As a philosophical counselor, I work with many clients who are living as victims, who view every setback as a commentary on their life, who take it personally when things don’t go their way, who walk around expecting to be mistreated or wronged, who believe that life or the universe or fate has singled them out for misfortune. The odd thing is, as they talk about their experiences, they seem to be right. In many cases, bad luck appears to be dogging them, testing them to their limits, making their life miserable at every turn. Relationships, finances, health—it’s one thing after another, and they wonder what they’re doing wrong, and how they can change the sad and demoralizing story in which they feel trapped.
There are giveaways in the narrative. Those who adopt the victim stance don’t describe an adverse experience as “this,” but as “this, too” or “this, again.” Because they keep score, with every loss or setback, they bear the accumulated burden of all losses, all setbacks. Pain is never merely pain, for they suffer their pain acutely. They will recount another’s hurtful act as though it were personal, its effect premeditated—not “she did this,” but “she did this to me.” Overreaction and a readiness to feel put upon are the hallmarks of such a stance. Keys drop from their hands, machines fail, even traffic lights conspire against them. In moments of clarity, they realize they are their own worst enemy, that the hands about their throat are their own, but they see no way to gain access to the levers of choice, particularly in the heat of the moment when life is once again proving their most pessimistic assumptions. Sound familiar?
This tendency to take things personally is usually a sign of arrested development at an early age. Young children have a talent for believing that everything is about them, their responsibility, their fault. Because they have not yet developed a healthy will complete with boundaries, a sense of limitations, and the understanding that some gratifications have to be delayed, they feel entitled to have what they want when they want it, and feel aggrieved when things for one reason or another don’t go their way. Clients who are developmentally stuck in this stage need a way to resume their stalled development and grow up—and in far less time than it takes normally. They begin to shift out of victimhood and into a more spacious life when they accept that events are not personal, that no one wins all the time, that what looks like a loss or setback in the moment often turns out to have been good fortune in disguise, that as nothing in the great run-on sentence of our life is a conclusion, we do well to stop punctuating it with periods and exclamation marks that do nothing but ensure our misery.
A friend of mine once shared something she had heard: “When we’re 20, we care a great deal what others think of us. At 30, we don’t care as much what others think of us. At 40, we don’t care at all what others think of us, and at 50, we realize others aren’t thinking of us.” It may be in our nature to take things personally, to adjudge ourselves innocent for the same acts that we deem malicious when committed by others. We are all far more blameless than we may allow when we are living in the constricting coils of victimhood. Life may have brought us pain, and will again. When it does, it is saving to remember that we can choose to feel our pain without suffering it or carrying it forward, to acknowledge a hurtful moment, a loss, a setback without building a house there. Then, “this, too” or “this, again” can be just “this.” “She did this to me” can be “she did this,” nothing more, nothing worse.
What we dwell on, we dwell in. The ancient Stoics regarded the forces of fate and circumstance as “indifferent” to us, and advised us to meet them with the same indifference. One does not need to do this for long to see the wisdom in it.
28 February, 2019
Much of the work we do at PhilosophyCenter, both self-work and with clients in session, comes down to practicing the Socratic art of exposing and deconstructing “false opinion,” sometimes also referred to in Plato’s dialogues as “false knowledge” and even “false conceit of knowledge” in the Apology. This is because so much suffering is rooted in our being convinced that we know something that, in truth, we only think we know, something that upon careful and diligent examination, turns out to be what Socrates describes as a “wind baby,” a notion without substance. We suffer because we’ve given ourselves to false beliefs, and because we cling to them and are loathe to defer to the remedial truth that, in order to set us free, first must prove us wrong.
This is something a philosophical counselor or coach has to understand and approach with empathy and respect. Old beliefs die hard. It isn’t just a matter of our not wanting to be caught in an error or look bad. Beliefs are like living structures in the psyche as surely as nerves and vessels are living structures in the body. They become so much a part of us that letting go of a false opinion may be experienced as losing a part of who we are, and the greater the investment, charge, and identification, the greater the sense of loss. It takes character and not a little courage to care more about the truth than about one’s opinions, to be willing to give birth to a new understanding, and accept the mantle of responsibility that a new belief lays upon us.
Sometimes the opinion that turns out to be false, to have been false, involves spiritual or existential identity. It can change our view of partnership, disrupt longstanding unexamined assumptions about what matters, or revise our self-definition. In philosophical dialogue, there are no sacred cows; any belief that has become problematic, that is no longer working or has set us against the ineluctable truths of living, is fair game. It’s no wonder that even those who feel drawn to philosophical self-work often hit pockets of turbulence that may leave them feeling off-balance and uncertain about who they are and where to go next. A false opinion, caught in the dazzling light of Socratic scrutiny, may fall apart with no new and improved belief at the ready to replace it. When this happens it is helpful to remember that along the path of the examined life, there are times to not know, natural stretches of uncertainty out of which, in an unexpected hour, a new sense of self and world emerges as though from a chrysalis, one made lighter by having shed the lead weights of false opinion. We don’t have to know everything every moment. Becoming more aware has tides and seasons, cycles of ebb and flow that can be as daunting as they are rewarding. As a rule, however, the most daunting periods, those in which one feels lost or rudderless or beside oneself, are harbingers of epiphany, spontaneous insight, and liberating realization. To find buried treasure, one must dig deeply. In our experience, the treasure is always there to be found. All that’s required is that one love the truth more than one’s opinions, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sooner or later, life rewards the willingness to be more than we have been. And it is far better to be wrong and free than to live in a prison of complacency, however familiar it may have become.
For those who have the requisite love for the truth and the courage needed to venture into the unknown, the trappings of belief that as a rule are acquired in childhood fall away. In each new encounter with the truth, one sheds these old skins, becoming more defenseless and less encumbered, and it is a humbling paradox that we become wiser largely in knowing how little we know.
24 January, 2019
A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
| Alexander Pope, An Essay On Criticism
As the headlines each day confirm the increasingly damaging impact of climate change, only the most ignorant and complacent of us still refuse to acknowledge that the consequences of what passes for human civilization may be moving us toward the brink of global catastrophe, perhaps extinction. It is not the first time that we, as a species, have been summoned to confront what we have created. If Oppenheimer, Feynman, Szilard, Fermi, Bethe, and the others responsible for the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos had considered the longterm consequences of what they were unleashing, the Manhattan Project might never have happened—and how different our world would be today. There was a context, of course, within which developing the bomb made sense. The Germans were already at work on enriching uranium. Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt made clear that the Allies could ill afford to let the Nazis gain the atomic advantage, and therefore that the United States had no choice but to inaugurate what would become the nuclear arms race. Wielding the awesome power of science recklessly, not even knowing what to expect, they opened Pandora’s Box, perhaps setting history on a road with no turns and sealing the fate of humankind and the planet.
It did not take long for them to realize the enormity of what they had done. On 16 July, 1945 at the Trinity test site, upon witnessing the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, which yielded a roughly 20 kiloton explosion and sent a mushroom cloud towering nearly eight miles into the sky, Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test, said, “We’re all sons of bitches now.” Similarly appalled, Robert Oppenheimer, who had been chosen to head up the project, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” and when this “foul and awesome display,” as Bainbridge later described it, was reprised over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was stricken with a crisis of conscience that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Years later, Einstein, who had played no direct role in the Manhattan Project, said: “I made one great mistake in my life, when I signed the letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.”
At the time that he signed what would become known as “Einstein’s Letter,” which Fermi actually had written, Einstein saw “no other way out.” The situation was clear: Either we get the bomb first, or they do. Such reasoning is guilty of the fallacy of “false dilemma” in presuming that there are only two options, in this case both based on the assumption that successful development of the atomic bomb was a fait accompli, which it was not. There were other courses of action open. Roosevelt could have ordered aggressive steps to disrupt the German effort rather than throwing open the door to the proliferation of weapons capable of such monstrously destructive power that the future of humanity would hang in an increasingly precarious balance. The same binary logic was used to justify dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ostensibly to “save lives,” and end the war—but was there really no “other way out?” Japan already had been defeated by a merciless campaign of incendiary bombing under the orders of Gen. Curtis LeMay that had reduced all of its cities capable of producing the machinery of war to smoldering ruins, immolating hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.
When an overriding focus on technological capability is given unchecked license, it becomes possible to proceed with the unthinkable. But the fact that we can do something does not mean that we ought to do it. In these terms, the evolution of scientific knowledge and its technological spawn bears tragic witness to our corresponding failure to evolve socially, philosophically, and spiritually. Long before technology releases the vast power biding its time in the equations on the theorist’s blackboard, our wisdom or lack of it is setting the stage in ways that may have calamitous consequences. For better or worse, the awesome power of science and technology rests in the hands of a species that time and time again has proven itself too rash, too shortsighted, too reactive, and too violent to be entrusted with it.
The development of weapons of mass destruction is not the only example of heedless science. Another coming out of the quantum camp, the so-called Simulation Hypothesis, views the universe, including ourselves, as the encoded information of an advanced computer program running on supercomputers somewhere in the distant future. Taken seriously, the claim might be existentially disturbing were it not riddled with circular reasoning, slanting, and other fallacies that render it impotent, but that is beside the point. Theorists often put forth ill-conceived hypotheses and interpretations with little or no consideration for their real-world consequences. In light of the juggernaut of video games involving first-person shooters bobbing across virtual landscapes as they blithely commit increasingly lifelike acts of virtual carnage, one shudders imagining what the impact might be of the Simulation Hypothesis on certain unstable individuals upon hearing the idea that the physical reality around them, including other people, are mere simulations. All too frequent news of mass shootings suggest that there are a growing number of such individuals with ready access to automatic weapons who already have a sociopathic inability to recognize let alone empathize with others. Entering a school or shopping mall or place of worship “locked and loaded” for mass murder somehow constitutes for them what William James calls a “live option” in a way that for most of us would be incomprehensible. This is not to say that video games are either directly or solely the cause of such violence, or that the perpetrators of these shootings necessarily suffer from an inability to distinguish the real from the virtual. It is, however, to point out, that the suggestion that reality is a simulation is far more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution, because the simulated violence that sells video games has a desensitizing component over which developers do not appear to be losing much sleep.
The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken seriously by about twenty percent of the world’s leading physicists, may similarly contribute, even if unwittingly, to a devaluing of life by claiming that all versions of reality exist. Apart from the contradictions and other logical problems with the interpretation and despite the fact that many of the assumptions made by its most vocal proponents are baseless, there are the ethical implications that such a model tends to overlook. Nor does it do to argue that quantum interpretation is a highly specialized field, and as such, far removed from the mainstream where the moral question can take on life-or-death significance. In the age of the Internet, even sophisticated scientific ideas have a way of seeping down into the soil of popular culture where those exposed to them as a rule do not have the safeguards against misunderstanding enjoyed by their authors. Beyond this, as we noted earlier, there is the question of the difference one interpretation may make over another in the technological advances to which it inevitably leads—advances that affect the life and future not only of those who endorse it, but potentially the whole of civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. David Mermin’s instruction to physicists to “shut up and calculate” is an ignorant and negligent mandate, because how we understand and interpret and explain reality, the universe, and ourselves may well save or destroy us.
Mermin’s “shut up and calculate” follows from the fact that virtually all current interpretations of quantum mechanics are consistent with the same predictions, a position that hubristically presumes that predictions are all that matter. This is a serious problem for science and for all of us. As the ancient Greeks warned, hubris before the gods is a fatal mistake. In modern terms, we might say that whether or not we survive as a species, whether or not life and the planet have a future, depends on whether or not we will finally grow up and acknowledge that however much scientific knowledge we may accumulate, there is always a great deal that we cannot see about the forces affecting us. We cannot see what lies in the shadows or around the next corner, indifferent to our preconceptions. Hiding in the atom was the power to obliterate entire populations literally in a flash, and who can say what irremediable horror, “its hour come round at last,” as Yeats puts it, lies waiting in the things we have yet to discover. Those who live and work at the leading edge of science and technology, who design and conduct experiments or interpret their results and certainly who apply those results to the development of new technologies have a far-reaching moral duty to look beyond the political exigencies of the moment, to think carefully before promoting views concerning the nature of reality, and to remember that we are engaging elements that we did not create and may not be able to manage, even when we think we can. If a little learning is a dangerous thing, a little humility that errs on the side of caution, in the end, may be the thing that saves us from ourselves.
20 November, 2018
Embrace your thousand angels,
Embrace your thousand demons.
| Buddhist saying
Boston drivers will tell you: The one who isn’t looking has the right of way. This is a lot like the child who, imagining a monster under the bed, covers his eyes to hide from it. Both demonstrate a curious aspect of human nature: Denial. If you can’t see it, it isn’t there. We’ve all done it at one time or another. Something dark rises before us—something we hate about ourselves or someone else or the situation we’re in and especially in the face of which we feel powerless, whereupon the psyche, like the driver on Boston’s fast-forward roundabouts, looks the other way and steps on the gas, jamming signals of awareness or perception to shield us from whatever we feel is too daunting to face. The sum of this disowned information makes up what Jung termed the “shadow self,” the dirt of our personality that seems too foul to be left on top of the rug, in plain sight.
These distressing elements have nowhere to go but into the shadows, from which place, still wanting acknowledgment, they can wreak havoc on our appetite, weight, sleep, dreams, health, relationships, checkbook, and sense of well-being. What goes up, must come down; what we suppress has a way of popping up where it’s least expected. This seesaw effect is such a fundamental dynamic of inner life that if we’re feeling chronically lousy, it pays just to be still, take a step back, and look to see if there’s some important bit of business we might be neglecting, marginalizing, ignoring, or resisting.
For years, I had a persistent daydream, and not a pretty one. Frequently, often when I was lying in bed after a long day, my imagination would take to the closet where lurked this sinister fellow with a knife, waiting in the darkness behind the door. I would see myself walk over to the closet and open it, at which point the fictive assailant would leap out and commence a merciless barrage of stabs, hacks, and slashes. Sometimes, enduring this horror show, I would flinch or even gasp and have to get up and do something to shake the nasty image from my mind.
My immediate reaction, which remained unexamined for years, was always to run from the vision the way a person would run from a real-world assailant. In this flight, I found myself stumbling over barricades of fear, avoidance, and denial that, somehow added to the emotional power and presence of the fantasy. Then, one day, it occurred to me to look past these barricades by using a Jungian method known as creative imagination, which involves giving oneself to the daydream, intentionally participating in the events that come to mind, letting them unfold without attempting to direct them. It is a powerful tool for exploring dreams that ended confusingly or were interrupted. Waking up, as Jung realized, does not have to render the essential information embodied in the dream inaccessible. Through creative imagination, we can return to the dream without going to sleep and allow it to play out, retrieving its symbolic imagery by consciously assuming our role in the drama.
The man in the closet was a particularly brutal character, real enough in the climactic moment in which I became immersed. A closet killer. Closed in. Who was he? What was the source of his bloodlust? I decided it was time to find out. Turning to creative imagination, I approached the closet again and opened the door. The slasher hissed, raised his knife, and was about to bring it down as he had countless times before, whereupon I asked him calmly, “What do you want?” Immediately, he lowered the blade and eased out of the shadows so that we were facing each other, and I could see that he was myself. Gently, I repeated, “What do you want?” and his expression changed to one of immense sorrow. “I want,” he said, “for you to acknowledge me.” With that, he took a few halting steps toward me, and I opened my arms. As we embraced, he began sobbing, and I held him like that until he was absorbed into me and the waking dream ended.
Some noteworthy things followed. First, the fantasy never recurred. This in itself was startling; in fact, I couldn’t bring it back with effort. The emotional charge was gone. Second, I realized that the self-image I had always championed, that of the good, kind, compassionate rescuer had usurped another side of me, banished it to the closet of denial where families keep their skeletons and murderers—the personae non gratae of the clan. In truth, there was an angry, even violent side to my psyche, and all the more violent for having been long denied. I had stuffed this side into the closet because it contradicted my image of myself, which left it forsaken, isolated, and enraged.
I came away from the exercise with a broader, more realistic and integrated sense of this thing I call “I.” Metaphorically, when the prodigal son comes home and rejoins the family, everyone is better off for it. Through a conscious act of creative imagination, I found that I could acknowledge and accept an inner reality that I had put out of my awareness, and reclaim its splintered and therefore hostile energy as a vital part of myself. When I was willing to own the violence in my psychic household by literally embracing it, the sense of relief was immediate and palpable. A demon embraced is an angel released.
We erect these palisades of selective emphasis and denial to prove and protect our self-image. Denying that I had a violent side served to confirm my belief in my virtuousness, a self-definition acquired in early experiences that conflated being virtuous and being safe. Eventually, however, what was denied surfaced in a fiercer form and demanded its due. This flight from an integrating darkness may go back a long way, and yet is fully contemporary, because our sense of being alive is constricted far less by what happened to us when we were young than by our persistent refusal to face what happened to us, less by what was done to us than by what we do to ourselves as a result. James Hillman suggests that childhood wounding may be seen as an initiation, the trauma that leads us to the treasure of who we are; along the same lines, Joseph Campbell writes, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Viewed from this angle, our wound is our gift in every sense: a gift we were given, our essential talent, and the gift that we, in turn, can offer others.
The logic of the wounding of initiation may sound glib if not heartless to, say, a victim of incest. Some gift. It can be all but impossible to see that what has gouged us also has deepened us. We don’t come to such a vision overnight, but no one should doubt that we can heal our way into it, and that when we do, we will see that the worst of what we have been through has added in priceless ways to who we are and what we have to contribute, and that there is nothing to regret or change. It is exceedingly good news that the wound can be healed in the balm of a greater identity, that the disowned parts of ourselves can be reclaimed and redeemed. The demon is ultimately an angel that we were unwilling to embrace. What we have cursed in ourselves, however agonizing it may have been at the time, can be transmuted in the crucible of a richer, larger, and more empathetic view of things. In the expanding horizon of this realization, in the deep-breathing acceptance of what we may have spent a lifetime resisting or denying, the barricades fall away, and we find ourselves standing in the great circle of our native wholeness, open to the unique history that has shaped us into this moment.
21 October, 2018
On the stage of my childhood, walls were an essential part of the set design. My friends and I hid behind them, skulked along them, vaulted over them, pretended we could see through them, and drew rectangular pitching windows on them for stickball. Once, my brother playfully threw me face first into a bank wall, and I still have the chip in my front tooth to show for it. Unlike so many children in the world, I was blessed with the safety and cozy predictability of real walls to go home to after a hard day of having fun, and I took these walls for granted as all children should be able to do. There were the brownstone walls of our early home in Ozone Park; the rose brick of our bungalow in Laurelton; the concrete-aspiring-to-alabaster of Walden Terrace, our apartment building in Queens. In this apartment, our last home in New York, I remember a rough-plastered wall in the bedroom I shared with my brother, on which we shined the glaring light from a desk lamp and made shadow-animals with our hands as late into the night as we could get away with. Wherever we lived, there were these walls, wonderful walls sustained by my father’s hard work, to keep us safe and snug in our world as surely as did heater warmth in winter and family warmth in all seasons. Had I thought of it, I might have marked my boyhood years by these walls that came and went and changed along the way, recording my early life in a documentary of surfaces and textures.
Viewed this way, walls are more than walls. They are projection screens, mirrors, enemy fortresses, murals, shields behind which boys smoke cigarettes and set off firecrackers and say dirty words, dipping their toes into the pounding currents of manhood, and sometimes slipping through secret doorways into winding tunnels of time. Children know the power of walls instinctively, which is why a toddler will take his crayons to the nearest one as soon as possible. It is as though, even before we have words, the walls around us beg to be written on, to be claimed through some signature, however rudimentary. And no matter how old we get, does it not still come down to this—that our humanness compels us to scrawl in a language we don’t understand, and when we’re done, somehow to read, to make sense of, the handwriting on the wall?
We’ve come so far from those days of crayon innocence; our life’s walls no longer seem like canvases on which to scribble our enthusiasm, our vitality, the unpremeditated colors of ourselves. But what is native to us can never be far from us. Coming back to what is native for me includes the understanding that my life is a story—in fact, a play. As usual, the Old Bard was spot on; metaphorically, the world is a stage, complete with props, scenery, action, dialogue, other characters reading their lines with conviction—a stage on which we act out our inner promptings, see what follows, and move our story along through precipitating event, conflict, climax, denouement. All the elements of good writing, of drama, are present in every life, sometimes on a small scale, sometimes large, because each of us, consciously and unconsciously, is working within the tug and shove of the psyche’s incessant urge to get beyond the walls that hold it back, and by expanding, to become more itself. On this incredible stage of the world, we can confront our inner conflicts and contradictions and move on to what’s next, something easier said than done.
I remember helping two friends, Rich and Shaye, build a two-story pole house by a lake. It was 1972, and we were a motley group of hippies finishing our graduate degrees at the University of Florida. Jimi was there, our Socratic professor and friend. We didn’t suspect then that he would be denied tenure the following year in a political lynching led by ultraconservatives in the philosophy department, that he would pack his canvas horse-feeder bag with a few books, clothes, trail mix, and a bamboo flute, and hitchhike from Gainesville to San Francisco to make a new home on the West Coast. Annie was there at the house-raising, too—voluptuous, flaxen-haired Annie, skinny-dipping in the lake, and as the late afternoon light and water glistened against her skin, it was all I could do to keep my mind on my work.
We were talking the sort of lazy talk that builds houses, when Jimi suggested that I climb onto the roof and try my hand at nailing boards in place. This meant that I’d have to hoist myself through a small opening between the rafters and perch on what seemed to me an unlikely platform—the four-inch strip of roof that had been installed so far—four inches that ended abruptly in a twenty-five-foot fall that ended in a sudden stop and the breaking of things that should not be broken. The mere thought of this tight-wire act was enough to fill me with the nasty chemistry of anxiety. High anxiety. Stalling, I scanned the cage of wood, then looked topside again: Theoretically, I knew that the more roofing boards I hammered in place, the more I’d have to hold on to while I worked, but this wasn’t much comfort, and I began to feel as though I would not be able to muster the courage to move from the safe framework of joists and studs to the daredevil duty waiting for me overhead.
To distract myself, I watched the others laboring away. Annie, mostly—but not just Annie. One shirtless and taut-muscled young acrobat was ambling along the edge of the roof like a gymnast on a balance beam, and I began to feel the jabs of a fast-deflating ego. I can do this, I thought. So, with chugging resolve, buoyed by the need to look good in front of one’s fellows—especially when one’s fellows include Annie—I lifted myself through the opening and emerged, willy-nilly, on the roof of the house. There, I took a few stuttering breaths and smiled wanly, feeling as though I had just taken on Mount Everest and maybe the whole thing wasn’t really such a good idea.
After a few minutes of covert hysteria and roof-clutching, I ventured back to work and soon realized that I could use the claw of the hammer to keep myself in place while I grabbed a nail, and that I could then hook my little finger over the most recently fastened board, holding the nail in position with the same hand. This kept me from sliding even slightly toward the edge and the headlong plunge a breath beyond. In a while, the labor settled into a rhythm: hold on with claw, grab nail, position nail, hook little finger, hammer nail, hold on with claw, grab nail, and so on. Soon, I was shuffling along the sloping roofline, and what had seemed terrifying fifteen minutes earlier was exhilarating.
Annie came slinking out of the water as the sun started to set. A chill had made off with the last of the day’s warmth, and everything was rapidly fading into the tarnished light of evening. Then, from my perch two stories up, I saw something remarkable happen. At the same moment, as though someone had given a secret signal, everyone—about a dozen of us—spontaneously stopped working and turned to watch the sun go down. Long feathers of gray and mottled bands fell across the lake as the last remnants of day sank meditatively into dusk. And I thought, this is what it means to come home. The planet turns a few degrees, and work stops, because we recognize a presence that’s been with us since time began building the house of the world.
Under me, the structure was taking shape. Before long there would be pictures and candles and throw rugs and the smell of cooking when all our work had turned lumber and long hours and aching backs and blisters into a place to live. A home. I remembered gathering my courage and climbing out onto the roof, and there was something familiar about it. Hadn’t I struggled through an opening once before, in a passage far more momentous, to find a world and a home and a self less limited than the one I had known? In the last streaks of light, I scrambled down from the roof knowing that home is just this—the place we keep coming back to, the place we find each time we venture beyond our fears and take a chance—the place where we belong. Throughout our lives, as we move through one opening after another, finding our way, catching our breath, losing and winning, building and doing what we can to steady ourselves through countless sunsets, the only place we’re headed is home.
30 September, 2018
Philosophical counseling often focuses on “ownership” by helping the client to identify and acknowledge responsibility for the part he is playing in whatever troubling situation led him to schedule a session. Once the client is willing to do this, a great deal can change, often quickly and dramatically. This shouldn’t be surprising. Certainly much wasted effort, frustration, and suffering follow from trying to control what lies beyond our will, a simple, far-reaching truth that the ancient Stoics made the cornerstone of their philosophy—but we do as much damage by refusing to acknowledge and accept responsibility that is rightly ours, and this is something that philosophical counseling seems uniquely suited to point out and put right, sometimes in the blink of an eye.
Happiness, peace of mind—what the Greeks called the “well-ordered soul” and considered the foundation of happiness and “the good life”—as it turns out, requires a certain balance, so that we own what is ours but not what is not ours. Achieving this balance may mean “disowning” any responsibility we’ve misappropriated, a pervasive problem certainly no less serious than the problem of ownership denied. With this disowning of responsibilities that are not ours, many of the ills that plague us undergo a spontaneous remission—victimhood, enabling, persecuting, rescuing, and other elements of codependency, to name a few.
There are numerous other things that it’s a good idea to disown besides excessive responsibility. False beliefs, contradictions, a sense of entitlement, hubris, detrimental life script promptings and prohibitions, magical thinking and other exaggerations of the will, and the pernicious assumption that happiness and the good life can be found in outer conditions are at the top of the list. Many philosophical counseling sessions end up identifying one or more of these culprits hiding in the shadows of the client’s psyche, covertly wreaking havoc and relentlessly screening out the truth and the better choices that swing into view the moment the truth is faced and acknowledged.
Victimhood is always a good thing to disown. So is blame in all its forms, both obvious and subtle. Exporting our authority by blaming others or outer conditions for our fate or how we feel also is something to lose, and the sooner the better. The beliefs that lead us to embrace philosophical errors constitute what Socrates called “false knowledge,” which arises out of conceit. A belief of this sort is like a burning coal we hold tightly in our hands, suffering while we condemn the coal. It isn’t the coal’s fault that we willfully refuse to let go and end our suffering. A hot coal is a hot coal; it can’t be anything else, and only a fool would try to change its nature. This is basic Aristotle, whose laws of thought tell us that a thing is what it is, and never what it isn’t. It seems too obvious to need saying. Yet this is precisely the sort of obvious truth that we muck up when we become attached, willful, immersed in error, and so on—when we misappropriate conclusions, then assume them, then expect others to fall in step with them and complain why they don’t, until we’re left wondering why everything seems to work against us.
Max Freedom Long, who brought Huna to the West, wrote a bit of verse that beautifully expresses the wisdom of disowning what isn’t ours:
And if someone has hurt me deep,
And no amends are made,
I ask the Light to balance all.
I count the debt as paid.
This is talking about forgiveness—in this context, the forgiveness of an emotional debt. Many have struggled with the implicit instruction of the verse, and found Freedom Long’s words enigmatic. What “Light” is he talking about here? On what does he base the assumption that this Light, whatever it is, can and will “balance all?” Can we really simply choose to divest ourselves of a deep hurt inflicted when “no amends are made?” It is a shame that Huna has been pressed into the service of “law of attraction” peddlers who do a great disservice by fostering the bizarre idea that the reality around us, including others, is nothing more than a construct of our consciousness, an idea made all the more seductive by the undeniable fact that there certainly is some degree of correspondence between reality as we observe it and the consciousness of the observer. But they go too far. It is the same problem stirred up by New Thought practitioners who claim that the roots of illness in others lie hidden in the healer’s beliefs about them, and that in order to “treat” the sick person effectively and “demonstrate” a healing, one need only treat whatever belief one is harboring that allegedly is showing up as the illness. “The Secret” and other popular consciousness-as-cause models capitalize on this confusion, which begins and ends in solipsism, magical thinking, the aggrandizing of the will, the denial of the otherness of others, and similar aberrations. Huna, too, recognizes the profound and liberating truth that it is not so much situations that we suffer when we suffer, but rather our reactions to them, the meanings we assign to them, the stories we keep telling ourselves about them. This truth does not count against otherness, certainly. It does not deny the responsibility that someone may carry for having inflicted a deep hurt and never making amends. All of that remains intact alongside the key realization that, while we can’t control the will or choices of others any more than we can control or perhaps even influence the moving hand of our fate, we have a great deal to say about how we engage these things. So, while our reality is forged by what the classical Greeks understood as character, it is not only that. It exists apart from us in its own right but interacts with us, and does so at the level of our beliefs and assumptions, our conclusions and paradigms, our stories and values, which reach out, as it were, to color and shape the quality of that reality.
Freedom Long’s words put us on notice that the debt is not ours to carry, or at least that we have a choice about it. Carrying a grudge is like drinking poison to punish another or holding onto the burning coal to make a point. Whether there is any “Light” that can or will balance the debt is beside the point. We have been hurt. What sense does it make to keep hurting ourselves over it? Forgiveness doesn’t let the offender “off the hook.” It mitigates the pain of the one who was wronged, letting him or her off the hook through the liberating power of enlightened disowning. “I count the debt as paid” isn’t meant to be a strategy for moving the mysterious levers of manifestation, as the law-of-attraction proponents would have us believe, not a way of effecting a change in the other or the world, but an unfailing way of effecting a change in ourselves. It means, “This debt is paid as far as I’m concerned. I wash my my hands of it.” As we are not constituted to own grudges and resentments, and as usurping ownership of them invariably throws us into the traps and snares of hubris, it makes sense to disown them, and to do so without delay. The “Light” that can “balance all” by counting the debt as “paid,” it turns out, shines in each of us, waiting to be released in the refusal to own what we are far better off disowning. When the client’s focus shifts from projection, exporting authority, blame, and misappropriated ownership to how he or she is engaging and might engage more consciously and truthfully, many things come right.
It may help to remember that good can stand in the way of better. Inevitably, we have to leave behind who we’ve been to become who we can be.
20 August, 2018