Category Archives: everyday philosophy

QA 58. “But it doesn’t work like that!”

Annals of philosophical counselling/practice with others, or Things I find myself saying to someone like you*

* you |juː|
pronoun [ second person singular or plural ]
1. used to refer to the person or people that the speaker is addressing: are you listening? | I love you.
~ Oxford Dictionary
Who is this “you”? Do you know who you are speaking to? Well no, actually. I don’t. I am responding to a question that someone raised about something I said. It is also a question for me, so “you” also means “I”. (Who, me? Yes, you!) Plus any other Cinderella for whom the shoe fits, vous tous, y’all, second persons plural: all us first-person-singulars who feel correctly addressed when I write to myself as to another and say “you”. Which is to say, it’s an open call. Your call.

“But it doesn’t work like that!” I say this in response to some proposed scheme or strategy of yours. I mean that, in terms of what you want to achieve, what you are doing seems either futile or malicious because you have a mistaken view about what’s going on. (I could be wrong, of course. We can talk about that.)

My basic theory is that, although there’s no saying how something will turn out, the world generally makes sense and we are basically equipped to take part in that. And  we always are taking part in that. Sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick. We can do better. Philosophical practice is how we learn to do that by our own lights. That is why I call it “emancipatory”.

push the pull

I say “futile or malicious” because it seems like a) you are not going to achieve what you want and/or b) you are going to do some damage. I say it when I know you’ve done this same thing enough times that the result is predictable. Your wife is not going to take you back if you send another threatening or pleading text. Re-accessorising your life will not make you happy. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Your efforts will be futile as long as you are mistaken about how it does work and how to work with it. Yes, you are frustrated when things don’t work out for you. Beyond the injury to your vanity, what does that tell you? The pursuit of futility isn’t sensible (is it?) – but look, the scene is full of information that has been created especially for you. What can you learn? Stop and pay attention. You could learn to re-align yourself, your desires and your actions with the world as it is. Things will go better, even if not in the way you imagine now. That’s my bet anyway. (P.S. I’m actually much kinder in person, given a particular you and your particular misery.)

Your efforts become malicious when you forge ahead anyway until you break something, or “repurpose” it to your own designs. Don’t talk to me about unintended consequences! Let’s talk about hidden intentions. Pride and stubbornness won’t serve you well in the long run. Do you imagine you won’t have to answer for yourself? Malice isn’t sensible. Please stop and think.

When I suggest that the world makes sense and can be worked with, it does include the kinds of suffering we can’t do anything about, because that’s just “the way it works”. We get sick, we get hurt, people we love leave us, death awaits. Working with these involves some acceptance or resignation.

But we also find ourselves in unacceptable situations that were messed up before we ever came on the scene. Things that are not the way they are supposed to be. Lies, injustice, callous indifference, unnecessary suffering. We can feel the wrongness in our bellies and bones – that this is “not the way it works”. Maybe it’s a political scene that calls for resistance. Or maybe you should get yourself the hell out of Dodge. Or maybe you have to bide your time so long.

Risky times like these call for us to be even more careful and attentive, to avoid futility and malice. How do you align yourself in this situation? Like we practiced. (Aren’t you glad we practiced?) By working with it and learning its truth, testing it, catching the scent of possiblities. Turn and return. Reach out. Move in the direction of your freedom. Step lively.

QA 56. Four touchstones for thinking about peace

mandelaFor Nelson Mandela’s birthday, and because I’m reading Thula Simpson’s Umkhonto We Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Struggle, thinking about and respecting the lives of everyone who stood against apartheid, those whose names are known or unknown, remembered or forgotten. Thinking that the aim of the struggle was peace, and how we’re not there yet. Thinking that peace without justice isn’t good enough, but neither would be justice without peace. Continue reading

QA 55. Tenebrae

tenebrae
Tenebrae (L. darkness) is the only Christian service I ever trusted. It’s made up of psalms of grief and lamentations of the lost and forsaken. The evening of Holy Saturday. The messiah is crucified, god has abandoned his people to their enemies. Why God? There are no signs for us to see; there is no prophet left; there is not one among us who knows how long. Continue reading

QA 50! Thoughts at sea

castaway_by_ascentem-d4a7u8m

A funny thing happened at the Philosophy Café last month. I got lost. We all set sail on a conversation about “sadness”, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. My mind was clear and present. I just couldn’t relate, couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t participate. And the good ship “we” sailed on without me. Huh.

It’s been a chance to rediscover that – so long as you’re not in real danger, so long as you don’t panic – being all at sea is philosophy’s home ground. Not knowing what’s happening is a condition of wonder, in every sense of the word. It’s also kind of sad. Continue reading

QA 47. Motion of confidence (Part 2)

MariaIHaveConfidenceLast week’s philosophy café offered another conversation about confidence. As noted before, confidence has two levels. One is conditional: the conscious trust in one’s abilities or worth, developed through experience and familiarity (“or entitlement”, as someone pointed out, referring to the social confidence of private-school girls). The other is what John Dewey described as “unconscious faith in the possibilities of the situation”, or “the straightforwardness with which one goes at what he has to do”.

One man, I’ll call him Anthony, spoke about a friend he’d had in his twenties who led the two of them on rigorous mountain hikes. One day Continue reading

QA 46. Motion of confidence (Part 1)

I’ve been thinking about confidence and security: how they are related, how they operate within intimate relationships, how we get it wrong and how we could do better. “Getting it wrong” is when one person’s insecurity undermines the other’s confidence, or one’s confidence reinforces the other’s insecurity, or any other twist of neediness, dependence and power. Continue reading

QA 44. Thinking about dignity

dig ni ty [L. dignus ‘worthy’] n. the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect

“Dignity comes from using your inherent human resources, by doing things with your own bare hands – on the spot, properly and beautifully. You can do that even in the worst of the worst situations, you can still make your life elegant.” Chögyam Trungpa

“Sometimes I feel that the more we feel like moral failures the more material possessions we adorn ourselves with. Yes, me included.” Khaya Dlanga

“Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible element in oneself and not striving towards it.” Franz Kafka

Dignity is inherent in human being. Self-evident and immeasurable, it is an aspect of the wonder of life which calls for honour and respect. There is dignity in one’s bearing, how one carries oneself. To have dignity is to have face. It shows in your eyes.

And yet dignity is vulnerable to insult, violence and loss. How is this possible? Continue reading