What is life all about? What should be my goals? How do I live? What things are worth doing, worrying about, striving for? What is true? What is not? Is there absolute truth?
Twelve years of organized primary (Catholic) and secondary (government school) education, four years at a state-run military academy, and twenty years in the United States Air Force, a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, supercharged by the free-flowing information through modern media have taught me this:
Distrust 99% of what you have been told is true.
The education and knowledge I have received is tainted by institutional and personal biases, human error, as well as cultural memes and norms. We as humans are flawed, and so are our truths. For now, I will call this flow of knowledge, news, and norms a “Sea of Goo.” I have been treading in this Goo Sea for many years. Right now, you may be paddling like hell to stay afloat in it.
Fortunately, I have found what I think is that 1% of material that floats above this sea. I guess I’ve built a pontoon to float on the Goo Sea (see picture below). Finding these materials has taken many years, much study, steady progress toward knowledge, and certainly some mistakes along the way.
Just about 15 years ago, I drifted and bumped into Zen, Buddhist philosophy, and Eastern thought. Finding Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings about the Four Noble Truths of suffering and the Eight Fold Path were salve for my 20’s wounds. I found a buoy to hold onto…I was floating, and what a relief. In short, Zen taught me that everything is temporary, that our perceptions of things are affected by our own judgments, and that our desires are never fulfilled; as humans, we are always on to the next craving. Seeing the world as it is, and calming our desires is essential to our happiness.
But certainly, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to be better, to accomplish, to be a champion of our own life, does it?
Then about 10 years ago, I began reading a long and, at first, arduous novel called “Atlas Shrugged”…It was worth the effort! Ayn Rand meticulously described heroic characters struggling for greatness in a system that seemed destined to destroy them. These characters created the greatness to be found in their society while that same society punished them for their greatness. I continued to read more of her work, and the theme remained the same. In Zen, I had come to understand that all accomplishment and perception is illusory, but yet I still felt that our human drive was very important. I knew that accomplishment was necessary to move me. When I was younger, simply being acknowledged with reward fed this need, but as I matured I knew that accomplishment meant something else. Rand’s work and philosophy, commonly known as Objectivism, clarified for me what accomplishment meant. Accomplishment was when my toil built, created or provided something for my fellow man (or woman…I mean “man” as in “mankind”). When I did this, it would create both intangible and tangible riches for me as well, and I needed to feel no guilt for accumulating either. To be heroic in life is not something to avoid, and to put forth an effort toward a goal is what moves us. This was the second buoy for me to hold onto in the Sea of Goo. I had water wings (I guess goo wings in this case).
So, was life illusory and empty as Buddhism describes or was true good found in heroic accomplishment, like Objectivism prescribes? I thought both, but I had difficulty meshing the two outlooks.
..and then I found Stoicism.
As I continued to live my life with equanimity and heroic drive, I felt that I was “stoically” working for myself, my family, and my community. I was familiar with the term “Stoic,” and I felt that this is what I was: A Stoic. However, it wasn’t until less than 5 years ago that I made a concerted effort to discover what Stoic philosophy prescribes. I was reading one of my favorite blogs by Dr. Doug McGuff and John Little on body-by-science.net, and one of the commenters recommended a book: “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irvine. Reading this book led to my interest in just about all of the Stoic philosophers: Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, et. al. Stoicism is Zen-like in its concept of reality: that suffering exists and is inevitable. However, it is more cerebral, rigidly rational. Like the Objectivist, the Stoic does not withdraw from life, but in fact participates fully, serving society to the maximum of her ability. The Stoic also enjoys simple pleasures and even fortunes made while always knowing that these things are all temporary. The Stoic is keenly aware that misfortune and struggle will befall you eventually. Further, the Stoics have taught me that there are things that I can control and things that I cannot, and there is nothing I can do about it. Once you are keenly aware of this fact, you can cope with what life sends you. In this I have found the bedrock buoy, the one that floats me well above the “Sea.”
I have my raft…I hope I can provide some material for yours.