On the inescapable nature of the self

Experience is wholly unique. Your experience of life is hugely different from mine, and the same goes for each person. We can only experience life through our own body, our own person and self (if such a thing exists). There is no way of completely escaping subjectivity while conscious. Many things ‘take us out of ourselves’, such as music and sport, yet they do not relinquish subjectivity as a whole. In this sense, our subjective experience is always with us while conscious, and complete objective experience is not possible. This circumstance can be interpreted in different ways: it can appear to be wonderful, as our consciousness allows a unique way of life to be experienced, yet it can, contrastingly, appear to be troublesome and undesirable-sometimes we may feel a need to exit our own experience of life, maybe because we are not in a sound state of mind, or because loneliness has taken over and we wish to be able to experience something with another conscious being fully. Both of these, however, are mere interpretations, and the self can be seen in different lights. Yet it is clear that our conscious experience has limitations-we cannot experience the past again, nor can we experience what the future holds, and it is this which we do not like to accept-we feel somewhat powerless because we cannot change what we did yesterday and we cannot know what will happen tomorrow. Likewise, it is difficult, at times, to accept that only we can experience what we are experiencing right now, and that others’ experiences are, ultimately, inaccessible to us in their utmost being. This is not, however, something to be distraught about, but is rather something that must be accepted. The self is inescapable, but it does not follow that this is necessarily a problem. At times it may even feel like a blessing.


One path to fulfilment

For true fulfilment, for genuine satisfaction, there is no easy way. Nothing worth having comes easily. We all know this, but this isn’t the point. It’s not that we don’t know it, it’s that we’re too prone to forgetting it. We need constant reminders of what we know and the ideas and beliefs that drive us need to be refreshed often to keep us going. It would help if, every day, we took just a little time to stop and to reaffirm to ourselves why we are doing what we are doing with our one life. We want things to come easily. We are impatient and easily fall down before instant gratification. Deep down, though, we know that in the long run, it just isn’t worth it. Perhaps the only way to keep our path as straight as possible is to remind ourselves why we should continue. If you genuinely want something, if you really want to become a different person or achieve a goal, then you will persevere. There will be times of failure, but we should never ever give up. It may require what feels like extortionate amounts of sacrifice but it will be worth it. Yet first, we must remember that for even a small glimpse of heaven, we must delve deep into hell first.

On being normal

More and more often have I recently heard people telling each other they’re not ‘normal’ or asking ‘why you can’t you just be normal?’ The tone is always a slightly insulting one. The thing is, being normal is overrated. When someone says ‘be normal’, what they’re really saying is ‘be average’. Yet it shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t be telling each other to be normal, first because the concept of normal is a societal norm, formed by the culture we live, and the consumerist, social-media ridden society we do indeed live in is not something, I believe, to be hugely proud of. Second, because we are not normal. None of us are. However much we might like to convince ourselves that we are or can be normal, that is just not who we are, and a denial of this is, really, a denial to be truly human. This is because humans have strange thoughts, think things which would be considered to be strange or nasty or wrong. We are complex creatures with many opposing and conflicting ideas and beliefs floating around in our subconscious. We are not ‘normal’ and we never will be. We must accept this and move on. Instead of being good at being normal, we should try to become our best self. What that is, no doubt, is another question altogether.

Can we be truly original?

True originality is overrated. In fact, it’s impossible. We are constantly acting in the guise of other people. This is even more apparent in today’s consumer culture. We are told who we should be like through the medium of advertising. Growing up, we are sold an identity. We want to be Cristiano Ronaldo or Harvey Specter or Ricky Gervais. Rene Girard talks about this in his mimetic theory, in which humanity is constantly imitating others in a cycle, and there is no such thing as being truly original, contrary to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed we should ‘become who you are’. We cannot, with all the immense influences of the world, create something utterly and irrefutably original and unique. We are, in a sense, the compounds of many different influences put together. This may be similar to the idea of Hegel, in which there is a thesis and an antithesis, a view and an opposing view, which form to become a synthesis, which is the result of these opposing views clashing. Of course, two views may be different, but do not have to oppose each other, and so one may take ideas from both sides, perhaps forming a more complete and satisfactory result. We must not, however, become frustrated or anguished that we cannot be truly original. Who should we imitate? We must decide who to imitate in order to decide how to live. It is still up to you. It is your decision who you imitate. Who knows, perhaps one day people may find themselves imitating you. It just depends on how you choose to live your life.

The pettiness of our troubles

The amount of concern we take for things that do not matter is unreasonable and unnecessary, only causing us more frustration. We have, as first world societies, become too accustomed to our lifestyles, consequently and mistakenly taking them for granted. We are constantly over exaggerating, and the sense of what is important has been lost. ‘So and so hasn’t liked my Instagram photo!’ ‘The food was terrible, we’re never going there again!’ ‘I don’t have time to watch my Netflix programme!’ These are not uncommon complaints. Yet all of them become trivial when one takes oneself out of the situation. These things which we take so serious become, as Nagel puts it, gratuitous. Someone hasn’t like your post? Over 50% of the world doesn’t even have access to what you mindlessly post, and that person, contrary to what you might want to think, probably doesn’t really you or even really know you. The food was terrible? 800 million people wouldn’t even dream of such a meal. Can’t watch Netflix? Tough. Over 20,000 people die each day of poverty.

We’re all guilty at times of such complaints when we begin to take ourselves too seriously and we become too involved in what is only going on in our own lives, forgetting about the bigger picture. Of course it’s nice to enjoy some of life’s greater pleasures now and then, but to complain when certain, unreasonably hopeful, standards aren’t met is to make a mistake. Moreover, maintaining the bigger picture may both encourage us to aim towards a better future for all and allow us to appreciate the things which so many others do not have. It may be bad right now, but it could be a lot, lot worse.

Mill and education

In On Liberty, Mill writes about education, stating its importance, saying that the purpose of universities is not to produce good lawyers, teachers and politicians, but ‘cultivated and capable human beings.’ Mill was more concerned with person we become and who we are, rather than our status, power or wealth. Mill criticises the education system, saying that all education is for is so that we can learn what is easy and interesting, so that when we have to go out of our comfort zones and do something that is not easy or interesting and may not be enjoyable, which we all will inevitably have to do, we become disheartened and frustrated.

Mill would, I think, despise today’s education system, and it is not difficult to see why. Rather than focusing on what is right and wrong when being taught, the emphasis is on what will bring oneself the most pleasure and the least pain, a key utilitarian idea, which Peter Vardy calls the transactional-utilitarian model. Moreover, the education system is strongly individualistic, not really bothered about the concept of community, but only the success and enhancement of pleasure of individuals. This culture of immediate pleasure, and not really thinking about who we become appears to thrive in consumerist cultures, for consumerism advertises and encourages individual success so that one can, through consumption, achieve happiness. Mill would say, however, that we have lost any real concept of happiness, and that consumerism and individualist society does not make us happy.

Both Mill and Nietzsche had different ideas of what it meant to be happy and to be a ‘fulfilled’ human being. Mill concluded that, rather than seeking one’s own happiness, we should first seek the happiness of others, and this concept of a strong community may have been influenced by Aristotle. If we want to be happy, we must first want to make others happy. Nietzsche had a different view of fulfilment, and it was one where suffering and discomfort is prominent, things which the current education discourage and avoid. Nietzsche held the view that only through genuine sacrifice and effort will we achieve anything worthwhile, and that it is only through this that fulfilment can be achieved. Furthermore, the attitude we receive from our 18 years or so of education may influence the way in which we view our whole lives, and so our relationships may be deeply affected by the way we view them. Do we focus on what is right and wrong, or what brings us the most pleasure and the least pain? If we want to become fulfilled, which seems to becoming more and more difficult as consumerist culture takes a greater hold of us, Nietzsche and Mill would both agree that it is the education system that needs to change if we want our lives to change. Nevertheless, it is possible to detach ourselves from what society encourages, and to seek our own fulfilment and happiness, and, perhaps, this may start with community and sacrifice.

The Power of Art

Art is many things. It can inspire, comfort, transform. Art enables man to transform his essence. Christian Morgenstern said that ‘in every work of art, the artist himself is present’ and I believe this to be true. In the music of Mozart we are able to gain an insight into the intense feelings, doubts and frustrations of a musical genius, in the paintings of van Gogh we are thrown into a world of madness, pain and, again, majestic skill. At times, art can satisfactorily express emotions which words cannot.

Through art, Mozart, Bach, da Vinci, Ovid, Homer, and numerous other writers, musicians, poets and painters, became immortal. Although they were all inevitably destined for death, they were able to live forever, not in body or mind, but in spirit. Each person’s art allows a glimpse of that persons life. Not only does art satisfy and gratify the spectators, but it also satisfies the creators themselves. Art, it seems, is created because of some dissatisfaction or some feeling of emptiness that can only be filled by something creative. Many writers have expressed some belief of this sort, saying that ‘art never comes from happiness’ (Chuck Palahniuk) or ‘art is to console those who are broken by life’ (van Gogh). Art can, if we allow, assume a form of catharsis. To the artist himself, art is a means to expressing the inexpressible, to the spectator, art indicates that the feelings of loneliness, doubt, fear,  inadequacy, anxiety, and depression are not exclusive to the spectator alone, and that art can be used to channel these feelings. As Thomas Merton said, ‘art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.’

We live in a society full of art. Music is available at a few clicks of a button, is played in supermarkets, restaurants, in transport, and in many other public and private spaces. Moreover, paintings are widely available to view and poetry and writings are at hand in many, many places. We have, thankfully, recognised its importance and its benefit to mankind. For art may be, at times, the only thing that keeps a man sane.

At your funeral

Picture your funeral. What is the scene? Who is there? The chances are, you won’t exist anymore, in any form whatsoever. So, you are dead. Your life is over, forever. The question is this: what will you have wanted to achieve before this somewhat haunting event? Some people go the grave having created magnificent works of art, some have changed the lives of others, some have made the world a better place. But, for all the achievements, other things enter the graves with people, and those things are unfulfilled potential, achievements that were easily attainable if only a little more effort was put in, actions that could have been just, or calm, or rational, yet turned out to be unjust, angry, and impulsive. We should, it seems, at times ask ourselves, ‘What do I want to enter the grave with?’ Do you want to die knowing that you have squeezed every drop out of your one life, or do you want to die regretting that you didn’t put in that extra effort, that kind word, that tiny fragment of concentration? We must keep the end of our life in mind when acting now, otherwise what will we be using as our motive for choosing what we do with our lives? Perhaps if we recall to ourselves daily that one day, perhaps much sooner than we think, our funeral will occur, where we will not be present, and that people will be there who will remember us for who we were and what we did, then maybe we can act in accordance with what we truly desire, yet this, again, requires us to know ourselves, and this takes reflection, questioning, and time. We can, if we so desire, form what people will remember us for. What is it that you want to be remembered for, and what is it that you want to achieve before you die?

What is social media for?

Social media has never been just good or just bad. It probably never will be. Nevertheless, it seems that it is becoming more detrimental both to ourselves and to those around us. The bad of social media seems to heavily outweigh the good. Perhaps the scariest thing of all is that social media may in fact be a contradiction in terms. How social is social media?

Social media is, no doubt, good and useful in some respects. It enables us to keep in touch with each other, to catch up, and to let other people know how we are doing, even if we are on the other side of the world. We can meet new people through social media, and it enables us to organise meetings and group events. Moreover, opinions, ideas, and stories can be shared, discussed, and reflected upon. Useful? Of course. Worthwhile? Definitely. But this is not all. There is another side to social media.

In a society like ours, where the good is proclaimed and heralded and the bad is repressed, it is easy to tell ourselves, and each other, how great social media is. Also, given that there are so many people on it, how could it be anything but good? It is a commonly held view that to be on social media is to be connected, is to be social, and that if you are not on it, then you are missing out.

Social media is addictive. Period. Society looks down upon addiction, yet the majority of it is active in a kind of global addiction. Why is it so addictive? It may be that social media makes us feel connected, and that feeling of being part of something may provide us with some kind of high, albeit a strange one, and so we become hooked, unable to leave our phones alone for more than a few minutes.

Social media is not real. This may be another component which hooks us so easily. Social media provides us with the opportunity to create somebody different from ourselves, who is portrayed as identical with ourselves, and to attribute desirable traits to them. Social media has become a tool to alter our image and how people view us. We are enabled to flaunt the beautiful while hiding the ugly, to reveal the interesting while ignoring the boring, and to portray perfection while repressing innate imperfection. Instagram and Snapchat in particular give us the opportunity to portray our lives in the best possible light to others. But why would we ever want to do such a thing? It may be, perhaps, because we disdain imperfection, because we want to make ourselves feel better about our own lives, and maybe even to make others feel worse about theirs. In almost every photo and post there is an implicit voice which says, ‘Beat this. Yes, this is my life, and it is more interesting than yours.’ It then becomes a constant battle, a constant conflict. It is a fight for the most likes, the most follows, the best picture, the most popular video, and the nicest comments. Surely all this conflict can only lead to anxiety, fear of missing out, and grief.

The amount of time that we now spend on social media is damaging. Not just to ourselves, as we have seen, but to those around us. The more deeply we become connected in social media, the less deeply we become connected with those around us. We prefer to spend our time in a virtual world as a virtual personality surrounded by other, virtual people, rather than spending time with real people. That is the contradiction-that we are supposed to become connected, but over time we become only alienated. For the most part, the majority of people on social media don’t care what you think, have been doing, or are up to now. There will be some, of course, but not many. The people, the real people around us, however, they care. Moreover, it is no doubt true that the deepest friendships and relationships are grounded in real life, not on social media in a virtual world.

Social media indicates a desire for power, for recognition. A large part of it is just people screaming, through the means of photos and other such things, ‘look at me! Look at how great my life is!’ We may be gradually losing the ability to keep quiet, about anything. Anything that we think may be even slightly interesting, if it is only to ourselves, we shout about to others, telling each other how good it is. Must we post about our breakfast? Our day out? Our parties? Why must we, though? Fundamentally, it may be due to ourselves. It is our sense of inadequacy, and our alienation with other people. We therefore feel that we need some kind of recognition that tells us we are worth something and that we are liked. The problem, though, is that most likes are just taps of a button, and nothing deeper. Moreover, we do not feel able to have a relationship with somebody in real life, perhaps due to our own feelings of inadequacy, and so we use social media to have a relationship with that person, even if it is as shallow as the breaths you take at night, because social media allows us to hide the flaws. But, the more we do this, the more we become out of touch with our emotions, and the more we become alienated from who we really are. All of our complex and mixed, tangled emotions boil down to an emoji face. If that is not shallow, then what is? Furthermore, the time we spend on our phones results in less time with other people, and soon enough, our closest relationship is with a robot who neither cares for, nor really knows us. It is a sad situation, but not an inescapable one.

There are parts of social media which are useful and worthwhile, but as a whole, it is hard to see how social media is genuinely social.

It seems that using social media less and less would be an ideal situation. This would enable us to become truly connected with the people whom we care about and who care about us, it may allow us to become more in touch with ourselves, with who we are, what we truly desire, and what we really feel, and it may help us to realise what really matters-real relationships, with real people.


Who am I?

What makes me, me? Who am I? These are questions we all ask ourselves, though the answer may be difficult to get at, if at all possible. Perhaps we think that our unique qualities makes us who we are, or just our conscious subjectivity. But are we really all that unique? Are we different, or is the ego and the self just an illusion?

Although we tend to refer to ourselves as ‘I’, and to say things such as ‘me’ or ‘mine’, does this mean that there is such a thing as ‘I’? If there is one self, what is it made up of? It seems that we are not one self, but many selves. This has been made clearer since the introduction of social media. There is no doubt that the ‘I’ on social media is different from the ‘I’ alone in my bedroom or the ‘I’ with my family. Some people may be vaguely similar to the people they call themselves on social media, while some are vastly different. But is this also the case in our whole lives? Is the person I meet my friends different to the person writing this post? Do ‘I’, in this sense, even exist? Perhaps we must ask ourselves whether it is our appearance that makes us seem different. Maybe even our self-consciousness may convince us that we are different. Maybe we are unique, but then again, maybe we aren’t.

The self may or not be an illusion, but one thing is certain-that we cannot help being individual. We cannot not take our lives seriously, as Thomas Nagel puts it, and so perhaps this is irrelevant. It could be true that the ‘self’ doesn’t really exist, but it is not possible for us to live without the concept of a self. Maybe there is a genuine way to live without a self, but if there is, then ‘I’ have not been able to do so. Whether there be a self or not, what seems most reasonable is to act in a way that will make us free.