Thursday, December 08, 2022

How to Live

The leitmotif of my social, political, and personal life: we don't know how to live. At one point I was thinking: you know, Dale, maybe all you mean is I don't know how to live. There's a great deal of profit in mulling that one over, and I'm not done doing it, but I think I'll stand by the first formulation. This is not just my problem. This is our problem. 

It's a political problem in the local and immediate sense that until we know how to live, our opponents have not the slightest reason to listen to us. If we're not offering a better life, why should they? We consider ourselves just reeking with virtue and goodness, but of course so do they, for equally flimsy reasons. Given that we can't and won't talk to each other, what else could we ground our choices on? Each of us looks at the other and thinks, "well, that looks like a petty and stupid life." And we're both right. So. Impasse.

It's our problem, not just mine, also in this way: I can't work it out by myself. I can't unilaterally start living a different life. I need people to live it with. And, more importantly, I need people to work it out with. Hegel (I'm told) said of Kant, "he wants to learn to swim before he gets in the water," and that's what I think I'm doing when I try to figure out how to live before I have a community to live with. That's not how how to live works. But I'm so imbued with individualist doctrine that any whiff of community panics me. I might be circumscribed! Horrors! As if this present life was freedom.


"Every particular view of the virtues is linked to some particular notion of the narrative structure or structures of human life." Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p 174.

I used to like the way my Buddhist teachers talked about ethics. They likened it to gardening. You clear away weeds, not because you hate weeds, but because you're trying to grow something else, something not yet robust, that might otherwise be crowded out. Likewise you clear away vices, obstructions (kleshas) to make room for wisdom and compassion to grow.

The narrative structure of human life implicit here is of growth over time. And it's unproblematic to Buddhists because they have lots of time: life after life. Clear the weeds and time will do the rest. 

One of the things that alienated me from Buddhism was that I never thought reincarnation was likely, or even particularly plausible in its own terms. No one of course insisted that I "believe in" reincarnation -- that's not the way modern Western Buddhists do things. They just suggested that I hold my opinions of death lightly, and imagine that it might not be so. Good advice. I did that.

It's not terribly easy to tell the difference between holding your opinions lightly, and pretending to believe something you don't: but at some point I realized I had gone from one to the other. I really don't think anything continues after death. I think life ends -- like a candle flame that's blown out, or a song that comes to a close. There isn't any more after that, and it doesn't make any sense to justify what we do now in terms of what will happen then. Holding that lightly felt less and less authentic. There was a wobble in my practice that I didn't know how to handle.

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