To Love Strong and Do Right: Or, When I Nearly Peed My Pants

This post feels hard to start. I can’t let on to too many details (which is already part of the problem) but I hope to write. I need to write. So let me try.

For the past couple of years I’ve been thinking and writing about many of the same topics: Academic philosophy. Graduate school. Relationships (that start and end). What I’m doing with my life and what I want to do. Where I’ll be when I do it. About a year and a half ago I noticed that the nature of my posts was starting to change. Rather than reflecting on the philosophy that I was reading and writing about how it relates to real life, I started to simply write about real life. This blog went from somewhat academically-informed to pseudo self-help insights from a twenty-something-year-old.Β  That slow distancing from academic philosophy in my blogging reflected a slow separation from academic philosophy in my personal life.Β  I stopped reading philosophy because I got bored with reading philosophy. Even the stuff that was aimed at me–as a member of the target audience of academic researchers interested in Nietzsche, rhetoric, and writing styles, for instance–was painful to get through. When I would force myself to go to public talks or conference presentations, I found myself getting frustrated and angry. Even the stuff by feminist philosophers seemed to be too insular, too arrogant, or the comments and questions that followed too self-aggrandizing or too antagonistic (and I lost all hope for other philosophy that didn’t even try or pretend to be relevant to life and interests outside of academic philosophy). The summary of my relationship with philosophy over the past year goes something like this: I haven’t been feeling very inspired. Like a stale marriage, philosophy, it has seemed, just got too far removed from my life. I’m around it all the time. I force myself to keep working at it. I try to make it exciting and plan fun activities whenever I can. Overall, though, we’re probably heading down the path toward a divorce. But that’s not the part that’s hard to write.

In the past couple of weeks my life has taken an unexpected turn. It’s not the kind of turn that would immediately change everything in my life like a terrible car accident, getting married, or winning the lottery. However, it could have been. And nevertheless, this event has changed my life in a different way. On the surface, for those who aren’t receiving phone calls from me every few days, it very likely appears as though nothing has changed at all. But for me, something very, very big has occurred that has forced me to look deeply, carefully, and lovingly at my life. I’ve been taking stock of where I am, what I am doing, where I am going, and where I want to be. Same old, same old, right? Wrong. Because this time it’s serious. Rather than just musing about the possibilities in a free-floating kind of way that is kept afloat by a low-level, ever-present anxiety about the unknowns of one’s future, this is is a type of reflection that takes priorities, values, needs, goals, and dreams very seriously into account. It’s the kind of thinking that functions as if you just realized that you’re heading into some rapids and you don’t have a raft. You start thinking, “How the hell do I get a raft?” or “I need to get off of this river.”

These types of moments call for a real practical kind of reflection. One person referred to it as a moment for “course correction.” You realize that you are in a place where you don’t want to be and never wanted to be. And you come to the painful realization that instead of boldly walking toward your next goal you have been timidly dancing around in circles like a child who has to pee. My apologies for taking this image too far, but these past couple of weeks have been the metaphorical moment when I nearly pissed my pants. Fortunately, I found a really nasty bathroom. It was unpleasant to say the very least, but I’m lucky I could find a bathroom before it was too late. Again, no one need be the wiser about the fact that I almost peed my pants since I’m not walking around with that embarrassing mess all over me. In the public eye, when things are smoothly humming along, “going to bathroom” is one of those things that we have the privilege of forgetting that everyone does. But my goodness, now I know for sure that the next time I’m dancing around in circles it better be out of joy for putting my skills to good use, following my passion, living each day filled with gratitude, and having confidence that if I ever have to pee that badly again that I’ve already cleaned up my own bathroom, installed a skylight, and decorated the counters with fresh wildflowers. (Sorry. I’ve been known to take metaphors to the extreme.)

This delicate little branch has been around my neck for over a week now. In that time, it’s taken on a symbolic meaning as a reminder to love strong and do right.

With great surprise, and also an unexpected amount of relief, my recent experiences have reinvigorated a deep appreciation in me for philosophy. After all of my years of doing philosophy while saying that it can be incredibly helpful and therapeutic by providing ways for people to think through their experiences and understand them in new ways, this return to philosophy was almost instinctual. In fact, I might even say it was necessary. I started to talk and process and think about what I was going through in ways that called into question the cultural values that perpetuate a kind of shaming silence about our experiences (and how this silence reinforces politically and ethically problematic structures that also maintain an unfortunate–if not unjust–status quo). Suddenly, I was very grateful that I had the tools within myself to understand my own situation in a philosophical way that helped me see how there are identifiable reasons that would typically seem “unrelated” but that are part of why this has been such a difficult situation. Thankful for my own ability to see a picture that went beyond pitiful-ol’-me-who-unexpectedly-had-to-pee, I was reminded that there are many, many, many important issues that affect lots of people’s lives in profound ways. Rather than embracing the notion that “ignorance is bliss” and acting like these things don’t affect us or the people we know and love, I remembered just how important it is to raise awareness and encourage a kind of public discourse that empowers, supports, and honestly addresses people in thoughtful and helpful ways. In short, thanks to the difficulty of recent events in my life, I have suddenly felt very much inspired to do philosophy.

As part of my effort to build up a better bathroom for myself and others, I’m refocusing my energy on what I’m good at, what I value most, and how I can best use the skill set that I have been gifted through my experiences. (Did I say I would quit with the metaphor? No. Is it confusing if you don’t know what I’m talking about? Probably. Here’s a hint: “bathroom” refers to a number of things so don’t think about it too hard. Just keep reading…I’m almost done anyway.) I don’t know if this means that I will be doing professional academic philosophy. But I really want it to mean that I find a way to help people think about their experiences in ways that inform practical ways of living that are empowering, therapeutic, and transformative on social, political, and personal levels. In other words, my goal is find a way to keep doing philosophy that remains true to the real reasons why I got into it in the first place. That way may be known by a different name but I want philifesophy to be at the heart of it.

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4 thoughts on “To Love Strong and Do Right: Or, When I Nearly Peed My Pants

  1. As always, beautiful and eloquent. I don't know the events that have happened in the recent weeks but I can undoubtedly relate to all of these feelings. I hope you find some answers to your questions and along that path their will certainly be more questions. I know you will give just as much heart and soul into seeking the answers at that juncture as well.

  2. In complete ignorance of the meaning of the metaphor, I can only offer random thoughts.Philosophy won't go away, as a practical matter. If you have a bit of a gap in which you don't keep up with the latest papers, it won't take long to catch up, because reading the papers from a few recent years will give you a pretty good feel for what went on in the preceding years. And if there has been a revolution, you will know about it because it will be in all the footnotes. (By "revolution", I mean something on the scale of Kripke's Naming and Necessity, or Rawls's A Theory of Justice.)Philosophy won't go away, as a personal matter. Once you start thinking like that, you don't stop. I sometimes have to remind myself, in conversation with non-philosophers, that not everyone thinks in the way that I tend to talk. Those habits of thought enrich your understanding of everything, and your inner life.There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a non-standard path. I did, studying philosophy, then history, then becoming a tax adviser, and now at 54 spending most of my time on philosophy again. You don't get the prestige that goes with being called a professor, but you can still be welcome at seminars and in libraries. The widespread (not universal) attitude that all serious philosophy is professional philosophy is a recent attitude, and it may be a transient one.

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