Are our identities totally subsumed in our job titles and ranking within our companies’ social hierarchies?
Of course, through work we can find meaning and purpose. We feel useful knowing that we are effectively contributing to the smooth functioning of society.
However, we must ask, has our obsession with efficiency and productivity gone too far. In modern societies, we are seeing rising rates of anxiety and worker burnout. In a digital world, the boundary lines between work and home life begins to disappear.
Paradoxically, as ‘busyness’ has become some what of a status symbol, those in the higher economic and social classes are not those who live lives of leisure, but rather who are completely consumed by their jobs.
In this series I want to discuss the philosophical dimension of work and leisure. For my older readers, don’t fret, I am not promoting a lifestyle of laziness or complacency. Hard work is important and should be valued.
Nonetheless, my argument is that we need to reclaim a life outside of our professional occupations. A culture’s obsession with work poses the risk of losing the richness and beauty that the world can offer. Further, an individual who lacks an interior life of meaning and purpose, can slowly fall into the trap of hedonistic consumerism – caught in the treadmill of living exclusively for the purposes of working and consuming.
The psychologist Erich Fromm put it bluntly as he observed that modern individuals,
have little interest (or at least consciously) in philosophical or religious questions such as why one lives, and why is one going in one direction rather than another. They have big ever-changing egos, but none has a self, a core, a sense of identity.
Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be
In this series I want to look at the aspects of human existence that we have lost, and explore how they can be reclaimed. Some of the topics I will be looking at include:
Status anxiety and our identities beyond our job titles
The value of doing things for intrinsic rather than instrumental value
A review of Josef Pieper’s essay Leisure the Basis of Culture
A look at value beyond the confines of the market
Hope you find this series of interest, and a gentle reminder to cultivate a greater work-life balance.
Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” is an inquiry into how our relationships with others shape our reality. His main thesis, which runs throughout the course of the book, is that there are two different modes in which we encounter the world, namely through ‘I-It’ or ‘I-Thou’ relationships.
Let’s take a closer look at these concepts in more detail.
I-It relationships are entered into to achieve some sort of external goal or purpose. Through these type of encounters we engage others with the intent and expectation of attaining some gain or benefit. For those familiar with the language of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people are treated as means to achieve an end.
With the rise of political and economic bureaucracies, shift towards urbanization and the proliferation of global corporations of the modern era, I-IT relationships have become the predominant mode of interaction in our day to day lives.
They arise when mass institutions transform individuals into mere objects. Consequently, we become subsumed by our particular roles that we play within society.
Think of how politicians look at individuals as voters or companies view the general public as consumers. Moreover, the complexity and uniqueness of each human is stripped away when we see the statistics of those who have passed away from the ongoing pandemic.
As Buber writes,
Institutions yield no public life; feelings, no personal life. That institutions yield no public life is felt by more and more human beings, to their sorrow: this is the source of the distress and search of our age.
Of note, Buber recognizes that at some level I-It relationships are needed for modern society to function. Increased efficiency brought about by socioeconomic institutions have resulted in great material improvement and increased quality of life. However, he warns that living life and existing exclusively in the I-It mode ultimately leads to alienation. Our longing for genuine relationships goes unmet and we consequently feel disconnected and separated from others and the world around us.
On the contrary, the I-Thou relationship is based on mutuality, empathy and being together with someone or something in the present moment. These encounters transcend analytic thought and the categories or roles we assign to others. In these moments, we see individuals as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ or as ends in themselves. Namely, in this mode of existence we see the beauty and complexity of another human being.
The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experience world. Not as a thing among the ‘internal’ things, not as a figment of the ‘imagination’, but as what is present.
Although temporary and fleeting, these moments are entered into with one’s full presence and attention. Those involved in the I-Thou relationship are mutually transformed and become merged into the experience and life of the other.
We are momentarily put into the shoes of someone else and see the world as they do.
I-Thou moments are not limited to encounters with other humans but can be extended to being in relation with nature or other sentient beings. Writing from the tradition of Jewish Hassidism, Buber notes that the ultimate I-Thou connection, which he calls the Eternal Thou, is to be in relation with God.
For those interested in ‘I and Thou’ I must admit that at times it was a difficult read. Buber writes in aphorisms using poetic and esoteric language that requires one to go over the text a couple of times to understand.
Nonetheless, I found that the concepts explored in the book are increasingly relevant in our hyper technological age. With the advent of social media and exposure to 24/7 news outlets, it is easy to look at other humans as just statistics, numbers or likes on our Instagram posts. Through this type of thinking, we fail to realize the common humanity and uniqueness of others. Each being on this planet is as complex and interesting as each and everyone of us.
‘I and Thou’ reminds us that a much deeper and authentic type of relationship can exists of others. When we see the world as someone else does. When our ‘self’ transcends our body and becomes merged with the world around us. We can’t live forever in these moments, but we can always be prepared for when the next moment arises.
*Quotes taken in the article are from the Walter Kaufmann translation of the book.
Amidst the rise in digital technologies and new avenues for communication, the general quality of our public discourse has declined. As I have explored in this series, modern society has become increasingly fragmented and polarized. We are no longer able to search for areas of compromise or entertain opposing viewpoints.
The cause of the issue stems from our inability to truly listen to one another. In a culture that promotes individualism and self-righteousness, we are conditioned to enter into conversations with our own agenda, set of prejudices and biases. Rather than engage in the mutual pursuit of truth, we are more interested in pushing our opinion and influence onto others.
This mindset inhibits us from truly listening to and appreciating what others are saying. It blocks us off from other perspectives limiting the possibility of entering into a conversation openly, with the chance of changing our minds.
Dialogue is centered around the shared flow of meaning and understanding between all those who are involved. The point is not to try to ‘win’ or ensure that your argument prevails, but rather to mutually search for collective wisdom and truth. This requires one to be adaptable and flexible, accepting that your original views may be wrong or ill-informed.
Good dialogue is sort of like jazz. It revolves around improvisation and spontaneity. Throughout their solos, each musician integrates the melody and phrases of the other band mates. It is a dynamic and collective process. The success of the band is determined by how well the musicians are in synch with one another. This demands that everyone listen closely to the tempo of the drums, the key of the band and the melodies of the other soloists.
Like jazz, the point of dialogue is to build off of the ideas of others, to be open-minded and fully listen to what is being said. When done correctly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a win-win process for all participants involved – everyone gains.
On the other hand, Bohm characterizes discussions as communication which is aimed at preserving one’s point of view. Those engaging in a discussion are motivated towards persuading others to change their minds. As a result, it is framed more as a debate embodying win-lose dynamics, as the purpose is to have your viewpoint adopted by the group.
There is a time and place for each of these conversational styles. However, social cohesion is undermined and conflicts arise when our discourse becomes increasingly centered around debate, conflict and argumentation.
A consequence of this type of thinking is that we aren’t fully attentive to what others are saying. Further, we don’t validate or clarify that we have a mutual understanding of another’s point of view, leaving room for error and misinterpretation.
As noted by the renowned physicist David Bohm in his book On Dialogue,
Surprisingly, most people have never discovered how to listen, and instead spend most of the time whilst another is speaking working out what to say the moment he or she stops
To listen attentively or mindfully, is to be completely immersed in the conversation. It is to be aware of our automatic judgements, refrain from interjection and practice empathy. Just as in the practice of meditation where we mindfully and impartially watch our thoughts pass by, a genuine dialogue requires us to do the same when conversing with someone else.
The objective is to be aware and in control of your thoughts, feelings and emotions refraining from being reactive to the situation. It is to engage with openness and be receptive to what the other person is saying.
When disagreements do arise, research indicates that changing someone’s mind is both rare and difficult. However, techniques do exist to help you navigate through conflict and arguments.
There is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattle-snakes and earthquakes.
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communicationfocuses on how we can navigate through disagreements through empathy and mutual understanding.
Underneath adversarial language and conflict, lies someone with unmeet human needs. Regardless of who we are, we all have a set of foundational human needs such as health, love, respect, trust etc. The issue is that rather than explicitly communicating these unmet needs, we direct our attention towards criticizing others or defending our views on a topic.
A good metaphor to think of here is an iceberg. What’s visible to us is the immediate disagreement, while what’s uncovered is a broader set of phycological factors affecting and issues one’s mood and behavior.
Encouraging honesty and transparency, Rosenberg identifies four communication techniques to help us when dealing with difficult circumstances:
Observation: Observe what you notice about the situation objectively and nonjudgmentally.
Feelings: Express our emotions and feelings clearly and in a thoughtful way.
Needs: Make a connection between the identified feelings and your unmet human needs. You may feel upset or angry at someone because their actions violated your needs of honesty and connection.
Requests: Make a specific request in a compassionate manner to rectify the situation based on the feelings and needs you have communicated. Of note, requests are never demanded. Rather, they are asked from a place of mutual understanding and respect for the other person.
All criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message. The more we practice in this way, the more we realize a simple truth: behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being. When we receive messages with this awareness, we never feel dehumanized by what others have to say to us
Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
Genuine dialogue and discourse demands a shift from egotistical thinking to a focus on the collective wellbeing, emotions and needs of others. It changes the focus from the content of the conversation to the underlying feelings that are driving one’s behavior and attitude. Only through bringing awareness to the factors and emotions influencing our behavior can we begin to notice and change them.
As we chisel away at our own egos and silence the need to be right all the time, we can start to become more open and empathetic to the needs of others.
After all, we are all humans trying to live collectively on one planet. So rather than being prisoners to our automatic thoughts and emotions, we can all temporarily pause, take a deep breath and try to show some more compassion.
Throughout the past year I’ve been introduced to different communication modalities from platforms like The Stoa and Rebel Wisdom, some of these include: