The promise of humanity lies in its bold spirit. We each have the ability to think, feel and imagine and to climb the ladder of transcendence. And we each have the ability to give honest and artful expression to the struggle to matter, to make order, to care. Indeed, each and all of us must put to right our inescapable personal responsibility for choosing our outlook on the world.
But we live in irrational and difficult times. Many of us, for many reasons, are angry, disgruntled, fed up. Yet, this life is ours to design, build and furnish with wisdom, nerve and heart.
Sometimes this struggle to be bold is referred to as a spiritual one. When I talk about spirit and transcendence, however, it’s about an earth-bound, creative process. How do we use our energy, and how do we use our will, to see a bigger picture, be a bigger person, make a bigger contribution and have a bigger life?
Though each of us is unique, none is an exception. The manner in which nature, history and language coalesce weighs heavily upon all. So, in some ways, we begin the struggle at the same starting point.
Let me tell you what I mean by addressing biology and culture.
Our brains are complex. Each of us is home to a multitude of perceptions and impulses, not all of which are in accord. Each of us must wrestle with conflict or disharmony as incompatible ideas and mutually exclusive impulses compete. Our brains built over millions of years from the bottom up include their evolutionary pasts. Present deep in each of us are functioning structures like those that power the programmed reflexive responses available to reptiles.
Language, a relatively recent evolutionary possibility, permits us a sense of unified consciousness, information processing and purpose. It enables us to distance or detach ourselves, to some extent, from the marching orders of our evolutionary past. Yet, primitive instincts and needs unsettle us, night and day. These influences are neither rational nor consensual. They are messy, in turn, cold-blooded, hot, passionate, ruthless, poised to fight or flee, wired, sated, exhausted, and they contradict or challenge, hour upon hour, our ability to bring order to them.
Of course, even with this information about the impulses that arise from successive stages of biological evolution, not to mention the contradictions that arise between nature and culture, we are called to manage ourselves. However, there is far more to our commitment to be autonomous, to overcome or transcend what just happens to us and to make life how it ought to be. We find inspiration, fulfillment and meaning in creating and living values independent of primitive impulse, and we suffer when these values are neglected.
So, what in addition to our motor-running bodies makes us tick? The Scoreboard. Of course, we want to provide material comforts for our extended families and ourselves. But we are also summoned by the coalescence of nature, history and language to acquire and model moral character, depth and substance and personal authority.
Scoreboard’s domineering intelligence is pervasive, invasive and coercive. It tells us what we should want. It drives us — herd-like — to get it. Its high-handed award of merit and status is actually based on wealth alone. And it leaves character, substance and personal authority off the balance sheet.
We may recognize that we are defined, or that our opportunity in life is somehow limited, by something obvious, such as physical stature or level of energy. But we are also limited by knowledge and information that are insufficient to the challenges we face. Scoreboard’s intelligence is way too programmatic and shallow when it comes to the unique individual labor and love required to create a fine and stable life in irrational and difficult times.
Of course, it is very difficult to think that we’re programmed, or herd-like. This is because Scoreboard offers variations on its theme, and because we stamp conformity with our personalities and taste.
Said another way, because our personalities differ and our taste is somewhat individualized, we mistakenly think our unique potential is achieved. After all, don’t we love modern when she loves vintage, or watch sports while he sticks with PBS, or put our kids in private schools while they have good reasons for sending theirs to public school, or collect fine art while he collects baseball cards, or make sure we’re on the Scoreboard in a high-profile way while she prefers to stay under the radar?
To have the life we want, to make the contribution that matters, to us and to others, we must be bold enough to leave Scoreboard’s nest and see if we can fly. It’s an exciting prospect. Yes, surely, it’s easier to submit to the dictates of Scoreboard, to hope that variations in taste and acquisition will somehow distinguish us, or to surrender to the irrationality that characterizes these difficult times. But humanity’s bold spirit asks for more.
We begin to create an artful and stable life when we:
- Meet the civilized call to take command of ourselves
- Exclude a scoreboard-determined context for our lives
- Evaluate our life against the standards of affinity-generated expansiveness such as generosity, humility and gratitude
- Temper the aggression, antagonism and rivalry that show themselves in human relations
- Respond to our predicament with creative intelligence and responsibility
- Meet the terms of America’s social experiment in fairness.
If autonomy is to be our destiny, if we are not to be subjugated by biology or Scoreboard, now is the time to make it happen, to give artful expression to the struggle to matter, to make order and to care.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. This coursework offers a philosophic perspective, vocabulary and strategies for acquiring a life of our own design. As an American Philosopher, this work stands firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity for not just living our life but for owning our life. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.