A strange and unsettling image haunted me all throughout last semester. It was that of the isolated individual.
It took a while for me to realize that many of the frustrations I felt during conversations in my ethics seminars, discussions with my own class, and even while processing some of the reactions to the Penn State sex abuse scandal in November were rooted to a very familiar notion that effectively derails conversations, undermines discussions, or truncates the ability for people to makes sense of their own actions (or lack thereof). In all of these situations, we always seemed to hit bedrock once people took it for granted that we, as separate, independent individuals, can only ever do so much.
Here’s how the story goes: Especially when it comes to doing the “right” thing, there are very few people who have the purity of heart and fortitude of moral conviction to always buy the right products, donate a sufficient amount of their income, challenge oppressive stereotypes, not live according to social expectations of the norm, and risk their job, reputation, loyalties, and faith in their own life-long held beliefs in order to protect the interests and well-being of others first. Sure we hear about the really exceptional folks who manage to do heroic, miraculous things. We admire the Mother Teresa’s, the Gandhi’s, the moral saints, for there just aren’t that many of them in the world, and this is precisely what makes their actions so heroic and miraculous–hardly anyone else can or would dedicate themselves so fully to do them.
For the majority of us, we are simply too afraid of what our friends or families might think of us if we “acted out,” out of the ordinary, blew some whistles, or genuinely questioned the status quo of how things are. If one already nicely fits into all of the social norms and reaps their benefits, then one would quite literally be self-imposing disadvantages on her own life, including perhaps financial loss, the loss of social privilege, or even risk becoming alienated among one’s social groups. None of which are particularly attractive or desirable self-selected fates. Even if we ultimately valued such actions, we often also tend to think, “Well, geez, it’s just not worth putting in all that effort and disrupt the order of things when my actions alone won’t really make a difference anyway!” So, even if it we “know” that it would probably be better for everyone if we veered off of the beaten path, even just a little bit, for the most part, we stay on it. And as probably anyone who tries to facilitate conversations in a socially critical, progressive, and self-reflective classroom could attest, the attitudes of students eloquently capture the essence of the brick wall that one hits. The easiest way for a student to conclude a reflection essay or end a semester-long dialogue is to state, “I agree that (fill in the blank with some oppressive attitude, institution, or practice) is bad, but it will never change since things have always been like this.” This leads to nowhere new. And that is precisely why I don’t let my students say such dismissive (and clearly false) things. [you can read something about this here]
I won’t harp on the trouble presented by this kind of cynicism and how it is very philosophically and politically significant in its own right, but I will note one thing that kept occurring to me in all of these frustrating and prematurely-hopeless exchanges–The notion of the separate, independent individually is only an assumption. Many people, from contemporary feminist philosophers to ancient Buddhist monks, have noted that we are not actually, nor are we ever, fully independent subjects. Of course we depend on other things, such as the environment and resources and creatures and all of the people around us. Even those who are very, very far away in time and space whom we will never know, whose faces we can’t even imagine, we depend on them, too. And just as we depend on others, others depend on us. This means that we have the capacity to affect those around us. In fact, we always do. So with just a little bit of reflection, we see that we are not independent and that we are not ineffectual.
Instead, we are actually already situated and embedded within relationships, groups, and communities. Now imagine what would happen if we took this for granted.
Rather than mistakenly viewing ourselves as separate and independent individuals, which quickly lends itself to feelings of alienation, isolation, and vulnerability from the outset, we could find ways to recognize, appreciate, and strengthen our actual positions within collectivities, which quickly lends itself to feelings of being more supported, more valuable, and more capable of taking on bigger challenges. Perhaps we would feel more inclined to ask for help because we know that one person just simply can’t do it all for herself. And perhaps we would also be more inclined to help those who need our support because we could trust that others would also be there to provide their support. This means that we wouldn’t have to shoulder the impossible burden of holding ourselves and another person up, too, because we have the support of others even in how we support each other! Of course individual actions can accomplish great things, but privileging that over the effect of collective actions is like comparing the waves I can make by doing a cannonball into a pool to the waves of the ocean itself. Or, to be consistent with the metaphor, to the waves that my friends and I could make if we all jumped into the pool together at the same time. We could quite literally displace the water right out of the pool.
Anyway, I hope the point is well taken: Thinking of ourselves as isolated individuals is often more disempowering than it is motivating, and the potential for growth, support, and meaningful action that is present by virtue of the fact that we are always already situated in interpersonal relationships with others is often overlooked, under-appreciated, and under utilized.
And now it’s time for the connection to my life, which is very far from suggesting that I am a Mother Teresa or moral saint…For me, of course, the connection goes to my work and my relationship with philosophy.
I have finally entered the final stage of my graduate program: the writing of the dissertation! I have set the ambitious goal to get the bulk of my writing done before August. That means in seven months (which includes already-scheduled travel interruptions for about three weeks and a big move to another city). I know it will be difficult, but thanks to another dissertating graduate student friend who shared with me some advice that she got about the whole ordeal, writing that much that fast doesn’t seem completely impossible. How will it get done? By writing 300 words a day. At least that’s how this guy recommends going about it.
Three-hundred words a day isn’t really all that much when you think about it, especially considering how much time during the day that I have to do it. I’m done with courses. I’m on a teaching release this semester. So aside from my commitments through the Rock Ethics Institute to go to a some ethics seminars and continue working on the Public Philosophy Network, the demands for attention from my all-too-human cat, the care I must give to maintain the health of my relationships, and perhaps my own physical health in the process, all I have to do is write. Yep, in all of those hours between waking up and going back to sleep, for seven months, all I have to do is write. write. wriiiiiiiiite.
|us, this morning, writing this post. me, sick and congested.|
But that, my friends, is also kind of scary. Because what can quickly happen, and often does, is that I find myself sitting with my computer in a room somewhere all. day. long. I’ve got nothing but my books, the blinking cursor on the screen, and the sea of convoluted words twisting through my mind. I won’t make phone calls to friends and family because I could be writing. I don’t exercise because I should be writing. And since this is my big project, I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of, no real philosophical exchange to keep my thoughts fresh. It’s an exhausting, consuming process of intense, solitary philosophical immersion (with the exception of my cat’s company). I’ve only ever had intense writing periods like this for final seminar papers, so I don’t exactly know what going through this will be like, day in and day out, for seven months. But honestly, the thought of it alone is enough to make me feel nauseated with a deep, unsettling sense of academic isolation. And that’s precisely when the frustrations and doubts and insecurities and feelings of being completely overwhelmed usher in. “Why is this worth it?” “Who cares about what I’m writing?” “How is this going to help the world in any way?”
To battle this feeling of isolation and keep my motivation up, I invited some of my friends and family members to become my “daily receivers” of the 300 words that I write each day. In the initial email I explained that if they agreed to it, they would only be signing up to receive my email. They certainly wouldn’t have to respond with any thoughts or comments on what I wrote (in fact, it would be better for my progress if they didn’t) and they wouldn’t even have to read the words from each day. Hence, rather than being my “daily readers” or “daily reviewers,” they are my “daily receivers.” I guess the basic idea here could be that they help me hold myself accountable to get the writing done each day by holding me accountable to them. But since I’m not really one for shaping people’s behaviors by hanging the threat of shame and disappointment over their head, this isn’t exactly the position that I wanted to put myself in. Instead, I wanted to find a way to break out of the isolation.
By inviting some of the most important people in my life to receive my daily emails, I have opened myself up in a way that says, “This is gonna be a hard project, and I anticipate many days ahead that will leave me feeling pretty discouraged. I also imagine that I may feel like I can’t do it. So, please help me. I would really appreciate your support, because I know that I’m gonna need it. And here is how you can help me.” My loved ones have shown me support already by simply signing up for the long-haul, and I’ve made it much easier for them to respond with little bits of encouragement like, “Good work!” “I know you can do it!” or “Keep it up!” Any and all of which, of course, will be nice little boosts of encouragement as I push on.
I’m still the one doing all the writing. The project is still my own. But I no longer feel so entrenched in my own thoughts and texts, and I don’t feel so secluded and cut off from everyone else in my life. This project, which is very personally and philosophically important to me, is also something that I can share of myself with those who I care about and who care about me. In addition to knowing what I am doing all day long, if they choose to read the words that resulted from my effort on any given day, they can peek into the ideas and issues that I have been focusing on for the past six years since I’ve been doing philosophy. In short, in addition to hopefully addressing some of the vulnerability and anxiety and pressure that I feel about writing for months on end, I’ve found a way to let people into my academic world, and it might be the first time that they actually get to see why and how I do what I do in philosophy. Finally, the often stifling walls of academia seem a bit more permeable.