A Life of Virtue Turns One: Some Thoughts About the Current Crisis

Featured

When I started this blog a year ago, I didn’t really have a clear idea on what direction it would go or how it would evolve.

I was inspired by thinkers and organizations who were applying philosophical ideas to the many issues we face in our modern societies. This led me down the rabbit hole to discover channels such as Alain De Botton’s School of Life, Rebel Wisdom as well as John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series.

It is exciting to see communities emerging like The Stoa who facilitate dialogues with a wide range of unique thinkers and practitioners trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world.

A World in Peril

We live in strange times.

Very strange times.

There is a general skepticism, made particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, that our social, economic and political institutions are not well suited to deal with many of the issues that we face in the 21st century.

Some have questioned if the current path we are on as a society is desirable or even sustainable.

Do we have the right ‘tool kit’ and systems in place to deal with the many global problems and existential threats we face?

To name a few: 

As a society it seems like we are running faster and faster into the future without a clear direction of where we are going.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

In a highly competitive globalized environment that prioritizes status and consumption, short-term thinking takes precedence. We lose sight of the consequences of our actions that extend past our limited horizon.

These issues are compounded by our broken information ecosystem in which it is getting more and more difficult to have consensus on basic facts. Reality thus becomes filtered down to us through politicized news media or our personalized social media feeds.

We are forced to ask, who is truly looking out for our best interests?

The Need for Philosophy in the Modern Age

In times of deep uncertainty, philosophical inquiry can be used to help us understand some of the problems we face as a society more deeply.

It may not provide concrete solutions or answers, but it does force us to slow down and think.

Ideas matter. They are like the glasses we wear to interpret the world around us.

This is why critical thinking is so important. In an age of information overload and false information, we can turn to the ancient wisdom of Socrates.

Socrates famously said “I know one thing – that I know nothing.” This idea, coined as Socratic ignorance, helps us resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or conform to the popular beliefs of the time. Socrates asks us to rigorously question and examine our beliefs, compare and contrast different viewpoints and engage in honest good faith dialogue with others.

This is how we find truth and cultivate wisdom.

The American sociologist and education scholar Peter W. Cookson Jr. argues that this type of multidimensional and critical thinking is needed to address many of the interconnected crises we face in the 21st century. He notes that our education systems should be transformed to promote interdisciplinary learning rather than teaching subjects in rigid silos or compartments. The industrial education model of memorization, conformity and standardized testing in no longer sufficient for the modern era.

Rather flexibility, creativity and the ability to look at problems from multiple different angles should be prioritized. In sum, we need to learn how to navigate through complexity.

As the challenges facing the globe become increasingly complex, our frames of reference must be flexible, expansive, and adaptive …

By looking at a challenge from multiple points of view, we are more likely to arrive at a realistic, effective solution.

What Would Socrates Say?
Peter W. Cookson Jr. , Educational Leadership
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

The Role of the Individual and the Need to Look Inward

The future ahead may seem daunting.

We may be inclined to cling our existing beliefs, support a certain political ideology or be attached to our personal grand narrative of how society must change.

Technical or political solutions may be necessary, but we should first do our own homework. Look inwards and take ownership and responsibility of our lives first. Examine your own beliefs and biases, and prioritize the truth rather than the desire to be ‘right’.

As the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire noted, we must first “cultivate one’s own garden.”

Only then can we learn to be a proactive rather than reactive.

Robert Pirsig eloquently reflects on this idea in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  

Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert Pirsig

 Going forward in this next year in the blog, I hope to continue to explore how philosophy can be a useful tool in fostering critical self-reflection and helping us make sense of a seemingly chaotic world.  

I aspire to work towards the virtue of humility, to be open to new ideas and perspectives. To be able to examine my own belief systems and change my mind on an issue if the evidence requires me to do so.

Thank all for following the blog, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the content.

Here’s to another year of writing and philosophical inquiry.

Featured Image Source

The Modern Alienated Individual: A Closer Look at Fight Club

Featured

We achieved everything we ever wanted and more. We’ve built technologies which elevate humanity to the status of gods. We’ve tamed and controlled nature to align with our needs, and built industrial playgrounds for the flourishing of economic progress and industry.

Yet underneath the bright screens, fancy clothes and luxury cars lies an individual who is deeply disconnected with the world. They pride themselves in their status but are unable to authentically connect with others. They feel like strangers in their own society, feeling the pull to conform with the latest trends in consumer products.

I do not wish to seem naïve or ignorant. I of course value the comforts and opportunities that living in the 21st century has afforded me. However, despite all this exponential progress, I think we have to remember what we have lost in modernity. With our laser focus economic growth and individualism we have abandoned our need for genuine connection, community and wisdom.  

One of the movies which explores the issues that we still wrestle with today is Fight Club. Originally adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club tells the story of a depressed middle-aged man who desperately seeks to escape the chains of a monotonous consumer-based culture. The narrator and his imaginary alter-ego (known as Tyler Durden) starts a fight club as an attempt to liberate themselves from nihilism and existential dread.

Let’s look at some of the key quotes and themes of the movie to see how it applies in our modern-day society.

Source

Consumerism  

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, and the things you own, end up owning you.

The endless flow of advertisements that we are flooded with in our day to day lives try to subvert the distinction between want and need.

We too easily fall into the trap of the hedonic treadmill.  The luxury items we purchase soon loose their glamour, status and prestige. We feel like we have to keep up with the latest trends to gain acceptance and approval from our peers.

In an attempt to gain status or recognition from society, we needlessly spend a fortune on luxury brands when much cheaper goods can fulfill the same exact function. A Rolex and a plastic watch purchased from a convenience store, while widely differ in price, both perform the same purpose of telling time.

Source

It is like we are running after a moving target.  

However, few realize that no purchase can ever fully quench our desires – the void remains unfilled.  

Alienation and the Loss of Community

This was freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. If I didn’t say anything, people in a group assumed the worst. They cried harder. I cried harder. Look up into the stars and you’re gone. Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt.

To deal with his insomnia the narrator frequently attends various different support groups. Devoid of any social life or genuine friendships, these groups provide him with a sense of connection , community and companionship.

Despite the low cost of connectivity in our society, the issues of loneliness and isolation in our society have been well documented. A trend which is  most prevalent with middle-aged men.

The sociologist Robert Putnam talks about a decline in what he calls ‘social capital’. That is, the social bonds, connections and networks which he argues is responsible for a loss of trust in political and societal institutions.

Putnam notes that the social fabric, that ties us together as individuals in a society, has been eroding in the later half of the twentieth century. In his book Bowling Alone, his research points to several trends which he claims are responsible for this decline including: the proliferation of electronic entertainment, suburban sprawl and changes to family structure.

Source

The consequences of this for our individual and collective wellbeing are dire.  Perhaps this has been most evident in recent years, as we have become more polarized and divisive, unable to compromise and empathize with others.      

Yes, we have gained more individual freedoms and liberties, but we have become more isolated and egotistical. We have pursued individualism and self-interest at the cost of meaning and belonging that comes with being in a community.

Nihilism: The Loss of Meaning

We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.                    

The irony of the film is that the men who joined Fight Club as a means to escape the chains of consumerism, end up being drawn into another ideological group, Project Mayhem.

We must ask the question why are our minds so easily manipulated? Why do we so easily move from one dogma to another?

When individuals lose purpose or meaning in their lives, they can be more suspectable to be seduced by extremism and reactionary political ideologies. The most frightening examples of this of course can be seen in the rise of the totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.

As mentioned in several of my other articles, John Vervaeke as well as many other thinkers, attributes this crisis in meaning to the loss of wisdom and spiritual practices that were provided to us mainly through religions. With the erosion of many of our spiritual and cultural traditions through the secularization of modern society , many of us come face to face with what Victor Frankl called the ‘existential vacuum’. Frankl says these feelings of existential angst are manifested through boredom and distress. While our modern culture tells us we ought to fill this void through the pursuit of short-term hedonistic pleasures, Frankl reminds us that the solution rather is to pursue what is truly meaningful for us.

Conclusion

Admittingly, this article presents a pretty gloomy depiction of modern life. However, I do see the emergence of philosophies, spiritual practices and communities that aim to help us deal the existential issues we are dealing with in the modern era.

From the re-emergence of interest in Eastern practices such as meditation and yoga, to the revival of ancient Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and to the research being done in the possibilities of psychedelics to address the mental health crisis, I see a thirst for wisdom and meaning on the horizon.   

The present may be grim, but I remain an optimist.  

Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

Featured image: Source

Getting to Know Yourself: Interview with Your Mind Matters Pt. 2

We are living in unprecedented times.

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, the world was yet again reminded of the persistent issues of systemic injustices that minorities face all around the globe.

This has led many of us to be filled with grief, despair and sadness as we fail to comprehend the lack of basic human decency.

In addition, social media and 24/7 news cycle documenting the unfolding of events send us into perpetual anxiety – we are hurdled into fight or flight mode.

In these troubling times we must remember that it is OK not to be OK. We can be vulnerable and honest with ourselves, and ask for help.

Remember the words of the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius,

“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”

Below is part 2 of my interview with Vanessa from Your Mind Matters, hope you enjoy.


1. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been forced into isolation. We can of course connect with our loved ones through technology, but this time may also offer us an opportunity to practice solitude. How can we cope with and feel a bit more comfortable being alone?

This is such an important topic. It’s been eye-opening (but not surprising) to see how many people are totally uncomfortable with the idea of being alone with their thoughts and are doing anything they can to avoid their own company and feeling comfortable with it without any distractions.

The problem with a lack of distractions is that it exposes pain we maybe didn’t know we had. The problem with that is that it’s painful and hard. But, it’s also important and worthwhile. I think the only way to feel more comfortable being alone is to spend more time alone. Humans can adapt very well. If we put ourselves in a situation enough times, eventually we’ll learn to deal with it.

 Something I’ve really learned in this time is that isolation does not mean lack of connection. They’re two different things and you can still feel connected to others while being physically apart from others. When people lack a strong sense of connection and security in their relationships with others, being physically isolated or by themselves will make them feel lonely and disconnected because they need the physical presence of others to feel socially connected.

Know that just because you’re on your own in that moment doesn’t mean that you don’t have anyone and that you shouldn’t feel connected to others. It’s still important to reach out and you can still ask for help in this time.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

In short, we become more comfortable being alone by being alone more. It’s such a beautiful experience to spend time with ourselves, get to know ourselves and learn more about ourselves and then learn to love ourselves and develop that important relationship with ourselves. We need more of that and so I guess that’s one benefit of the situation we’re experiencing.

The relationship with yourself sets the tone for all the other ones in your life and it’s the only one that lasts from the day you’re born until the day you die. You might as well work really hard on that one and make it a strong and loving relationship. Learning to like yourself is the most important thing you’ll ever do and once you do, you’ll never feel disconnected again.

It’s such a beautiful experience to spend time with ourselves, get to know ourselves and learn more about ourselves and then learn to love ourselves and develop that important relationship with ourselves.

2. Broadly put, one of the tasks of philosophy is about using logic to continually challenge existing assumptions, thoughts and beliefs. Can this approach be helpful in dealing with mental health issues?

Logic isn’t exactly my best friend, being someone who struggles with mental health issues and is considered to be emotionally volatile, but logic is absolutely helpful when dealing with mental health issues for many reasons.

One thing I learned in therapy that has made such a big impact on me is called “wise mind” and it’s basically the principle of combining our emotional mind and our rational (or logical) mind into what’s called our “wise mind”. It’s merging emotions and logic at the same time to come up with a new state of mind and thought process that is both rooted in logic while also recognizing the emotions that come with it.

Photo by meo on Pexels.com

A type of psychotherapy used to treat many people with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is literally rooted in the concept of using logic. It comes from the idea that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected and that what we think influences how we feel and in turn affects how we act.

The premise of CBT is to use logic to examine the facts (using reason and logic) of a situation that is causing us distress or evoking uncomfortable or painful thoughts and emotions. It’s important to note that while logic is helpful when it comes to mental health problems, emotions are still valid and serve a purpose and so it’s therefore essential to combine the two and allow both to co-exist and serve you.

3. Lastly, any final thoughts, resources or advice you want to share?

Something I want to say about the current situation we find ourselves in: it’s uncomfortable but also an opportunity to look inward with minimal distractions. I’d take that opportunity every time. Get to know yourself and learn to love yourself. Build those solid foundations and watch how beautifully the rest of your life unfolds and how all the other aspects come together so nicely. Just know that there’s no right way to cope with this and whatever you’re managing is enough and you’re doing okay.

I also want to note that self-awareness is important and so is doing the inner work necessary to grow, but no matter how hard it is it’s always a worthwhile pursuit. Sometimes, it gets discouraging and we wish we could just shut it off and stop overthinking and instead fall into distractions so that we forget about our pain and suffering, but it’s not adaptive. It’s always a better option to sit in the discomfort and use it for growth and learning because pain is always the best teacher. And the best thing about pain is that it’s temporary. It doesn’t last and always passes.

With respect to authenticity, being yourself is the most outward display of vulnerability and is always incredibly beneficial and necessary. Vulnerability is the biggest strength. I always say to err on the side of radical openness and transparency because that’s when we see the biggest benefits as human beings. Showing your human is the most compelling and inviting thing you can do.

And one final thing: have empathy. For others and for yourself. It is truly life altering to learn to listen to others and try to understand them on multiple levels. Learning about what makes someone who they are and what lights their fire is exceptionally rewarding, especially when it’s you learning about yourself.

And one final thing: have empathy. For others and for yourself. It is truly life altering to learn to listen to others and try to understand them on multiple levels

Take this time to listen to others and to yourself. If you truly try to understand a person and find out why they are the way they are, you’ll always find that if you were them, if you were in their shoes and knew what they knew and had what they had then you would be the exact same. With that realization comes empathy and with empathy comes so much connection, intimacy and the possibility of love.

This sort of thing truly has healing powers. I cannot recommend it enough and particularly recommend the work of Brené Brown if you want to learn more about vulnerability and how to practice it and why you should.

In terms of resources, I have to plug Your Mind Matters first. Our website www.yourmindmatters.ca and Instagram @yourmindmattersorg has tons of resources and information about all things mental health and mental illness.

This link has other resources for learning more as well as numbers you can text or call to get help: https://bit.ly/ymmhowtogethelp