Earlier this year, it dawned on me that most people cannot articulate what their core values are. That is, what are the values they have used to structure and build their lives upon. I realized that I could only barely describe in a couple of vague sentences what my core values are. Complicating the matter, I believe most people are often deluded about their values, or mistaken, or just plain refuse to admit that their core values are the values they live by, the things they will sacrifice for.
This state of affairs is not that surprising. How to live has been confusing people for millennia. Despite (or because of) no definitive answer, this question is sadly ignored. Philosophy and ethics are not great matters of cultural debate. Corporate mainstream media promote a vision of consumerism. It is trite to say that consumerism does not lead to lasting fulfillment or happiness. The question remained what would. Thus, I found myself trying to discover or develop a philosophy of life that I could practically implement.
At first, I did not know I was looking to develop a philosophy of life. I felt unmoored and without a coherent understanding of my life. Of course, I had ideas about how to live an ethical life – treat people as you would want to be treated, for example – but these random strands of ethics did not amount to a fulfilling vision of an ethical life.
And so off I went searching. Primarily in books, but also in the world and in myself. For a philosophy of life, or: (i) a set of ethical beliefs one can use to understand the world, themselves, and their actions; (ii) an ethical system that can be used to practically plan how one wants to live.
Being bored is out of fashion and has been for some time. Business is a badge of honor for the modern professional class, regardless of actual occupation. Parenthood is portrayed as an never-ending series of emotional, physical, and mental challenges and obstacles. We all hear stories of children no longer allowed to have unstructured play time or being pushed outdoors, left to entertain themselves. Life seems to come in waves with occasional reprieves between the swells, surf breaks pushing and pulling all of us this way and that.
The business of modern life seems an immutable fact, even as people become paralyzed by anxiety of daily life. I suggest trying to be bored again. Boredom, that is when the mind and body is idle, leads to unorganized thinking and creativity and contemplation.
Boredom forces the mind to wander. By it’s very nature, nothing is occupying the mind when bored, so it is free to have unstructured thought. A state of bored visualization, in fact, has a name: day dreaming. I am not the first notice this and more and more are calling attention to the role of boredom in creativity.
Our society does not value contemplation. This is reflected in numerous ways; almost no respect for the elderly and wisdom, ahistorical and cynical news coverage that has short or long-term memory, mindless pop culture that denigrates thought, reflection, and consideration. Contemplation comes about by repeatedly mulling over the same problem time. Boredom allows the mind over the various contours and divots of our thoughts, and gives room to think freely about the challenges in our lives. Whether a fleeting thought or more sustained meditation, I believe the bored mind more capably contemplates matter, because it is not rushed to come to any conclusion or insight. These same qualities allow for creativity as discussed above.
In fact, contemplation and creativity may just be two sides of the same coin and I sometimes question whether their differences are merely semantic. I don’t know if the distinctions collapse into one another; perhaps I will gain a better understanding the next time I am bored.
Facebook believes in the end of the written word:
Facebook is predicting the end of the written word on its platform. . . . “The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” Mendelsohn said. “It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information.”
I frankly just don’t understand this. Video has terrible information density. You can read the transcripts of a meeting, conferences, hearing, etc. in a much more rapid fashion than watching it on video. I am almost certain that you retain more of the information when you read it as well. The inexorable drive to reinvent every aspect of life simultaneously mystifies and exhausts me. I do not want to live in a world without writing or reading. The constant yammering of voices on TV, let alone cable news, gives me a headache and causes my eyes to glaze over. I find it almost impossible to learn anything other than what passes as the prevailing conventional wisdom. Words have value: they can quickly convey complex information and ideas, show great emotional depth, and be beautiful.
One of the biggest benefits of learning another language is the strong realization that language might limit our ways of interpreting the world. And that there certain ways of discussing the world or expressing oneself that may only be possible in certain languages and basically impossible in others (or the construction would be so stilted as to lose the original, intended meaning.) A recent article in the New York Review of Books discusses how Indo-European language’s emphasis on nouns creates certain problems related to what things do and do not actually exist, while the Chinese language’s emphasis on verbs avoids those problems:
A deeper kind of worry about our fondness for nouns occurs to me: does it happen, perhaps, that speakers of English are drawn to believe that certain things exist because nouns that serve as their labels exist? Might it be only the labels that exist? I read the anthropologist Hoyt Alverson who, in a good book on how time is conceived in English, Chinese, Hindi, and Sesotho, writes that the “ontogeny” of time is indeterminate. He explains “ontogeny” as meaning the “character” of something’s “being.” We have, then, the proposition that the character of the being of time is indeterminate. Do the nouns in this proposition refer to things that exist? In addition to time, is there a “being” of time? And if there is, is that being the kind of thing that can possess something else, as here it is supposed to possess a “character”? These problems are by no means Alverson’s alone; he writes in a way that is common in English. In Chinese, though, it is almost impossibly awkward to say “the character of the being of time.” A literal translation is opaque and would signal to a Chinese speaker that “this phrase came out of a Western language and you might well go there to figure out what it is supposed to mean.” Ancient Chinese philosophers did discuss “being,” but to do it they used the words you, “there is,” and wu, “there is not,” both of which are fundamentally verbs. By contrast ancient Greek thinkers often conceived their puzzles in terms of nouns: What is “justice”? “Beauty”? “The good”? And so on.
I wanted to see whether “assuming that things exist just because nouns that refer to them exist” might cause problems for serious Western philosophers. I read Colin McGinn’s book The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World about the “mind-body problem”—which, briefly put, is the problem of how “mental substance” and “physical substance” can affect each other. Although a major problem in Western philosophy since Descartes, the question has scarcely been noticed in the history of Chinese philosophy. I much admire McGinn’s writing; I chose him purposefully as a powerful representative for the West.
At one point in his book, McGinn focuses on the curious fact that our perceptions of the world are often perceptions of things in space, and yet the perceptions themselves occupy no space. He writes:
Consider the visual experience of seeing a red sphere two feet away with a six-inch diameter. The object of this experience is of course a spatial object with spatial properties, but the experience itself does not have these properties: it is not two feet away from you and six inches in diameter. …When we reflect on the experience itself, we can see that it lacks spatial properties altogether.
For me, the crucial phrase here is “the experience itself.” Is there such a thing? The noun “experience” exists, but that is not the question. Does the experience exist? We might feel intuitively that it does. But does that intuition arise, in part, from the grammatical habit of using nouns like “experience” and assuming that they refer to things? Classical Chinese poets see, hear, and feel in all sorts of ways—they have no trouble “experiencing.” But they find no need to talk about “experience” as a noun. The modern Chinese word jīngyàn, “experience,” was invented to accommodate Western language.