How Philosophy Saved My Life and How It Can Save Yours

November 10, 2016
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As a cause is something principled and aiming towards a deeper commitment or rise to action in the world, it is not an exaggeration to say that I have spent most of my life as a lost one. I was a directionless meaning that was barely in the world. And by having no direction, I whipped around aimlessly, like a bag in the wind and created a great deal of pain to those that got close to me.

The way that I grew up made it hard to hold a meaning. When everything is taken from you, you do not think that you deserve to have anything to call your own. So meaning is on of the first things a hard childhood will have you jettison. You can not yet see the worth of it, so you do not yet know how hard you should hold on to it.

The only thing you ever carry with you are the questions around the reasons why your life is like it is. There must be a reason why your father would leave you, and your sisters, poor and alone. A reason that would cause your family to suffer at the hands of violent, vicious men. That would cause the constant gnawing hunger in your belly from lack of food. The reason for the litany of insults and beatings from your peers over your poverty and your life. That would cause the never ending cycle of physical, emotional and mental abuse that comes from a hard and desperate childhood. 

But I never found a reason for these things in any of the places I looked. I never found the reasons in my anger. My insubordination towards authority. My hatred for everything. My drug abuse. My physical and emotional self destruction. My desire to be dead. All I ever found was deeper gifts of pain from a world that I thought didn’t want me. And because of that I pushed that world further away and I dug myself deeper into giving them nothing but my suffering.

And thorough all of this I ached for a kindness out of life. I looked for something gentle from it after it had given me so much pain – as though it might be sorry and willing to make amends. I searched in relationships. I searched in friendships. I searched in academics. I searched in arts and religion, and everything in between, but there was always something missing in the answers that I found. My thoughts and ideas about people and life were corrupted by the pains I had been dealt as a child. Nothing ever stuck because it had nothing substantial to stick to. Until finally, with one foot in the grave and another bound for hell, I found what I was looking for.

It was a dusty book, weathered to the point that the cover was unreadable. It was thick with yellowed pages and weighed enough to make me think twice about picking it up. But pick it up I did and opening it unleashed that broken down lignin smell of vanilla and old grass that is the hallmark of old books. And with the perfume came the words. An encylopedia of philosopcial wisdom that was my first introduction to the ideas that would change my life.

I found the answers I so desired in the words and ideas of philosophers, old and new. The virtue ethics of the ancient Greeks like the Stoics, Cynics, Epicureans and more. The agreeable skepticism of men like David Hume. The Will to Power and acceptance of pain as a strengthening thing, espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche. The modern day freedom ethics of Simone De Beauvoir and the acting, breathing, feeling, loving, essential and individual philosophies of the existentialists; to name but a few of the philosophical influences I found.

These were men and women that suffered and rebelled for their wisdom, yet found a way to live a meaningful life. They were men and women that shared my misery and pain and moved towards finding the meaning in it. I found in them the kindness and understanding that I had always lacked. A kindness born of shared questions and attempts at answers. And they helped me see the meaning of the world and they gave me back my reason. And because of that a mantra of mine is from the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca:

I owe my life to philosophy and that is the least of my obligations to it.”

But what has philosophy given to anyone, let alone someone like me, that would save their very life?

It helps you find yourself

No one in this world can tell you who or what you are. No one can tell you what you should do in order to bring about your happiness in this world. Only you can provide those reasons. You have to go out into the world, and into your mind, and discover and decide what things are truly meaningful to you. You alone have to find those reasonable truths that lead you to your unique vision of the life you want to live.

But in order to find that path for yourself, you have to truly know yourself, and seek to truly know the world. We have to discover our values and our truths and discover the values and truths of those we interact with. We have to investigate and know these deep things about ourselves so that we can stand up for what we believe in and not be broken by those who seek to break us.

And by coming to know ourselves, we come to know more intimately everyone around us. We realize that we are not always right about the things that we believe. We see that there are many opinions in the world that may be valid if we look at them from different points of view and through different lenses of experience. We come to understand the value of a multiplicity of perspectives – as opportunities to learn and grow in our own identities by debating respectfully with the identities of others.

Philosophy fosters a mindful exploration of the world, and our place in it, and that exploration is the only way to find your why – to find the wellspring of your happiness, your meaning and your purpose. It is through a sense of constant wonder that it is possible to be perpetually awed by the world and, in the process, to always find the awe deep inside ourselves.

It balances emotions

Living a happy and fulfilled life requires, not just a clarity of intention and purpose, but also a clarity of emotion. Knowing why you are feeling, what you are feeling, when you are feeling it. Knowing how to handle and sort through difficult emotions in order to make them work for you. Philosophy introduces that clarity by helping you reason through your emotions in a way that scales them down from monoliths of uncontrollability to mere disruptions of meaningful thought.

Philosophy was a stabilizing thing for me. It was a structurally sound dwelling that I could retreat to when I was struck by the world that was crashing down upon me. It was logical, reasoned and it was full of the right sort of passion that I could use to fuel the fire of my search for meaning, direction, and understanding of the world.

As you start to understand your ways of viewing the world – as you start to understand how other people view the world – you begin to see how and why your emotions arise, and what they bring to your life. You also begin to understand why some people are capable of doing the things they do, and by understanding, you come to a certain level of compassion and forgiveness.

Many of us let our emotions rule us, without any thought for why or how they got there in the first place; why they arise as they do and how we can temper them better to reality. By getting intimate with ourselves, our thoughts, our ideas, and our philosophies about life, we can shed new light on those dark emotional things that live inside us – constantly threaten to harm us – and by bringing them to light, expose them for the timid, terrified things that they are.

It heals wounds

There are broken things in so many of us. Things that were broken long ago and were clumsily glued back together and never examined again for flaws that they contain. Philosophy brings us back to those things and allows us to examine the cracks and brittle structure of them in the light of reason and with the wisdom of ages. We examine those wounds we suffered so long ago, and by doing so, find the ways to fix them.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a highly successful, modern-day, psychological therapy shaped from Stoic philosophy, is proof that philosophy has the means, and the ability, to strengthen us before we are broken and to heal us when we break.

There is so much power in the things that we believe – in the stories that we tell ourselves – and the pursuit of philosophy is a way to change your stories by changing the way you see the world and the people in it.

Most wounds we suffer in life come from a lack of understanding. Or rather, most wounds we suffer in life come from misunderstanding. Misunderstanding of intent, of reason, of situation, of past experience. These misunderstandings come from how we view the world, ourselves, and our expectations of others.

Philosophy is a process of evaluating your ways of viewing the world so you can expose the hidden fallacies of thought that are peppered throughout your reasoning and heal the wounds of misunderstanding.

By constantly investigating our lives through the lens of philosophy, we find ways to gain strength through the wisdom of others and we find ways to create strength from the wisdom we create. We stop being victims to our wounds and we are no longer the fragile, emotional creatures we once had been. We become life-long mental health practitioners who are focused on preventative care for our own souls.

It returns you to the world

For too long I had said goodbye to this world – to my place in it and to my expectations that it was a space that was livable and meaningful to me. I wrote it off as a momentary experience that would have to be tolerated before it would just go away. But philosophy showed me how to be returned to the world, and by returning to it, give it something more in the process.

The phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty said,

Life becomes ideas and the ideas return to life.

And that is what I found in philosophy. The ideas presented there were pulled into my world and I then returned them to the world at large – slightly different within the recesses of my mind and slightly larger in the world, because I had added my layer to the ever-changing, ever-growing, rolling snowball of them.

Philosophy is not a pulling away from the world in favor of diving deep into books and never looking up from them. There is some of that solitary beauty, of course, but it is more about taking the ideas you find and applying them to your life in order to see if they are reasonable, important and effective at giving you the thing that philosophy most desires to give – a reasoned life, fulfilled and happy.

Philosophy does not just give you a set of skills or rules for being able to articulate coherent, logical or meaningful arguments to support a general position about how the world is. Philosophy returns you to yourself and gives you a reason for reasoning anything at all. It helps you to see the beauty in being involved in the million heartaches and pains and joys and smiles and friendships and laughters and losses of life.

During the worst of times in my life – when the pains of my childhood had become too much – when I would intentionally hurt myself in order to feel the sharp, sudden anything of pain, it was because I was so desperate to feel something for the world outside because I could feel nothing of it inside. I hurt myself externally because there was nothing to hurt of the empty that was inside me. I was lost inside my head. I was only a body that ached to be returned to his soul.

Philosophy found me and returned me to myself because it gave me reasons. It gave me direction and meaning and perspective and most of all, it gave me hope. And by returning me to myself I was able to return to the world. To a world that looked a little brighter. To a world that looked a little less lonely. And to a world that finally seemed livable.

Summary

As Seneca did nearly 2000 years ago, I speak of my obligation to philosophy, not as an academic disciplined pursuit of higher truths, but as a living, breathing, loving thing that comes out of books and into lives to change them from their meandering, potentially dangerous, course.

Philosophy can bring into focus the hazy, confused, primitive thoughts of a scared, tortured and miserable child, or it can further sharpen, shine and polish the already skillful ideas of men and women that are always looking to improve upon the level of wisdom or success they already have.

Wherever you are coming from, philosophy will take you somewhere you never expected and I guarantee it will save your life. Enjoy the ride.

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