Coming Full Circle: Creating a Rich Life

Last spring I made the decision to move back to my hometown. I bought a share in a co-housing community located in the heart of my city. I said “goodbye” to rent, a mortgage, a car, all forms of debt and all the demands of my academic career. I said “hello” to daily meditation or yoga, daily reading and writing (including letters to friends!), bicycling advocacy and intellectual pursuits that satisfy my true interests and values.

Co-Housing & The Elderly 

Nearly every day I talk to my neighbors, most of whom are seniors. Retirees have time to talk to their neighbors. They have time to reflect on life. And they are, for the most part, finished with the business of acquiring money, status, looks and people to feed their egos. So, I am quite content living with people much older than I, though my choice is not a conventional one. I have always enjoyed the company of aged people, and I find it odd how society separates us from them.

Advocacy & Service

In the time I have been away my hometown has grown, distinguishing itself as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the nation. The same bike paths I used to ride on as a kid have expanded and now encircle the entire city. It is as though my own passion for cycling has grown up alongside my hometown. It is so strange, in a wonderful way. But perhaps it is not so strange. After all, this city formed me. It was here than I worked at my first bike shop and bought my first commuter bicycle.

This week I entered two elections: one for my city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, another for our Cooperative Housing Board. I volunteer for several wonderful organizations. On the weekends I work as an academic tutor for underprivileged 3rd graders. Sometimes I work as a mobile bicycle mechanic, fixing bikes in low-income neighborhoods. And lately I have been spending my afternoons painting my father’s house. In the Spring I will work as a Professor, teaching one small introductory philosophy class at the (downtown) community college. Half a lifetime ago I took my first philosophy class there!

Intellectual Needs

Though my academic career is not the center of my life, I am an intellectual, and so I fill my deep curiosity by going to talks at the university, engaging in discussion with my former students and colleagues or reading material from the university library. I also tune out a lot of the mass media in order to make room in my mind for more important ideas and concepts. Not having a Smart Phone or TV has helped me limit my participation in the present hysteria, so that I can focus on more meaningful endeavors. (No, I do not know Donald Trump’s latest theatrics. What is more, I do not care!)

Happiness

It is no wonder I have a growing sense of having come ‘full circle’. I am twice as old as I was when I left, but I am different and happier. Even though I do not work for pay full-time, I still experience stress and anxiety, especially social anxiety. I am an extreme Introvert who happens to love people; so, I am sometimes tired. Sometimes I get too busy, reverting to my old tendency to schedule every minute. But at least now I am able to slow down, savor the moment and appreciate everywhere I have been and where I am now.

Gracias world!

Sarah

 

 

 

Needs, Non-Distraction and Non-Conformity: Making Counter-Habits

Image Source

As I embark on a more simple and less technological way of life, I have been thinking about a tangle of concepts: ‘distraction’, ‘habit’, ‘nonconformity’ and — of all things! — Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. While I am not able to tie them all together here and now, I hope to thread some ideas together. After all, I am after better patterns.

Contrary to what I have written, I do find some psychology interesting. If we leave the rungs of Maslow’s pyramid vague (so as to account for situational and cultural differences), it is hard to disagree. Maslow’s basic idea is this: once we achieve shelter, clothing, sleep and nutrients; safety (including financial security, a measure of health and freedom from harm); social belonging and, finally, esteem or respect, then and only then can we finally achieve “self-actualization” and “self-transcendence” – the very marrow of life at the peak of the pyramid. By incorporating ‘self-transcendence’ into ‘self-actualization’, Maslow addressed some fair criticisms of his philosophy; in particular, that his story about human development is too narrowly focused on the evolution of the individual self, cutoff from her communities.

There are counterexamples to Maslow’s theory; for example, the self-transcendence Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps both basic fulfillment and extreme deprivation prompt self-transcendence. Or, better yet, perhaps extreme deprivation gifts us new values, while basic fulfillment affords us the opportunity to practice those values.

What is so interesting about this pyramid of needs (ordered from more fundamental to more refined) is how few people ever achieve the more foundational needs in their lifetime. Even in “developed” countries like the US, we bounce around the bottom levels, surviving instead of living.

I wonder why more of us are not focused on meeting our basic needs — those fundamental needs that are so essential to our well-being, both individually and as a society. Are we afraid of our own company, so much so that we pursue endless distraction? As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town (139).

Pascal overlooks another key force that works against self-actualization and self-transcendence; namely, conformity. Even though we Americans are more likely to encounter floundering consumers rather than flourishing citizens, we nevertheless conform. We want to belong, and distractions steal away the energy we require to counter our culture in meaningful ways.

But should “belonging” and “exciting distraction” be bought for the price of self-actualization and self-transcendence? Is it worth it? Or, in a society so obviously unhappy, is it better to seek non-conformity and to practice counter-habits? For it is habit — and only habit — that empowers us to live better, more meaningful lives.

Happy habit making!

Sarah

 

Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.

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Me and my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and dragged her to a commune!)

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Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit family. (What do I do when I camp alone? I read books and drink craft beer. See Part II of this post!)

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Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent a lot of time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on the ideas and arguments they learned throughout the term. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two simply talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). Only then can we achieve passionate conversation.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy in an institutional setting, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that militates against what we are trying to accomplish in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more free and deepening their humanity. So, I spend a lot of energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own internal standard. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I increasingly rely on observing people, institutions and my own self. I form my own impression, and I reflect. And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think. I do not enjoy “professing”. I will not discipline students, who are grown adults. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it! Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in Higher Ed, but I soldier on, so long as I believe I am doing something valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, easy means of transportation, excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom caused me misery. I invented ways to rid myself of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationships, etc. However, all these distractions made me more miserable.

Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing.

Happy 2018!

Sarah

Philosophy, Higher Education, Psychology and the Desert: Mental Illness and Society

This week I started teaching philosophy at Northern Arizona University, one of Arizona’s three public universities.

I am Arizonan. Although I went to UCLA for undergraduate and graduate school, I always felt guilty about that. My parents both went to the University of Arizona (in Tucson). Only my father graduated, with degrees in education and business. My mother, a psychology major, questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.

Over time, philosophers helped move the field of psychology forward. They formulated alternative models to behaviorism, drawing on ancient Greek traditions, especially Aristotle’s “functionalism”, which represents the soul or psyche as a set of non-material life capacities or functions.

I have never been terribly fond of psychology. It always seemed to me that ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said them better. There is a real wisdom in ancient traditions. The ancients were not constrained by modern science and its supposed moral neutrality.

How can we understand humans and human problems without considering the moral hue of things?

It is only my opinion, but our current mental health crisis should lead anybody to question the ability of psychological science to solve what are fundamentally social and societal problems — perhaps even spiritual problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological neuroses. We are sad and sick because societies and families are sad and sick, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual cognitive architecture.

So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma. People are traumatized because modern society is, in many ways, traumatic. Any real solution is a social solution, not an individual, psychological or biochemical solution. How do we create healthier communities? You cannot fix yourself, if you do not fix your community. This is the problem with treating individuals in isolation rather than treating communities.

The irony of my own trajectory is that I took my first philosophy class in Arizona, the very state I avoided going to college in. It was a community college video course, back before online courses. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the time, the sparse, Sonoran desert seemed to be asking me all kinds of questions. Perhaps the desert is a natural place to ponder timeless questions. It is a place of relative emptiness, and so there is room for a person (and her mind) to wonder and wander. There is space. There is time. There is the searing heat, too. It makes things shimmer.

I am always terrified when I start teaching. I remember my own college experience. I know what an impressionable time college is. I know what one professor can do for a student’s life. It is a scary thing. I always wonder whether I am rising to the task. I am always wondering, how do I reach them? I resist standardizing anything, because every class is different. Every student is different. We are fortunate as professors to be able to construct our own curricula, to react to the times and to our students.

Teaching in higher education is hard for so many reasons. One reason it is hard is because we professors so often internalize our disciplines. I have been doing philosophy for nearly half of my life. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about philosophy. I rely on my students to tell me when they do not understand. I worry that I am out of touch with them. But perhaps this is the perfect challenge for them and for me, when we try to reach each other across a divide.

Sarah