By TODD MAY DECEMBER 27, 2014
Philosophies like Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, and possibly Epicureanism (the ancient philosophy, not its modern association with pleasures of the flesh) offer different ways of achieving such a tranquil state, and so they are tempting.
We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care.
Buddhism, at least in its official doctrine, argues that if we abandon our desires by coming to understand the true nature of the cosmos and follow the Noble Eightfold Path, the end of suffering will follow.
Stoicism similarly counsels that we rid ourselves of emotion, and similarly (but distinctly) offers a path of recognition of our place in the universe to help us get there.
...most of us, when we really reflect upon our lives, would not want what is officially on offer, but instead something else.
In their official guise, these doctrines are examples of what I am going to label “invulnerabilism.” They say that we can, and we should, make ourselves immune to the world’s vicissitudes. What is central to invulnerabilist views is the belief that we can extricate ourselves from the world’s contingencies so that they do not affect us. We are capable of making ourselves immune to the fortunes of our bodies, our thoughts, and our environment, and we will live better or happier or more pure lives if we do so. Whether the task involves the abolition of desire, the elimination of emotion or the recognition of the ultimate oneness of all things, the guiding idea is that we can and ought to make ourselves invulnerable to the world’s vagaries.
For invulnerabilist views, what matters is only the present. After all, as they argue, the present is all there is, and therefore the only thing we can have an effect upon. Moreover, we can only be assured of having an effect upon ourselves in the present. Our effects upon the world are always uncertain.
The task of invulnerabilism, then, is for us to inhabit the present fully and without reserve, letting go of the grip of our past and our desires for the future. Only if we do this can we render ourselves immune to the predations of our psychological tendencies, tendencies tied up with hope, regret, expectation and mourning.
Invulnerabilism recommends that we secrete a distance between ourselves and the world so that ultimately it cannot touch us. The extremity of such a view can be illustrated by reference to the Stoic’s ratification of the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras’ reported remark upon hearing of his son’s death: “I always knew that my child was a mortal.” It is possible perhaps that some few among us can reach this degree of distance from the world. But the question is, do we want it? I suspect I am not alone in thinking that the death of one of my children should shatter me, even if it should not ultimately destroy me.
Most of us want to feel caught up in the world. We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about, involved with them, taken up by them. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.
Many people who describe themselves or their goals in invulnerablist terms do not actually live or seek to live that way. The official doctrines, the ones that offer ultimate peace with oneself, a place of stillness that cannot be shaken, are in most cases a misrepresentation of what people are like or even what they want.
Instead, something else is happening, something that involves some of the insights of invulnerabilist doctrines but does not embrace them in their official form.
The way to think about these things has less to do with the invulnerability promoted by the official doctrines, and more to do with, one might say, using these doctrines to take the edge off of vulnerability, to allow one to experience life without becoming overwhelmed or depressed or resentful or bitter, except perhaps at the extremity of loss. There is some combination of embedding oneself in the world in a vulnerable way and not being completely undone by that vulnerability that is pointed at, if not directly endorsed, by the official doctrines.
It seems to me that Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, etc. work not by making one invulnerable but rather by allowing one to step back from the immediacy of the situation so that the experience of pain or suffering is seen for what it is, precisely as part of a contingent process, a process that could have yielded a very different present but just happened to yield this one. This, of course, is not the official doctrine either, especially for Stoicism, for which the unfolding of the cosmos is a rational one. (Buddhists will periodically refer to the contingency of the cosmos’ unfolding; however, the concept of nirvana bends that contingency toward something more nearly rational, or at least just.) But it does seem to me to capture their common insight that there is so much about the world that we cannot control; seeking to master it is an illusion. We must learn instead to live with the process in all its contingency, even where we hope to change it for the better. And we must understand that for most of us suffering is inevitable. We can recognize all this and take solace from it without having to take the step of removing ourselves from the desires that lead to suffering.
For instance, I am a New Yorker born and bred, and have lived largely as a foreigner for the past two decades in suburban South Carolina. (New Yorkers, I suspect, rarely thrive for long periods outside the city, or at least some major city.) Sometimes I tell myself that my life is certainly far better here than most other lives on the planet. And this is certainly true. But it rarely seems to me to be helpful in those periods where I feel an exile. Instead, it leads more to an attitude of “it’s bad for almost everyone, except the lucky few.” That hardly counts as wisdom, and does little to comfort me. But suppose I think of it differently. Life is contingent. The very same trajectory that led me to South Carolina also gave me my family, my opportunity to study philosophy, many of the friends I have and much else.
Now it might be that a slightly different process would have led to a better life (in whatever sense of better one wants to use, which itself is a vexed issue). It also might have led to a much worse one. The fact is, here I am, with this life trajectory and these goods and ills and there you have it. Because that is how things work. This doesn’t make me immune to feeling myself a foreigner, and it doesn’t imply that I should not try to improve my life or the lives of those around me, but it does give me solace that exile is not all there is to the contingency of this life, my particular life.
Now apply that attitude toward a more difficult situation, that of losing a job or the end of a love relationship. It seems to me apt that these things should hurt more than the gnawing sense that one isn’t at home in one’s environment. In any event, I wouldn’t conclude that someone who felt these losses keenly was lacking in proper insight. But perhaps knowing that the world is contingent, that everything comes and goes, and that we have only so much control over our lives will help us come to terms with these losses, and while not draining them of suffering, remove some of the searing character often associated with them.
Of course this will not work for every situation. I don’t know how one copes with the death of a child, although people do. Nor do I think that this should be much solace to those who live under dire oppression or in grinding poverty. The cure for these latter two ills is a more just political order. But for those of us who find ourselves neither entirely blessed nor entirely bereft, there is something to be said for taking this perspective on the troubles that plague us. What I have argued here is that such a taking of perspective is not a matter of making ourselves invulnerable to the world. There may be those who seek invulnerability, and even those who achieve it. But for the rest of us who want something other than immunity, the lessons of invulnerabilist approaches should be something other than their official doctrines. Or, to put it another way, in taking on those lessons, such as a focus on the present moment or a recognition of the contingency of things, they should be seen as exercises rather than as goals.
These exercises help us live with rather than overcome what we cannot control, come to some sort of terms with what inevitably helps define us. But for those who choose to remain vulnerable, life is not and cannot be undergone as anything other than a fraught trajectory, one hedged about by an inescapable contingency, and one that is likely to leave scars alongside its joys. And for most of us, most of the time, we would not want it to be any other way.
Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author of the forthcoming “A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe,” and is at work on a book on life’s vulnerability.
Previous posts by Todd May.