If you ever sit very quiet with yourself – lying in bed in those hushed moments of night with the sheer-black fabric of darkness veiling your eyes or you are peering out over a green and brown expanse of rolling hill and forest from the top of a sun-bleached mountain top – I swear you can hear the sound of the universe. If you listen very close, beyond the groaning shifts of the settling house or the howling wind of nature’s scream, you can hear that never-ending movement of time that is pulling you towards your extinction.
And sometimes in those moments an existential malaise breaks down on you like a frigid ocean wave in the dead of winter and you are visited by the heart-thumping, body-trembling fear of your mortality and the slow encroachment of your nonexistence. If you sit very quiet with yourself and listen to the sound of the universe, this is what you will hear.
Now, I am not pointing this out because I enjoy reminding people they are going to die someday. It scares the shit out of me as much as anyone else. I have no fucking clue what comes after this mad mess of existence. I suspect it is nothing but one can never be to sure about nothing. It sometimes has a way of becoming something.
Whatever it is, that slow tick of time that you can hear when you are really paying attention to the world and to your life – that movement has some potential in it. Not just potential for sadness and anxiety and regret. No. It has potential to be a great motivator towards fulfilling your legacy to make sure that the universe knows you were here.
What Does That Mean?
Everything you do in this world is a contribution. Everything you do adds something. The good shit usually adds more good shit and the bad shit usually adds more bad shit. It’s not hard to see how we impact the world through our actions and our choices. I shouldn’t even have to explain that you should try to contribute good shit, right? Good, because that’s not the point of this article. The point is that we have to maximize the good contributions to the world in such a way that the universe can not forget our presence, for however long that is.
Like throwing rocks in a pond you are causing ripples throughout the world. Some people, those tiny stones with little mass or density, they make small splashes. They cause the sort of ripples that does not stir the universe. Those people are destined to be forgotten in the rippling of others. They will be swept up in the waters of the universe and be forgotten. These are the couch-sitters, the binge-watchers, the comfort-zoners, the entertainment-over-experiencers. These poor souls are destined to be but footnotes in the catalog of the universe.
Our goal then is to be large stones, great boulders with infinite mass and density, and throw ourselves repeatedly into the center of the universe, rippling the waters of life to such a degree that the universe has no choice but to remember that we were here.
So how do we become large stones?
Create or Accomplish
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
If the universe is going to remember that you were here you need to do one of two things. You need to either create things or accomplish things.
Creating is a way of adding to the universe. It is a way of contributing in a way that enhances one of two things; beauty or understanding. All natural creation is an enhancement of beauty or understanding and when we create something that adds to this tapestry we are creating as the universe itself creates. We are making something that adds to the natural wonder of existing. We are contributing something that augments the way we see the world. And when we create something that enhances understanding we are working towards defining the beauty of the universe.
When you can add one of these creations to the universe in this way you will always force it to turn its attention to you, because you are amplifying it, and by association, your presence in it.
Most enhancements of understandings in the universe fall within the realm of philosophy and science and most enhancements of beauty fall within the arts. Music. Painting. Literature. There is plenty of crossover between the enhancement of beauty and that of understanding. We needn’t get so caught up in defining which is which. Because the whole of it is creation. We should strive only to create what is uniquely ours to create.
But being noticed by the universe for creation does not mean merely creating physical things. We can also think of other things – more important things perhaps – that we create in the world that would remind the universe that we were here. Joy. Laughter. Love. Passion. We are very capable of creating these things, in ourselves and others, and anytime you can be the conductor of a great chorus of laughter or joy or love or passion the universe takes notice. It has no choice but to turn itself to that explosion of exultation that comes from those emotions.
Creating things connects you to the universe because the universe itself is a creating thing. It responds to its own and being a creator puts you in the same class as the universe. The key is to create things that help the universe become more and not create things that requires the universe to become less. But we have already said that that is obvious.
The other thing we can do to remind the universe that we were here is to accomplish things. To bring our dreams, and the dreams of others, to fruition. To pour our lives work into the world. Accomplishing things is an attraction to the universe. It speaks to the desire for fulfillment. It tugs at the threads of the universe and secures them around you and your legacy.
I should be clear here and say that, I am not talking about the sort of accomplishment you might be thinking. I am not saying that the universe is going to remember you because you have 3 PhD’s, can speak 8 languages, and your bank account is bursting at the seams. Those are personal accomplishments. Great things, in and of themselves, but nothing the universe will take overt notice of. The true accomplishment that the universe takes note of is what you do with all those things you have achieved.
The universe doesn’t give a shit about what you personally have been able to do, it cares what you have done to help others with the spoils of what you have been able to do. We should think more often about our accomplishments in that way. The things we achieve are only meaningful if they can be shared with others.
The movement towards our accomplishments should be in that light, as a catalyst towards helping others also achieve, because if we can be the start of a chain of accomplishment the universe is going to feel all of it tangle around the impact of your accomplishment on others and it is going to take notice.
Putting It All Together
If you put in even a half assed effort, you will go through life and eventually figure out what the hell you want the universe to say about you. Do you want to be a creator or an accomplisher? Maybe a bit of both? Whatever it is, you then have to go do that with a wild fucking recklessness, so the universe can prick up it’s ears and start paying attention. You have to bleed yourself dry on the efforts towards creating or accomplishing everything you want the universe to remember about you. That is the only way you make sure that the universe knows that you were here.
Nothing Left Of You When You Die
“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” ~ Arthur Miller
This is the thing about dying, You don’t get to take anything with you. Nothing. So you why not make sure as shit that you leave it all here in a madness of creation and accomplishment?
It should be as if you wore yourself paper-thin – you should lie nearly translucent in your grave. You do not want to approach occupation of that little plot of your eternal home and suspect that you could have gave any more effort to life. That would be the worst feeling in the world. To die with regrets.
Oh sure, there are going to be some things that haunt you when you die. That is an unavoidable condition of living. No one escapes that little sadness, but if we do it right, if we give with the right sort of intensity to our gifts of creation and accomplishment, then we can die with the right regrets. That regrets that produce that wistful smile of remembrance and a lesson that had to be learned the hard way.
And those right regrets will be born on chances taken. On mental and emotional battles fought. On wounds suffered and on hearts broken. On the pursuit of magical things that everyone else says can never exist and in paying homage to those beautiful things that everyone else insists are repulsive. Those things that pulled you under sometimes and threatened to break you. Those are the regrets that other people will come to envy in you. Those are the chances you took that other people will come to see as the difference in your life and the absence in theirs.
If I can hit my dirt nap with those kind of regrets, and not have the kind of regrets that are born from what-ifs and why-didn’t-I’s and I-shoulda’s, I will die content with the knowledge that, though I wear some scars and battle wounds and have left the shattered remnants of everything that I am out there in the universe, I also wear the accolades of creation and accomplishment. I bled all of myself into my living and I created a fucking mountain that made a splash when it fell. And from that splash I caused the ripples and from those ripples the universe is going to remember that I was here.
This is not going to be my usual article. I am not going to tell you how you can defeat some demon or accomplish some goal. Nor am I going to discuss some profound philosophical idea that we can relate to our lives. Instead, I am going to do something really fucking difficult for me. I am going to open up and let you in on a little bit of poison that I drink everyday. A poison that has ended countless relationships. A poison that has fueled many moments of emotional distance, depression, anger and addiction. That poison is insecurity.
Now, I have never been good at fully inviting people into my life, so this article makes me anxious as hell. I am basically exposing my deepest, darkest deficiency to as many people as will read this. I don’t know how many that is. Probably only a few. I secretly hope it is none. However many it is, I know that this scares the living shit out of me – just putting it down where it can be found by anyone and not leaving it safely tucked away in my head where I feel like it belongs. But I also know that this is a long time coming. I need to open the cage. I have to let this breathe and writhe and happen in the world because it is smothering me.
And maybe, someday, someone will stumble across this little piece of bitter honesty I am attempting and they will find something of value. They will find a soul stricken with a similar poison and by finding it approach some anecdote of their own. Me. I am writing this without yet having a remedy but with a mind and heart set on finding one.
This insecurity has plagued me to some degree or another for as long as I remember. I am sure it has mostly has to do with my father leaving when I was just a child and never seeing him again. I am sure it has to do with the beatings I took, verbal and physical from the men that came after. I am sure it has to do with the early disappointments I heaped upon the people I love and the continued disappointments I occasionally throw their way. I think I understand the cause, but understanding the cause does not give me any purchase in finding a solution.
Now, I know that, to some degree, every one of us faces insecurity. Will we be accepted by our friends? Will we be able to perform in our jobs and our roles of life? Are we attractive enough or smart enough or financially stable enough to live the life we want? These questions have crossed everyone’s mind. This is a normal feeling that we face when we look out into the world and see all the remarkable difference and beauty and accomplishment of others. I wish I had that normal bit of insecurity. Mine, it goes much deeper. It is a toxicity that has poisoned everything I have ever done in my life.
I will use this a small example. I run ultra distance races. Marathons and longer. It is brutal and miserable and it takes a rare kind of insanity to push yourself through those miles and that pain. Most races you finish should be a fucking celebration of just still being alive. But here’s the thing, of all the countless races I have ever finished I have never once crossed that finished line and congratulated myself. The first thought I have is, “I have to do the next one better.”
And that’s jut one of the fucking tragedies of the toxic insecurity I am talking about. You never let yourself be proud of yourself. Never giving yourself that ‘atta boy. That good job. That mental pat on the back. Never letting yourself just bathe in the moment of success and let the warmth of it wash over you and feed those hungry aspects of yourself that need to be reminded that you are a pretty fucking amazing creature.
The sad reality of insecurity is that it manifests in so many ways. And I have to admit that some are actually desirable, when seen from a distance. My insecurity is closely aligned with my discipline. I have chiseled my physique and pushed my body to the limits of what is possible for it. I have chased and caught countless academic accolades and awards. I have started from nothing in my life to shape a career that I should be proud of and that has afforded me countless luxuries. I have managed to be a decent father without ever having on one my own. And still, among all that, there is this deep, dark chasm that sucks up every inch of my self worth and turns every accomplishment to black.
Because I know that, to some degree, I push myself to do all these things, to chase the accolades and the accomplishments and physical feats, out of a place of deficiency. It all comes from a place of lack and because of that it has no substance. Now don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of love and joy in the things I work to accomplish. I sincerely enjoy working out and running far. I enjoy the constant chase of more knowledge and wisdom and making a difference in the world, but I can see the thread of darkness through it all and it pushes me to the extremes of accomplishment, never letting me enjoy the process or the reward of it.
But for those small goods, there is a cost. And, oh, what a cost it is.
I am constantly stricken with this underlying jealousy towards the world. A constant sense of competition and one upmanship with everyone and everything. If I can not be the center of attention or control the situation in a way that allows me to manipulate the flow of it all I grow instantly sullen and petulant and I shut down. I become cold and dismissive as a means of manipulating the situation and drawing the attention I so desperately seek by any means necessary.
Every romantic relationship I have ever had has been slowly eroded away by this insecurity. It starts small. Because I am not yet fully invested in the commitment of it. They do not yet occupy the necessary space in my heart to tear it out of my chest so my insecurity is not yet alarmed. But as soon as my emotions start to inch towards any sincere and deep emotional connection with someone I can feel the insecurity bubbling up and that old poison hot in my veins. What if I am not enough? What if they leave? What if they see through my patchwork facade of charm and accomplishment and motivation and just see the sad, broken, overcompensating loser that I am.
In my mind, if I let the person I am with go explore other people or things, or if I let them into the struggles or emotions of my life, I will be exposed for the worthless piece of shit that I am and they will leave. They will leave me and I will be alone. Forever alone and their leaving is the validating, self-fulfilling prophecy I always bring to bear. And what’s worse, my insecurity never lets me get close enough to them. I always build a wall between our lives and I never fully immerse myself in the totality of their beautiful world because I think it’s going to end someday anyway, so why even bother? It is a vicious cycle of a desire for connection, true raw, meaningful connection and then a quick pushing away once I feel my heart becoming too invested.
And that’s where I live. That’s where my deepest pain exists and that is where I approach most everything in my life. From that sort of toxic insecurity. And if I am brutally honest, which I have been up to this point, even my desire to help people is a thin, selfish call for attention. A desire to be noticed and valuable in the world. Don’t get me wrong again, there is a very deep well of sincere compassion and desire to do good and to make a difference in this world, but I can feel the poison in there as well. I can feel the bitterness of it and it contaminates the doing of it. It makes it a little lesser and that breaks my fucking heart because I want it to be pure. I want my desire to help others be undeniably sincere. I don’t want it to feed the poison in me.
So, I am trying to figure that out. How to come out of that insecurity and patch up those things that shattered during my childhood. I have work to do. I know it will be a constant struggle but for once, I am not doing this thing, I am not taking on this incredible difficulty, for anyone but myself. I am not looking for approval. I am not trying to please anyone. I am not trying to fit in. I just want to be whole, like I imagine I was once, and whats more; I finally fucking want to be me.
Because that is another thing about this toxic sort of insecurity, it strips you of your individuality and authenticity. You get so caught up in making sure that you are presenting the best possible image of yourself according to the perceived expectations of friends and family and society. You never just let yourself be you. Whatever that looks like. Because you think that you are never enough. That you will never be enough. That the unadulterated truth of you is magnificently lesser than the truth of anyone else. I just want to be enough to myself so that I can finally feel like enough for someone else.
And this is my task going forward. I want to let myself be me. I want to be proud of myself and to celebrate my accomplishments and let other people celebrate them with me. I want to let people compliment me and appreciate me without thinking they are stupid for not seeing my deficiencies. I want to open up to the world and let them see the pain and sadness and absence in my heart that lives alongside all the bounty I think I have to offer.
I am slowly realizing that I don’t have to hide my faults from others. I don’t have to try to be better than the world, because I never will be. No one is ever going to love me for any accomplishment or single trait anyway. They are going to love me for the unique, beautiful, and slightly dignified mess I have made of the entirety of my life. They are going to love me because I combine all my accomplishments and mistakes into a single unique package that is distinctly me. That is why anyone comes to love anyone else in this world. Because all the pieces of you, the heavy and the light, the bright and the dark, the good and the bad, hit the light in a perfect kaleidoscope of color and reveals an image that only you can create.
So, there is one single thing I need to remember. There is one single thing that I need to carry around with me in my head and my heart to act as that constant anecdote to the poison of my insecurity. It is that I can be the very best at only one thing. I can be better than anyone in the world at one thing if I practice at it and make it a priority. And that thing is Me. No one can be a better me than me. I just have to be that and in being that I might actually approach something of the self love that I have lacked for so long. I might approach security. I might step out of the shadows and find a little bit of light.
But first, more than anything, I want to say sorry to everyone that has been affected by my insecurity. All the girlfriends that I have hurt because of my jealousy and my inability to open up in a way that allowed any trusting connection. All the friends I have tormented with it. All the good people that have been caught up in my never ending quest to fill a hole so deep inside my soul that it sucked out the love and possibility of any amazing situation I ever had. I am truly and unequivocally sorry. There was not a single one of you that did not display an amazing amount of patience and kindness towards me when I never deserved it.
And lastly, the hardest apology to make or accept, is the one I need to make to myself. Not the me now but the little boy I was that watched his whole world leave him in the dark. I need to apologize to that little boy whose father left when he needed him the most. It wasn’t your fault, buddy and it had nothing to do with how worthy of love you are.
I realize that I never allowed that little boy to grieve. How could he? He didn’t know what was happening. He didn’t know a big part of his world, something so critical for loving, was being taken from him right before his eyes. You don’t realize how long forever lasts until you are staring at the growing absence and you know it’s never going away.
So, I want to hug that little boy that I was the same way I hug my boy when I can see the tears welling in his eyes. I want to pull that little boy close and tell him that he is going to be ok if he can just see what is happening for what it really is. That someday he is going to be ok. I want to let him cry and scream and gnash his teeth and curse the world and then I want him to know that I am sorry. I am so fucking sorry for all the pain that this is going to cause you but you have to promise me not to close yourself off. You have to promise me to not let this break you because if you can just keep your heart open long enough, if you can just love yourself enough, the world is going to love you back. Love you back in a way that you deserve.
Fuck. That shit is hard to write and it pulls at something so deep and buried and painful. I won’t even pretend that it makes it go away. It’s still there but it’s a start. A place to build from. I am giving it life and in doing that I may be able to end it. I know that I will never stop trying. I know that I have a lot to give and I am going to keep giving it.
Now, I suspect that some people who will read this article will come to see all my writings in a different light now. I suspect they will be less keen to follow my advice or to believe that I am worth listening to because of my confession here today. And you know what? I am ok with that. Today at least. Today I am going to be enough for myself. Today I am going to be proud of myself for letting this out into the world. Today I am going to give myself that ‘atta boy that I should have given myself a long time ago. Today, I don’t drink the poison.
Throughout our lives we are asked to take on many roles. Parents. Siblings. Employees. Spouses. Friends. Lovers. All of these roles come with certain expectations of action and responsibilities of being, and most of us adopt these expectations and responsibilities without giving much thought about what it actually means for our identities, our personal freedom, our responsibility, and our self-expression.
And in that lack of consideration lies a major problem for Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a problem that comes out of our full, unadulterated adoption of these roles when we exclude the responsibility of our freedom and when we wear those roles as masks to shield us from the anguish of being and becoming who we are truly meant to be. This problem, as detailed by Sartre in his seminal work, Being and Nothingness, is known as “bad faith”.
Now, before we give a more detailed definition of bad faith it is important to define a few terms that are crucial to the understanding of this concept.
Facticity and Transcendence
Sartre sees in all of us two facets of our existence that shape and mold the person we are in any given moment. This duality is facticity and transcendence.
Our facticities are the given particulars of our being – the details of our life that make up who we are at any given moment. Sartre refers to these facticities as “being-in-itself”. The color of our eyes. Our height. Our age. Our parents. Our environment. Our previous choices. All of these are examples of our facticity. They are the concrete details of who you are and they collectively make up one facet of who you are in life.
Within the boundaries of those facticities lies the primary extent of our freedom. We will discuss the Sartrean idea of freedom later in this article but for now, let us think of our factities as the fence around the complete freedom of our existence. There are some facticities that can certainly be overcome by choices we make, but a majority of our facticities are unavoidable barriers that influence the extent of our freedoms.
What this means is, our facticities preclude us from certain opportunities. By mere fact of certain things about myself other things about myself are simply not possible. No matter how much I would like, I am not going to be able to step back on a football field and be competitive with actual football players. The facticity of my age and body remove that opportunity from my being. No matter how much I would like to not be an old man whose body is slowly eroding away into a useless bit of flesh, I am beholden to the facticity of my age.
The problem of resting solely in your facticity, for Sartre, is that we attempt to make of ourselves “objects” of being in the world. We attempt to take on the identity of a thing, denying the responsibilities of our choices from moment to moment that we have as beings. In this denial we seek to mitigate the responsibility we have to choose in any given moment who we actually are.
Transcendence, however, is the ability to go beyond the majority of our facticities and to move towards something that we can imagine we want to be. Sartre refers to this as “bieng-for-itself”. It is our ability to create ourselves in the world and actuate the possibilities of our being. To put this another way, at any given moment we are more than just the facts of our being, we are also what we can imagine we will be and we project that possible future self into the world.
Where as facticity might be considered the present circumstances our existence, transcendence is the future circumstances we can imagine ourselves being in from the choices we make now. It is a moving beyond those facticities that we can move beyond to create new facticities of our being that we believe will make us into who we would like to be.
The problem of resting solely in your facticity, for Sartre, is that we completely ignore the facticity of our being. Facts about our being that makes us who we are and what we can become. If we ignore these facts we are attempting to make of ourselves something that does not and can not ever exist fully because it has no faciticty of being to anchor it into the world. It is merely a projection of a possibility.
The key for Sartre with these two concepts is that they both anchored to our radical freedom and as such, our freedom needs to be recognized to find the balance of them.
Freedom. Not the flag waving, give me liberty or give me death, 2nd amendment sort of freedom. The idea of freedom that is the most prominent common thread among all Existentialist philosophers goes deeper than that.
When we are talking about freedom in existentialism we are talking about our responsibilities of choice in any given moment. In every moment of our lives we are tasked with the responsibility of making a choice. Go this way or go that way. Pick this person or pick that person. Take that job or take this job. Be angry or be sad. You get the point. Every single moment we decide what we are going to work towards and who we are going to be in this world. We also decide the value of our facticities. We decide what those facts mean and how they will impact our lives.
What’s more, we are fully aware that making one choice essentially closes the door on the other choice. We can never return down that road and pick that thing instead of the other thing, so we know we are losing something of a future we can only imagine. That feeling, that knowing that we are completely free and utterly responsible for making and reaping the consequences of every choice in our lives, that feeling is referred to by Sartre as anguish.
Anguish is the felt experience of our responsibility towards freedom. It is that low, churning wave in our heads that never lets anything settle.
We have already established that you are constrained by your facticity in regards to your freedom but within those constraints you must still decide freely and perpetually the value of your factities and the trajectory of your life within those facticities.
That is the sort of freedom that Sartre believes we try to run from, by hiding in your facticity or your transcendence to avoid the responsibility of choosing. And in that neglect and denial of freedom lies the concept of bad faith.
What Is Bad Faith?
Bad faith, in its simplest definition, is an attempt to escape our absolute freedom in every situation and resting purely in either our facticity, being-in-itself, or resting purely in our transcendence, being-for-itself. It is an attempt to avoid altogether the question of who we should be in any situation by either fully adopting the roles we play in life or by never admitting our facticities.
It might be easier to think of bad faith as a denial of one of two things; who you are now or who you could become.
Sartre provides two examples of these concepts of bad faith in Being and Nothingness that capture these definitions. The first example is someone who adopts fully there facticity to the exclusion of their transcendence. In Sartre’s writing this takes the form of a waiter who lives entirely within the role of “waiter” and denies any sort of individuality he has in his own being.
Sartre sees the waiter as “too precise” and “too mechanical” in his movements and expressions. Sartre accuses the waiter of “play-acting” at being a waiter. Now, we need to clarify a frequent misconception here about what Sartre has a problem with here and what puts the waiter in bad faith.
Sartre does not take issue with the prospect that the waiter is acting phony. What Sarte takes issue with is the fact that the waiter is trying to become the “object” of a waiter. He is trying to act out the precise definition of a waiter-object and by doing so the man is trying to identify himself as an object, whose essential nature is already predetermined and who can rest solely in the facticity of that predetermined nature that is given to all waiter-objects. This man is denying his freedom and responsibility to choose how he is to act in his job by merely adopting the role of “waiter”.
The other example Sartre gives is that of a homosexual who appears to be living fully in his transcendence by denying the facticity of his being. This is a man who engages in homosexual behavior on a regular basis but refuses to acknowledge the facticity that he is in fact a homosexual.
He views his homosexual behavior as past experiences, facticities that do not point to who he really is, and instead insists that they are anomalies of his behavior and not indicative of his actual being. This man is resistant to adopt the label of homosexual, as he knows that, once applied to the facticity of his being, it imposes a sort of limit on his freedom to be other than that.
Sartre does offer other examples of bad faith but you get the point.
Bad faith can exist in one of two ways and both ways are a denial of authenticity, to Sartre. They are a denial of our freedom because both deliver us the opportunity to remove ourselves from the requirements of choice in any given moment and allow us to alleviate the burden of responsibility for our choices by making us mere objects instead of what we are, radically free individuals that have a responsibility towards authenticity.
I have written about the existentialist concept of authenticity in a previous article but I think it is important to briefly revisit it here, as it is directly related to the concept of bad faith. The idea is that, after we have come to join the two aspects of our life into a symbiosis, after we have assured the “valid coordination” of our facticity and our transcendence, only then are we are ready to approach our authenticity.
According to Sartre, a life lived in true authenticity is one of constant choice. It is a live lived with the responsibility of freedom where one considers their facticity, applies the appropriate value to those facticities and then works towards their transcendence within the confines of those facticities. That is how we come to be our authentic self in any given moment.
Authenticity, then, is the affect of an absence of bad faith. It is most certainly a created thing by each individual, and not a thing discovered, but when you can live within the understanding of your facility and the acknowledgment of your transcendence you can see honestly, not only what you are and what you have been, but what you can become. You will form a perfect union between what you were and what you will be and in that union will rest what you are. And that is the strength of identity that comes from the Satrean idea of bad faith.
So, What Does Any Of This Mean For Our Lives?
For that answer I present two exercises that we can call upon in our day to day experience of living – thought experiments of sorts that can help us expose our own potential for bad faith in our lives and help us to live towards our most authentic self.
Ok. So, look at your life right now. What does it look like? Have you let go of your long term goals or projects or ideas in favor of the role you have to play right now? Are you trying to be the “ideal” parent or the “ideal” partner or the “ideal” worker, deriving your value from the measures you can take of how close you are to the factual definition of those things and turning yourself into an object of those definitions?
If you have so closely tied your identity to a role that you have to play in this world, forsaking the individual dreams and goals you have, then you are living in bad faith. You are not being honest about the choices you have to not be that thing. As much as we would like to try to tie our personalities to our role identities to excuse ourselves from the freedom of choosing who we are in any given moment, we can not. To do so would make you nothing more than an object in this world. A bundle of mere facticities.
Now look at your life again but instead of focusing on the facts of your existence look at the things that you do everyday. Look at the condition of your body. Look at the quality of your thoughts. Look at where you live and how much money you have and the people around you. This requires a sincere amount of honesty. You can not go into this with any sort of denial. These facts have to be as close to objectively observed as possible.
Ok. Now. Who do you act like you are? Do you act like you are healthy even though you eat like shit? Do you act like you care about people but behind their backs you are cursing them every way you can? Do you live in a toxic environment but act like everything is fine, or act like you have money to spend with friends on bullshit but are secretly bankrupt? If the things you are doing everyday do not align with the thing that you are presenting yourself as, then you are living in bad faith.
If you are pretending to be something you are not, acting as though the facts of your day-to-day existence have no bearing on who you actually are, then you are in denial about an essential ingredient what makes you, you.
The reality for Sartre is that we are both, a facticity and a transcendence. Both are equally important and meaningful to our attempts at living an authentic life. We have to come to embrace the anguish of our freedom of choice in every moment of our being and accept the responsibility of that freedom and the consequences of the choices that we make as we move towards the projects of the world that excite us and promise us our future transcendence.
Is this easy, no? But it is a whole hell of a lot more rewarding than simply condemning yourself to becoming an object in the world and blindly adopting the role responsibilities that society places on us or denying the reality of who you are now because you can imagine yourself being something different in the future.
So now you are left with another choice in your life. A choice that will cause you pain either way. You can either endure the disharmony and deception of living in bad faith or you can endure the anguish of authenticity. There will be pain in whatever direction you choose but at the end of one you will be created by the reflection of an empty life, a life half-lived of self-deception and at the other you will be greeted by your authentic self, the you that is only possible through a balance of who you are now and who you want to become. I know what I am going to choose.
We are moving into the season of change – of renewing our commitment to transformation and of reasserting our dedication to a better life. Soon we will resolve to adopt or give up habits and lifestyle choices that will move us towards our future, better self. In short, we have come upon that blank parchment of possibility known as resolution season.
And that means every blogger worth his salt is going to have the requisite resolution post decrying how to begin, why you will fail, and what you can do to make those resolutions stick. Well this hackney blogger is no different in that regard, but I wanted to approach the topic of resolutions from the mindset of philosophy. Big surprise, huh?
We might think that philosophy is not relevant in helping us to achieve our resolution goals, but there is a particular philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who had something to say about the difficulty of change in regards to resolutions – be they for the new year or simply for the new you. It is that philosopher we will explore in the hope of strengthening your resolve and to help you in achieving your resolution goals for this new year.
Why Resolutions Fail
Sartre, in his seminal work Being and Nothingness, presents his exploration of resolutions by looking at the radical freedom that we have in every moment and what it means for our ability to support the conviction of our resolutions. In his example he looks at
“the gambler who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble any more and who when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away.”
The resolution to not gamble is there in the gambler – it exists with strength and force and is brought to the front of his mind as soon as he sees the table – but he understands that there is no force within the resolution itself that is actually preventing him from gambling again. There is nothing tangible in the commitment that he can rely upon that will allow him to keep his resolution. The decision to not gamble has no ability to enforce itself on my actions. In short, the gambler has the freedom to gamble again at any time, despite his decision to not want to.
What’s more, he must face that freedom within him to gamble or not to gamble every time he is confronted with the opportunity. He must stare down the anguish of his freedom and reaffirm his resolution countless times and forever. There is no power in his resolution that does not come from his perpetual choosing of it.
Ignoring Your Freedom
So it is the same for you and the resolutions you have made. You do not have the luxury of referring back to your personal promise to yourself that you make on December 31st and think that it alone is powerful enough to prevent you from going back on it. You have to reaffirm that choice everyday in every action because you are condemned with that level of freedom.
Your resolutions have no power to compel you to act in accordance with them. They are merely ideas that you want to make real. They represent a very real desire for a better life or better health or better finances but they only exist as thoughts that require you to bring to actionable life. To that ends, you must determine, again and again, to take that action to which you before resolved to take.
And therein lies the difficulty of keeping and maintaining resolutions. Because you are lacking one or all of these three components:
- Vigilant awareness of the freedom of temptation
- Resolute strength of your decision to change
- A willed power to choose rightly again and again
These are the three critical points of resolution success, according to Sartre. Does he use different more philosophically robust language to talk about these things? Yes. But I don’t think it is necessary for us to throw around big words just to get to the heart of the matter.
What Sartre is saying is, when we make those initial resolutions it seems to us that we have “established a real barrier” between ourselves and our past behavior. We want the change badly. We think that simply in making it the resolution is burned into the depths of our being, and as such, will prevent us from committing to actions that will break our resolution. And in this thinking we fall under the hypnotic, deterministic trap that we have already changed simply because we so deeply want to change. But no great change comes without great effort and thinking we have changed is a far cry from actually changing.
How To Make Your Resolutions Stick?
To use Sartre’s own words:
“I must re-create [my resolution] as experienced fear. It stands behind me like a boneless phantom. It depends on me alone to lend it flesh. I am alone and naked before temptation as I was the day before. After having patiently built up barriers and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic circle of a resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from [breaking it].”
In short, in order for our resolutions to be a successful mechanism for change we must re-enter the experience of the first emotional reason for our resolution. We must return to that visceral passion and bring it to mind perpetually – as though it were the first time – with all the agony, pain and cost of failure. Through that revisiting we are able to find the strength necessary to defend our resolutions to ourselves and find the will to change the negative habits that have become so ingrained in us.
You have to return to the resolution in it’s full force. Something which Sartre calls “synthetic apprehension of the situation”.
Re-envision Our Failure
What this means is that we must re-envision the results of our failure. When faced with a choice of adherence to our resolution, or the breaking of it, we must relive, with the greatest and gravest of detail, the pain of failing to uphold our decision. The pain of being overweight and out of shape and the price it demands on our health and future. We must relive the sickness and costs of our smoking on ourselves and our family. We must relive the misery of our current monetary situation and the stress and anguish it brings to our lives. We must relive all the past reasons that pushed us to our resolution and we must imagine the future state of our lives if we fail. Then we must use those as motivation for our resolution and return to them as often as necessary to make the resolution stick.
In order to see our resolutions through, we must commit again and again to them. We do not have the luxury of simply referring back to our original decision to change. We are forced, through the burden of our perpetual freedom, to reaffirm, time and time again, the strength and force of our decision. An exhausting proposition but a necessary one to make our resolutions real.
But there is hope. There will come a time when it will become easier to stick to your resolution because you will become your resolution. Sartre refers to this as “transcendence” but how we understand is as, “becoming the person we imagined ourselves to be”. It doesn’t matter what we call it because we all know what it feels like and it will not be something outside of you that you are forcing on yourself. It will become a habitual fact of your being and not a temporary affirmation you must constantly resolve to affirm.
There is nothing wrong with desiring deeply to change something about ourselves. It is in fact a great and courageous exercise of our personal freedom to decide to make better what became ruined in our lives. It is never too late to face down our problems and decide to take up arms against them. But there is a stubborn difficulty that must be acknowledged in trying to stick to our resolutions. A difficulty that is born of our perpetual freedom to choose our direction in every moment of life.
We must acknowledge this burden of our freedom and recognize the necessity of reaffirming our resolutions in every moment. We must retreat back to the force of our original decision and relive the emotions that pushed the resolution to the forefront of our minds. Only in the strength of those visceral, emotional recollections are we able to constantly choose the right action that will help us see our resolutions to reality.
We must reaffirm, with constant force, our resolutions through a developed awareness of ourselves, our actions, and our intent. It is in that tiny space of freedom awareness that the success of our resolutions most lie. That awareness and then the discipline to choose rightly.
And that is the Sartrean recipe for success regarding resolutions. It is not easy. There are no short cuts and it is completely up to you in every moment to make your resolutions last, but in this personal responsibility and choice lies a wellspring of self-confidence, self-determinism, and strength that can carry fully into the rest of your life.
In his book Twilight of the Idols or How To Philosophize With A Hammer, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says;
“From life’s school of war: What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
Nearly all of us have run across some version of this pithy aphorism before. It has sunk its teeth deep into pop culture and it’s easy to understand why. We want it to be true. We want to believe that the things we endure, all the heartaches and pains and sufferings and troubles, have a purpose. That by enduring them we actually become something more than what we were. A better, stronger more resilient version of ourselves.
And you know what? Nietzsche was right. Science has once again caught up to philosophy and found evidence to support the claim made by Nietzsche. Ok. Fine. I don’t want to be disingenuous to the astute readers of my articles so I will say that science hasn’t completely validated this argument from Nietzsche. But if science were also in the game of pithy aphorisms they might say something like this; “From life’s school of war: There are things that can kill me, but in smaller doses they can make me stronger.”
The No Shit Disclaimer.
Now, before we go any further let’s quickly acknowledge the elephant in the room. Yes. Some things that don’t kill you can make you weaker. Duh. I am not saying everything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But I can say, with the sound backing of philosophy and science riding in tandem, that some things that might kill you in large doses can make you stronger when applied in smaller doses. It is a concept called hormesis and is backed by sound science.
It should go without saying that we are not to take Nietzsche literally in his statement. He himself suffered physical and mental maladies that stole his health and his mind. His syphilitic wasting away to nothing did not make him stronger. There are countless physical and mental diseases that are not going to make you stronger and I would not trivialize the suffering and misery that some people deal with on a daily basis by suggesting otherwise. I watched my uncle suffer through one of those diseases, and I know the pain it can cause.
What Nietzsche wants – what Nietzsche always wants – is for his aphorisms, while intended to be jarring and shattering, to be more slowly digested. They are to be chewed on and savored and finally swallowed after all the flavor has been wrung out of them.
We need to understand the underlying intent tied to a statement like the one above. Especially from Nietzsche, who was the emperor of aphorisms. What he is doing here is celebrating the opportunities of conflict in our lives as moments of growth. As moments of opportunity to prove the strength of the values and ideals you claim to hold. These struggles and pains and miseries that bend you, but do not break you, are opportunities of growth.
It may sound like Pollyanna, self-help, bullshit, but it’s not. There is plenty of science to back up this claim of philosophy. We see in nature that some potentially deadly applications of external factors can actually be beneficial when applied in smaller, more controlled doses.
So, what I want to do is to explore both of theses ideas of hormesis. The philosophical and the scientific. Because – as most often is the case in the relationship between philosophy and science – each individual understanding strengthens the understanding of both. And there is tactical, practical value in each if they can be understood.
What is Hormesis?
Simply put, Hormesis is a positive response to exposure to some “toxin” that might otherwise be harmful in larger dosages. This is a term that was spawned out of toxicology in 1943 but the concept was being explored in the late 19th century by science and philosophy together, and I want to return the theory to those two birth parents in order to get more from it.
We do not have to stretch far to bridge the gap between Nietzsche’s presentation of hormesis, as it relates to the mind, and the biological hormesis that was birthed in science. Nearly every reference that you find to it in medical literature comes with its very own reference to Nietzsche already in it. Our task then is to build upon what is already being implied.
I think the divergence of the philosophical and scientific presentations of hormesis lies in the 2 different forms that hormesis takes.
The 2 forms of Hormetic Stressors: Psychological and Biological
Post Traumatic Growth
The philosophical presentation of hormesis lies primarily in the psychological forms of stressors. These are the mentally taxing events of life that we all face. Some events are more traumatic or potentially debilitating than others, but even in the traumatic events we can find room to grow stronger. This idea has been validated in a study done detailed in this article from the National Center for PTSD.
In this study, we find the idea of Post Traumatic Growth. Post Traumatic Growth is the idea of “how growth arises through the resolution of an adversarial tension between pre-existing assumptive worlds and the new trauma-related information”. What does this mean?
This definition is perhaps most eloquently summed up in a quote by psychologist, neurologist, and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl when he wrote,
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This means that we can find opportunities for growth if we can break down our assumptions about events that have happened to us and unravel the strain that these events can bring by integrating new information about what has happened to us.
We do this in a few different ways. One of the recommended approaches is to engage in benefit finding. Benefit finding is about breaking down our assumptions about our difficult situations. The idea is to try and find potential benefits of the situation. This is not always easy, and we should be honest with ourselves about the benefits, but if we are diligent and disciplined in investigating our situations I think we can almost always find some benefit to them.
The other activity to aid in growth from our traumas is to focus on positive changes. This means consistently and positively taking stock of your life in regular intervals after the traumatic events that happen to us and bringing to light those positive changes that you have made since those events.
Both of these activities require an honest personal inventory and retrospective reporting. This means digging deeply into difficult feelings and thoughts, but if we can manage the stress and strain of that investigation, we can grow from the traumatic events that otherwise threaten to break us for good.
Nietzsche may not be the first philosopher to propose the philosophical idea of hormesis. The Stoics philosophers may have advocated for the proactive application of hormetic ideas in their call for intentional discomfort. I have written about this before, and a great deal of that article is tangentially related to the ideas of hormesis, but I did not directly speak to the hormetic opportunities involved in intentional discomfort so I want to elaborate on that. (I do urge you to read the other article so you completely understand the concept of intentional hardship in Stoic philosophy)
By choosing to forgo some essential luxury or undertake some hardship for a short amount of time, to temporarily tax the complacency to which we often live our lives, we can strengthen our sense of gratitude for what we have and notice the hardship that other people face. We can respond to that suffering with compassion and be more prone to help out of a sense of understanding and empathy.
A compassionate response to difficult situations is just as important as a hard response. Strengthening does not always mean making you harder. Sometimes it means making you flexible. We are not building something impenetrable here with our lives. We do not want to keep everything out. We want to be able to handle everything that comes in. We want to build something substantial. Something that has weight and that can withstand the weathering of time and experience. And sometimes that takes the form of a stronger understanding of the struggles of others by choosing to undertake struggles of your own.
Yes. Philosophy itself is a hormetic stressor. Challenging the mind with new ideas, new insights, new knowledge is going to tax your mind and what’s more, it is going to tax your beliefs. That is what is strengthened, and needs to be consistently exercised, through the hormetic stress of philosophy. Your beliefs and idea about the world and your place in it.
By spending time challenging our own and others beliefs about the world, with the intent of sincerely understanding and approaching some form of truth, we rip and tear at the very fiber of our being and those rips and tears will be repaired by a deeper sense of understanding and a stronger sense of conviction and meaning for your life.
Philosophy, when done right, pushes the boundaries of our understanding, assumptions, beliefs, and ideas. It is the greatest way to work our intellectual muscles and come to a form of reasoning that is robust, meaningful, and potent. Doing philosophy, thinking deeply about life and your place in it, can be difficult because the answers we are seeking have to be unearthed through brutal self-honesty and rigid intellectual discipline but in that work of philosophizing is your chance to rebuild your belief system to something stronger and better able to withstand the malaise of meaning that can come from an unexamined life.
This is the most obvious example of a hormetic stressor that you can find out in the wild. Good old fashioned exercise. That sweat-inducing, muscle-tearing, tendon-stretching, bone-jarring beauty of working your body. I personally love it and the biggest reason is because of the hormetic response of it all.
I know that if I work out hard and can endure the temporary pain of pushing my body through difficult athletic endeavors that I can shape and form my body and the entirety of my health in a way that keeps it fit and functional for a longer time.
But I also know that, if I never take a break and I work out constantly to a degree my body can’t handle I would break it and, pushed far enough, I would eventually die. It is on of the easiest examples we can conjure to illustrate the principles of hormesis as they exist from a biological perspective and an example that is one we most often want to adopt in order to improve our lives.
If you have not heard of the Wim Hof Method from Tim Ferriss or Lewis Howes or Kevin Rose or countless other lifehackers, you must be living under a personal development rock. One of the three pillars of Wim Hof’s Method for better health, mental and physical, is cold immersion therapy.
Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Basically, you progressively acclimate your body to colder and colder experiences of immersion. Why would we do this? There are countless benefits of cold immersion including improved immune function, improved fat loss, improved sleep quality and balancing of hormone levels, just to name a few.
I have taken daily cold showers for the past three years and I can tell you personally that it is the highlight of my morning routine. The instant, breath stealing shock of the cold on my skin brings everything to life. It is an immediate awareness and focus of attention on the moment and on the feelings of your body and mind.
I come out of that shower feeling sharp, energized, and ready to take on the world and those are only the mental benefits that combine with the physical benefits listed above. If you really want to experience the joy of a single hormetic stressor my recommendation is cold stress. Is it insanely difficult to discipline yourself to step into a cold shower every morning? Yes. Is it worth the stress of it all, physically and mentally? An unequivocal, fuck yes!
Science doesn’t prescribe a one size fits all with fasting. I commit to one 24 hour fast per week and then regular intermittent fasting for most of the week. This is my sweet spot and it is just the right amount of discomfort for me to benefit from without moving into down right destruction of my body.
As someone who works out hard, daily, I understand the need for proper nutrition and how that relates to energy and strength. Intermittent fasting is a completely legitimate method of nutritional eating that provides you with all the nutrients you need to continue to lift hard, heavy, and support a healthy weight and physique. Many people with better fucking abs than me swear by it and the science backs it up.
What you get most from it from a scientific perspective is something called autophagy.
Autophagy is basically the cellular process of recycling. When the body is in a fasted state it disassembles dysfunctional cells in the body and uses the materials from them for some other use. That’s pretty fucking amazing, isn’t it? When you are fasting your body will go looking around for dysfunctional or degraded cells in your body and break them down to use the spare parts to fix other cells.
Autophagy has been linked to improved aging and health and has been identified as a key cellular concept in keeping us youthful and in good health for a longer period. This means that fasting, in a controlled and meaningful way, can extend our lifespan and not only that, make those additional years more youthful and more meaningful.
This is an obviously non exhaustive list of hormetic stressors. There are so many more examples out there, both philosophical and biological. My intent was not to cover all of them, but to give you a starting point to explore the concept of hormesis, philosophically and biologically.
I want to be perfectly clear about something before I end this article. This theory of hormesis has nothing to do with not being weak. It is not a call to swallow your tears and “act like a man” or whatever other masculine bullshit that people want to make it about. There is a great deal of strength and power in tenderness and vulnerability. Sometimes it is the strongest and most courageous thing you can do and that is part of the strength you need to recognize when you look at these hormetic stressors.
None of these stressors are going to feel the same to everyone. Some people will have a more difficult time with things that other people will find easy to bear. Everyone should know and understand their own capacity for suffering and should reach as far outside of their comfort zone as much as possible. That is where the opportunity for growth lies. That is where the struggle becomes something that aids in our growth and that is where you will find Nietzsche’s, and natures, strength to endure.
If you poke around my blog, my Facebook page, or my Instagram feed you are bound to find out that I am really into two things, philosophy and fitness. I admit that they don’t seem like the most likely of bedfellows. Because of that, I spend a lot of time trying to find the intersection of these two seemingly divergent passions. Philosophy typically dismisses the importance of the body and the effect it can have on the mind, but I am of the belief that there is a very important connection there. The condition of our bodies has great impact on our minds and the state of our minds can have a very real impact on our bodies. Not just from a biological or neuroscience perspective, but from a deeply psychological and philosophical perspective. The ideas we believe and the beliefs that we hold shape our minds and our bodies. There is a deeper connection there than philosophy has long given it credit for.
So, I attempt to remedy that perceived deficiency in philosophy by doing a bit o’ my own philosophizing on the subject. What follows in this articles in a brief presentation of Plato’s Theory of Forms and how I believe it relates to fitness. Take it for what it is. An amateur philosopher having some fun with ideas. So to all of you philosophy nerds, of which I definitely consider myself, Don’t get your monads all separated. This is not meant to be academically rigorous or comprehensive. It’s meant to be thought-provoking – like all of philosophy should endeavor to be. (That monads joke was my peace-offering to the serious philosophy geeks. Can we be friends now?)
The Theory of Forms
In Plato’s Republic there is a presentation of, arguably, one of the most famous philosophical theories ever presented by an old, white man. Plato’s Theory of Forms. This theory, put egregiously simple, is presented as such; there are two perceptive realities. The sense-perceived reality that we now occupy and the conceptually idealized reality where there exists a perfect representation of every object and idea that exists in our sense-perceived reality.
That’s a fucking obscure definition, right? Ok. Let’s borrow from Plato for an example, but update it for modernity. I think that will make it clear. Let’s say we are swiping through Tinder. Each swipe we decide if that person is beautiful or not. We are picking specific beautiful people to swipe right on and specific non-beautiful people to swipe left on. Yes, those decisions are subjective and personal but there exists somewhere out there the very general concept of Beauty- that abstract idea that is forever unchanging that we apply to our decisions. Beauty, in and of itself, exists. The very general essence of it exists in its Ideal Form and here in our sense-perceived reality we make it specific. We apply the general concept of Beauty to things. The same can be said for all objects and ideas and that is the general shadow of Plato’s theory.
Now, I know that this theory doesn’t hold all that much weight anymore. It has been picked to pieces by the philosophical vultures that tear through all dead philosopher’s ideas, but I always liked this theory and found merit in it.
I think it reveals us as the subjective perceivers of everyday objects and ideas that we are. We don’t often consider the underlying, general concept that those objects or ideas are based upon and what that says about the Ideal Form of them. And that prevents us from exploring how we can try to perceive and exist in those Ideal Forms.
With that being said, I want to explore the concept of fitness in the context of Plato’s Theory of Forms and look at the Ideal Form of Fitness, as I have come to understand it.
I think Plato would appreciate a presentation of the Ideal Forms of Fitness. He was an accomplished wrestler after all, competing at the Olympic games. And the name Plato, which means “broad-shouldered”, was actually given him by his wrestling coach. What’s more, he often spoke of the need for fitness as an important aspect of overall mental well-being and health.
If that doesn’t sell you on Plato’s compliance in my presentation of his theory in regards to fitness then maybe this will; I am pretty sure he lifted, bro.
The Sense-Perceived Reality of Fitness
What most people see in fitness is the everyday, visible, sense-perceived form of it. That shadow dance of it on the wall, to pull from Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave. It’s a slough. A grind. A dirty, painful, messy thing that we need to do to keep some semblance of health and functionality in this slowly decaying shit machine we call a body. That is the form that most people see of fitness.
I can sympathize with that. It’s what I saw when I viewed fitness from afar, before I began with it. This is the representation that fitness can take if we approach it with the typical judgments and subjective understandings of it.
The Ideal Form of Fitness
But there is an Ideal Form of Fitness out there. I am not saying there is an ideal workout or style or methodology. There isn’t. Everybody is a bit different in what their body needs. But I am saying there is an Ideal Form of what Fitness is. There is the very concept of it that lives out there, just like beauty, and if we can see that ideal we can come to truly appreciate the meaning of fitness in our lives.
With that in mind, I present the Ideal Form of Fitness split into 3 qualities of its being.
Fitness as struggle
I have spoken about the Stoic philosophical idea of intentional hardships before. The Stoics inherited much of their ethical doctrines from Plato, so it is should be no surprise that I might color the first quality of Fitness with those two brushes.
Fitness is about consistently welcoming a certain, controlled amount of struggle and strain into your life in order to condition your body and mind to be able to handle the physical and mental toil of everyday living.
When we enforce discipline, and we consistently get our asses to the gym or out for a run, we are building more than our bodies. We are building those intangible things that serve you during the dire straits of life. You are conditioning your mind and body to understand that you are the master of them. They abide your commands to push through pain or to stand strong against great burdens. Because that’s what life is sometimes.
It’s getting weighted down by burdens; work, family obligations, financial issues, mental stresses, whatever, and lifting them up again and again. And every time we get used to the weight we have pushed around, something comes along and adds another few pounds to the burdens we already carry and we struggle and we groan and we swear and we fucking lift that up as well, being made stronger for having done it.
Fitness as Therapy
But fitness is not just about constantly struggling with heavy weight or long stretches of cardio. There is a Form of it that is about softness and physical familiarity – of getting to know your body in a therapeutic way that can help you to better manage the physical manifestations of mental stress.
As such, you need to recognize that there are some days where you need to go easy on yourself. Those are days when you listen to your body. You get in touch with all those aching muscles and sore joints and tendons. You stretch and prod and roll away all the aches and pains that you have accumulated.
This is where fitness because a sort of respite for the body and for the mind. This is the opportunity for you to get intimate with the messages of your body and with the things it tells you about your lifestyle and your mental habits. This is your opportunity to find a certain wonder, peace, and tranquility in the very physical form of you. It is an amazing machine, this body that carries our hearts and souls and minds, and it is something we should appreciate and be tender with on occasion. If only so we can beat the shit out of it again later.
One of the most obvious methods of fitness as therapy manifests in Yoga.
Yoga integrates the mind and the body into a synergistic workout that helps you to understand your body and the connections it has with your mind. It reveals how the mind can send signals to the body to loosen or tighten and it exposes the importance of your body’s activities
Yoga connects the calming presence that your breath can have on your mind and shows how fitness can be a calming curative expression in your life.
Fitness as transcendence
Perhaps the most ethereal, but powerful, Form of Fitness is that of transcendence. This is the final Form of Fitness and when you can see it, experience it, and live it, fitness is transformed into something spiritual and divine. It stops becoming anything but a way to remove yourself temporarily from this world and attain a higher state of being.
I think of it this way. The gym is my sanctuary. My workouts are my rituals. In between those reps are my prayers. And you can find me baptized in sweat after that last rep is wrung out of me. It is a devoted and faithful activity that brings me to communion with my body and the possibilities of it. It shows me my limits and at the edges of those limits I find Nietzsche’s abyss and I laugh at it because I know that the abyss skips leg day and looks fucking ridiculous and I am beyond it.
There is a fantastic audio clip from the accomplished athlete Elliot Hulse who presents this idea of fitness as transcendence perfectly.
In this clip he talks about a threshold – a line drawn in the mind that can be crossed towards transcendence if we can find the mental fortitude and faith to move to it. He calls it the transcendent rep. That last excruciating rep that is the culmination of all of your mental and physical strength. In that rep is the consecration of everything you have done up to that point. In that transcendent rep is the opportunity to approach a divinity of yourself. To reveal yourself as something beyond an earthly thing.
In that rep is your opportunity to move into the sublime understanding of what it is that you are truly capable of when you can harness the power of your mind and your body in concert and to their full potential. And that is some powerful shit that translates into every aspect of your life.
Now it may sound silly to see this Form in Fitness, but if you have ever been on the edge of that possibility, if you have ever had heavy weights above your head threatening to come crashing down and you have no choice but to push it back up again, then you understand that miracle of the body and mind connection and the true, unchanging, and divine beauty of fitness. You understand the way that fitness can become a holy pursuit.
Obviously, I am a being a bit tongue and cheek with the intent of Plato’s ideas regarding Forms. I took some philosophical license. So sue me.
But maybe I didn’t stray so far. Fitness is a concept. What does Plato describe in his Utopia, but the Ideal Form of a concept, in the case of the Republic the concept is justice, so why can’t we consider the concept of fitness in the same way?
We can. And I propose that the Ideal Form of fitness incorporates all 3 of the qualities I described above. Maybe many more I haven’t found yet. I am always finding something new in fitness that I haven’t seen before.
But then again, maybe this is all bullshit and fitness is just what it is. Lifting, running, swimming, sweating, grunting, fat and protein and calories and whatever.
All I know is, my understanding of the Form of Fitness is what makes it easy for me to go into the gym every day and put myself through workout after workout with a steadfast consistency and a reckless abandon. No matter how I feel and no matter how much it hurts.
Because I think that if you can eke out that one last rep in the gym or that one last step of cardio – when your body is burning and sweat is stinging your eyes and everything inside your head is telling you to stop – then you can do the same thing in life when your heart is breaking and tears are streaming from your eyes and everything inside your head is telling you to stop.
Because there is something that everyone should remember, a body transformation is a life transformation. When you take on the task of fitness you are making a decision to change your foundation and in those changes of the body you will change more than how you look, you will change the very core of who you are. You will embody the qualities of the Ideal From of Fitness and find in it so much more than you ever thought possible about yourself.
And that is what fitness is truly about.
Ah, existential questions. Those rising, dreadful things that strike at you in the dark moments of tragedy or introspection and strip away the fleeting illusions of life revealing the truth of absurdity. We have all been there. Most brush those questions aside, but they are there. Lying dormant in the long grass of the mind, waiting to pounce when you least expect, like my goddamn cat who leaps out to scratch the back of my leg when I am walking down the hall.
I know why people avoid these questions. They are powerful and terrible and downright earth shattering when we happen to stumble across some less than desirable conclusions. But they don’t have to be. They can be some forceful motivators for taking responsibility and action in your life.
So let’s look at 3 questions that are at the heart of our existential fears and that deserve the opportunity for an answer that won’t make you weep when you consider them.
Now, I want to make one thing clear before we start, while I am drawing on the extensive knowledge I have in regards to Existential philosophers and Existentialism in general, I am drawing more deeply from my experiences of and in the world. That is the root definition of existential after all. The word existential with a small e just means those things that relate to existence. And that is how I will be handling these questions. A little academic and a whole lot of experience. I hope that you will consider them the same.
What is the meaning of life?
Follow along with me because I am going to get really depressive and bleak to start, but I pick it up at the end. Ok. What is the meaning of life? Well. The truth is, life has no meaning. It has no quality of meaning inherent to its existing. There is nothing essential of life that can be pulled out of it and used to validate your reason for living.
Now, while nothing can be pulled out of life to reveal its meaning, you have an opportunity to put every fucking shred of what you want in to life and create a fucking mountain of meaning.
That’s the thing. We look for meaning in life and when we grab at that whisper thin tendril of smoke that we think is going to be the meaning we want it disappears in our grasp. We are trying to grab at phantom things. And that grasping gets us hurt. It makes us doubt the point of living. It makes us doubt the meaning of everything. But here’s the thing, we just have to realize and accept the fact that there is nothing hiding behind that curtain of life except for what we end up putting there.
Now there is an amazing amount of freedom and value in that fact. Think about it. You get to decide in every moment what your life means. You get to decide what is critical to your existence – what you need to survive and what it means to be alive. You get to do what matters to you and by doing so give meaning to your life.
As Existential philosopher Albert Camus said;
“The literal meaning of life is whatever you are doing that prevents you from killing yourself.”
And for some people that will be friends and family, lovers and more; those close bonds of fraternity and love that we can create and nurture. For others, it is financial and career success; security and accomplishment. And still others, it is art and beauty and the creation of dreams; a pursuit of those imagined things that we seek to bring into the world. My guess is that inside you there is a little bit of all three and undoubtedly a million more major and minor moments of meaning that have accumulated in your life.
And that’s your fucking meaning of life right there.
It’s unique to you and nobody else is going to see it exactly the way you do and it won’t be anyone else’s meaning, but it is A meaning. The most important meaning because it belongs to you and it keeps you moving and motivated to continue to search for the other meanings you can find.
Who Am I?
At some point in your life you are going to look at yourself in the mirror and stare deep into the color of your eyes, where it starts to darken around the pupil and you can see the reflection of yourself again, and you are going to ask yourself, who the fuck am I?
If you don’t ever do this in your life, then I am fairly certain you have no reason to read any further. Seriously. You can just click the back button and go about your business because what I have to say is not going to register for you. Ok. Good. Now all we have left are the people who are serious about understanding themselves.
The thing about who we are is the same thing about the meaning of life. We are nothing by birth. We have no identity. We have nothing that makes us, us simply by virtue of existing. As Existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre so eloquently put it.
“Existence precedes essence.”
What does that mean? It means that first you come into existence and then you are tasked with the responsibility, freedom and duty of creating in every moment who you are and what the authentic version of yourself is. And you do that by evaluating your life as often as possible and asking the hard questions that require honest answers.
When you get to a point that you are able to seriously question who you are as a human being, and who you want to be, that’s when the answer begins to form. But it’s a slow simmering answer that is going to take a long time to boil. It’s going to take you a lifetime to find out who you are. And just at the very end of it, that final little piece of breath that you hold on to, that’s when you are going to truly know who you are.
You are going to look back at every moment of your life, play it all back and decide what you had become because that is all that life is. It is a series of becomings. From moment to moment you are transitioning to some other you. You are never a static version of yourself. To take a quote from pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus and alter it to try to sound clever; you can never step into the same river of you twice.
But wait, before you go storming off and decrying my flippant, if witty, word play, I have a consolation gift. You don’t really have to wait until you die to know who you are. You can pretend to die a little each day and take a moment to reflect on who you are and who you should be.
I want to be clear about something. I am not literally telling you to pretend to die. Ok? You don’t have to pretend to die or do any dying of any sort. Not even dyeing of eggs. No dying. Got it? Good.
What I am saying is metaphorical. I am saying that each day you should take time to reflect honestly on the person you are. And the person you are is revealed through your actions. What good things do you do everyday. What things did you do that added meaning to your life? What things did you do that satisfied your passions and your dreams and your reasons for life?
So you answer all those questions about yourself honestly and that will tell you who you are. It will tell you if you are kind or cruel, poisonous or healthy, strong or weak, focused or a mess. And whatever you find in there is who you are. No sugar coating. No lies. Be honest and look at what you find. What you do makes you who you are. That’s it. The things you do say everything about who you are. Not what you say or what you intend or what you think, but what you fucking do!
But this is the key part right here. If you find out who you are and you don’t like it, you can change it. That’s right. Remember, you are never a static version of yourself so there is always the change. You just have to point yourself in the right direction. Point yourself forward towards those things you want to become.
How do we measure life?
The grandfather of Existentialist thought, Soren Kierkegaard once wrote;
“Life is a thing that has be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.”
This means that, your life is not going to make a god damn bit of sense in the moments of living it, it is only after we have lived through our situations that we can come to see them for what they are and we can come to value and gauge the meaning of them in our lives. And that is part of knowing how to measure your life. Recognizing that in some moments it is not going to add up to much until you can look back on it.
But that is not the whole of it, so let’s try to be aphoristic with another measure of life.
Life is measured in moments. No. That’s too hallmark. Life is measured in stages. No. That’s too generic. Life is measured in time. No. That’s too technical. Life is measured in stages of the moments in time. Borderline philosophical, but utter bullshit. Life is measured to the accuracy with which we have the capacity to calculate. There we go. That is reasonably fucking philosophical and cryptic enough to sound wise.
Let me explain. The way that we can measure our lives – that we can set the currency of our lives on the scales of the money lender – is if we know what each coin is worth. And that’s what you need to get clear about in order to properly measure the depth, the breadth and the weight of your life.
This means you have to understand what’s important to you and spend your precious time and energy on pursuing that thing. And sometimes that can mean following a dream to the exclusion of all other things. Pushing so hard towards some goal that you refuse to look away for fear it might vanish. If that’s you, then you measure your life by how fucking hard you pursued that dream. Not if you catch it, but how hard you work for it. We can’t always control the catching, but we sure as hell can control our effort towards it.
But, to come back to Kierkegaard, the final weight of our life is only going to be measured after we already know how far we have come. I know we want to be able to measure how far we have to go to get to some state of mind or some ideal life or some perfect situation, but we will never know the full dimensions of that thing until it is behind us and we have moved on to measuring other future things. So the best we can do is live forward and let the measuring come after.
This means finding those “truths that you can live and die for” as Kierkegaard so desperately sought and giving them out into the world. Those great, meaningful, extraordinary things that you are capable of need someone to birth them into the world. You are the only one who can give them life. So until we get to the point of having most of your living in the rear view mirror, we measure our lives by how fucking deeply we live them.
We measure our lives by the leaps of faith taken in the directions of dreams. We measure our lives by the bounds of relationships that we have been able to foster and grow. We measure our lives by the miles of roads we have put under our feet and the reams of paper we have devoured in the pursuit of intellectual things. When we measure our life that way the final measurements we take at the end are going to be absolute and square and will fit us to perfection.
Ok. I went a little tongue and cheek for this article, but I had to. This is heavy shit. These are the kind of questions that can drag you down; far enough where you have trouble getting up. I know because It happened to me. I got lost in the clear emptiness of the answers. The fact that there is no inherent meaning to life and that I have such a heavy responsibility to create who I am and have only retrospective means of measuring the quality of my life. That shit weighed on me for a long time.
But eventually I left that go and focused on the other aspects of the answers to these questions. The parts of the answers that the Existentialists wanted us to focus on.
This is my fucking life and I get to decide what it means. I get to decide who I am and I get to decide what it looks like when I am done. I have an amazing amount of freedom, and yes, responsibility, to do whatever I need to do to make my life matter. And the best part is, I only have to make it matter to me. Nobody else get’s to tell me if I am doing it right or if I am being the right person because those are things I have to decide.
In short, I am not accountable to any other definition about the meaning of life and who I should be and what my life adds up to and that is a heavy, beautiful fucking burden that I want to hold close and wear with pride. I hope you decide to do the same and not shy away from these existential questions and see in them the power to take responsibility of your life and give it everything it needs to matter.
It is no small secret that I take issue with perpetually positive people. It’s not that I have issues with positivity in general. I try to maintain a positive outlook in life as often as possible. What I take issue with are people who always seem obligated to shine a light in my direction when a hint of darkness creeps into my life. People that are full of silver linings and rosy outlooks no matter what sort of shit storm I find myself in.
There is a word for this sort of blind optimism: Pollyannaism. It was coined from a character created by writer Eleanor Porter in her book Pollyanna. In this book the main character, Pollyanna plays the “glad game.” A game where she tries to find something to be glad about in every situation.
Now I am not such a curmudgeon that I would say that trying to find the positives in most situations is not a useful and effective mechanism for managing one’s mood and general outlook on life. But at some point, in order to face the storms that we must face in life, we need to cut the Pollyanna bullshit and use our effort, not on finding the silver linings in the dark clouds above us, but on anchoring ourselves to something strong and unmovable and admitting that shit is real bad and it might be a while before we can get out of it.
This is a realistic approach to some of life’s most difficult situations and it is one that will serve you well when you get caught in the storms that you will face. But we need some guidance before we can effectively face those storms.
Pragmatic vs. Pessimistic
I know what people are going to say now; why would I want to be pessimistic in my life? To that I say, I am not proposing pessimism, I am proposing pragmatism and there is a huge difference between the two.
Pragmaticism is a rational, realistic approach to dealing with situations where we consider the practical considerations of a situation instead of the theoretical. Pessimism is negative fatalism that sees only the possibility of negative outcomes regardless of the practical considerations of a situation. Can you see the difference there and why pragmatism is a worthy course of action for most situations?
Pessimism is no different then Pollyannaism, in my opinion. They are both blind to the practical considerations of the situation. Both ignore the rational and both focus purely on the theoretical. Pragmaticism, however, approaches every fucked up situation in life and seeks to understand it rationally and then when considerations are taken for that particular situation, the most accurate assessment can be reached of what that situation is like and what it means for your life and how to remove yourself from it.
Sometimes, this means you just have to take a beating and stoically bear your cuts and wounds from the shitty circumstances of life. Other times it means you have every right to drop your head, curse your bad fucking luck and feel sorry for yourself for a little while. The key is to develop the rational and reasoned examination of your issues in a way that allows you to know the difference.
Face the hard truths of life
The constant seeking and presentation of the positive in every situation are dismissive of a very real and sincere truth about life and living. Sometimes it just a fucking mess and there is no silver lining or light at the end of the tunnel for the shit that we have to endure. And you know what? That’s ok!
Turning your face away from the difficult, painful and altogether miserable realities of living is not an effective way of managing those situations. Willful ignorance should never be taken as a path to happiness. It is better by far that you should turn your tear-stained face towards the brutal, beating winds of experience and let them rip at your heart and soul than you should look at the rainbows far off and pretend you aren’t getting torn to shreds.
Why is that better?
Because sometimes tears must be shed. Sometimes your heart and soul need to take a good, hard beating to build the calluses you need to make it through life. Sometimes you just have to admit that you don’t know what the fuck you are doing and where the fuck you are going so that you can reset your trajectory towards something greater. But to come out of the storm with something of yourself intact you need to get comfortable with being miserable.
Get comfortable with your sadness
Sadness and pain are not things to be avoided. They are things to be embraced. They are indicators of care and concern over the general bearing of your life. To ignore them is to ignore a very important fuel towards burning hotter in your pursuit of great things.
I know sadness and pain are difficult to face sometimes but facing them, looking them dead in the eyes and recognizing them as close, motivating friends, is a lot easier than ignoring them. When you ignore them they loom constantly in the periphery of your expectation of the world, darkening the skies and turning your moods at their discretion.
There is nothing wrong with taking some time to sit with your sadness and pain and acknowledging their presence. We should not dwell there in that space with them, but we should say hello, treat them to a good visit and say our goodbyes before they have a chance to completely move in and further fuck up your life.
Getting comfortable with these hard things does not mean that you should become hard in the process. It means you will become malleable. Supple in the breath of the winds that blow in your life and confident that you will be able to bend and not break with them.
What’s more, if we become comfortable with our own sadness and pain we have a better chance of responding to other’s with the same sort of care and concern and we do not fall into the Pollyanna trap with others.
Misery Loves Company
Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone who is facing a difficult situation in their life is not to point out all the positives that they have but to empathize with their misery – to acknowledge that they are in a tough, shitty situation and to simply offer a bit of company in their misery.
I am not saying you should completely join them in their negative outlook on the situation but merely sit with them through the storm. Offer a sympathetic ear and a meaningful presence. If I know one thing about people it is that everyone universally hates being told to look on the bright side of life or to be pointed towards all the things they have to be grateful for when all they want to do is fucking vent for a little while.
Besides, I am willing to bet that the person you are trying to comfort already knows about all the positive potential for their situation or all about the positives in their life. They don’t need some outside reminder by an uninterested, dismissive observer. They simply want to stew in the storm for a while, get hit by the rain and lightning and know that someone understands the difficulty they face.
We don’t have constantly try to maintain a mask of positivity in light of our struggles. It’s ok to look them straight in the eyes and tremble and shake and sweat and gnash your teeth at them in frustration and fear and sadness without offering them a smile and trying to look past them towards something brighter.
It’s ok to admit when you have been broken, and curse the twisted humor of fate for handing you the struggles you face. It’s ok to linger in the storm and listen to the lessons it has to offer. The howling winds and the torrential rains of your struggles have things to teach you, but only if you are willing to sit with them in a comfortable, confident way.
You have to get comfortable with terrible things. Not comfortable in a way that makes you hard and pessimistic, but comfortable in a way that allows you to see the reasoned, realistic ways that you can remove yourself from the difficult situations you face.
Facing those difficulties will make you stronger. They will make you more resilient and they will keep you honest about the direction and state of your life. What’s more, they will make you more understanding of the struggles that other people face and they will help you develop the empathy for the shit storms that rain in other people’s lives.
And when we can do all of this, with understanding and acceptance, we no longer fear the storm, we become it.
I hold a largely unpopular belief. I believe every person that exists is, by rights, a philosopher. I also believe that the most interesting and important thing about any person is their unique philosophy. The things that we believe and the ways that we act upon those beliefs shapes every aspect of our lives and says everything about who we are.
Consider this, you have in your mind ideas about love, family, friendships, morals, virtue, happiness, consciousness, politics, nature, and a million more things. You have ideas about how people should act and from those philosophies springs your moral compass. You have ideas about what constitutes love and friendship and from those philosophies springs the successes and failures of our relationships. You have ideas about living and happiness and from those philosophies springs the gushing fountain of your everyday existence. The tangled, messy and difficult cohesion of all of those philosophies has molded you into a certain person with a certain life and a certain set of beliefs.
Now I know a lot of puritan philosophers will say that what I am talking about is not real philosophy, and to that objection, I call bullshit. I will give you that it is not usually formal, academic philosophy, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t have to struggle my way through Hegel or Heidegger to be able to investigate the world with a critical, reasoned and logical eye.
I believe that, to some degree, everyone exercises their mental faculties towards the disciplines of philosophy all the time, without ever knowing it. It may help to see how we approach philosophy in our everyday life by exploring, in brief, the different branches of philosophy.
For the sake of clarity and brevity, I think it is reasonable to group the many different philosophical branches into 4. There is obviously a great deal of nuance within these branches but this will be a good start.
The 4 Branches of Philosophy
The pursuit of reasoned and rational thought. Ok, maybe this is a bad example for the time and place and situations we find our self in the world because it sure as shit seems like no one is being fucking logical or reasoned or rational right now but, it has been my experience that most people at least attempt to exercise some form of logic in their lives. When we formulate our arguments for the things that we believe. When we poke holes in the arguments of others. Despite how often it is abused, logic is a big part of our lives.
The study of knowledge – of how we can know the things we know and what does knowing mean at all. I think people touch this one less because it is the most fraught with confounding mental gymnastics. This is some of the trippy, mind-blowing shit that swims into your head at sleeping times and keeps you up and anxious into the long hours of morning. Questions like, how is knowing something different than believing something? Or, what constitutes knowing something at all? It may not seem like it, but even these heavy, confusing questions influence the way we think and act in the world. It makes us skeptical or accepting, reasoned or irrational.
This is the study of the nature of things.The questions of existence, being and our place in the world. This is arguably the foundational cornerstone of philosophy and we all brush against this with constant occurrence. This is a close, heady cousin of epistemology and still asks those mind-blowing questions but it is more relevant to our everyday lives so we approach these questions more often. What you believe of God. Your thoughts on the fundamental nature of humans. Or questions about how we came to be at all. These are the metaphysical questions that influence every aspect of our being – as how we see the world and our fellow humans will determine how we act to them and what we strive for in the world.
The least well-known but most accessible branch of philosophy, axiology. This a really broad term to cover the study of those things that we value in the world. This is the large branch of philosophy we spend most of our time in. Our politics, our morals, our ideas of beauty and love and friendship and virtue. All of that lives here and makes up underpinnings of our philosophical beings.
I think you get the point. For better or for worse, you are a philosopher and you do philosophy every day.
How to be a good philosopher
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” – Socrates
The problem is, most people are not very good philosophers. I am not saying that they can not be good philosophers, as I believe everyone can, I am saying that they are not good philosophers now.
This inadequacy of philosophical acumen is birthed from a variety of reasons.
There are many people who do not feel comfortable or confident enough to dig into some of the beliefs that were given to them as they grew up. Some people are scared of the alternatives to their own beliefs or refuse to accept that any belief but the ones they hold could possibly exist. Some people purposely ignore deep questions with the help of the constantly accessible distractions of the modern world. Some people are accidentally ignorant and are not good philosophers because they were never taught how to think critically and reason well.
Whatever the case, there is a path forward. There is a way to be a good philosopher. What follows is my approach towards trying to be the best damn philosopher you can be.
Maintaining a constant curiosity and wonder
I believe that all great and beautiful and miraculous things that come from living come from wonder and curiosity. There is a great deal of imaginative power in the simple joy of wondering why something is the way it is and exploring that curiosity by imagining a million reasons for it to be that way. Wonder and curiosity are the hallmarks of all great achievements. The begin every journey of discovery and, if you do it right, they are constant traveling companions that make pleasant surprises of even the most mundane of discoveries.
Children are master philosophers in this regard. They are great philosophers, not because they always get their theories right, but because they never stop wondering and improving the theories of life as they go. They maintain such a consistency of wonder and curiosity that they are in a perpetual state of examination and discovery. And those are the conditions philosophers must foster.
We often lose that natural inquisitiveness of childhood. As we grow jaded and cocksure through the natural erosion of time, our sense of curiosity in a world that we think we understand diminishes. We think that we have already figured out the right ways to think and believe and live so we stop being curious and we stop wondering. But once you lose that wonder and curiosity about living you lose the ability to be a good philosopher.
Being a good philosopher is more than just wonder and curiosity. It is about taking that wonder as far as possible and not judging or dismissing outright the directions or answers it leads you too.
One true sign of bad philosophy is certainty. Anyone who believes they have absolute dominion over the truth is an idiot, and what’s worse, people like that typically attempt to impose their will and shitty philosophy on others with a force of confidence that is hard to deny. In order to be a good philosopher, you must never accept that you have found the capital T truth and you must never accept such a lofty claim from others.
A general and healthy bit of skepticism goes a long way in making sure you are doing your due diligence in the pursuit of philosophical answers. Those first answers you come across when in pursuit of the big questions are going to seem appealing, but you can’t stop there. You have to imagine they might be wrong and keep digging. No one says you can’t come back to them but you have to make sure they are something resembling a certainty by putting them to the test, suspending your judgment of other contrarian ideas, and continuing your investigations with a vigor born of knowledge above all things.
Being honest with yourself and with the world
Philosophy requires a stark and horrific level of honesty. This scares a lot of people away but it is a liberating thing when you get comfortable with it. Investigating the world as it is, and not how you want it to be, is something that will keep humble, worry and embolden you. If you are willing to travel the world in pursuit of an earnest Truth you will occasionally be lost, occasionally found, occasionally breathless at the heights you can reach and occasionally heartbroken at the depths you must dwell.
And what’s more, if you keep honesty as your travel companion you will frequently feel like you are traveling completely alone. There are very few people who will join you in your honesty but that’s ok. Being alone doesn’t mean lonely and facing the truths inside you and outside in the world, will bring you to a depth of understanding and comfortable quietude.
Putting into practice the truths you suspect you found to make sure they work as well in action as they do in theory.
The most important aspect of being a good philosopher is not merely to think deep thoughts or to spout witty arguments. The most important aspect of every philosopher is putting into action the truths that are found in our philosophical searchings and find out if they are as applicable in action as they are in theory.
None of this philosophical shit matters a hair if it doesn’t prove itself out in your life. A philosophy that does not touch upon life and the living of it is mental masturbation. I am not saying there isn’t a place for that, but, despite Cynic philosopher Diogenes predilection for masturbating in public, that sort of philosophy should be mostly kept behind closed doors. And we should do philosophy in order to bring it out into the world.
With that being said, I believe even the most obscure and esoteric questions in philosophy have the capacity to touch our lives in some way and shape the way we live. But that can only come from putting into action those theories you are tossing around in your head about the way the world works and making sure they hold water. If they don’t, you jettison them for some new ones and repeat the process.
What you need to be a good philosopher
“Be a philosopher but amid all your philosophy, be still a human.” Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume
Despite appearances, you do not need grey hair, a pipe, a vest or a jacket with elbow patches to be a good philosopher. All you need are a few virtues of humanity that can be sharpened and developed through your continued interaction with deep, critical thought, and practical, tactical application of the philosophies you explore in your life.
What follows is not an exhaustive list of attributes needed to be a good philosopher.
Wonder and curiosity
I already mentioned these two characteristics of a good philosopher but they are important enough to repeat. Wonder and curiosity are the greatest requirements of a good philosopher. This means keeping an open mind, a sharp eye, and a playful smile turned to the world in the pursuit of all of life’s great mysteries.
If you can maintain these things, unsullied by the natural creep of pessimism and the alleged understanding that comes from age, you will instantly be one of the best philosophers in the world. On the same philosophical level as children, and they are some of the most brilliant philosophers the world has to offer.
A good philosopher has to be a master at doing what needs to be done. I have spoken often about the myth of motivation as a means to achievement and a good philosopher needs to learn the hard lessons of sticking with something even when it is difficult to do so.
You are going to have to labor through some difficult books, articles, questions, and answers. You are going to have to make time to read and write and think and that is going to mean an occasional bit of deliberate loneliness. Loneliness is a gift for a philosopher though. It is something you should come to love and appreciate.
Perhaps the most difficult attribute to cultivate, a philosopher needs a healthy dash of humility if she is going to go rushing off into the rushing rapids of philosophical thought. This means being able to admit when you are wrong. This means not believing that the answers you have found are the only answers available. This means listening to others opinions and giving them careful consideration. It also means not taking everything so seriously.
Most of all, this means not being an arrogant asshole just because you think you have a little bit of knowledge. Whatever you think you know, someone else knows more and you will never know as much as you should or could.
One needs a healthy dose of courage to do philosophy well. It requires courage to dig deep into your own mind and to investigate the nature of what you find there. It requires courage to explore life and to not be afraid of the answers you might find. And it requires courage, not just to think about these things, but to act upon them – especially if they are unpopular but necessary beliefs. That requires a strength that few people can muster but it is essential to be a good philosopher.
I have spoken in a previous article about what gifts philosophy gives your life, so I won’t go into it in detail here, but I do suggest you read that article as it may strengthen your resolve in doing the hard, lonely, but substantial work of philosophy.
The fact is, the world needs good philosophers more than anything right now. The world needs reasoned and logical approaches to the hard problems of living. The world needs as many people as it can get with that have wonder, discipline, humility, and courage. And whats more, your life needs it.
So this is my challenge to you, look at your life. Look at your beliefs and reasons and actions and find the philosophy in them. Find the philosophical threads of your belief that string together your being and investigate them – hold them up to the light and making sure they are clear, transparent, meaningful and true. In that investigation, you will find the opportunity to become a better philosopher and through that, you will find a deeper, more meaningful existence. Becuase that is what comes of being a good philosopher.
In the lightening moments of morning, just as the sun is inching above the horizon and splashing the brilliant purple and red brushstroke colors of dawn in the sky, I run past a graveyard.
It is a small graveyard that surrounds an old, one-room church. The church has cream-colored bricks, weathered and faded, and a red shingled roof that slants hard towards the ground.
There are gravestones around that church. All colors and shapes and sizes. They all wear some signs of age but the truly old are almost washed away of lettering. The engravings just a worn groove of a name in an eroding rock.
I stop at this graveyard every time I run. I stop, I catch my breath, and I look at the gravestones. I read the names and the accomplishments and the dates and I do the math of how old they were when they died and how much they might have accomplished and I wonder what is left of the legacy they left besides these old pieces of rock.
I wonder because someday I will have a gravestone. Not literally. I don’t really see the point in it literally, to be honest. What I mean is, I will be leaving a legacy in my place when I die. I will be leaving a monument to the relationships I had, the accomplishments I achieved and the images I leave in minds of others. I will be leaving something that I will no longer be able to change and I want to make sure to leave the best possible version of that headstone in the world when I go.
Living While You Are Dying
“Remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.” – Marcus Aurelius
Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, each one of us is marching towards death. Some of us are moving slowly, some of us are moving quickly, but all of us are moving in that direction and no one gets to move in another way.
This should not be a depressive thing. It is just reality. It is the way of things. Sooner curse the direction of water down a mountain or the fall of rain from the sky then curse the natural progress of life towards death.
If anything, this should be a motivational thing. Knowing that each day – each moment – is one moment closer to you not being able to contribute to this world is one of the greatest motivators life offers. Expiration dates provide expediency and though you can not know when your number will be called you can rest confident in the knowledge that it will be called someday and when it is you will be called to task for what you gave of yourself to the world while you were here.
The thought of dying should light a fire in you. It should intensify your focus to the unlimited beauty and absolute fucking unintelligible randomness of living. It is a sharp recognition, to be sure, but it can be used to motivate yourself towards living. Towards taking chances that might lead to big rewards on something you really want. To taking chances in love. To pouring your blood, sweat, and tears unto the ground as you move towards a life you want.
It should push you towards pursuing those dreams you have that only you can bring to life. And those dreams that you breathe life into will become part of your legacy. They will not be the whole of it because legacies are more than just the things we have accomplished, but they will be an important part of it. And establishing those parts of your legacy will require you to live while you are dying.
Eulogy Skills vs. Resume Skills
When you die things will be said about you. Stories will be told. Qualities will be attributed. Abilities will be assigned. All of these things will happen whether you want them to or not. People need to describe your legacy to others and those stories they tell and the attributes that they give you in those stories are what I like to call eulogy skills.
Eulogy skills are those things that define the character of our being. Things like compassion, honesty, grace, imagination, gratitude, and love. These skills can be cultivated and improved through effort and discipline and these skills are what you will be remembered for. I call them eulogy skills because these are the things that will be said of you when you are gone. The things spoken of in your eulogy.
The problem with most people is that they do not focus on building their eulogy skills. They focus on building their resume skills. Resume skills are the skills you have that are going to get you jobs. Skills that we put on our resume that say only something about what we think we can offer in a workplace. Punctuality. Attention to detail. Technical skills. They are important things to be sure, and they may speak to your eulogy skills in a cursory manner, but they are not nearly as meaningful to your legacy as your eulogy skills will be.
Cementing A Legacy
“It is enough for me that in eternity it will be noted that I did not keep my peace” – Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
The only way you can create a legacy, something etched deep into the hard stone of life, is to have fire in your being and explode that shit out of you in an unending storm of purpose and progress. Everything you do right now shapes the memory that others will have of you.
I know the Stoics would say that worrying about your legacy is pointless because you have no control over how people will come to see you. And I believe that, to a point.
I am not worried about my legacy because I want to be remembered in a certain way, I worry about my legacy, and I do the things required to cement that legacy because I want the chance to be remembered in a certain way.
I want to give the world something that could be considered great. Something that has a chance at being bright and shining. I want to give the world my stories and my actions so that it may come to impact the life of another. So that it may prevent one small harm or drive one small dream towards birth.
So what does this look like?
What does it look like to live a life that is driving towards a legacy? I believe it is broken down into 3 aspects and if we focus on each with earnest intent and a disciplined drive that we will leave something important in our wake.
This is about keeping yourself strong, healthy, fit and flexible. Part of how you will be remembered is as a piece of meat. It’s true. You can know and say a great deal about someone by explaining their habits of exercise, eating or general level of activity.
But maintaining a fit physical form says so much more than fleshly implications. It says you have many more qualities that make a legacy strong – discipline, willpower, self-control and tireless work ethic towards achieving difficult things. These are all good eulogy skills and ones that will carry your legacy far when you are gone.
I don’t know about you, but I do not want to be remembered for just having a good body. I want to be a bit more substance than that. I imagine most people would agree. To that end, we also have to do the heavy intellectual lifting that is required to make an impact in the world and further cement our legacy.
This means taking time to pursue intellectual things. Reading. Museums. Classes. Community talks. Whatever. There is so much food out there for your brain that if you are starving your mind it is from neglect more than an absence of sustenance.
This part of your legacy is also about expressing yourself. About having the mind that wants to pursue the creative things it has to give to the world. I think we all have something worthwhile to gift to the world and a critical component of being able to create an enduring legacy is finding your gift and giving it as often and as strongly as possible.
Arguably the most important part of cementing your legacy will be in the relationships you develop in the world. If we leave nothing else of ourselves in the world we leave our markings on the hearts of those people we interacted with in our lives. Friends. Family. Lovers. Haters. Those are the people who carry our legacy with them and who tell the stories of our lives in order to bring us back from the grave for a short time and impart a lesson or a message unto the heart of another.
We should take great, great care with this part of our legacy. We should try to develop bonds with others that are worthy of the legacies we want to be left behind. We should choose our friends wisely. Ones that will not purposely defraud our legacies when we are gone. We want people around us that are working on their own legacies, so we can have comrades in our struggle.
It is about loving deeply, really. If you can manage to put your heart into things all the way then you are going to leave something substantial when you are gone. Something that will work to heal all the breaks and tears and rips of the world. That is the kind of legacy that is too powerful to die and to beautiful to fade.
Fearing That You Have Never Lived
“Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.” -Proverb
I know that thinking about death is scary. It scares the shit of out of me as well. I sure as hell don’t want to die and I am not so stoically cool that I can lean back in my chair and smile while I tell you that I don’t fear dying.
But you know what scares me more?
Never fucking living. I am so scared that I will get to my death and I am still going to have something left in the tank. I am scared that I am going to get there and I am going to know I didn’t give it everything I had. I didn’t give the only fucking shot I have at this living thing everything that is in my being to give.
And that fear is what drives me to think about the legacy I am leaving. It is the fear that forces me to do everything it takes to make the opportunity possible for that. I know, I know. Eventually, the world is going to forget me. Eventually, the world is going to forget us all. Everything.
But none of that matters to me because I am right here, right now. I am a living, breathing, eating, shitting, walking, talking, loving, hating, feeling being who has right now to exist and make a difference. Maybe it sticks, maybe it doesn’t. I will let the future hash that shit out. For now, I control what I can, the difference I make in a world that I live in.
I do know one thing. No matter how long I am remembered, I want my gravestone to say that the fucking universe knew I was here. Even if for only a short time. That the universe was made better by my being here. And that it continues to be better because I left something of myself in it. I threw my rocks in the water of life and the ripples I created still create waves that move the aimless ships of others. I want that to be my legacy. What do you want yours to be?