For part 2 of my post on the philosophy of personal development, I want to focus on 3 more modern, influential philosophers that have offered a lot in the way of personal development fodder. While touching only a tiny portion of the material available from these philosophers, it focuses heavily on freedom of choice, the pain and process of living and how we can shape our thoughts to become stronger and more mentally resilient. These philosophers approached philosophy as a personal thing. As a means to describe and be in a world that seemed to lack any meaning outside the one we each personally applied to it.
I believe these three philosophers, and the philosophies they presented, are wildly misunderstood. It is true that their lives and thoughts were seemingly tumultuous, sensational and revolutionary, but they chose that style on purpose, as a reflection of their philosophies and the times to which they lived. They tried to live the strength of their philosophies during a period of history that seemed in constant turmoil and destruction. New ideas were being erected everywhere, great and terrible, and the lights of the great ideas needed to be brighter, harsher and more apt to attract attention. So they made them revolutionary and these great ideas broke through the cavernous darkness to shine like beacons to those who were looking for real philosophical answers to real questions about life.
Some of those questions asked then have changed little in all those years and they still require our own answers. How am I to act? How do I accept the things that have happened and grow from them? How do I enjoy my life when it is sometimes so hard to live? Here are a few answers to consider by men who asked the same:
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most influential of the Existential philosophers. He won a nobel prize during his life and, was in fact, the first person ever to turn it down. He was wildly prolific during his life; writing plays, essays, books, news articles and one of the things he is most well know for is the idea of radical freedom and what that means to our responsibility of choice in the world. He presented the idea that we are all working through an emotional struggle of having the responsibility of choice in how we act and that no one is responsible for us or our actions but us.
Scary shit, right? But also pretty fucking powerful for making change. Self determination gives me the ability to constantly redefine the essence of who I am. I am not some fixed, determined thing that has no will or freedom. I, in fact, have complete, terrifying, moral and mental autonomy – radical freedom – and everything I choose is up to me. Not only that, and this might be the scariest part for most people, whatever I choose to do morally or ethically in my life is my implicit recommendation of behavior for the rest of the world. By choosing any action or behavior I am saying that I think all people should act in such a way.
That is some powerful shit! Think about that. The way we act is our mandate to the rest of the world in how we believe that everyone should act. If I am kind, I am suggesting to the world that I believe everyone should be kind. If I am an asshole, I am suggesting to the world that I think it is fine if everyone is an asshole. What we do to others and ourselves we are saying everyone should do to others and themselves!
Personal development is the same thing. Whenever you choose to undertake and stay committed to your personal development path you are telling the world that you think everyone should do the same. When you work hard to achieve your dreams or get your ass back up after you have been knocked down you are telling the rest of the world to scrape the fucking dirt off and do it all again. We have radical freedom to be and do whatever we want, and we keep choosing everyday, telling the world who we are and who we want it to be by doing so. In every moment, we choose our values, we choose what to believe about ourselves and about this world, we choose every fiber of our being, and by choosing for ourselves we are choosing for the world. We are choosing the kind of beliefs, values and life that we believe are worth living for.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Nietzsche may be one of the most controversial philosophers in modern history. He is well known for taking on the doctrine of the Christian church and decrying the death of God. The heavy thread individualism and call to personal power of his philosophies made it a target of adoption by anarchistic groups and this attention painted Nietzsche in a very unflattering light, during his time and beyond.
Yes. We do find a recalcitrant and outspoken man willing to bring down the ancient edifices of philosophy and religion in order to erect something more noble in the writings of Nietzsche, but we also find a man searching – grasping – for a love, appreciation and acceptance of life in all things. Even those things that may bring us harm. We find a man who understood that the painful things in our life, physical and mental, are the things that make us who we are and coming to accept that makes all the difference.
In his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche presents on an important idea of life – and of personal development in general – the idea that momentary, present sacrifice or hardship is an important part of attaining long lasting and greater joy in the end. It is important that we acknowledge the fact that, happiness is not the sole reason that we undertake certain tasks and is not the reason that certain things are worth doing. Somethings are worth doing, despite the difficulty in doing them, because in the end it will make for a more fulfilled and happy life.
What Nietzsche means to say is, sometimes we accept or volunteer to take on struggles in order to get to some greater joy or greater good. We can even go a bit further and say that, the only true and solid joy or happiness is that which has been shaped and sharpened through our struggles. We tend to find so much beauty and strength in a hard luck story of someone who had nothing, who struggled to get everything they had, and finally came out on top. Why? Because these are the stories that we can relate to. These are our stories. The ones we tell ourselves and the ones we lived. The hard stories to hear, but the ones with the happy endings we also want to create in our own lives. They fuel our imagination as to what is possible through struggle.
The point is, we shouldn’t be always striving towards happiness in every waking moment. Even if you could attain it, it would be so fleeting and devoid of any real substance that it would cease to have that sharpness it should have.
Sometimes, we should take on those really difficult tasks we know will be a burden in order to attain a happiness that far surpasses our momentary bliss. When we elect to tackle the really difficult stuff – raising a child, being in a relationship, fighting for a cause or making ourselves better people – we are going to endure some suffering and hardship, but in the end we know that that struggle is worth it because the accumulation of all the moments of happiness that can come from taking on something so important will always pile higher that the tiny, fleeting pleasures of empty happiness.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
Camus is perhaps most well known for taking the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, and adapting it to present the apparent meaninglessness of life. The premise is that of a man, Sisyphus, condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a mountain day after day, only to watch it fall again when he reaches the top. This futile, empty and meaningless existence is a reflection of the futile struggles of our own lives. We work, we love, we help others, we set and achieve goals, only to have it all undone by time or death or circumstances beyond our control. We build our castles in the sand and the tide comes and washes it all away. There is no reprieve from this fate. Time will inevitably erode all of our efforts no matter what we do. That’s fucking depressing, right?
Well it doesn’t have to be and Camus didn’t intend it to be. You see, there is a personal development silver lining in all this absurd and empty struggle of life. It is the lost nugget of personal development wisdom that Camus wanted everyone to take away from his absurd philosophy and it is this – despite the fact that life seemingly amounts to nothing in the end, that does not mean it is not worth living. What’s more, there is an infinite amount of pleasure and joy to be had from living if you know where to look.
If life is just some hollow, empty struggle that is undone in the end how can it be worth living? That is easy. It is worth living because, it doesn’t matter if the things we strive for are undone in the end, what matters, is the simple, honest and frequent pleasures that can be enjoyed by simply living.
Life is about the tiny, momentary occasions of happiness that we can steal away while we push our boulders up the hill. The feeling of sun hitting your skin on a warm summer day. The sound of a child’s uncontrolled laughter. The soft, lingering caress of an intimate love. These are all such beautiful things that do not derive value from the immortality of them, but from the living and experience of them, and that is the true point of Camus’ message. Life may be meaningless in that it all amounts to nothing in the end but it is unquestionably meaningful to each one of us through the very process of living it.
By the very fact that we can imagine an end to all these things that we love so much in life, therein begins our appreciation of them. By knowing they could be gone we must come to be more aware of those subtle joys and pleasures that are given to us each day, despite our struggles and the absurdity of it all. We can still come to experience so deeply and live so fully, without requiring a meaning to go along with any of it.
I can not even begin to say that I have done the philosophies or ideas covered in this two part series the justice they deserve. My intent is not to present a comprehensive, scholarly essay, but to stir the passions inside you to find them and devour them yourselves. To show you that there is living to be done in these words and ideas. That the deep thoughts are merely a starting point to applying these things to your life, and to the way you think about living, so that you may be changed, positively, in a way that helps you create and shape your own philosophies about the good life. That’s it. Small task, right? Maybe not, but I know it’s worth the struggle.