No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Living Vulnerably


My daughter has asked me to get back to posting on this blog too. So, I begin by posting a couple of things originally posted on Facebook as a note.

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I casually made a comment on Facebook last week about living a life of vulnerability without weakness. Florentien thanking me for saying it got me thinking.

Here's the truth: I spent just under a decade setting up, and living a career in academia. That decade closes with me leaving that career after facing the truth that it is not my best path. To put it that way sounds cheesy, and so may diminish my meaning, but mostly my choice is just inexplicable. So, I won't waste time trying to explain it. Though I have clearly had success as an academic, it was no longer what I wanted to devote my life to. Still, I in no way regret the decade I've spent developing as a person in these ways. It has made me who I am, given me innumerable gifts, and I am grateful.

People come to understand themselves through the activities of their days, and the associations they develop. In letting go of these things we have to discover ourselves in new ways--to find new ways we would wish to behave, and new people we will spend our time with, or at least to spend time with the same people in new ways. When we leave a career we simply do not see those people we worked with everyday with the same frequency, and the opportunities to talk with each other about work drift away. Much of the time these changes mean having to develop new friendships too. In terms of activity, when we let go of one job, we must learn the demands of the new one. In all of these cases we live in a state of vulnerability as we make the changes--having to experience ourselves in new ways. These changes also produce stress within ourselves as we must respond with greater awareness when the things we are doing are new to us.

In letting go of my graduate program, and now also my university teaching career, I am living in a state of vulnerability, most obviously because of the changes I am making as described above. But also because in making such changes ones understanding of their own identity also changes. I am having to find all over again some of the ways I am going to choose to be as a person.

My horoscope for this weekend advised that it was best for me to cultivate stillness as I wait to discover the best path forward. This choice was posed in contrast to trying to run around and do many things to see which might work out for the best. I believe the idea of stillness here presents a notion of vulnerability as well. Many of us when faced with stress respond by focusing on what we will do to deal with the trial we face. The idea described in the horoscope, however, was asking me to instead concern myself with how I will be, and then went on to state that it was only from that focus on how I am being in the world, that I could then come to discover the best thing to do. The horoscope, I believe, was an invitation to see how I can behave better by caring about the how of who I am.

In the last months I have chosen to make a kind of leap of faith. I have felt compelled to give up what no longer feels right for me, and to step slowly forward into something new. Part of what is profound in this experience for me is how clearly I cannot predict what the something new will be. What I've realized is that it my willingness to live in the delicacy of that not-knowing that is the important part of the something new. I will surely go on to do many things, some of which will define who I am as a person. But I believe that more foundational to who I am than any of those things I will turn out to do is my willingness to slow down and live in this state of intuition, trust, faith in something inexplicable, and, through these things, of choosing for myself even if I cannot explain what I am choosing. The contrast I am presenting here is against choosing what it seems like I should do whether because of our current economy, or because I am an only parent, or because I had a job so I should just keep it, etc, or even because teaching was something I was good at so I should just keep doing it.

I have spent the last five years teaching Ethics, and also reflecting on what I believe to be the most important ethical question--what it means to live a good life. This has moved me deeper and deeper into my own ideas arising out of a kind of Aristotelian virtue ethics, through which I have come to see a defining emphasis on process, rather than merely result. Aristotle helps us to see that virtue is something that develops over time, only by us having the right orientation (caring for the right things), and also by doing the right things. We discover too though that we can only determine what is right to do through a thorough grounding in the actualities of our lived lives. That we cannot predetermine a rule book to then just be applied to whatever situation we find ourselves in. As a result, being good depends upon us cultivating our own awareness of ourselves, our tendencies, and our surroundings. But also, Aristotle shows us that we must practice being who we want to be to become that person. It is through our choices, and our ability to follow through on them that we develop our character. The doing of our lives, then, turns out to be important. But we can only choose rightly if we understand how we want to be as people too. Our best actions arise out of knowing what we care about.

I can say by now that I have been living a life that shows me to be capable in numerous ways, one of which is having the strength to persist, and to keep loving in the midst of great challenges, or hardship. I am so grateful to be such a person. It is something that matters to me. By now though too I have learned that the only way for me to be able to continue to persist in the midst of hardships is to admit to the feelings of fear, of insecurity, of uncertainty that come with such hardships. That sometimes I worry that I suck too. I have come to feel that it is my willingness to live in honesty with such feelings that I have and can continue to have the strength to risk radically changing my life as I am doing now, among other things. I believe this because I believe it is through our willingness to connect with each other that we find what makes living through hardship worthwhile. That is, each other. And that it is in being honest that the things I do in my life are hard that I can be open in other ways too, like expressing joy and appreciation for others, which is what allows any of us to actually connect. But also that it is because my openness comes from an honesty about the complexities of who I am--risk-taking and fearful, capable and scared--that I can be open with my vulnerable places without being weak, or unsafely exposed while vulnerable.

This is a lot of what I mean when I claim that we can live a vulnerability that is not weakness, and to state it even more strongly, that we can actually cultivate a vulnerability that is strength. In these ways I believe it is possible for us to find our greatest strength, our most creative capabilities from being willing to live our lives as our most human--simultaneously vulnerably open, and righteously capable. That is, avoiding the pretenses that deny that we are limited, that we are exposed and affected by each other, that even at our most successful we are still only mortal and trying to accomplish what we can in our lives. In these ways, choosing how we will be, and so from that discovering what it is best for us to do.

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