Abandoning Philosophy for the Hard Work of Being a Continuing Machine
Sometimes I say things, at night, to my partner, like, "I wonder if I shouldn’t have written off a career in philosophy so flippantly."
To which he answers something like, "Are you high? You agonized for months about that decision."
To which I could answer, "Well, maybe that’s flippant for me," –but in reality it makes more sense to admit that it wasn’t the speed of the decision, but the fact of it, which consternates me still.
It’s hard to let go of things with which you identify. But isn’t to identify with anything just another way of failing to know who you really are? In the world of equations, 1=1, and the only thing you = is you.
Know thyself or perish in mathematical hell, heh.
In any case, we all have to let go of things we identify with, good and bad, because one of the fundamentals of the Universe is "shit changes". Failing to get okay with that is one of humanity’s more potent recipes for agony and dissatisfaction, right?
Still. I was "the little philosopher" since I was very young, and most of my life I’ve been defined in some way by my tendency to ask, chew over, and spit out some attempt at answers to, all kinds of questions that normal humans assure me they’d rather leave lie. I laid awake at age eight for weeks because I couldn’t figure out why I’d ended up in the body I was in, and nobody at the Church (who, I was convinced, knew the answer on some level) would tell me.
Further, I was a damn good philosophy student. My aptitude with written English combined with my natural fearlessness about scary questions and the consequences of their answers made me a darn good group-discussioner and paper-writer, and I spent my whole (lengthy) undergraduate career kicking ass and having my name taken by some very impressive people. I was the pet of every professor I wanted to impress, and I would have had a lot of help if I’d wanted to go further.
In the end, I let it go for practical reasons: My education was interrupted by ten years of "other stuff", and by the time it was time to get serious professionally, I was in a position that I could neither afford to move around chasing jobs, nor work stupid-long hours for chickenfeed pay. (No amount of connections was going to get me out of that, sadly.) I decided that, much as I love (LOVE!) a good philosophical romp, as far as careers go, I was actually better off chasing my dream (the only earlier dream than philosophy) of being a science-fiction writer.
Which was probably a good decision. (How good will be determined by the success of my stories, I suppose.)
There was also the fact that my chosen philosophical forays are all geared towards a specific set of answers I desire to understand (not find or discover; understand and hopefully elucidate to others) during my lifetime. Professional philosophy would have provided some tools towards that end (but few that I don’t have access to anyway, given some books and some time), but it would have also required that I do a lot of philosophy that didn’t aim in that direction. Professional philosophy is about filling in gaps in human knowledge, ironing out kinks, publishing papers on how you think you got that wrinkle out. There’s a lot of talk about Big Answers, but not as much work available to do with them. I would have, I think, been like a lover of fine German auto-engineering who took a job on the line at Ford, at least for a while. And components that I feel are necessary towards grasping the things I really want to understand, like kungfu and meditation, would have had little or no place in my "official" philosophical toolbox.
So I opted to do, and read, a little philosophy that was specifically targeted to my personal goals; rather than make philosophy my living and possibly subordinate those goals in the process. At least on the face of it, that still doesn’t look like a terrible decision.
And yet. I no longer get called a "philosopher"; now that I’m an adult I don’t qualify (according to standard terminology) if I’m not a professional, or at least on the road to try and be one. I’ve officially diverged from the path of "philosophy", a path I’ve been pretty well matched-up with for most of my life. Ever since it happened, I feel a bit…unmoored. Not in a bad enough way that I take it to mean I definitely made the wrong decision, but it is distinctly uncomfortable. Part of me wonders if I’m a failure because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stick with this.
I don’t know what to call myself anymore, I guess. I’m not quite a writer, not just a wife and mother, not yet a guru, not really a technonerd.
But how important are labels, really? We obsess about getting out from under the labels others impose on us, but aren’t our own impositions a thousand times more restrictive and just as artificial?
If I’m smart, I guess, I’ll take the opportunity to get used to just "being me", and get a little less hung up on how to put that in words. My job is to live this life, not record it for posterity. If someone else wants to call me philosopher, writer, nerd, whatever, then I suppose that’s their choice. Narrating the chase while you’re still having it is hardly a good plan: Your attention is needed in the moment. I think it’s the same with being alive.
Because really, that’s the answer to the question I had when I was eight: You are the body, and the person, you are, because the Universe is all about things existing, exploring the possibilities of creation in a specific context, and then seeing how long it takes and what it does before it gets destroyed. Essentially I’m a character-study for a writer with infinite time to play with and an imagination that mine is literally only a shadow of.
My job is to play this form out, in this setting, and see where it goes. Not to "be" an "X", where "X" is anything besides just me. And in the end–Catholic upbringing aside–I feel pretty confident that my decisions will be viewed (if at all) with curiosity and sympathy, and not judgment or any negative sort of labeling. Other humans may judge me, but that’s just them playing out their existence, and how I choose to answer them is part of how I play out mine.
As Mr. Vonnegut so brilliantly put it, you’re a Continuing Machine. You were put here to go, and keep going, and see how far you get and what you do before you’re over-with.
From that perspective, any attempt to be other than the fullest expression of precisely what you are seems pretty misguided.* What would I have gotten from "being" a philosopher anyway, other than ego-gratification? I can still read philosophy. I can still go to lectures and talk to philosophers and write down my thoughts, even publish them (thank you Internet). The need to "be something" is nothing more than a type of resistance to what one already is. Innit?
*Of course, this begs the question, "What if what I am is a miserable shithead, or a murderer? Should I still be seeking to be the purest expression of it?" –The answer to which requires an exploration of whether one feels that human beings are innately good, which exploration I just so happen to have been writing recently. It’ll be up soon. ;)
Awesome picture (of Confucius and Machiavelli) by Helico