Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Towards a Personal Philosophy

The Human Condition
(In pursuit of a Personal Meaning)
It would seem logical to state that as we get older we should get a little wiser, that we should have learnt from our grosser mistakes, that we should grow more tolerant, that hard-held opinions become somewhat softened, that we might begin to slough off some of our prejudices, that we might end up being more open to the world with all its myriad traditions, cultures and colours. However, logic is just one small constituent of the overall complexity that forms the human condition. I have already alluded to the fact of Multiply Intelligences spearheaded by the wonderful psychologist, Howard Gardner. Then we have the equally wonderful work of Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence – indeed, we are getting accustomed to using EQ (Emotional Quotient) as well as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) these days.

We are also well aware of the theory or hypothesis of the Two Sides of the Brain that the Left Side deals with the Mathematical/Logical part of our personality while the Right Side deals with the more creative aspects thereof. The concept of Right brain and Left brain thinking developed from the research in the late 1960s of an American psycho-biologist Roger W. Sperry. He discovered that the human brain has two very different ways of thinking. One (the Right Brain) is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture, then the details. The other (the Left Brain) is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981, although subsequent research has show things aren't quite as polarized as he once thought (nor as simple).

What I am getting at is how complex the human condition really is. No one is quite obviously 100% psychologically sound. No family is either. In fact we all belong to families which are to various and differing extents dysfunctional. Obviously some are more dysfunctional than others, and hence we have a wide variety of psychological and indeed psychiatric pathologies. Recently a good friend gave me a present of a book of Richard P. Feynman’s (the famous Nobel physicist) collected letters which I shall review in these pages before long, and I found this interesting but profound quote therein: “In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.” (Don’t You Have Time To Think? Penguin Books, 2005, p. xiv.)

However, Feynman was not the first to come with this idea. This “uncertainty” principle, if I may call it that, has a long philosophical tradition dating back to Socrates, maybe even before, who refused to accept anything as obvious and who set about questioning everything, and especially the opinions and prejudices of all his listeners. For Socrates truth, whatever it might be, was always more complex that at first sight.

Life is terribly complex. The truth is neither plain nor simple. Human beings are terribly complex. Their truth is neither plain nor simple. The most fascinating thing in life is meeting others, getting to know them and trying to communicate in meaningful ways with them. Over 27 years of teaching I have never yet met two similar pupils. They are all uniquely different and show a host of varying and differing reactions and feelings. Likewise, in my own personal relationships, I have always found interacting with others the most meaningful of human pursuits.

Teaching is above all about communication. The process of communicating knowledge is always as important, if not more so, than the facts of knowledge communicated as it were. Facts do not really exist “on their own out there in their own world” without the human context and their meaningful communication. Hence today we stress the priority of “Process” over “Content.”

Living is all about communication. Hence, life is exceptionally burdensome, stressful and angst-ridden for any person who has problems with social interaction. In this regard, teaching today has come of age, in so far as other ancillary supports like Special Needs acknowledge, albeit a little too late, this undeniable fact. We have had enacted here in Ireland the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act 2004 and Disability Act 2005. The Department of Education and Science allocates both Resource Teachers and Special Needs Teachers to schools where there is such need. We deal with a host of complex problems like Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, to name but a few, in our modern schools.

What brought all the above to mind was an interesting juxtaposition of two eccentric characters – one dead, the other still living. As I was meditating on what I might write as regards the wonderful little novel called Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger my mind wandered to another equally eccentric recluse called Howard Hughes, both complex but interesting human beings. Admittedly they were both recluses and highly eccentric, odd and very unusual. They are at the extremes of human behaviour I suppose. However, their eccentricities and strangeness did not, thankfully, go to the extremes of unacceptable public behaviour, or of crimes against other human beings indeed. Nevertheless they serve to illustrate how complex the human being is.

So far in my life (48 years) I have known a college friend who ended her own life, a past-pupil who did so, several acquaintances who have self-harmed, many depressed people (including myself – I was diagnosed with Endogenous or Unipolar Depression when I was 40 and was hospitalized to find the right medication), several Manic or Bipolar Depressives, quite a few alcoholics, several schizophrenics, some former drug addicts, others with various personality disorders (schizoid loner in one case), several with OCD, others who have attempted suicide and so on and so forth, as they say. An interesting book to read on human beings in their multiple complexities would be Painful People by the Australian psychiatrist Joseph Dunn (Gill and Macmillan, 1997). Obviously, I know many other people who do not seem to have any of these more obvious problems, but I’m equally sure that as human beings they have other problems that are unrecognized. I am sure that they are all subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet put it, that, they too, suffer from doubts, from mood swings, from frustrations and from the sheer angst of living etc. Life is never easy, but as we go through it we learn to cope. As we get older, we generally acquire more coping skills.

I think it was St Augustine who said that the world should be a hospital which sought to heal all the wounded souls that lived in it. I like the metaphor. We should each be a doctor or a nurse or a healer to each other. That makes sense to my mind after 48 years of living on this earth. That’s what makes life rich and enriching. We should each seek to communicate with others in ways which are essentially healing. Why should we hurt other human beings or even other sentient living creatures? That’s why Christ and the Buddha have always appealed to me. We should have compassion on others. We should love others. Why should we add any evil acts to a world already over-flowing with such? We should each bring a little healing to our fellow travellers along the pilgrim way, if I may use religious imagery. For those of you of a more agnostic bent, please remember it is just a metaphor.

Indeed, this is very miracle of life – that it is so complex, that human beings are equally non-rational (as distinct from irrational which is a totally different concept) as rational creatures, can be irrational at times, that they have hopes and dreams, weaknesses as well as strengths, passions and pleasures and well as pains and sufferings. The only way to live life is to be open to the complexity-in-mystery that it is, to greet it with acceptance when understanding fails, to fight for justice when necessary, to seek peace where disharmony reigns and to have compassion on all, especially on oneself. To finish this long meandering post with a little wisdom I learnt from Montaigne long ago – “learn to be a friend to others, but above all learn to be a friend to yourself!”

Above is a picture I took of a small statue cum fountain in St Stephen's Green four years ago. It's not a brilliant photograph, but it says something about the human condition, I feel.


Hessian Pepper said...

Reading your blog, I wondered if you might know of any philosophers who have written about intellectual disabilities? There seems to me to be a dearth of consideration of the issues raised therein, despite current interest in the philosophy of other subjugated groups (e.g. gender theory, class theory, queer theory).

TQ said...

I agree totally. I know of nothing written on the philosophy of intellectual disability. Maybe you yourself Hessian will be the pioneer in this field. Perhaps taking a look at what the spirituality of disability has to offer might prove a jumping off point for at least one avenue of exploration. I am thinking of the writings of Jean Vanier of the L'Arche Community. His reflections are more spiritual than philosophical, but are they closely linked?