ramblings of an immigrant son

Let Personal Experience and Critical Thinking be Your Guide

In Buddhism, Culture, Globalization, Huxley, Lifestyle, morality, Nietzsche, Opinions, Philosophy, Religion, society on September 1, 2011 at 5:31 am

Are you a vegetarian that finds yourself in awkward situations where, for instance, at a friend’s barbeque night, the tofu dogs are mixed with the beef patties? Are you a Left-a-Saurus that reads Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky by day, but hits that generic Irish-looking pub with the ever-glowing big-screens, ample supply of big-corporate brand beer, and service of over-worked-under-paid waitresses by night? Are you a regular church or temple goer that finds your personal opinions are becoming heavily influenced by non-believers? Are you friends with someone whose sexuality, ethnicity, or belief system isn’t considered ‘right’ according to the values of your family or community?

For those of us that are committed to some personal belief or practice, we’ve all found ourselves in situations very much similar to these. Although at times they can be humorous and trivial, in other instances they can be unsettling and life changing. How are we suppose to deal with challenges to our way of thinking and living when they arise?

Well, the way I see it, there are three options:

Option 1: If a belief or practice is no longer meaningful to you, discard or replace it. When giving up a belief or practice that you truly felt committed to, there is of course the implication of hypocrisy to consider. However, as the author of Brave New World, A. Huxley, aptly warns elsewhere, “too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” This point of view, by no means a new one, is eloquently encouraged in the verses of the Tao Te Ching:

When people are born they are gentle and soft.

At death they are hard and stiff.

When plants are alive they are soft and delicate.

When they die, they wither and dry up.

Therefore the hard and stiff are followers of death.

The gentle and soft are the followers of life

From this point of view, changing opinions, lifestyle choices, and even group loyalties that no longer satisfy you is quite normal and healthy. Confining yourself to a particular ideology or cause can become counterproductive to personal growth, and in more serious cases, even threaten your very wellbeing.

Option 2: Fight for who you want to be. As F. N. Nietzsche outlines in his work Beyond Good and Evil though, it all too easy to conform to social and political pressures that seeps into our lives and very difficult to be a person with a mind of his or her own. This is especially true in a day and age where most human beings live in densely populated societies that are increasingly becoming culturally homogenized on a global scale. Living in a technological “flat” world doesn’t even begin to describe it. For example, what teenagers typically prefer to eat, drink, read, play, buy, listen to, and watch in Yunlin Taiwan isn’t all that different from what youths generally like in Alberta Canada.  Living during a time of unprecedented economic, social, and political integration himself, Nietzsche was aware of how difficult it can be for one to deviate from family, community, and societal expectations. He knew only too well what was at stake. As he admits elsewhere, “[t]he individual has always to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened.” Nevertheless, he confidently adds “no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

Option 3: Let personal experience and critical thinking be your guide. As the musician-poet Bob Dylan simply put it, “all I can do is be me, whoever that is.” Those that sincerely strive to live by certain principles, know that upholding beliefs and practices is a lifelong work-in-progress. Sooner or later, they discover that attempting to force conviction that isn’t there can be just as disastrous in consequence as hastily swinging from one way of thinking or acting to another. They risk not only hurting themselves, but those they care for as well as the very world they live in. So, when, more often than not, you are not sure whether to pursue option one or option two, take option three.

Here are four pointers on how to do so:

  • Prioritize what you personally want and need first. At first glance, this may seem like an awfully selfish thing to do. However, when you try to appease those you love, be they family, friends, or community by adopting ideologies and activities that you do not believe in, there is a huge risk that they may erode your happiness. If this happens, you will not only come to resent them, but the very people that sincerely embrace them. So rather than allow yourself to get suffocated by ideas and practices that aren’t your own, do everyone a favour and prioritize being truthful to yourself.
  • If your conduct becomes at odds with your beliefs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to throw in the towel. No matter what ideal you pursue, do bear in mind that you are only human. We all say or do certain things that we later wish that we had not. A lapse in faith or conviction does not need to inevitably result in a permanent situation. Admittedly, real world events, unforeseeable incidents, and dramatic changes in health can have an powerful influence upon our lives. Nonetheless, if you are able to read this blog post, then you most likely can think for yourself. So if you let yourself down for whatever reason, don’t lose heart. It is ultimately in your power to decide just how life’s various surprises can impact your thoughts and actions in the present.
  •  Don’t just take someone else’s word for it. As Buddha insisted to his disciples, they should trust their own personal experience and not just accept his teachings, or any other, at face value. In my humble opinion, truer words have been scarcely spoken. No matter whether it is an ancient scripture, popular belief, or a life-long held custom, it should have a unique meaning for you. If you eventually find it lacks any relevance or connection to your own life, then you may want to consider doing some self reflection and self exploration. But only do so if you feel it is necessary and even more importantly, when you feel ready.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a step out of your comfort zone. As the Scottish Philosopher David Hume cynically points out in An Enquiry of Human Understanding, those with religious belief tend to surround themselves with images, rituals, symbols, and figurines in order to sustain their faith. Although there is most certainly an anti-Catholic bias that shades his observation, Hume’s logic is not without merit and can certainly be extended beyond the God fearing. After all, those that associate themselves to some ‘-ism’ or another, be it spiritual or worldly, tend to be surrounded by literature, objects, symbols, customs, audio-visuals, and people that reinforces their belief in a chosen creed or lifestyle. It is very easy to get conditioned to a way of thinking or living that has almost become nearly habit. However, if you find that it is not useful to your life, don’t be afraid to expose yourself to a great big world full of new experiences. They can just as much reinvigorate your old worldview as transform it.
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  1. Great writing! I would like to print this blog entry out and put it up in my office. That Nietzsche quote is one of my favourites. Keep it coming!

  2. And of course Hume can be turned on his head (not a bad thing to do to someone who had difficulties with reason), that persons surround themselves with things that are important to them … because they are important to them – especially in a hostile culture, which actively seeks to impose itself on them. (There are few more anti-Catholic than a Scottish atheist, especially a Scottish protestant atheist.)

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