Living the examined life is not so easy. To be an original, to create a life of your own design, to parse, weight and scale where and how you can best contribute is not so easy. To write your own marching orders, to look and ponder, to surmise and re-evaluate is not so easy. Whether you’ve always had in mind this intention — and even see it as an obligation or, startled, realized that too much of your life “just happened,” there’s much to think about, plan for and do.
Think about it. When you choose to create a life of your own design, you must accommodate all those commitments already undertaken. There’s the normal pressure of what’s expected of you, of course, the standard exterior clash of wills with those who have claims upon you or those upon whom you make claim. What do you owe those who contribute to your support? And what do you owe those who depend on you? And then there are, of course, the ever-vigilant conventions and rules that apply to you and everyone else, no matter what.
But you must also come to grips with all the conflicting data that surrounds the examined life. How do you honestly know your own mind and the calls upon it? Can it really “stand back” and examine itself?
Part of the problem is that we see things as WE are, not as THEY are.
This recognition is key to success with creating a life of our own design. Why? Because the ability to envision, evaluate, assess, project and correct, etc., is remarkably and extensively determined by our subjectivity. Let me tell you what I mean.
Are our eyes impartial? No. And we don’t sense sound and taste, for example, with impartial ears and tongues. Are our minds impartial? No. We don’t sense phenomena objectively. Sensing is a feature of our subjectivity, not an objective process.
Our grasp of what’s going on is a comprehension based chiefly on the automatic, reflexive grab of biology, education, conditioning, experience, unfriendly or friendly persuasion and the intoxicating mickeys life slips us. We were inserted, fitted, hammered and seduced into the mix of things that exist interior or exterior to us. And this comprehension becomes a significant piece of the mind’s “I” with which we interpret and engage life.
Parents do their best to shape their children in a particular, thoughtful way, as do schools. Amid this careful rearing and schooling, however, something else equally impressive and equally influential is going on. Children’s senses — their eyes, ears, bodies and minds — are also connecting to, for instance, color, sound, vibe, heft, authority and countless other phenomena that also knuckle-mold their “take” on life.
In virtually every social situation, young children have a feeling for who has the power, who rewards and punishes, who and what should be avoided, as well as for what is of value, what is esteemed and what they say, in effect, sucks.
Also, on much of the turf where they observe, play and interact, children sense that it is a mistake to appear clueless, unknowing, curious or unsure. Inadvertently, involuntarily and uncontrollably, then, a reckless (or anxious) certainty and hard-to-deal-with willful cockiness may replace the inquiring mind. We could say that youngsters, by virtue of what they have sensed, already have a point of view about life or a mindset though they would not be able to articulate it as such.
By the time that significant choices need to be made, this is the subjectively owned furniture occupying the mind of children turning into teens and teens turning into adults. The old furniture stays put unless the pieces are consistently upgraded by, for example, the conscientious acquisition and virtuous practice of wisdom and judgment.
Won’t everyday life be much better lived if you just put your mind to a little remodeling and upgrading of its furniture?
Yet, in part because of this inadvertent closing of the mind, most of this furniture remains unexamined, untested, unevaluated. We tend to put more attention on trying to get what we’re supposed to want than on creating a life of our own design.
Nonetheless, we don’t have to surrender to the way that we have always been or to the first wave of habituated responses. Each of us has the ability to be an original, to stamp our own will on our condition and circumstance.
And this need to examine and perfect who we are, to see a bigger picture, be a bigger person and make a bigger contribution is a predicament that virtually every one of us faces. If the truth be told, our shot at living a meaningful life, that is, exercising our freedom, creativity and originality within the experimental framework of America’s vision of individual freedom, is usually directly correlated to our philosophy and skill with the competent practice of autonomy. This has everything to do with the perspective we have and the substance we have. Without such skill, our experience is often one of agitation, awkwardness and uncertainty. Worse, we look for relief from this instability and misfit in the reflexive familiarity of our biological immediacy and conditioned mindset, neither of which we thoughtfully authored or govern.
But as we begin to exercise our freedom to mediate this subjectivity, exciting new possibilities for intellectual happiness and for life and lifestyle emerge. This is what comes of taking a fresh look at the subjective manner in which we recognize ourselves, our resources (including our minds) and our moral, civil and rational character or identity.
As it turns out, our choices — what we attend to and what we care about — reflect the extent to which we have taken responsibility for our autonomy and life.
When we take up the opportunity and challenge of our autonomy, indeed, when we see a bigger picture, we are bigger persons in the sense that the furniture of the mind, once cluttered, cobwebbed and unmovable, becomes amenable to design and purposeful arrangement. As a result of our focused effort to live an examined life, we can expect to enjoy both a new spontaneity and a range of emotional control that better match the demands of the complex and uncertain world in which we live.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. This coursework offers a philosophic perspective, strategies, vocabulary and intellection for acquiring a life of our own design. As an American Philosopher, this work stands firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity for not just living our life but for owning our life. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.