Monday, December 29, 2014

On invulnerability

In Todd May's piece in today's New York Times he opens with the question that many of us ask ourselves at this time of the year: how can I improve my life in the coming year? Sometimes, for the morally inclined, this also means asking ourselves how we can become better people––better at taking care of ourselves, our relationships, our work, and other things that we try to dedicate ourselves to.  He suggests that we often look toward philosophy and religion to help us achieve a "tranquil state." And one of the ways that Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Stoicism, and Taoism, teach us to do this is through detaching from desire and the emotional states created by desire (and the frustration of desire). While this detaching might help us create what May calls "invulnerablism"and may help us navigate the "world's vicissitudes," he suggests that it can also create a state in which we are too far removed from the world and do not experience a range of emotions - from grief to joy (although to be honest, I have tons of trouble with the word joy, but more on that later).  Thus, his question is, do we want this kind of distance from our emotions, our very lives?

Invulnerabilism recommends that we secrete a distance between ourselves and the world so that ultimately it cannot touch us. The extremity of such a view can be illustrated by reference to the Stoic’s ratification of the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras’ reported remark upon hearing of his son’s death: “I always knew that my child was a mortal.” It is possible perhaps that some few among us can reach this degree of distance from the world. But the question is, do we want it? I suspect I am not alone in thinking that the death of one of my children should shatter me, even if it should not ultimately destroy me.

His answer is a resounding, no. We don't want so much distance between ourselves and the world, or from our emotions that we fail to experience life and all that it has to offer:

Most of us want to feel caught up in the world. We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about, involved with them, taken up by them. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.

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