity (or identity of identities) is not an inherent thing, ascribed to us by the fates of the universe.  It can also be limiting and can trip us up in all sorts of unproductive and deleterious ways.  Yet, at the same time, we can’t really live without an identity – or, perhaps more properly expressed, it’s useful to have an identity.  They can be fun and fulfilling and give us a sense of meaning and purpose and, well, identity, while at the same time they can be of service to us, acting as a guidepost and shortcut rather than having to invent everything every moment from scratch.**

So the question becomes, what are some guidelines around what we choose (and perhaps a little bit of what “should” we choose) when we’re building our identity?

Well, in an ironic first step, one thing not to do is to define ourselves as an opposite (or in opposition to) something else.  While defining something as “not that” is easy (or easier than defining something from nothing), it is a trap and incredibly constraining.***  Plus, by its very nature it has conflict potential built in.

The other thing to avoid is making beliefs, stances, or ideologies part of our identity.  These tend to be rigid and inflexible, and very susceptible to triggering our survival mechanisms (remember that our brains cannot tell the difference between an attack on our body or an attack on our identity).  These hamper our ability to adapt and learn.

Status or ability or appearance are other aspects that are very much subject to change due to outside forces (or just the passage of time).  This can quickly engage our calculating selves in a defensive storm, at best leading to unhappiness but at worst often self-destructive behaviour.

Where this leaves us is creating identities that are generative (rather than negating or against), enlivening, value-driven, and about ways of being.

It’s also best to diversify.  When our identities are narrowly focused, even if they’re empowering in the moment, when the situation changes**** then that can cause quite the consternation and breakdown.

Similarly, be broad.  Identity items that focus on a narrow outcomes or on narrow ways something can be expressed or be successful become restraining and ripe for being thwarted, and thus again creating consternation and breakdown.

Interests and activities can also work, if they are created and live for us in a broad way to encompass values ways of being.  For example, my identity as “Architect” is in an interest in the whole realm of architecture, including beauty (a value) as well as curiosity and creativity (ways of being), and it ties into other interests each with their own values and ways of being.

Even with all of the above, there still needs to be some judiciousness – values and ways of being are great, but there are both values and ways of being that are unpleasant, unproductive, and harmful to us or to others.  It pays to do the work to not be hoodwinked by something we may see as necessary to survive or “win” that, in reality, is inaccurate, overblown, and often produces the very thing we’re trying to avoid.

And whatever we choose, it’s good to remember the Identity Tiers and slot things appropriately.  It may be even best to not slot anything into the Tier 1 category, or at least be very judicious about what gets slotted there, given how that can easily become attachment with all the landmines that entails. Use the lower slots as appropriate for the “strength” of that aspect of our identity, with values and ways of being higher up, and interests and others lower down.  This keeps our identities light, which can be hugely freeing.  With things in the proper slots, rather than cling and defend we can instead engage and dance with all of life.

That dance is important.  All of this only scratches the surface as a starting point, and crafting our identity is not something we only get one chance at doing.  As we move through life, as things and our situations change, as we learn and grow, as our interests and visions shift, as all is mutable, we can revisit and rework our identities, forever crafting them to enliven and empower ourselves and all those around us, and seeking that which we all want:  being related and connected, fulfillment, joy, self-expression, making a difference, and peace of mind.


* In reality it’s probably over 400th, if you include the days when they weren’t specifically titled Philosophy Tuesday as well as counting the bonus posts around a certain movie

** This is, of course, why they can be unproductive and deleterious.  If we fully go on autopilot with them then we’re not present or mindful and can head down “wrong” paths for quite some ways before we notice and try to correct our course.  And if we’re fully in the throws of our identity, we may never notice we’re down those dark paths and will follow them no matter how much they lead to ruin.

*** One common example is the “I will never do what X would do” or “I will never be like Y.”  And while it may feel like throwing off the yoke of a dominating or controlling other, you’ve actually just sentenced yourself to being dominated and controlled by them because now you HAVE to act in a way that is in opposition to them, even if something(s) they do/say/think/etc could be useful or fit in with your other identities.

**** Which doesn’t have to be as a result of random fortune, it might be a very logical progression.  For example, if our identity is narrow around parenting, or around a certain person, then when the children move out or that person passes on by definition the identity will be disrupted.

Philosophy Tuesday

Riffing a bit off last week’s post, albeit in a 180 degree way, since it is firmly within the opposite realms of explanation and excuses… but what’s up with those situations, often at work or were there is a sort of hierarchy/seniority context, where someone asks you for a reason why you did something or why you did something a particular way, and when you explain it they  get mad at you for “making excuses”? 

I mean, that’s weird, right?  Because they don’t even address the reason or the reasoning behind it, and rather it gets all accusatory.  Well, what gives is that the question is a ruse.  What they want as a response is to capitulate to being an idiot for not doing it exactly as they want it, exactly as their narrow view of it says it must be done.  The real question is “I wanted it done this way, why didn’t you do it this way?” 

So any answer other than accepting blame (whether you feel there should be blame or not) is taken as a dodge, and thus an afront to them. 

And all of it is some petty power play BS. 

It’s a bully tactic.  They don’t say what they mean up front to set a trap.  Nor do they have any kind of understanding or teaching or etc as an intention.   They don’t want the answer.  They want you to be wrong and admit to it and, even better, grovel about it. 

Which, while it speaks volumes about who they are being, is a poopy thing to have to deal with.  But with this distinguished and with mindfulness we get to keep ourselves grounded, avoid furthering any blame game, and can choose our response to create our own path forward.   

Philosophy Tuesday

I’ve spoken many a time about apologies and the amazing power they can have.  .  But I’m not sure I’ve ever succinctly highlighted the very important distinction that there exists between an apology and an excuse.  They are so much not the same thing!

An excuse not only doesn’t take any ownership it actually and actively denies both ownership and self-agency.  In some ways it’s even a subtle DARVO, at the very least implying the upset ought to be ratcheted down so your apology can be minimal.  More often it goes full bore and implies other party is in the wrong for even being upset with you.

It is not the stuff of a genuine apology.

If moving to make a genuine apology, including an excuse (or, worse, multiple excuses) is even less productive than trying to include an explanation in the apology.  At least an explanation can indicate some desire to do better in the future, in a kind of “hey, I know that caused this and hopefully I will know better in the future” kind of way.*  An excuse however demonstrates no empathy, no care, no concern, and no chance in heck anything’ll be different in the future.  It’s pure avoidance and blame throwing.

So an important pair of distinctions to be mindful of!  As we often have few good role models when it comes to apologies**  we default/resort to that what we have seen and know, which is usually explanations and excuses.  As opposed to acknowledging what we’ve done, really getting the impact of what we’ve done, genuinely indicating we recognize it and regret it, apologizing without reservation, and taking what we get.


*  Though this kind of knowing rarely makes a difference

** This is a good one!

Philosophy Tuesday

There is great beauty in the simple* act of bearing witness.  To just be, and be there, for another in what they are going through in that moment.  Not to fix.  Not to provide advice.  Not to agree.  Not to negate.  Not to do something.  But to just be and acknowledge and honour the emotions and feelings and thoughts and to honour each other in our shared humanity.

In that there is also a great power in the simple act of bearing witness.  To allow what is there to pass, to open, to become a clearing, to allow love and beauty and empathy and verve and whole heartedness to arise once more.

It is a beautiful moment of generosity, of empathy, of connectedness, and of who we all are together.

(I was fortunate to be able to provide this once, to a lone person crying within a large crowd.  A few of us were drawn to them, crouching down and reaching out with a single hand, wordlessly lending our presence and our attention.  Bearing witness to and honouring their anguish, and in so doing honouring that for what or whom they were anguishing for.  As their storm subsided we began to leave, one by one, still silent, leaving with them as they returned to the present, serene and smiling.)


* Simple in that it consists only of being present and attentive and for the other.  Not-so-simple if we are not used to being present, or not facile with being vulnerable, or become distracted by our inner chatter or judgement or make it about ourselves or anything of that sort.  But when we practice mindfulness and work to transform and self-cultivate and remove our own baggage and barriers we are not only more available for ourselves but for others as well.

Philosophy Tuesday

Very little in our lives resolves itself perfectly like math.

Including, as it turns out, math instruction or even math itself.

It’s all to easy to get caught in a binary/one-right-answer thinking for many of the things we face in our lives, and fail to recognize that not only is there a gradient but also multiple answers that can be ‘correct’ at the same time.

Being mindful and willing to dance in that space opens up many new possibilities, peace of mind, and, ultimately, paths forward.

Philosophy Tuesday

To riff a bit from last week’s post regarding the “safety to fail” to further encompass the broader thing going on right now of “look at my triumph” articles.

Because we ought to be especially wary of stories about super successful young entrepreneurs, or about those who paid off their mortgage when they were 22, or about other kinds of “glorious success” stories that have this “if I can do it, you can do it to!” backhanded* motivational bent to them.

If the article/story/etc you are reading doesn’t mention the whole of the context around it, then they are likely, in a fashion, lying.  Or at least fibbing through omission/obfuscation.

What’s needed is including the whole context.  Even better is calling direct attention to said context.

As examples, one young entrepreneur story had the individuals proudly proclaim they had built their company from scratch at the end of high school, starting in the basement on weekends and such, and now they were financially very well off.  Look at us!   The article, fortunately, helpfully (and rightfully) pointed out that the first client for their software was their father, who happened to be the CEO of an international corporation.  Definitively a leg up when trying to market your unknown and untested software!  Not to mention the leeway to fix any bugs in the software while being guaranteed a paycheque.

For the mortgage story, it turned out that the one who was chiding others for not being able to pay off their house a) their mother paid for the down payment on their place b) they could live with their grandmother rent free (and perhaps grocery bill free?) during the time and, to top it all off, c) were hired right out of school by their mother at her company.  So, very much a safe place from which to accomplish their “hard work miracle.”

This is nothing to say of the stories where someone decries “if only kids wouldn’t spend their money on lattes these days, they’d be more well off!” only to let slip “Why, when I graduated I got a 2M dollar loan from my uncle and I took that money and got myself going…”  Turns out most people don’t have uncles with 2M to lend or to give. **

I’m never going to be one to diss on anyone who’s willing to be responsible for their success and doing the work to earn a good living (provided, of course, that this doesn’t injure/harm/disempower/create hardship/screw over the environment/etc).  But for those to be acknowledged the whole context needs to be acknowledged.  And if that whole context shows that the work maybe wasn’t so hard or so gifted or even so lucky then let’s apportion the acknowledgement and avoid incorrect lauding and putting on a pedestal while also, especially, avoid crapping on others for not being so fortunate.


* I say backhanded because they often have this tinge of “you must be a doofus for not being able to have done/accomplished what I did” to them.

** This one’s a bit different, but there was a senator recently decrying the push for a $15 minimum wage, stating that when they started out they only made $6 an hour and they were fine.  Of course, adjusting for inflation, they were making well OVER $15 an hour.

Philosophy Tuesday

There’s a big… not exactly sure what to call it, perhaps movement, perhaps idea, perhaps something else, but a big whatever over the past decade about “embracing failure.”  That is, being willing to fail and fail and even fail again to get somewhere and to create something awesome.  It’s not new, of course – IDEO (the famous industrial design company) had their own version of it several decades ago that went: “Fail often to succeed early.”

And, for certain, developing an empowering context around failure, being resilient, and adopting a growth mindset are all very powerful things.  Highly encouraged!

But there’s another side to this, especially in the context this new-found expression of Failure Embracement™ that is espoused within the business or start-up or millionaire or celebrity circles.  Where their success, sold as being born of perseverance in the face of failure, is not so much celebrated as it is held aloft as a measure of superiority and lorded over those who “played it safe.” (And, therefore, deserve to be poor/under duress/a loser/etc.)

And that side is this:  Failure embracement mostly works only when and/or if you can safely fail.

In many areas of life, it can be much easier to fail (nor will it necessarily even feel like a failure) when you have a safety net or support system to fall back on if the risky moves don’t pan out, whether that be financially, emotionally, physically, or what have you.  Building that company in your garage only works a) if you have access to a garage b) have the means to support yourself during that time and c) the means to recover and change course before things become dire.

To ignore otherwise can lead one to dismiss the role fortune has in all of our lives.  And to use it in a haughty way to tout yourself and/or to use it as a cudgel against others is definitively leading away from humility.

Philosophy Tuesday

“I don’t think of the arts as competitive at all, I really don’t.

It was such a relief to get out of a world where it was that kind of base competition, zero-sum competition.

The arts are… it’s personal.  You’re just trying to actualize yourself and make the best art you can, and someone else’s victory isn’t your defeat, the way it is in sports.”

Richard Linklater