what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strategies for living?

“Reading someone like a book” is supposed to denote an easy penetration of someone’s motives and thinking. But in fact reading is an interactive process which depends not only on the reader but on the context and timing. I find that I get different things from rereading a book. Two years ago (almost to the day) I enjoyed the wry humour and scope of Michael Foley’ s The Age of Absurdity - why modern life makes it hard to be happy which mocks contemporary anguishes and values (an early chapter has the great title of “the righteousness of entitlement”). By coincidence I came across this US stand-up comedian who deals with the same issues.
But rereading Foley in the last few days showed me a depth I had missed the first time round. He criticises the generality of the six convergent values identified by Martin Seligman (the founder of the positive psychology movement) in his trawl of religions – justice, humaneness, temperance, wisdom, courage and transcendence. 
Do the classic texts , he asks, not give us more practical strategies for living ?” 
“The good news (he tells us on page 68) is that there are indeed such strategies. The bad news is that all of them are discouraged by contemporary Western culture”
The "strategies" are personal responsibility; autonomy; detachment; acceptance of difficulty; understanding; mindfulness; ceaseless striving; and constant awareness of mortality.
Drawing on philosophy, religion, history, psychology and neuroscience, Foley then explores the things that modern culture is either rejecting or driving us away from:
  • Responsibility – we are entitled to succeed and be happy, so someone/thing else must be to blame when we are not
  • Difficulty – we believe we deserve an easy life, and worship the effortless and anything that avoids struggle (as Foley points out, this extends even to eating oranges: sales are falling as peeling them is now seen as too demanding and just so, you know, yesterday …)
  • Understanding – a related point, as understanding requires effort, but where we once expected decision-making to involve rationality, we moved through emotion to intuition (usually reliable) and – more worryingly – impulse (usually unreliable), a tendency that Foley sees as explaining the appeal of fundamentalism (“which sheds the burden of freedom and eliminates the struggle to establish truth and meaning and all the anxiety of doubt. There is no solution as satisfactory and reassuring as God.”)
  • Detachment – we benefit from concentration, autonomy and privacy, but life demands immersion, distraction, collaboration and company; by confusing self-esteem (essentially external and concerned with our image to others) with self-respect (essentially internal and concerned with our self-image), we further fuel our sense of entitlement – and our depression, frustration and rage when we don’t get what we ‘deserve’
  • Experience – captivated by the heightened colour, speed, and drama of an edited on-screen life, our attention span is falling and ‘attention’ (at least in the West) is something we pay passively rather than actively and mindfully:

From a recent blog discussion, I noted this interesting perspective -
 I think we need to address the question with our own actions, the things we do that make life worth living. Verbs, not nouns. When I think of how I would answer the question, the following behaviors come to mind:
Creating: Writing, drawing, painting (though I’m not good at it), playing music (though I’m not especially good at that, either). For others, it might be inventing something, building a business, coming up with a clever marketing campaign, forming a non-profit.
Relating: It’s not “family” that makes life worth living, I think, but the relationships we create with members of our family, and the way we maintain and build those relationships. Same goes for friends, lovers, business partners, students, and everyone else.
Helping: Being able to lend a hand to people in need – however drastic or trivial that need may be – strikes me as an important part of life.
Realizing: Making, working towards, and achieving goals, no matter what those goals are.
Playing: Maybe this is a kind of “relating”, but then, play can be a solo affair as well. Letting go of restraints, imagining new possibilities, testing yourself against others or against yourself, finding humour and joy.
GrowingLearning new things, improving my knowledge and ability in the things I’ve already learned.
Those seem like more satisfying answers to me – they strike deeper into what it is I want for myself, what makes it worthwhile to get up in the morning.
The Guardian is currently trying to give its readers some understanding of the nation which is now in the driving seat of the "European project" and indeed of our futures - Germany. I have several times on this blog remarked on how seldom this effort of understanding our neighbours (their culture and history) is made in British books or journals - with most of the accessible literature being humorous accounts of setting up home in rural France or Spain (occasionally Italy). I'm not particularly impressed with the Guardian series - no mention, for example, of the two recent writers who have tried to do the country justice (Simon Winder and Peter Watson).
But this article about one region's attitudes to saving and spending is useful.   

No comments:

Post a Comment