By Brianna Wiest
“Ideas are the building blocks of our lives,” begins Marietta McCarty. “Philosophy [is] the art of clear thinking. It is not, at least at first, a call to action. It is a wake-up call to think. Philosophy announces that it is spring-cleaning time for our mental and emotional houses.”
There is one essential question that any philosophy asks, and it is: “What does it mean to live a good life?” By pulling from history, psychology, social science and even personal narrative, philosophers are able to trace patterns and present theories for why we think and behave the way we do. In mapping out our unconscious, they illuminate a way to for us to break free of the mental ties that bind us. We must understand why our lives are the way they are before we can make them the way we want them to be.
While a lot of philosophy comes across as either too elite to understand or too ancient to be applicable, there are some writers and thinkers whose work acts as intermediaries. Marietta McCarty is one such author: “How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most” outlines the ideas most philosophy boils down to: simplicity, communication, perspective, flexibility, empathy, individuality, belonging, serenity, possibility and joy.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who claimed their hectic, cluttered life was a happy one. Philosophers agree almost unanimously that “unchecked desire is never satisfied.” The proof is right in front of us: no matter how marred in chaos our modern lives become, open spaces still beckon us. “A park, a garden, a field, a porch – invite us to linger. Similarly, unassuming people draw us to their company – direct, open, natural, they make us feel at home.”
A simple lifestyle is having the essentials to live well and the mental tools to facilitate emotional wellbeing. The combination of these two things dissolves the desire for pursuit in excess.
Once our physical needs are met, and philosophy reminds us that they are few, the basic desires of the mind and heart remain. Simple pleasures feed our essential selves: listening to music, being outdoors, seeing a loved face at the door, laughing all the way, knowing we did our best work, wearing clothes softened by age, reading all day, watching a flight of wild geese, running for home and breathing deeply… such soul food has been at our fingertips all along.
“The breath of simple living feels clear and crisp,” McCarty concludes, pointing out that it is the product of being discerning about which “desires” are genuine, and awakening to the fact that the joy we seek is within our capability to sense, not gather, hoard or achieve.
If you’ve been in any relationship that’s lasted longer than a week (you have) you know how crucial it is to communicate well. In a physical, separated world, we must communicate who we are and how we want to be related to. It’s not something that happens psychically or naturally or without some form of effort or expression on each party’s behalf.
It’s instinctive for us to want to connect with others, or at least to make ourselves known. Everything from self-portraiture to storytelling to cave wall drawings to social media to the development of language points to our need to relate with others and ourselves.
It’s unsurprising then, that on the flip side of that need exists the reality that we withhold our ability to communicate out of fear of being seen, or in an effort to avoid the vulnerability inherent within opening up to our most core levels. But when we do access that part of ourselves, we realize that words and thoughts are only pathways (symbols) for the indescribable, and that at times, there are not enough descriptors for the messages we’re trying to convey.
Many Eastern philosophers, and some Western thinkers, as well, agree that at times our minds and hearts outrun words. Words, albeit powerful, remain only symbols that we use to express what lies inside us. Once words are stretched and pushed to their limit in full-bodied and full-minded communication, sometimes wordless, immediate communication graces human life. Its language is silence and its truth is inexpressible. A quiet metronome comes to mind.
In the words of Karl Jaspers, “Communication between two genuine begins ennobles their humanity and unveils truths impossible for them to understand alone.” He also believed that solitude was an excellent practice in becoming a better communicator – becoming acquainted with yourself ensures you won’t lose your identity in someone else.
To communicate well, you must be honest, patient and willing to keep trying. You must be open to exchanging truth with someone, not trying to convince them of a façade. It is not easy, but it is the means with which we fill one of our deepest desires: to see and be seen as we really are.
Perspective is not something you tap into for insight – it’s a mode at which you operate constantly, even if you never realize. It is your perspective that informs your responses, your reactions, your opinions. It is a loss of a healthy perspective that results in outbursts and that subtle sense of feeling “off.”
But the other reality of perspective is that it’s something we create, even if not consciously. And if we want to use it to our advantage, we must first acknowledge the degree to which our perspective is skewed. (This is often referred to simply as the difference between being objective and subjective.)
A sound perspective is one that acknowledges a vast world while at the same time appreciating one’s private life.
A healthy perspective is one that embraces the unknown unknowns. It is in this recognition that wonder and awe and curiosity is inspired, and it is also within this that compassion and love for all beings can thrive. The more we learn about the world, the less we realize we know. This is the essential work of developing a perspective: realizing that it will never be done.
Perspective reminds us that life is inherently multifaceted, and the ways we can perceive any given experience are infinite. The real peace, however, comes from committing to acknowledging that there is always something new to learn. It keeps us humble in our opinions, hungry in our curiosity, and measured in our responses. Only fools knows anything for sure.
When thinking of flexibility, one specific parable comes to mind: the zen story in which tree branches are equated to attitude. The willow tree’s branches live as long as they do, growing softly and without disruption. This is because they are flexible. When the weight of a snowfall comes upon them, they simply bend with the pressure, and let it fall off. The oak tree is not so lucky: because it’s branches are hard, under pressure, they break.
Flexibility is the work of moving with life. It is not trying to direct the currents, but sail the ship with – not against – them. It is the art of allowing. It is ultimately the product of discernment, the kind of intelligence and wisdom and grace it takes to accept what you cannot change, and work on what you can.
Inflexibility saps energy. Resistance is exhausting, and this chafing at change often leads to missed chances. We stagnate when we refuse to consider changing an opinion, altering a practice, adjusting a priority, or simply listening to those with whom we disagree. We miss openings and opportunities… and regrets begin to pile up.
Unfortunately, flexibility is very often confused for weakness (hence resistance to it). It is placed as the antithesis to being in control of your life. The fundamental error here is trying to take charge of what happens to you, rather than how you react to it. Flexibility is the practice of being responsive rather than reactive. It is seeing everything as an opportunity to enjoy or to learn, rather than a blessing or condemnation from an external force. As Alan Watts says, “let life live you.”
Empathy is one of those important things that is often polarized: people either reject it altogether, or overdo it to the point of adopting other people’s emotions as their own. Both options are exhausting, and neither do the essential work that empathy is intended for: to express gentle kindness.
Empathy requires nothing of us but a small recognition that there are valid feelings other than our own. It is the product of self-awareness, and essentially makes us wary of not trying to elicit emotional reactions out of people that make them feel terrible about themselves. It is conducting our behavior in such a way that we not only serve our own best interests, but we are at least mindful of other people’s as well.
Though we parade about in different bodies, we al know salty tears, anxious hearts, drained spirits, and weary footsteps.
Empathy makes us the best versions of ourselves. It forces us to place kindness first, and to begin to dissolve the idea of there being an “other.” It acknowledges sameness, and even though it is intended to express warmth and love to someone else, we are the ones who (ironically, strangely, beautifully, truly) benefit in the end.
One of our most fundamental desires is to see ourselves completely. It’s for this reason that we crave accomplishments and want love and use social media. All of these things are outlets that create reflections of ourselves. The trouble, of course, comes in when we only want to see parts of who we are. This is how we begin to develop fragmented selves. We over-inflate what we are to compensate for what we think we’re not. When we are afraid of seeing our individuality in its entirety, we suffer.
Individuality is self-possession. It is self-awareness more than it is self-importance, it is the full embrace of our contradictions and our layers. It is what we are to the outside world and who we know ourselves to be. It is the people we were and the people we hope to be. It is everything, all at once.
The need to belong is a fundamental part of human survival. It is embedded in our animal instincts: as long as we are part of the “pack,” our chances of making it are better. However, there is an interesting dichotomy between our need for belonging and our need for acceptance, and the parts of ourselves we’re willing to ignore if not entirely sacrifice for the sake of other people’s approval.
Real belonging is not conditional tolerance, it is the sense of being “emotionally encircled by your relationship to others.”
People belong to us not as possessions but as essential ingredients in our lives. The many ways of belonging gladden our hearts. Connections near and fear, known and unknown, plant seeds of trust and security. The personal restoration granted by privacy and solitude complements the fulfillment found only in community. Grateful for all the relationships that ground and center us, we reach out toward the world.
It is the sense that you aren’t just “let in” to the group, but that you are inherently a part of it. Put another way: it’s basing your sense of belonging on the fact that you are a member of the human race, rather than trying to measure it by how many healthy, validating relationships you have at any given point in time.
Community isn’t only crucial for survival, it’s crucial for fulfillment. It is the people in our lives – not the things, nor the places – that give us purpose and meaning. This is because other people are projections and reflections of ourselves: when we are loved by them, we feel an inherent love for ourselves as well.
We often attribute our hectic, modern lives as the reason why serenity is impossible to achieve, yet technology has done nothing but make a more effortless existence possible. Why, then, has such emotional chaos ensued?
Serenity is something that comes naturally, but in a world in which we are instructed to resist anything we immediately dislike, it can be a challenge to simply allow. The reason is quite simple: to be able to do that, we must understand what it is we are allowing, and why. In essence: serenity is the product of trusting that which is greater than yourself, and firmly understanding that which is happening within yourself.
Appreciating its value and making the choice to cultivate serenity is the beginning. Far from being a keepsake to have and to hold, tranquility is won through awareness, food judgment, and practice.
Epictetus believed that serenity was the product of rationality. In a world in which the natural laws are specific and unchanging, it’s striking a balance of grounded-ness and harmony that allows for serenity in our own lives. It is letting the axis turn as it may, and letting the gears move as they please. It is the recognition that we, too, are not exempt from those laws, and that we can either allow them to do the work for us, or resist them and create more work for ourselves.
If we can surrender our insistence, our self-importance, the illusion that we know what’s best – even when we don’t know or understand the force that does – we can be at peace.
Human beings are pure potentiality. We are bundles of ideas and impulses and energy that are just waiting to be acted on, and made manifest. The core of who we are is inherent possibility, and it is in embracing this that we thrive.
Hope is the essence of a well-lived life. It is the recognition that there is always another layer of wonder to perceive, always another mystery to uncover, always something marvelous waiting for us around the corner. The premise of childlike wonder is a lack of understanding. As we grow older, we confuse “experiencing” for “knowing.” In falsely assuming we know what’s happening around us, we lose the wonder and hopefulness. We lose the magic of being alive.
Possibility epitomizes free-range living. It means building a life on “I might,” “It can happen,” and “Now what?” and rejecting the defeat of “Oh, I could never do that,” and “The opportunity passed me by.” Life is not easy for anyone. Possibility does not negate difficulty. But the choice of embracing free-range living does meant hat if a thing is possible then it is within reach and not out of the question.
The reason possibility is so important is that it is who we essentially are. When we stop believing in possibility, we stop believing in ourselves. In an existence where our primary goals are to first survive, and then actualize the being who is surviving, we never get past our primal instincts, and we let our lives carry on without meaning.
Joy is at the cornerstone of most of our desires, efforts and goals. It is this ever-elusive high that we somehow remember, yet can rarely articulate. The definition of “joy” is slippery at best. “A very good feeling” cannot encapsulate the feeling of meaning, purpose, and pure bliss that is falling in love after you thought you’d never love again, or a hug from your child, or doing work you are extraordinarily proud of.
Joy is a heart full and a mind purified by gratitude. It is steady elation with a current of “at last” coursing through it. Joy’s fingers lift my heart out of my chest and hold it high so that nothing can touch it. A tincture of bliss, the scent of perfection and completion accompany joy. It has more staying power than happiness with no chance of being diminished by circumstance; I can be happy and still want more. Joy is it.
Joy is the product of living out what you’ve already known to be true. It is the ultimate actualization of what you really are. The feeling doesn’t become infused in your body because of a circumstance; the feeling is conjured up because of an experience you created. It’s already within you. It is you. And perhaps that is why it is seen as the most fundamental, and the most ideal, of all experiences: it is the seamless knowing of who you are and what you are here to do. And it is seeing that both of those things as unexplainably, mysteriously, beautiful.