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

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

“And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand.

I hope you’ll think hard about that, honey bun. If you had a two-sided chalkboard in your living room I’d write humility on one side and surrender on the other for you. That’s what I think you need to find and do to get yourself out of the funk you’re in. The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.

We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer, and it’s especially true of writers who are twenty-six. You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.

Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.”

— Cheryl Strayed

(Adapted from the amazing original essay which can be found here and was republished in the equally amazing book Tiny Beautiful Things.  The essay in its totality is a wonderful and powerful completion for this mini-series on humility (part one; part two), the getting down to the ground understanding on what humility is, how to harness it in our lives, and what wonders it makes possible for us all.)

Philosophy Tuesday

Continuing from last week…

The other thing about humility that really trips us up is its seeming proximity to humiliation.  While the words do share a common Latin root, their meanings are, however, far apart.  While in some ways humiliation might help prompt us to be humble, being humble is not the same as the harsh, floor-dropping, painful loss of pride, self-respect, or dignity of humiliation.

And let’s be frank here for a moment – being humiliated hurts.  It’s not a pleasant time.  No wonder we’d avoid humility if it even carries a whiff of that floor-dropping monster!  Being humiliated leaves us feeling lonely, unworthy, and unwanted.  We are excluded.  It is a break in belonging.

So it’s good to make clear the distinction (again, despite the fact they sound similar) between the unpleasant humiliation and the centering and peaceful realm of being humble.

There’s a really funny bonus thing here though: all that unpleasant stuff about humiliation?  That is exactly what being humble prevents, for if we don’t have some overblown, aggrandized, conceited view of our self, then we can’t be knocked down.  So while we often think that humiliation is foist upon us by others, the agency is really ours by choosing humility.  If we don’t put on airs, the floor can’t open up beneath us – we’re already grounded.

Being humble connects us to others.  It allows us to be related to one another, without the specter of better/worse, or worthy/unworthy.  Though cultivating humility, we get to share in our common humanity through our unique self-expressions.

(One more bit next week to finish off this triptych.)

* An interesting addition:  Arrogant (ie non-humble) people who feel threatened (and thus are in fear of being humiliated) will lash out to attack or humiliate others in an effort to retain their fragile façade.  Again, a humble person is resistant to being humiliated, for with a level-headed view of themselves there’s nothing to shatter.

Philosophy Tuesday

Everything you know about the three laws of motion is a lie.  Not all things follow Newton’s laws.  When objects approach the speed of light… or when they get close to a black hole… or when we are dealing with atoms or sub-atomic particles… everything falls apart.  Fool on you for believing that one!

Except… of course… those are pretty damn small exception cases.  We’re unlikely to find ourselves doing any of those things anytime soon.  Newton’s laws have both predicted the motion of planets and let us build rockets to get to said planets.  They are invaluable in biomechanics.  They have let us build impressive structures.  Really, there’s so much of our current daily life that Newton’s laws have made possible.  Even if they don’t perfectly describe sub-atomic lightspeed black-hole surfing.

For us to stop using Newton’s laws for these everyday uses would be foolish.

And so I submit that it is equally weird for us to do the same in the philosophical realms.

Look, as noted before, many insights do come in the form of “bad news insights”, so perhaps it’s not such a surprise that our identities and calculating selves can go onto full alert before their dirty laundry is revealed.  They’ll see it as a threat.  And the last-ditch defense is to engage our mighty capacity to be dismissive, using a small nit to ignore the whole.

But using minute exception cases – or, more commonly, some nebulous or borderline case – to avoid insight and new possibilities is, if we are interested in transformation, self-cultivation and growth, just as misguided as abandoning Newton’s laws just because they eventually break down at the edges.

 

(And if we ever do need to address those edges, then so be it!  They can be addressed just as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics did/do.)