A Meaningful Life (WIP)

Posts related to my book “Meaningful Life” (working title)

(Part 1 on my teachers. Part 2 touches on this line of thought, part of how it stalled, and impact on society. Part 3 is on “languaging”. Part 4 summarizes some lessons learned from my teachers.)

Who am I? A deep and developing question. But I did have several teachers who helped me to formulate my thinking and directions.

Above all, Ray Birdwhistell – the originator of “Kinesics,” the study of the human body-in-interaction. He was an Anthropologist who was the best observer of people I’ve ever met – observer in the sense of seeing people in careful and detailed senses. He was trained as a “classical” dancer, and seemed to see all others as performers in life’s dances. And he didn’t only concentrate on each individual. He also/always noted how they interacted: in groups, in life’s varieties of social contexts from infants to older, the ordinary and the exceptional in every sense; richer and poorer, healthy and injured and “odd” and…; ethnic, linguistic. His ways into the world were always expanding. Life is social, interactive: the individual…?

My Teachers - My Teachers - Ray Birdwhistell, George Trager, Henry L. Smith Jr., Norman McQuown, ...

My Teachers (click image to enlarge)

Ray was a student of the Chicago School of Symbolic Interaction – heirs of the American Pragmatist, George Herbert Mead, and the anthropologists who wandered the entire world. His work wandered from American Indians to the average family dynamics, to the sick – physically and, particularly, mentally. And he directed me to the U. of Chicago, Anthropology, where I continued my studies with linguist Norman McQuown – under whose tutelage I (and family: J, and infant daughter Amy) studied a Mayan Language (Tzotzil) and lived in Chiapas, Mexico for two years deeply immersed in both Indian and Ladino (their term) cultures during this time.

Ray was also a student in the line of thought and active fieldwork (life is fieldwork!) of Franz Boas: Margaret Mead (especially), Gregory Bateson, influenced his thought. Read the rest of this entry »

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Note: I’ll be the keynote speaker at LaCrosse, Wisconsin this Friday, Oct. 5. The Conference is on Multiculturalism, Pluralism, and Globalization, sponsored by UW LaCrosse and The Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

My framing issues have to do with how to help maintain, educate, develop visions toward a peaceful world – perhaps especially in a current context which seems continually divisive. Is it inevitable that we move toward a totalitarian or theocratic control? I think not, exploring the past century or so – some divisions, but others that have been resolved or “gone away,” surprisingly.

We’re getting older and older – as a population and each one of us – each day, every day. Our health seems to be pretty good; or not so bad. There is some sense of…well, aging: slower, occasional or frequent pains, not so sharp as we used to be, sometimes Senior Moments, slightly out of balance. Not too bad, most days! We’re “hangin’ in.”

We live longer in a time when we concentrate on how to age well – perhaps, as some people think, to sage more than age. But much of this, so far, is mostly about coming to terms with our dilemmas, adjust as much as we can to the idea of death. Look for answers to life’s dilemmas, mostly outside of ourselves. Good ideas, certainly. But…

But…something seems missing from this description of older people. What’s not much thought about – or practiced – is the idea that we might actually “grow” or “develop” as we age, with some sense of directions our growth might take.

Wisdom Path photo by Vlazygirl

Also missing from this accounting of aging, is the pursuit of who we truly are and can be: paths of growth, toward deepening our “characters,” a quest: toward something like personal “wisdom.”

The very idea of wisdom seems to be virtually absent in our thinking. Other places or traditions in the world seem to think that the older one is, the more knowledge one has: the experiences of each new day, the sense of telling what or how we know, being teacher to others and to the world.

Aging, within “wisdom traditions,” seem to see the aged as gifted and expansive. Each day, every day, one knows more and grows. Noting the world, healing what ails it and us, communing with the spirits of nature and one’s nature: that’s the way of the world. Older age – a great gift, perhaps a blessing. Mostly beyond the urges and rages of youth, we can find places in our being to study and practice anew.

Sages, shamans, pastors, imams, rabbis, priests: many cultures place in us the sense that being and knowledge are in tune, and in tune with the greater world. Character is destiny! – said Heraclitus, the great “puzzler” who thought that all was change. Character is the idea of the longest life: who we would most love to be in this ultimate summation of being: “Have I lived a good life?”

But not much is the idea of destiny here, as we find ourselves getting older. We seek to live long, but to “retire” as early as possible. What, then? Live easy, live well, ease into a life of…ease. Travel, play golf, watch TV, talk, gamble, use medications to ease all that ails us…or might. Get used to it, and do as well as we can; a slow deterioration overtakes and overwhelms.

This leaves very little thought or discussion about how to grow ourselves, to pursue, to fill-out our greatest possibilities: whatever that might mean for each of us. Looking mostly outward, we seem to neglect or dismiss the person we truly mean ourselves to be…Have I lived a pretty good life, a meaningful pursuit, expanding ideas and knowledge?

Walking Together, a hiking photo by BlueOakPhotos

How, then to grow ourselves? Think, reflect, meditate. Pursue our “Next Places“, to examine ourselves, to rethink all the aspects of our selves: the seven, thirteen, twenty year old; the selves others told us to be (or not to be); to reexamine how and who we “make-up,” toward becoming who we would be, and move toward our next and growing senses of self…today, tomorrow, most days.

Work with our bodies: stretch, move – practice Yoga, Alexander technique, Tai chi or other explorations of the aging body. Enter more deeply into the music of our lives, the ways we view the world – our experiences become forms of art. Loving oneself more seems to lead us into loving…others, life, the very ideas about being who we are and will to be each next day.

Tai Chi in Bejing photo by Nagyman

Who are we: at this moment in our lives? Who were we told we were, who did we make others and ourselves to be? Where do we find or develop paths for becoming that person we might be: next, next, with a growing sense of…who I mean to be. Time to pursue our characters, with a growing sense that aging is more gift than burden.

Pope Benedict XVI has recently said that Western culture is

“unable to undertake a real dialogue with other cultures in which the religious dimension is strongly present. Nor is it able to respond to the fundamental questions about the meaning and direction of life,”

Pope Benedict states that meaning and morality are available only within religion. I respect the fact that most of those who are believers, do find meaning in their lives and act morally, inspired by their faiths.

But I think that religious claims to meaning and morality are as much looks backward, as attempts to understand these rapidly changing times: how to go about inspiring the present and future?

The Pope has much history, texts, philosophy, and prophecy on his “side.” The current rise in the import and power of religion signals a “return” to the past, as much as the desire to live in the present and future.

This tradition – Western thought – takes a narrow view of the human. Differences between our experience and historically informed descriptions and prescriptions for living are bound in ideas of the human, much less than in examining the human. It is now time to examine the human more thoroughly and thoughtfully, to see how we are and how we know.

Pope Benedict claims that only religion provides us with meaning and morality. This claim is an aspect of thinking that the human is a two-part “thing”: part body and part soul. It mostly neglects the body, and doesn’t pay any attention to the fact that we are bodies interacting with others. We live all alone, as it were, in a world in which the problems of knowing others and ourselves are removed from the human experience. Thence meaning and morality are available only through religion.

But this is not an accurate depiction of the human. We are body – and we “become” ourselves as we “emerge” from complex interactions with our m/others (the person who takes on the enormous responsibility for her infant). The born body is not the locus of the mind, soul, or self. Much happens to us: we are “transformed” in becoming our selves, the “I” who “has” a soul or mind.

Meaning develops in these relationships, leading to the further development of the self. Other persons are always “present” in our being and thoughts even as we are and grapple with the complexities of meaning in our ongoing lives.

Developmental psychologists (Alan Fogel: “Developing Through Relationships” and Alan Sroufe : “Emotional Development: The Organization of Emotional Life in the Early Years”) have recently understood that infants are “attached” to their m/others, and that the study of the infant “alone” is an error in illuminating our being: ideas derived from Behavioral Biology/Ethology of Konrad Lorenz – (“Bretherton: The Origins of Attachment Theory: Bowlby and Ainsworth” (PDF)– Developmental Psychology: 1992. 28. 759-775) joined with the insights of Pragmatist Philosopher, G. H. Mead (“Mind,
Self, and Society
”) whom I invoke in these elaborations of meaning, and morality.

Mother and child: photo by http://flickr.com/photos/tim166/

One of my works in progress, “A Meaningful Life”, attempts to frame our thinking in the widest terms, as an introduction to how “religious” or “prophetic” thinking enters many of our lives; or doesn’t. It attempts to frame the sorts of queries and questions which enter our thinking about deep and intense issues as reality, existence, ideas, change – all of which have risen in our thoughts in the past few decades.

The particularities of Western religion – including Christianity and Islam – take us into the thinking of change and permanence: an ancient and continuing battle. Why is this so powerful right now: because the world is changing so quickly that any earlier balance between change and permanence feels frantically like chaos. We seek permanence: and permanence is found in the forms of Platonic thinking which grants meaning only to the soul, only to the notions of the everlasting deity who presides outside of time and of life. Change? Life is but a dream, a chimera?

In this depiction, meaning is to be found primarily outside of our existence; from particular texts, prophets, histories, churchly organizations. And these are amazing histories, as they have become not only contemplative but also highly political in the recent battles for minds and for the concepts of meaning and morality.

What questions do we ask? About death, or about life: in which order? What directions, what solutions, whose authority will certify us; satisfy us; calm or excite us in our quests for meaning?

This will, in turn, take us into the issues surrounding morality. “The Genesis of Morality” is my attempt to note that our self, the “I” who I am, emerges from an attachment with the most moral of all persons in each of our lives: the m/other who dedicates herself to each next moment of our being.

And, as we move toward becoming more like independent selves,
m/other attempts to get us to take care of ourselves – as she would. These moments are the Genesis of Morality in each of our lives. And we move on from here and there to the present – complicated, questioning, especially in changing times, as we continue to grapple with meaning and morality.

The questions surrounding our human “agency” emerge as definitional of the present, and inspirational of the future. We shall embrace life, the present, moving and inspiring the future, even as many political and religious thinkers are looking for prophets, texts, and “truth” in the ideas and philosophers of the past.

Next Tuesday’s election will mark a key milestone in Democracy, hopefully its renewal.

If, and it’s still a big if, Congress changes hands and resumes a progressive stance next Wednesday AM, will there be policy based on updated progressive research ready to go? Ready to enact?

If progressive policy for today’s world is ready to go, where did it come from? How new is it? How relevant?

If there is no progressive policy ready to go, why not? When will there be?

If progressives win the Congress a platform of collected issues, debating points, dissent and living-against will no longer be the only way to deal with today’s reality. Today, a platform based on a renewed Enlightenment, a redefined Democracy, that’s globally aware, is urgently needed. Now.