Thursday, August 08, 2019

Constructing Your Self

In the end it comes down to you.

Not your society.

Not your political party.

Not your religious belief.

Not your race or class or gender.

Not your job.

Not your country.

Not your school.

Not who you love or who you hate

To be a human the you that is "you" will have to find meaning in this transitory, sometimes cruel occasionally sublime experience of being alive.  To be a human you will realize that the flower fades, the grass withers, people die - but that's what makes life so beautiful so precious in the here and now. The Stoic philosophers knew this and encouraged the practice of momento mori literally meaning "remember that you have to die."To be a human you must at some point come face to face with the perfectly democratic fact of human mortality.

Or not.


Questioning your life's meaning assumes you have a "you" and aren't a cleverly constructed automaton created by a commodified culture in which case rather than having any sense of despair or anxiety you can buy a Coke. Coke is "it" you don't need anything else. If Coke turns out not to be your "it" there are many ideologies, products, processes, and parties available to give you the impression you are somebody, that you have a self. This is both reassuring and dehumanizing.

It's reassuring because it's soothing to be part of the group - the tribe - the party - the church - the state - the nation.

It's dehumanizing because the only freedom humans have at our core is freedom to choose. Being free to choose requires you have freedom to think, learn, debate, ponder and ultimately choose - what constitutes a good life.

Ideologies - alt-right, conservatism, liberalism, left wing, democratic socialist, Christianity etc. etc. are soothing to the true believers since they mask the existential dread that would result from an examined or partially-examined life.

This leaves us in quite a dilemma. The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has a potential answer that rejects the theological, the church, the dogma - in search of an individual means of salvation. He doesn't tell you how to eliminate the dread, despair or anxiety of human life but rather how to recognize these feelings as being part of what makes us human and an essential part of what gives us a "self". Negating that dread, despair and anxiety with widespread use of anti-depressants  makes us more comfortable and less human. I don't want to be cruel on that point so I'd also quote one of my drill instructors from Navy boot camp who said, "Whatever gets you through the night." We all have our crutches.

If you have an interest in Kierkegaard's thinking this lecture by Rick Roderick is informative. Rick Roderick was from Texas and liked to smoke and drink. In one of his lectures he says his mother was a beautician and his father was a conman - so he's an interesting character and in my opinion the kind of philosophy professor most students would love to have.


Given the variability of humans and the complexity of life on this planet any system that claims to be the one answer is absurd, and potentially dangerous. If someone or some group tells you they have all the right answers and someone (group/stereotype/tribe) has all the wrong answers - run far and fast.

Products may be purchased to provide you with a life if you believe the advertisers and the culture. Products may be purchased to provide you with a salve that masks how empty and dehumanized life can be in a post-religious, post-industrial capitalist society if you believe some post-modern thinkers. In any event if you can keep watching the commercials and buying the trinkets you can sort of ignore the homeless people, the burning planet, the hatred and violence.

If you are curious about post-modern philosophy, this channel is interesting. If you are curious about philosophy in general this channel is one of the better ones I've found. You need hours and hours of free time to delve into this stuff so it all becomes somewhat abstract outside a small circle of devotees. Intellectuals in all times have constructed beautiful theories in their ivory towers.

On the far end of the spectrum - the inability to construct a satisfying self may lead to opioid addiction, suicide, joining a cult, becoming a mass shooter or any other of a number of pathologies.

Processes may be purchased to provide you with a life. You can reshape your face to look younger, suck fat out of your body to be thinner, inject some collagen into your boobs to make them bigger, buy some teeth implants to be more attractive and get some hair implants to make you look younger. At the end of the day you are going to lose your hair, maybe your teeth, and your boobs your face and your neck will all sag.

Parties are available to provide you with a life. You can join the Republicans or the Democrats or the Communists or the Fascists and become a partisan who either (a) has a foolish and dangerous belief in an uber-ideology (b) is simply a partisan tribe member with no understanding of the ideological basis for the party. The GOP is only a party of partisan tribe members (a cult) at this point since it has no ideological basis or certainly no consistent ideological basis.

By the time Bill Clinton came along in the 1990's the Democratic party had lost most of the ideological moorings it had when FDR led the party of the working class, so we ended up with two parties that represented a version of classical liberalism with an irrational faith in unfettered capitalism and mythical free markets. One completely representing the interests of the .1% and one representing the interests of the other 10%....leaving the vast majority of people with no representation.

The idea that unregulated markets lead to freedom was inculcated into the populace in the Reagan era (the 1980's) through popular means such as having the economist Milton Friedman (who's either a narrow minded ideologue or a genius depending on your point of view) espouse the infallibility of the market on popular daytime shows like Phil Donahue.

Karl Marx said something like, "In all historical periods the acceptable ideas are the ideas of the ruling class."


Depending on your religious background you may see a similarity between what I'm writing and what you've heard a minister or priest preach. Christianity in the United States did (and does in some denominations) teach the gospel of Jesus. Jesus was about the Good Samaritan helping the stranger, overturning the money-changers tables in the temple, and striving to love our enemies.

In the 20th century the ruling class decided that the old style Christian beliefs put a crimp in their project to acquire power and wealth so a new acceptable idea was formed - the prosperity gospel. This wasn't a unique event - mankind has modified theology throughout history to bring theology into agreement with economic, social, and governmental systems in place in a particular society.

People who claim that of all the ideologies only capitalism has provided the most wealth and freedom for the most people must first define what they mean by wealth and freedom. Does wealth mean accumulation of money and material goods or is wealth something else like health, friends, learning, family, faith and spirituality? Perhaps providing a hospitable planet for future generations could be considered the ultimate form of inter-generational wealth?

When freedom degrades to mean that in the richest country on earth we are all free to live under a bridge or on the sidewalk, or live with the pain of an abscessed tooth, or go bankrupt because of a medical issue then it becomes a cruel and cynical hoax.

We desensitize our selves, create myths and modify our ideologies to absolve ourselves from the part we play in the system. How else could members of the GOP find something in their parties ideology that justifies taking children from parents hoping for a better life and locking those children in cages?

Aristocrats and their court jesters make up stories to tell themselves about why things are the way they are. "They" poor people - are lazy, ignorant, dishonest, insane, confused and in need of a good strong police state to keep "them" in check. Or if not that they at least just need to try harder, which is a slap in the face of all those hard working poor people considering 60% of today's wealth is inherited. This video from Bill Moyers on Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the 21st Century is informative if you want to learn more.


So finally what is the good life? What does it mean to live a good life? Only you can answer that question, with fear and trembling as you kneel before the God or Gods you choose to worship.

You know the problem with that statement though right?

It's broad enough that I could use it to justify being - a Nazi, a mass murderer, or a slave owner. I could justify exterminating native populations, subjugating women, hating and killing all sorts of people.

That wraps around to what I started with - what you are not. You are not your society, political party, religious belief, race, class, gender, job, country, school, who you love or who you hate. You are certainly influenced and constrained by those things but they aren't you. If you think they are you and define your self by one or all of them - then "you" don't exist and you may very well die never having lived at all.

The you that is you when you talk to your self is influenced by all those things -  but the precious one of a kind you is realized though the (hopefully) self-created project you call your life.


People, this life, this planet will all pass "all those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain" but...paradoxically as sad as that fact is - it is also what makes life so beautiful.