Change & Flow

The Daoist idea of wu wei is such that when people try to control situations in ways that disrupt the harmony of the world, unnecessary problems arise. They think that if we understand the nature of things and not try to apply restraints to them then we will lessen our worries and flow easier in the natural world.

Change, for the Daoists, is in accord with nature. When we act contrary to nature with intentions of controlling it, we disrupt the accordance of nature. This is no means of problem-solving from the Daoist perspective. In The Zhuangzi it is stated, “Death, life, survival, loss, failure, success, poverty, wealth, worth, depravity, slander, praise, hunger, thirst, winter, summer – their change is the process of destiny” (233). Change is something that is necessary and to try to control it is to try to control the process of destiny; it is utterly uncontrollable and can be attempted to be controlled but strenuous results will follow. Zhuangzi also related change to that of the natural process of changing seasons. “Day and night, without a break, make a springtime with things. As you greet each new circumstance, generate the season in your mind” (234). This is saying that the nature will continue to keep moving through its process of transformation. Likewise, we should continue moving with it and when we approach new circumstances we should not try to control them, but rather stay aware of the natural process of change and flow with this change and not against it. Just as winter ends and springtime begins, nature does not try to prolong winter in hopes of avoiding spring; it flows right into spring gloriously.

Daoists are also concerned with the limited amount of knowledge we can know. I believe this relates to our understanding that we should not try to control that which is utterly uncontrollable. “One who dreams of drinking wine may weep in the morning. One who dreams of weeping may go for a a hunt the next day. In the dream, you don’t know it’s a dream. In the middle of a dream, you may interpret a dream within it. Only after waking do you know it was a dream. Still, there may be an even greater awakening after which you know that this, too, was just a greater dream” (Zhunagzi, p. 233). I believe this closely relates to Socrates saying that the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Like Daoism, this is saying that there is only a limited amount of knowledge attainable by us. The limitations of human categories is such that we should allow the spontaneity of wu wei to become a part of our actions. When we become more self-conscious about something, according to Daoists, we do worse. In that case, meddling too far into knowledge of things when knowledge is something that is limited would go against wu wei in that it would complicate matters and leave no room for the spontaneity of change, because it causes our minds to be ‘one-tracked’ and worrisome about things that are in a state of constant flux. Daoists think that we should accept the impermanence of things and their ability to change at any time, and not get too caught up in the change-itself, nor in the situations at hand.

Zhuangzi and the Daoists continuously speak of getting back to the natural way. They think that hen we act in a wu wei manner, we are acting naturally in the world. One concern that this belief arises for the Daoists is the problem of socialization, which they say moves us away from our natural state. Essentially we are natural and good, like unhewn wood, we are uncarved. “The Way is forever nameless…When unhewn wood is carved up, then there are names. Now that there are names, know enough to stop!” (The Daodejing, p. 178). When we try to control our natural selves, our control becomes the knife that whittles the natural wood of our lives. As a result, when we, as a society, work towards controlling the flow and flexibility of natural changes, the wood shavings of worry from whittling away at what is natural and good blocks the flow of wu wei in the rivers of our lives. Instead, we should find our way back to our natural unhewn state and flow with the river. Only then, in the Daoist view, will we free ourselves from control and live musically in harmony with one another.

The Daoists’ beliefs have shown to be true for me in life. When I moved to Oregon after spending the first eighteen-years of my life in Texas, I adopted a method of readjusting that was similar to the Daoists’ easy-going approach to change. Although I moved to Oregon because I am generally spontaneous and open to change, I was in for a big surprise and, in turn, a lesson to be learned: even invited change can give birth to many unexpected change ‘babies’ born through causal relations. Basically, I went to Oregon with the naïve thought that the act of moving to a new state was the only real change I would have to endure and everything else would fall into place somehow. My high expectations resulted in despair when I learned of all the changes I would be going through: being away from my family, friends, boyfriend, home and birthplace, all of the familiarity that once was my life as I knew it, making new friends, starting college, well,  the constant rain of the Pacific Northwest versus the sun of Texas. At first, upon realizing everything in front of me, I had a hard time digesting it all. I then opted to try to control my portion intake, so to speak. After growing weary from trying to manage certain things, I would then opt to work on controlling other things, which resulted in me growing tired and discontent with my life through trying to control what I fundamentally could not. Then, in a way, I stopped and let wu wei flow through me; I became compliant and flexible with things. This adoption of having no worries and releasing my firm grip on life resulted in a much more easy-going mood and situations, thus, became simpler. Even though Oregon’s considerably different weather insisted on testing my inner wu wei, I am aware that accepting what nature decides to send my way is essentially up to me.

The Daoists believe that in accepting the changes of things with utter calmness and imperturbability, we detach our minds from an enslaved state of dependent and worrisome feelings that tend always to make matters worse the more our minds restrictively obsess over them. I feel that in recognizing and allowing our minds to become aware of the necessity of perennial transformation that takes place in our lives, we will better learn to more easily flow with this continuous pattern of events harmoniously.

The Examined Life as ‘Good’

The nature of the “good” for both Socrates and Epictetus lies in the examination of one’s own life. Although the good may be something that is unobtainable, they both propose that the process towards a life of virtue, a good life, constitutes a worthy life.

Socrates seeks to know the criteria of the “good” that Euthyphro is basing his accusations off of. For Euthyphro, the good is piety (that which pleases the gods) and the bad is impiety (that which displeases the gods). However, Socrates finds ambiguity in Euthyphro’s account of the good and the bad, and asks Euthyphro to clarify what the pious is and what the
impious is. Socrates reveals Euthyphro’s explanation of the good and the bad as being frivolous and unsound since the gods are always in conflict with each other and a universal “good” cannot, thus, be claimed. “…the gods are in a state of discord that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other” (Euthyphro, 8). What I gathered from this is that piety cannot possibly be, according to Socrates, a reasonable account of the good, not only because there cannot be (as Euthyphro showed through his unsound arguments) any universal “good” amongst gods who are in a state of constant conflict with each other, but also because to leave the matter of the “good” up to terms of piety would be to take one’s own opinions on morality out of the question and to blindly go along with someone (or something) else’s opinions or claims. For Socrates, I believe, this would not be the way to go about an account of the good. Socrates thinks that we should, instead of submitting our thoughts over to be decided by some gods (or people in general), examine our own lives for virtue. Although he does not know what “good” is, he believes that the process of examining our lives and seeking out the good (or virtue) is what really matters. Similarly, he thinks that some things we cannot find the answers to and that it is in the pursuit of that which is unattainable which makes life worth living for him.

Likewise, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates elaborates more on his beliefs that the examination of one’s life, not necessarily the finding of answers, makes it worthwhile. He shows this by speaking with the people of Athens who were regarded by the Athenians as wise and knowledgeable. They all claimed to have known more about matters than they actually did. Socrates states after talking to one of the ‘wise’ men of Athens, “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do now know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know” (Apology, 26). This same statement is found in Socrate’s discussion with Euthyphro on the nature of the good. Euthyphro claims to know what he does not, without finding useful the essence of the process of questioning the ‘good’.

“Some things are up to us, other are not” (Discourses, Epictetus, 287). For Epictetus, what is “up to us,” or what we can control, is worthy for a Stoic life. The things like our “opinions, impulses, desires, aversion” (Discourses, 287) constitute our Self and give us divine, God-like attributes. These things can be found internally, namely in our minds. Like Socrates’ claim, Epictetus believes that our ability to form opinions, experience emotions and ultimately examine our lives make life worthwhile. Contrary to this, the life of an animal is the life that is not worthy, according to Epictetus. This also includes some of the things he states as being “not up to us,” or the things we cannot control. External things such as one’s “body, property, reputation, office” (Discourses, 287) are more ‘mortal’ and subject to corruption. As opposed to the things that are “up to us.” these things are only apparently real, impermanent even. Epictetus feels like we should control those things that are “not up to us” and then, by doing so, we will not be subject to hindrance. By attaining a serene state of mind and allowing ourselves to remain unaffected by the things that are “not up to us” (the external objects) then our minds will no longer be enslaved by them. In Epictetus’ Encheiridion he states, “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgments about these things” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). I believe Epictetus is saying that things themselves, the things that are uncontrollably “not up to us,” should be of no negative effect to us, we should just allow them to be so through our judgments, through our minds which are controllable. He continues by giving an example of this using death, “…the terror lies in our own judgment about death, that death is terrible” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). Death itself, for example, is only but part of what is “not up to us.” If we allow ourselves to be enslaved by the things that are out of our control then, for Epictetus, we will never find freedom (the realm of choice) or happiness.

One similarity I noticed between Epictetus and Socrates is their beliefs that the pursuit of the good, or virtue, is an important and worthwhile process. In Epictetus Discourses he says, “3. Now if virtue promises happiness, an untroubled mind and serenity, then progress toward virtue is certainly progress towards each of these. 4. For whatever is the definitive end
to which the perfection of a thing leads, progress is always an approach towards it” (Discourses, Epictetus, Ch. 4 “On Progress”, p. 12). Epictetus believes that failing to live up to our moral, mental capacity is “shameful.” He says, “20. It is therefore shameful that man should begin and end where irrational creatures do. He ought rather to begin there, but to end
where nature itself has fixed our end; 21. and that is in contemplation and understanding a way of life in harmony with nature. 22. Take care, then, not to die without ever being spectators of these things” (Discourses, Ch. 6, “On Providence”, p. 17). Since we are capable of thought and controlling it, for Epictetus, we are more divine than that of the nature of animals. As a result of our capability to control our minds, we should choose to examine and seek to understand our lives. Just as Socrates thinks that leaving our lives unexamined does not make them worth living. Epictetus shows that the nature of animals differs from the nature of humans in that the former is not worthy and the latter is worthy. The nature of humans is worthy, for him, because we are capable of choice, of mental thought. He thinks that there is a good and we should choose it.

Overall, the inquisition and investigation into our own lives establishes, for both Socrates and Epictetus, a good, virtuous and worthy life. Socrates shows through his inquiries with Euthyphro that the “good” is not something that can be found through any means of piety, instead we need to question and examine our own lives. Although, for Socrates, we will never attain the “good,” the process of inquiry and examination is, alone, what makes life worthy. Similarly, Socrates shows that (through questioning the “wise” men of Athens) acting like we know something when we do not, does not make us good or worthwhile. He says that it is better to know nothing and realize this than to pretend you know more than you actually
do or pretend to know when you do not. Epictetus parallels Socrates’ arguments by stating that a worthy Stoic life constitutes our ability to choose the things that are “up to us” and to control our reactions towards the things that are “not up to us” by taking them with a grain of salt, so to speak. His notion of choice is one that leads us to examine our own lives instead of simply letting the external, uncontrollable things in our lives enslave us. In both accounts of Socrates and Epictetus, the good (whether reached or not) is a life of examination and our choosing to examine.

Collective Good & Intellectual Inquiry

According to John Dewey in his book The Public And Its Problems, recognizing the consequences of social action and creating the means to control those consequences so as to bring about better ones and avoid bad ones is an important obligation of what he sees a public’s goal to be.

He defines a public to be, “[…] all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions such to an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (15-16). In this way, a public determines whether consequences are desirable or not, and organizes to develop means for producing more desirable consequences. Dewey argues that this effort to recognize serious indirect consequences and to create means for controlling them is important for political function so that officials can organize effective agencies to produce more positive, pacifying results. Thus, Dewey believed political action, or political function, to be based on intelligent social action. Individuals coming into association with one another help develop the means for intelligently recognizing consequences that should be controlled to affect the future outcomes, just as officials should help control ends through purely intelligible means. Since individuals may not be directly engaged in producing negative consequences, Dewey suggests, “[…] special agencies and measures must be formed if they are to be attended to; or else some existing group must take on new functions” (27). Dewey calls for officials to be the organizers of a public or a state. When individuals come together as a public and intelligently recognize any negative consequences, officials come together to organize means to act on behalf of the public’s interests to produce more desirable consequences. The state is, then, for Dewey, “[…] the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members” (33). Citizens, however, should not assume the state to be inherently good and useful. They should, as Dewey expresses, constantly watch and criticize the public officials to maintain a state’s integrity and usefulness (69). Getting the public involved to identify consequences and not merely relying on officials to do so will develop the means to change ends.

Communication is a key factor in change because only in it will a public collectively find itself. Thus communication is important in forming what Dewey calls a “Great Community”. He says, “We have the physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence are not common. Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless […] Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community” (142).

A great community, for Dewey, is an end goal for a public. A public should, once again, have an awareness of what consequences are, tie them to their source and be able to determine means by which they attempt to control them. As a whole, a public should realize that consequences are our problems, suffered by us. Dewey says that citizens in this great
community will tend toward participation and shared results. A public should be dependent on each other through collective action, and see collective action as ours and become conscious of consequences; a public realizes individual good through collective good. In this way, Dewey states, “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (149).

Democracy, in one way, means for Dewey that citizens vote to express interests, as opposed to an dictator (or “expert”) who imposes interests upon a public.   In a democracy, conflicts that are treated with inquiry lead to liberation of individuals. Inquiry produces means to better consequences. He proposes that we use intelligence and inquiry to develop better means to inquire into collective behavior of what a common interest is; democracy is an effort for us to do this communally. Dewey’s problem is that we need to find a way of intelligently directing our behavior to produce these better consequences.

However, Americans today seem more interested in the individual instead of the collective good. There is no real collective public; there is no real inquiry into, for example, the War in Iraq or the fact that we continue to screw up the environment. Like Dewey suggests, we have a tendency to just want to keep doing what we are doing out of our purely habituated interests. An example of this in today’s society I see is in consumerism. We have grown so accustomed to consuming ungodly amounts of goods that we do not think twice about the labor and the resources that go into producing those goods. Although Dewey argues that habits are positive because, “They relieve the mind from thought of means, thus freeing thought to deal with new conditions and purposes” (61), I feel that habits are not totally good but instead they dumb down our awareness of negative consequences, thus making it difficult to recognize when inquiry is necessary.

I believe that our current situation is such that we could benefit from Dewey’s proposals. However, our problem is one of a lack of awareness in regard to political matters. Individuals’ consciousness should be gained collectively as a public in order to intelligently recognize the negative externalities that are affecting them. Dewey identified technology to be the main culprit affecting society in the late 1920s when he was writing. He also showed technology to be a means to improve communication within a society. As a problem, according to Dewey, technology distracts people from political issues and directs their interests toward more superfluous endeavors, such as watching movies. He feels that if we use technology to improve communication (rather than to satisfy our superficial desires), then there will be a public interest in political matters.

The interests of our modern society along with massive amounts of technology today forms habits among individuals that further distracts us from political and social inquiry. We seek our ends not in pre-recognized and controlled consequences, but in the fastest, easiest ways of enhancing individual good. Just as Dewey was concerned about during his day, I feel
that our modern society as well as technology today is driving people away from any recognition of striving toward a collective good, or a great community, and inquiry into such to produce better consequences for all. People today—especially the youth that are so caught up in the glitz and glamour of all technology has to offer—seem more interested in the
newest movies coming out and the latest celebrity gossip than they are in any political issues or societal problems. Yet we have come to feel subjected to technology and do not see ourselves as collectively experiencing these consequences.

Dewey does not necessarily see technology as being an enemy. He says, “But without passage through a machine age, mankind’s hold upon what is needful as the preconditions of a free, flexible and many-colored life is so precarious and inequitable that competitive scramble for acquisition and frenzied use of the results of acquisition for purposes of excitation and display will be perpetuated” (217). I agree with him in that we can use technology to relieve us of doing certain things ourselves by rendering it as a means toward ends instead of merely ends in-itself (such as wanting that big TV to watch sports games or movies for pure, mindless entertainment). According to Dewey, in a fully developed technological age we will create the means to control and develop ends, not by simply doing more research for technology, but making use of the abundant amounts of technology we have available now. I agree fully with Dewey in that this could be a means to human liberation if we stop using technology to just get more of things. We are working harder despite the technological means we have available to work less. As Karl Marx says, “Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally” (Reader in Marxist Philosophy, Ch. 5 “Alienation”).

Overall, I agree with Dewey in that inquiry should be used in order to identify consequences. In this way, I feel that inquiry will pull people out of their hypnotic attachments to technological ends in-themselves and get the public involved in social and political actions, thus developing an interest in the collective good and a striving toward a “Great Community”. The realization of individual good, as Dewey suggests, will then be found through collective good.

Complementing Perceptions Between Nature & Humans

Changing our disposition toward nature from viewing it as a determinate object to acknowledging its intelligent and miraculous aspects may very well change how we, human beings, perceive and treat nature and nonhuman (as well as human) animals. Most of us in the Western world grow through a system of thinking and perceiving that is anthropocentric—that is, centered around values that favor human growth, development, well-being, etc. In a society where our vital needs and non-vital needs (or wants, rather) are met all too easily, and comfort is readily handed out and admired, we live through a notion of superiority: Anything nonhuman (whether animals or the natural environment) becomes a means to our own ends, regardless of the resulting ends faced by the ‘other’ nonhuman things. The comfort we experience is made more abundant if we use these ‘others’. The vast world of nonhuman things become manicured and fabricated for our own usage; ignorance becomes a means for maintaining the numb comfort we strive for relentlessly.

Since we do not know the desires or inclinations of nonhuman animals and nature, we assume that they are objective and determined inasmuch as we are capable of perceiving them. However, since we do know our own human desires and inclinations, and we are able to apply logical, mathematic systems and laws to these ‘others’, we build human life higher and higher and higher on the powerful (yet clumsy) throne in which we rest ourselves shamelessly. We use science increasingly as the tool that digs the graves deeper for nature. Obsessed with human progress, we insist on our reliances on science to make us a softer cushion and a stronger anesthetic to numb any awareness of our actual, more-than-objective experiences; that is, the experiences that bring us down off of our human-created throne and onto the same level of subjectivity as nonhuman animals and nature. It is obvious that science can be a useful tool for predicting natural disasters, curing diseases, etc., but the problem arises when we allow our minds to sink further into an ignorant comfort when we rape nature through science to fulfill our egocentric, excessive desires.

Another problem and cause of this drowning ecological mess we stirred up, is that we increasingly become preoccupied with not only our anthropocentric views as a whole, but our awareness of a sort of ‘individuality’ among ‘other’ human beings. As if it is not enough to have several whole societies with an anthropocentric world view, there is then each of those societies consisting of thousands of millions of people with a high sense of ‘individuality’—separate people with a sense of their own, single, individual desires and inclinations that become the center of their consciousness, action, and world. The society in which they live (more so if it is a Western society) does not discourage this selfish disposition either. Things like consumerism meshes dangerously with technological advances and speedy, massive production to form a giant blanket of overindulgence that ultimately suffocates human, nonhuman, and natural life. Not to mention, there are many more things to be said for the laborious means that become a necessity in the Western mind in order to achieve those coarsely comfortable ends which, notably, repeat tenfold when met. We can associate this with the resources needed to ‘feed’ our obese bellies with the greedy excesses we hunger for mindlessly, and come to the same problems we face today.

In David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, he proposes a sort of reciprocal awareness between humans and nature that may shift our thinking and actions toward a more ecocentric disposition—ecocentrism stands for values that are more centered around nature; this differs from anthropocentrism, which has more human-centered values. Abram explains that humans and all ‘other’ nature should not be seen as separate from one another, but rather as one in the same thing. Instead of focusing on notions of the self (or individual) and labeling all else as “other” to it, he suggests that there is a reciprocity that ties everything together. Everything in the world is then perceived as having a shared “flesh” that is seen as all-encompassing and a shared essence among all things. In this way, there is ideally no hierarchical dominance and, therefore, no anthropocentric values—our “flesh” becomes the “flesh” of the world and perception is, likewise, reciprocated. This differs from the typical Western view because it acknowledges nature as sharing a consciousness similar to our own and a need for respect that is too often associated with only human cognition. Abram suggests that we take the awareness we feel for humans and project it toward (and with) nature: He says, “[…] this stranger who stands here before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I, too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient. Why, then, might this not also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity […] ?” (67, Abram). A result of this is a fundamental uncovering of all things hidden to come out from underneath the suffocating blanket thrown on them by anthropocentric minds.

It is essential to guide our minds toward an awareness of nonhuman animals and nature that we caged underneath this blanket so that an ecocentric disposition can be reached more tangibly. However, not only do we trap nature for our own selfish usages, but we also trap ourselves and one another. The comfort we strive for individually leads us down an even narrower path congested with excesses—we do not just turn nature into an objective means for our own ends, but we also turn our fellow human beings into step-stools to reach the highest throne attainable. In this way, we are faced with two wars: Humans versus Nature, and Humans versus Humans. The former of these ends up being ‘rape’, while the latter becomes an anthropocentric bloodbath, pulling nature into the game to achieve even higher human ends.

By bringing the lens of our awareness into focus with the rest of the natural world, I believe we can perceive things in an ecocentric light that will allow for the significant change we need. Instead of seeing only human needs as valuable—our health, well-being, desires, development, etc.—we will see intrinsic value in the environment as a whole. This perceiving will, invariably, affect humans’ overall behavior if it is internalized and practiced accordingly. Like any excesses though, I think it is important to not fall too deeply into the excess of idealism. While I agree with majority of Abram’s disposition and ecocentric proposal, I feel that it may not be the best method to make a, more or less, universal change (if such a thing is even possible). Similar to determinism, idealism is capable of stalling change by not always implementing practical means. While it is nearly—if not totally—impossible to persuade the consciousness of all human beings toward an ecocentric disposition, I believe there is something worthy to hang onto regarding a conscious change in perception in favor of the environment that houses all “flesh”. However, I do not think that the whole of science should be dismissed. Perhaps nature (including our human selves) can benefit from some of the advances science has made—just so long as the vulnerable human mind sustains an ecocentric awareness, so as to not fall into the dizzying whirlpool we find ourselves in today.

Social Ecology: Social & Ecological Change

Social ecology (as explained by Murray Bookchin in his essay What is Social Ecology?) asserts that almost all of the vast, disastrous ecological problems are directly related to—and originate from—problems within human societies. Furthermore, attempts to solve these problems cannot begin to be made without first taking sufficient time to understand them with a careful awareness. To do so, we must focus on deep-rooted causes in society instead of only digging at the surface. Similarly, Bookchin also calls for a serious transformation of our spiritual values and dominance-oriented mentalities into what he calls “complementarity”. He explains complementarity as, “[…] we would see our role in the natural world as creative, supportive, and deeply appreciative of the needs of nonhuman life” (463). An ethics of complementarity advocates human support instead of dominance. In this way, we would foster a respect for nonhuman life which, I believe, can only arise from a human respect for humanity since cultures and societies have evolved from the natural environment and, thus, directly affect it.

In addressing social problems, Bookchin highlights “economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts” (462) as being among the most serious contributors to ecological disconnection. It is important to note that there are numerous other factors that have piled onto this ecological mess we find ourselves struggling in, all of which we should embark upon with communal understanding and action.

Bookchin expresses that nature is ever-changing and evolving. As creatures in nature, humans are also following along this same path which led us to be “highly intelligent” animals. All of our technological, scientific, and, ultimately, social creations have risen as a result of our evolutionary processes within the natural world of humans and non-humans alike. Equipped with a lot of the same functions as nonhuman animals, humans perform with a more intense perception and a more extreme mentality. Therefore, the separation of humans from non-humans is false because they are really just different parts of the same whole. However, although humans are a part of nature, we have used our evolved intellects to create what Bookchin labels a “second nature” within the constructs of what we call our societies. He elaborates on this concept, saying, “Human beings always remain rooted in their biological evolutionary history, which we may call ‘first nature,’ but they produce a characteristically human social nature of their own, which we may call ‘second nature.’ And far from being ‘unnatural,’ human second nature is eminently a creation of organic evolution’s first nature” (466). The distinction between “first nature” and “second nature” (along with the emphasis on human “second nature” as a dominating force) reduces the creative, multi-faceted dimensions of natural evolution into an idle, one-sided wall for humans to climb in order to falsely claim some sort of hierarchical worth. It is crucial for us to be aware of the damaging effects that this ignorant view has on the entirety of humans and non-humans—on the entirety of nature. Equally damaging is the opposite excessive act of reducing humans’ unique place in nature by putting it on the same plane as all animals, ignoring particularities in an effort to evade the social/organic dichotomy and the problems associated with it. This negligent effort does not resolve the ecological problems that we have created, nor does it eliminate the social problems that loom heavily underneath it all.

Broadly speaking, the focus on second nature (as distinct from first nature) accounts for the emergence of human hierarchies and domination. What started for humans as group survival skills, morphed into social dominance tactics when humans drank too heavily from the mind’s intoxicating intellect. An alternate way of thought, as brought on by social ecology, would mend the holes in these ‘other’ ways of thinking by weaving biological nature (or “first nature”) with human nature (or “second nature”) to form one nature.

Although technology, science, rationality, and other human achievements hold the capacity to inflict drastic ecological damage, it is important to realize that we do not have to renounce all of these things in order to make significant changes. Social ecology acknowledges the potential of these human accomplishments while maintaining an ecological awareness of the effects they have on the whole of nature. Bookchin says, “We must go beyond both the natural and the social toward a new synthesis that contains the best of both. Such a synthesis will transcend them in the form of a creative, self-conscious, and therefore ‘free nature,’ in which human beings intervene in natural evolution with their best capacities […]” (476). Social ecology chooses mindfully from the natural and the social, establishing a more stable middle ground and, therefore, neither choking from over-consumption, nor starving from deprivation.

Also important is the idea that we cannot let ourselves get caught in a stagnant web of ideals. Although things like rhetoric and slogans seem to serve more as cheerleaders on the sidelines than as active players on the field, I believe that they can at least spark an awareness of the ecological problems we face today; however, I do not think that they should be solely relied on as means of change. In my opinion, they hardly even play a role in the overall transformation that needs to take place through social ecology, but I do not find it necessary to dismiss them unless they tranquilize people with idealistic visions that, essentially, evade the social problems that must be addressed. It is not enough to only cultivate individual’s spiritual transformation—these spiritual changes must be mixed collectively with other like-minded people in order to inform larger social and, thus, ecological transformations. In this way, I believe that deep ecology and social ecology could work together toward change—enlightening and educating one another with respect for nature. In order to begin this transformation, it is crucial for individuals to change their outlooks of nature toward a more ecologically-centered view, without neglecting the best of what can be utilized of human accomplishments (respectful of nature).

Furthermore, the domination and the creation of social hierarchies between humans and nature (and of humans by humans) is invariably an issue of which we must make ourselves aware before we can make change. However, more than just being aware of these issues, we should embody a new environmental ethic. I do not think that our ethic should be one that leans too far toward an eco-centric ethic (as proposed by deep ecologists), nor do I think that it should lean too far on the other end toward an anthropocentric ethic. Both of these ethics fall into the cold waters of domination and hierarchy by imposing control over one another, claiming that one is ‘more right’ than the other. In my opinion, these extreme ethical viewpoints are contributing factors to the overall mess of social and ecological problems we face today. An eco-centric ethic may contribute to the problems by evading them in favor of more idealistic visions that ultimately do not leave the confines of the mind’s imaginative fortress, and do not endeavor to pursue tangible active change. Similarly, an anthropocentric ethic may contribute to the problems by ignoring them altogether and focusing only on one part of the natural whole; that is, focusing only on “second nature” (or human nature), while “first nature” (or biological nature) festers into an even bigger blister on human heels, until excess causes it to burst painfully.

Bookchin draws upon a natural and social dichotomy, saying, “In this ‘either/or’ propositional thinking, the social is either separated from the organic, or flippantly reduced to the organic, resulting in an inexplicable dualism at one extreme or a naïve reductionism at the other” (466).

In Mary Mellor’s Ecofeminism and Environmental Ethics: A Materialist Perspective, she addresses this false dichotomy between eco-centrism and anthropocentrism more directly. I agree with her assertion that we should not try to choose one over the other, and to do so would be to separate humans from nature when really humanity is embedded within nature, along with non-human organisms and creatures. Developing an ethic like this and like that of Bookchin’s complementarity, I believe that social problems can be understood and approached more effectively.

If humans embodied an ethic that respected nature and humanity together, an ethic that discontinued oppressive, violent hierarchies and various forms of dominance, an ethic that embraced the best of reason and of ideals, then I believe we could resolve ecological problems by transforming ourselves spiritually and socially.

One-Dimensionality & False Autonomy

The one-dimensional person’s needs are created and circulated within an advanced industrial society that renders these needs as satisfactory only within itself. This false satisfaction blinds people from questioning further the situation of society in their lives. This advanced society dominates the individuals by satisfying their ‘needs’ using itself as the means to satisfaction. This has brought about our society of production and consumption. Individuals have become tools for the growth and productivity of the political and economic systems which grow stronger at the expense of objectifying and, thus, dehumanizing individuals.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse says, “Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organized” (One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse, p.1). These needs that are satisfied within the systems are false in that they are preconditioned and “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice” (5). The false needs that the one-dimensional society imposes on us are in contrast to our true, vital needs such as food, clothing and shelter. The satisfaction of false needs might make the individual happy, but this euphoria they experience is really a “euphoria in unhappiness” (5) since the needs are predetermined and controlled by external forces; thus it is a predetermined happiness that is not chosen by the individual but rather imposed upon him/her as satisfactory. Further explaining these false needs, Marcuse says, “No matter how much such needs may have become the individual’s own, reproduced and fortified by the conditions of his existence; no matter how much he identifies himself with them and finds himself in their satisfaction, they continue to be what they were from the beginning—products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression” (5). Our “needs” are integrated into the system, making us have a hard time opposing the system, as it would be an opposition to what we believe are ourselves and our needs, thus entrapping us in a system of, what Marcuse calls, “unfreedom.”

The repression of our individuality and our liberty by the false needs society fixes upon us, puts us in a state of servitude. We do not realize that society is repressing our true needs and we, rather, buy into the system. Having our needs preconditioned for us and buying into the already established system, we become rational characters among a civilization of irrationality which we rely on for our own development and satisfaction. Marcuse explains, saying, “…the extent to which his civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced” (9). This existence is one-dimensional as it is integrated within the realm of this society. Marcuse says further, “…the ‘false consciousness’ of their rationality becomes the true consciousness” (11).

The liberty we are granted within our society offers us vast choices but it does not allow us to decide “what can be chosen and what is chosen” (7). Marcuse asserts how choices open to us do not decide the level of our freedom, but rather further alienate us, saying, “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation” (7-8). Free choice administered to us within the system does not render us autonomous individuals, instead it prolongs the controlled “unfreedom” that deceives us into believing we are liberated individuals. Things like mass media, advertising, industrial management and our very culture shape a one-dimensional universe which cripples our ability to think and behave in a truly rational and individual manner, and keeps us from attaining a true autonomy. Freedom, for Marcuse, would be a freedom from the economic and political systems, as well as a freedom from the indoctrination of ‘public opinion’ altogether. Freedom from these systems would entail that we would be able to decide what our true needs are, instead of being conditioned to believe that our “false” needs are, in fact, our true ones.

Furthermore, Marcuse critiques what he calls “technological rationality” because of the manner it reduces individuals to just basic functions for consumption and productivity; it does not challenge ends but rather the means to get things in the most efficient, quickest and fastest manner possible. Just as in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”, the main character, Sam, has an apartment full of technological gadgets that, in the end, are flimsy and unreliable, but are used to perform those tasks that are not essential to Sam’s day-to-day life since he is perfectly capable of making coffee and toast, for example, on his own. In this way, technology is rigged toward creating more needs for society which are not necessarily true needs. Instead, Marcuse believes that technology should be aimed at achieving ends that are more productive (instead of obstructive) to experience an autonomy through assisting true human needs.

Marcuse offers a potentiality for liberation through consciousness. He asserts, “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own. The process always replaces one system of preconditioning by another; the optimal goal is the replacement of false needs by true ones, the abandonment of repressive satisfaction” (7). Marcuse sees alienation as a potentiality for a collective self-overcoming through awareness. He is concerned that if we lose sight of being alienated then our social progress would be hindered too, because we would no longer be in conflict with the fact of our alienation. Maintaining opposition of will is important, for Marcuse, and necessary to have progress. We needs to be at odds with ourselves in order to step outside of ourselves and have progress; to be autonomous. In this way, our consciousness and realization of our situation in society would allow us to break through society’s materialistic and idealistic one-dimensional prison, into the liberation of free thought and satisfaction of true needs.

In my opinion, Marcuse gives a very thorough and precise analysis of advanced industrial societies. I heavily agree with his conceptions of true versus false needs within a one-dimensional universe, and that our self-determinations get determined outside of us. Like Marcuse, I believe that our materialistic and idealistic “needs” (or false needs) that are imposed upon us by a one-dimensional society hinder us from being autonomous beings through blinding us from our realization of what true needs are. This gives me an unsettling sense of submission to a society that constantly dominates individuals into thinking they are free insofar as they are consuming and producing endless false needs to prolong the dehumanizing process. I also agree that if individuals were conscious of this process that they would cease to participate in this oppressive system. For example, in the film “Brazil”, Sam attempts to break free from social structures once he becomes aware of how destructive and blinding they really are, and he attempts to find individual happiness in a true autonomy outside of the system. The antagonists in the film were the people who were merely doing their jobs, showing the harm really being done through unawareness, and even ignorance, of alienation. However, Marcuse did not provide realistic solutions to overcome the dilemmas he analyzed. Although I agree that consciousness is a necessary step toward collective autonomy, I would have liked to see more possible solutions.

The creation of false needs that are projected through mass media and advertisements, tie individuals to a system that hinders their thoughts toward a preconditioned one-dimensionality. Our supposed ‘freedom of choice’ is not a freedom at all, but rather a mechanism to bind individuals to a system that ultimately dominates and controls their autonomy by creating materialistic needs that provide the individuals with a so-called “freedom” to choose among material goods, thus giving them a sense of ‘self’ through their possessions; a false sense of ‘self.’ Consciousness of this domination and awareness of what our true needs are provides us with the possibility of liberation that is, otherwise, unattainable in the one-dimensional universe.

In Pursuit of ______.

Virginia Craft
2011 April

Why is it the most passionate-about-life people seem to be usually successful where less driven individuals rarely push the edge of life’s possibilities?

– John Jancik
_________________________________

John, I love your question and I have thought about this very thing before. Keep in mind that I do not assert any things that I say to be universally true, just true from my own perspective. There is, of course, a lot to gain from thinking about other people’s perspectives though; even if you find yourself in disagreement, it is by that disagreement that you strengthen your own thoughts.

I will not attempt to apply reason to all particular people’s lives. However, I will focus on a few things that I believe to be relevant factors.

_________________________________

I believe that your question comes down to this:  What drives people and what keeps people from pursuing their dreams fully?

I feel that it is more important to discuss some of the reasons for people not pursuing their dreams fully, because in focusing on these possible reasons, the former question of ‘What drives people?’ will be answered. To exaggerate, we can assume that the reasons for some people being so passionately driven to the point of actively pursuing their dreams is either from overcoming or never confronting the hardships of the people who rarely push the edge of life’s possibilities.

The factors I will discuss will be, in order: weakness of will, procrastination, fear, self-deception, and habits.

_________________________________

WEAKNESS OF WILL

To start, weakness of will may explain why, I believe, people may linger too long on the edge of life’s possibilities without yet pursuing them.

If someone evaluates their situation and considers all things before reaching the conclusion “I will quit smoking”, it does not necessarily follow that their actions will correlate agreeably with their decision to not smoke.

The will is weakened, I believe, in moments where emotion, mood, interest, and desire are strengthened, usually for immediate satisfaction. The person who once thought that they would not smoke, may go against their better judgment and give into an inclination to smoke if, for example, they find that their current state is one of anxiety or irritability. Motivated by their discomfort of not being able to smoke when they want to, they all too easily revise their decision in order to accommodate their current situation in every way: It is 6:30 PM, they want to smoke, so they conclude, “I will not smoke anymore, except only one cigarette in the evenings.”

This gives them the ‘OK’ to smoke now without feeling bad about it; they are still willing to do something, but their will has been weakened by immediate desires. Later, after their discomfort has subsided—after they get to smoke—, they revise their will back to their initial decision: “All things considered, I will not smoke again.”

This, to me, is weakness of will, and it has, I am certain, happened to most of us in one way or another.

Acting in contrast to your better judgment definitely puts a damper on goal-oriented progression, especially when the process is put on repeat. Although I consider weakness of will to be a moral issue, I do not think that it necessarily makes someone a coward. I feel it is a circumstance of being a free person and having the ability to make decisions as such. However, it should not be accepted as mere normalcy and, therefore, ignored. Addressing acts of a weakened will are important for moving forward toward your goals.

_________________________________

PROCRASTINATION

Next up, procrastination.

There are many different forms of procrastinating, but I will focus on procrastination associated with bigger, goal-oriented things; not on, for example, why one might procrastinate mowing the lawn.

Excuses for procrastination are certainly plentiful by the procrastinators themselves: “I don’t feel like doing it right now”, “I want to, but I have so many other things that need to get done”, “I work better at the last minute when I am under pressure”, “I’m trying to figure out if it’s really what I want to be doing”, “I don’t have the necessary tools or information to do it”, “I don’t know where to start”, to name a few.

These excuses (and any others) are merely surface statements for the underlying reasons for procrastination. Some of the underlying reasons for procrastinating are, I believe, as follow (but are not limited to):
Perfectionism;
Because you are not sure where to start; anxiety (may be another form of perfectionism);
Because your goals are set for others (whether you are conscious of it or not);
Because it is truly not what you want to be doing (again, whether you are conscious of it or not).

(It is important to note that, in my opinion, laziness is one of the fundamental reasons for procrastinating. Laziness to accomplish a task would only be present as a result of one of the above reasons for procrastinating.)

Perfectionism: Procrastination can be a form of perfectionism where the person will put something off until last minute, knowing that they will not have enough time to work to their fullest and best, thereby giving them an excuse for their imperfections. This is usually done in instances where a person may not feel prepared or particularly knowledgeable on a subject. Knowing that the end result may not meet their perfectionist standards—even if they start early—, they put the project off until the last minute. Then, when they do poorly or below their desired standards, they claim, “If I would have started earlier, then it would have been perfect. It is only imperfect because I started late.” This example can be carried over to bigger goals that someone may have, putting the goal off almost indefinitely for fear of unknown failure or imperfections.
(Note: If the person creates the failure or imperfections, then they have control; by contrast, if the person takes a chance by pursuing a goal, they do not necessarily have control over the failure or imperfections.)

Unsure where to start: For the person who procrastinates because they are not sure where to start, they may never accomplish any of their goals if they wait till they have things planned out perfectly. It’s important to just start. Start somewhere. Anywhere. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu says it simply and perfectly, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (The Way of Lao Tzu). However, this person may be stalled because of anxiety and uncertainty, finding themselves trapped also by routine or habit. (This will be discussed more later in this piece in the section on habits.)

Goals set for others / Not pursuing what you truly want: In the next form of procrastination, we see instances where someone finds that they “don’t feel like doing it right now”, is “trying to figure out if it’s really what I want to be doing”, etcetera. These excuses or reasons may be because your goals are set for others or the thing you are pursuing is not what you truly want.

The most important thing to do in this situation and any, I feel, is to abandon all expectation-oriented goals and take sufficient time to know yourself.

Without taking sufficient time to truly know yourself—who you are, what you want, your morals, beliefs, values, etcetera—, you may fall prey to acts of self-deception and procrastination. (Self-deception will be discussed in length later in this writing). Both are done to try to please false motives acquired from expectations from yourself and/or expectations from others.

An example where someone may be procrastinating pursuing something because their goals are set for other people and it is not something that they truly want to be doing is: If someone has been told by their family and friends for years, “Oh, you are so smart!”, then they may feel the need to go to college since they have, over time, internalized this thought that they are smart and should pursue a higher education. They may have even, again over time, subconsciously deceived their self into believing that school is, in fact, what they should do and want to do.

This form of self-deception and procrastination (procrastination, if the person is putting off going to school for related reasons) is a lose-lose situation: The person loses both ways—whether they go back to school or not—if they are setting goals or working toward goals that are set for other people’s expectations. In the end, they still do not get for what they truly dream.

However, if this same person were to analyze the reasons why he or she has been putting off going back to school, then they may find a truth in the very act of procrastinating; that is, their voice speaking to them saying, “The reason I have put off going back to school is because it’s not really what I want to be doing!

By the same token, someone whose family members never pursued a higher education and who was rarely, if ever, told that they were “Oh, so smart!” may lead their self to think that they could never go to college because they are not ‘smart enough’. Even though their hopes, dreams, and aspirations lie in becoming a nurse, for example, settling for what they have internalized from others’ words, or lack thereof—that is, settling for less—, they never actually conjure enough passion to confidently step toward their dreams, or they procrastinate ever actually trying.

_________________________________

FEAR

Now that we have looked at weakness of will and procrastination as setbacks in life, let us look at fear.

Fear can cripple an otherwise headstrong person. For one, fearing failure may keep somebody from even attempting their dreams. If someone has worked hard to create their reputation as a strong, confident person, then pursuing a dream may make them vulnerable to failure or pain—a fear of weakening their character or freedom. Situations that challenge somebody’s personal autonomy are certainly fear-inducing. If one lost their ability to fully govern their self, then they might feel powerless or broken. For some, this may be reason enough to keep ‘putting off’ dreams until they feel prepared or ready.

However; the ambiguity and uncertainty that reveals itself from holes in the sidewalk along one’s journey cannot be thought of in advance. These holes may lead to falling and pain, something that can only be dodged by not even taking the walk to begin with.

For others, a “disorder of the will” may be the explanation. From the textbook, Abnormal Psychology, a disorder of the will is explicated as knowing what you should do, what you ought to do, and what you must do, but having no notion of what you want to do. Admittedly, I suffer this from time to time. Finding myself bored with nothing to do sometimes, I remember all of the goals I have set for myself, picture myself working toward these goals, then decide “I don’t feel like it right now”, thereby accomplishing nothing in that moment of time. Overcoming this, for me, is a matter of mood control and self control, I know, because other times I may go through this same process, but push myself through mentally—I know that if I just get started, then I can keep going—, thus working toward one or more of my goals.

_________________________________

SELF-DECEPTION

Now, something that I believe falls under the categories of both driving people and keeping people from pursuing their dreams is self-deception.

Basically, self-deception works to lead oneself and others to believe something that the deceiver knows to be false, but is claiming and maintaining to be true. The reason for deceiving oneself, I think, comes from the belief that one does not have sufficient means to accomplish one’s goals, thereby feeling it is necessary to lie to oneself and others.

Example one: For example, Anna would love to travel the world, but she is truthfully too scared because she fears that she will not be able to survive outside of her familiar home (fear of failure), being too scared to leave comfort and delve into the unknown.

While working at her cubicle, her coworker Elliot asks her if she has ever wanted to travel the world. Anna—knowing her true fears of traveling, but too scared to reveal aloud to herself and to others what she believes is weakness—replies, “I would like to travel, but I am just too busy lately”, continuing her excuse, “Although, I just helped create the new marketing presentation that will be displayed in Russia next month!” Convincing herself and Elliot that traveling is something that is not high on her to do list and that she would absolutely do it if she ‘had time’ works as something believable by showing favor to her real life situation of not actually traveling. A difference lies in the reasons for not traveling: one of which is the truth but would reveal a weakness of Anna, and the other of which is deception to show that her reason for not traveling is her moral, confident decision.

Example two: On the other hand, self-deception can lead someone who is not quite prepared enough to accomplish their goals, to believe that they actually are. In other words, I am sure you have heard the phrase, “Fake it till you make it”.

For example, Elliot knows truthfully that he is not a particularly confident person and he fears traveling alone. He is no longer taking adequate steps to mentally overcome his lack of confidence and his fears; although, in the past he has tried to talk about his problems with psychologists, family, and friends, but in the end he thinks it will be too much work and take too much time.

Hungry for an immediate fix, he practices trying on a personality that is headstrong and fearless.

Eventually, he mostly convinces his self that he is ready to travel alone.

When talking to Anna at the office, Elliot says, “I love travel. This summer I am going to be leaving for Turkey. I will be going alone without any set plans.” Regurgitating this same thing to other people, Elliot finds that he is able to believe his displays of confidence and fearlessness. From here, he leaves for Turkey and successfully ‘makes it’ traveling alone, coming across small physical obstacles along the way, and every so often catching a glimpse of the person underneath the facade who is still self-conscious and still fearful; the person he did not pay attention to and no longer really knows: his true self.

_________________________________

HABITS

Pondering still the reasons for people not pursuing their dreams fully, we find habits.

Breaking habits is perhaps one of the hardest things to do in life, but it is something that, I believe, can set people free from their mental trappings and allow them to work toward their dreams or goals.

Example: Continuing the example of traveling, in the adjacent cubicle Lucy overhears the conversation between Anna and Elliot. Lucy is an accountant, 45 years old, and has been working her job for 18 years.

Also a victim of self-deception, Lucy has convinced herself that she is too old to travel and has too many things to do. Not to mention, she has formed the habit of working her job, going to the grocery store every Sunday, attending book club sessions every Thursday, and mostly leaving her weekends to be ‘spontaneous’, sometimes meeting her friends for a drink or watching movies. She is fairly happy with this routine, but she knows that since she was in college she has wanted to travel the Mediterranean countries. Listening to Elliot talk about his upcoming trip to Turkey, she allows herself to dabble with the idea of actually taking the trip of her dreams.

Quietly, she searches the Internet for an airline ticket to Greece. Her blood rushing with excitement, the butterflies in her stomach push her further to calculate her expenses and see how she could reasonably manage to take the trip.

She figured that if she did not eat out very often, was frugal with her money at the grocery store, and if she drove less and took the bus more, then she would have enough money to comfortably take the trip in September, six months from now.

She let herself get carried off into her imaginations of relaxing on the sandy, white beaches of the Mediterranean Sea, eating delicious foods, drinking spirits, and maybe even meeting the ‘man of her dreams’. Then, as quickly as she fell into her daydream, she fell out. With thoughts of, “Who will cover my position while I am gone?”, “Who will take care of my house?, “Who will take care of my dog?“, etcetera, Lucy convinced herself that it is not reasonable to take the trip in September and that maybe she could shoot for next year when she has more time to work things out.

The problem came when she allowed herself to fall back into habit and let her enthusiasm that day fade with time and routine.

_________________________________

In the end, it is necessary to not only take the time to know yourself, but to practice being yourself. Pain, suffering, and failure are all necessary parts of life. Avoidance of them may keep you from pursuing your dreams, and in the very act of avoiding them, you are avoiding life itself.

To me, it is a necessary and worthwhile pursuit to go through pain, risk, and anxiety to find what you really want to do, and then do it. No reservations, no apprehensions.

_________________________________

There may be other reasons for why some people may not push the edge of life’s possibilities, and I am certainly open to hearing your thoughts if you have any on the topic.

— Virginia Craft