Life's Owner's Manual, Part Two

I wrote previously on the high value of composing one's own life's owner's manual, or life philosophy, or - to put it differently - on the value of leading an examined life. I argued that one should not simply adopt some ready-made philosophy of life via religion, philosophy, ideology, etc. but do the work of discerning their life's philosophy for themselves. That statement warrants at least one major qualification, however. 

In arguing that one should not adopt wholesale prefabricated philosophies of life, I am not arguing that they are out of bounds entirely, or that one should not borrow from them freely. In fact, I would argue that it may be essential to study at least some religious and philosophical systems, along with the various accumulated treasures of culture, in order to compose a substantive philosophy of life. 

For one thing, most people don't appear intelligent enough to do this sort of work without simply adopting the philosophies of life they inherit from their cultures and communities. They grow up with a certain religious teaching, for example, and they rely on that particular philosophy of life for as long as they live. And hopefully it serves them well. It may also be that a great many people, though not lacking in intelligence, simply don't have the time or opportunity to work on their own individual philosophies of life, and so, again, they simply adopt whatever was handed to them. It's worth saying that people who simply live according to the philosophical, moral, and practical teachings of their cultures - and who do so sincerely and well - are not deserving of scorn and contempt because they didn't compose their own unique "life's owner's manual."

Having said that, I still believe that to do this work for oneself is the highest and best path, if one can manage it. But there are at least two other reasons to lean upon the cultural, religious, and philosophical traditions of the past. First and most simply, you cannot simply invent a personal philosophy in a vacuum. You have to know what at least some other people thought about things. In fact, the more you know, the better informed you will be. So why not study the great religious texts? Why not study the great philosophers from all around the world? Why not learn about the philosophy of science and about all that science has shown us about the world, so far?

Second, though, and perhaps just as importantly, we need to lean upon received traditions because we are simply too changeable and unreliable, otherwise. Which is to say that, even though we may decide one day what we believe, or what we resolve to do and to be with a perfect sense of clarity and calm, most of us are highly inclined to forget about that a week later, or a month later, or six months later. We get distracted or swept away by our feelings or circumstances, and our prior commitment to some nascent philosophy of life gets forgotten of misplaced. 

This is precisely the genius of religion. Religions know what they're doing, and that's why the great religious traditions insist that their adherents gather on a regular basis, and memorize scriptures and creeds, and engage in practices like prayer and meditation that literally rewire the human brain. The great religions know that, for most of us, our best intentions notwithstanding, we inevitably forget to live the lives we once determined to live - the truly great lives envisioned in our philosophies of life - simply because we forget to do so, or because something else captures our attention like a dog chasing a squirrel. And so we need help. 

For my own part, I have spent the better part of my life reading in philosophy, theology, science, history, politics, etc. I started out as a Christian and explored every nook and cranny of Christianity I could find, but that led to explorations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. One thing leads to another. Just before I left the church I started down the path of Taoism and Zen. I discovered Chuang Tzu and then T'ao Ch'ien, both of whom spoke to me, maybe more than anyone else ever had. At the same time I got into Montaigne, and his voice seemed very much like theirs. I discovered the Taoist-rooted tradition of Ch'an from which Zen sprung, and which seemed truer and better to me than Zen. And I also fell in love with Roman Stoicism, particularly as expressed by Seneca. 

This path has seemed endless (endlessly wonderful to me, but maybe not always so much to the people around me), full of false starts, backtracking, stumbling, falling, ecstasy, frustration, confusion, and joy. Mostly joy. I needed to get free of the church to truly follow the path, and was immeasurably fortunate to have done so. But I would never deny that being in the church was also part of the path. 

My personal philosophy of life, such as it is, is rooted very much in my personality and personal inclinations. It's rooted in the soil of Appalachia from which I came, and rooted in the life of the woods in which I grew up. If it gravitates around anything, that would be my love of science and scientific epistemology. But it goes beyond science, for the simple reason that, though I would never wish to believe anything contrary to our best science, science simply cannot speak to every need of human life. 

My personal philosophy is deeply Stoic. But am I a Stoic? Probably not, at least not by anyone's textbook definition of the word. It's deeply Taoist. But am I a Taoist? Again, probably not. This philosophy of life is also deeply Western, which is to say rooted in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, Western European, and also American civilization in which I find myself. Leaving off the great religions and theologians of the ages, my personal philosophy is also no doubt shaped just as much by the music, the poetry, the movies, television series, and novels I have enjoyed, not to mention many fortunate family relationships and friendships, unexpected conversations, and life experiences. 

If I'm being honest, when someone asks me what religion or philosophy I follow, I say I'm a "Mattist," which is to say that I have my own personal philosophy which probably isn't reducible in a simple way to something else. If they're interested in the details of "Mattism" - they never are, of course - I can talk about growing up in Appalachia, being formerly a Christian, the way that Taoism resonates with my mountain upbringing, the incredible practical value I've found in Stoicism, etc. Mostly, though, I suppose my philosophy of life ought to be a thing expressed in the way I live, and not in words like these. I describe this personal philosophy here, though, because I want to offer an example of what I mean to say to you, namely that you are capable of composing your own life's owner's manual in your own way and according to your own style, but I hope you will never feel constrained from diving into the wisdom and joys of the innumerable philosophies that have come before you. They are there for the taking, and I hope you will feel free to drink from those wells as deeply as you may like. I hope they will be most profitable to you. 


Life's Owner's Manual

It might be nice if we were all given, at birth, something like an owner's manual for life. Perhaps such a manual would include warnings about possible errors and missteps, frequently asked questions about human existence, and step-by-step guides on how to accomplish major life tasks. Perhaps it would also include a checklist of all the things a person must do, in order to truly live well. Perhaps each manual could include a personalized checklist just for the individual to whom it was given. One section could be titled: "All The Things EVERYONE Must Do, To Live Well", instructing us to learn how to make a living, to learn how to get along with others, to develop our sense of humor, to find our courage, etc. The next, individualized, section could be titled: "What YOU Have to Do, To Live Well". Perhaps one person would be required to become an artist, while another would be required to go to war. Perhaps one person would be required to get married, or travel, or to pursue greatness, while another would be forbidden from doing these things at all costs.

No such perfect manual exists, of course, notwithstanding the claims made on behalf of certain religious or philosophical texts. And yet, it may be argued that there is at least one thing we know is required of us, if we wish to live fully and well. And that requirement is, in effect, to write our own Life's Manual. Because no one is simply going to hand us such a thing, we have to compose it for ourselves. 

To put this another way, if we truly wish to live well, we must lead examined lives. We must consider who we truly are, and what we truly believe about ourselves and our world, and discern how to act accordingly, to the degree it's in our power to do so. We must wrestle with certain fundamental questions, whether or not we ever actually find any answers. We must do more than merely what we're told to do or merely what we want to do, more than merely float along the random currents into which we happened to be spawned.

Yet another way of saying this is, we must each compose our own philosophy of life, our own chosen way of seeing things and deciding things, our own chosen priorities, passions, and commitments.   

After all, what's the alternative? Not to compose your own philosophy of life is simply to allow others to do it for you, and they will almost certainly not do it as well as you would, because no one knows you better than you know yourself. Not to compose your own philosophy of life is to risk getting to the end of life filled with regret over the greatest missed opportunity imaginable, the opportunity of your very existence.

It's also not enough merely to sub-contract the composition of one's philosophy of life to some supposedly higher power or ideology, which is just another version of letting someone else do for you what you should do for yourself. If you do adopt a ready-made religion, ideology, philosophy, or tribal identity (as most of us actually do), it is still you, yourself, who made that choice. At the very least, you ought to know why you did so, and have reasons for that choice worthy of both yourself and of your adopted perspective. But even then, your own unique personality and life circumstances will demand your own unique discernment. They will present countless challenges for which only you can find the best and truest response. 

This all entails a great deal of work and a great deal of risk, of course. Lacking the aforementioned perfect life's manual, there's no guarantee that, having done what will surely be the work of a lifetime in composing our own, we will have done it wisely or correctly. We may muck it up, and this will be painful, because we made the choice to take responsibility to do it, ourselves. Yet there can be no doubt that the rewards outweigh the risks. Not to discern one's life philosophy is like standing in line for hours at an amusement park, waiting around for a ride that may or may not be thrilling for a moment or two (or may simply cause you to vomit). But doing the work required to discern a life philosophy is like climbing a mountain or sailing to some undiscovered coast, an actual adventure. It's the difference between sitting in a movie theater for two hours, passively experiencing a simulation of life, or actually living the kind of life that's worthy of movie treatment (or at least a rousing eulogy).

To compose one's philosophy of life is hopefully to make a poetry of one's life. It is to ask life's questions in one's own inflection, to answer them on one's own terms, to live as authentically as possible, hopefully draining life to the dregs before it's all said and done.  

And if considerations of this sort prove insufficient to motivate us to this sacred pursuit, it should also be remembered that it's a privilege most human beings have not fully enjoyed. Most people, past or present, are too occupied with basic survival, or contending with whatever oppressive systems that stand over them, to shape and follow their philosophies of life as much as they might like. This is not to say that those living in poverty or lacking in education are incapable of discerning their philosophies of life, because that is far from true But it is to say that the task may be far more restricted and restrained for them than they could wish. 

What excuse is there, then, not to do this? Finding that no one has handed us a manual for life at birth, but finding that we, instead, have the means and the opportunity to compose our own, we must consider ourselves most fortunate. We may find that we need to revise our philosophies of life many times. We may find them outdated as life's circumstances change, or simply dead wrong. We may find that over time they get lengthier and more complex, or shorter and simpler, or that one philosophy of life has to be scrapped altogether, so another may be composed. But we may also find that these many revisions are themselves an adventure and a joy, never attaining anything like perfection but experiencing true bliss in the attempt. And it may be justly hoped that, having simply done our best to live in this way, we will reach our life's ends knowing the universe gave us one great opportunity, to live well, and that we did not pass it by. 

Life's Owner's Manual, Part Two

I wrote previously on the high value of composing one's own life's owner's manual, or life philosophy, or - to put it differentl...