Being your own philosopher

“And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again.” -Mad Max

What’s the cruelest thing you can do to a battler? Give them a billion dollars, give them whatever they want, and tell them to choose whatever life they please. Don’t you hate it when you go to the shops to buy some washing powder, and there’s an entire isle filled with all different types, and you now have to figure out exactly what special type you want? Powder, liquid or cube? Top or front loader? Regular or concentrate? Environmentally friendly or standard? Pink or blue? Colour-fast or whites? Scented or not? All you actually want is some fucking powder to clean your clothes, and not spend your whole day squinting at the fine print.

If you give a person everything, you take away one of their principal comforts – the ability to break life down into a series of simple choices. Survival forces on us a system of very basic considerations – how to get food and water, how to pay the rent, and how to stay alive and be reasonably comfortable. When you’re poor, the choice is easy; you pick the cheapest powder you can find (or just use soap) and hope for the best. The poor person is far happier than we are, because we’re still standing here staring at shelves of Spree scratching our heads. Give a person all the choice and freedom in the world and you leave them with a very tough task – that of defining themselves. The only thing left for them is to find out who they are and what their purpose in life is. In the old days, this was a problem that only the very rich had. As a result, it was the aristocracy that became the philosophers and scientists, pondering the deep questions about life. Today, given the ease of survival in the civilized world, we are all forced to become philosophers.

How many times have you heard the refrain “I still don’t know what it is I really want to do” from people who often have a degree, or maybe two, and have held several jobs and been traveling? We are a deeply unhappy generation, because we can have anything we choose, but we can’t for the life of ourselves figure out what we want. Previous generations struggled and fought and died for us, so that we could live in this modern world of clean water and abundant food; this world of easy shelter and convenience for our every need. What would they all say if they could see us now – getting drunk, having relationship problems, waking up at thirty no wiser than we were at twenty, frittering our way through random careers, feeling like it’s all a pointless chain of events leading nowhere while we slowly get old? We are burdened with the pressure of previous generations wanting us to appreciate what we have, but we find that having it all is not as satisfying as one might naively think.

There are two ways to remedy this. The first is to restrict your own choices. This means going to live in the desert or in a poor country or in someplace where the comforts of home are far away and your survival is no longer assured. Now you have to struggle again, to fight for your existence, and make do with what you get. This fight gives you a renewed purpose day-to-day and makes you appreciate the small things that you gain by it. You justify your flight from the luxuries of western society by calling your decision an adventure, an expedition to `find yourself’; perhaps you are following a moral or political cause and this then becomes your banner – either way, you come up with some reason why you need to be struggling and fighting instead of making use of the comforts available to modern civilization. This seems anti-survivalist because we are choosing a life in which survival is harder over one in which it is easier. But the survival of the mind and the spirit is just as important as survival of the body. A person who is depressed by the decadent society they live in and from which they gain no pleasure will just turn to drugs or become an obese habitual TV-zombie or perform some other kind of self-destruction in order to relieve their frustration – and that is no kind of survival. If it takes facing danger and suffering to make you feel purpose in living, then that is they best way.

There is another solution that is much harder – it is to follow the old academics and become your own philosopher; to define a set of principles that will determine the choices you make. In the example of choosing washing powder, if you are an environmentalist, you’ll pick the green option; if you’re a person concerned with your image you might have fancy clothes that require delicate washing powder, and if your principles don’t extend to washing powder, you may decide that it’s best to choose randomly each time until such a time as a preference emerges. In all of these cases, consideration of your personal philosophy avoids the time spent agonizing about what to pick. Being a personal philosopher requires much more research and time spent thinking about things, but it is also very rewarding.

It is better to become a personal philosopher than to seek out a tougher life, because to do the latter is to take a step backwards. The truth is that the apparently luxurious and easy life we lead is still a struggle for survival, but not survival of the body. It is a struggle for survival of the mind and spirit. People in the corporate world claw at each other like it is their very lives at stake – when what is really at stake is their own morality and psychological well-being. Losing your job in the western world is not a death sentence, but sacrificing your integrity is; it is a death of the spirit. To truly survive is to find your own path through the world of easy living and difficult decisions.

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