Letter from an Existentialist in Japan #6

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“It’s not the experience that happens to you. It’s what you do with the experience that happens to you.” – Bertrand Russell

Dear Bob,

I’ve arrived at the halfway point and a distinct part II of the experience, because now I’m having it with someone else. We met shortly before my departure (serendipitously delayed 3 months) and fell in love, as one does when one is funemployed and set to depart. So rather unaccording to plan, I’ve gone from doing this whole thing alone to living, teaching, and being alone together with someone I frankly don’t know that well. I will certainly come to, at least in relation to me (and vice versa…I pity the fool).

Of course it’s enriching and just more fun to share. But I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed at being alone. I didn’t accomplish what I meant to with my freedom and solitude other than revel in it and now I feel like I’ve missed my chance. And it’s all because of what a terribly undisciplined person I am; a “slave to my [base] desires” (according to Ms. Matriarch).

Maybe that’s all I am. I prefer to think of myself as who I would be if I could, and I just need to put myself in the right circumstances to flourish, but here was my chance yet again, and it seems I have failed to prove my higher desires as more than merely a wanting to want. My fear that I am just an empty vessel after all and that any joy de vivre I experience is actually only from the expectations I set up about the future that inevitably fail by my own lack of followthrough, which is to say, lack of actual desire…seems closer to true than ever.

My language acquisition is going pretty poorly too. I’m just not a studier, never was. I will only learn if it’s incidental to fun or necessity. Like I’ve grown attached to the unusually existential children’s show character Anpanman  (pan = bread = his face, which he feeds to starving children), whose great theme song senpai translated for me literally to teach vocabulary and grammar. And I learn the things I wanna say in class, like “gutaitekini” which is “be more specific”. I love when there’s just one word for a thing.

Teaching is going ok I think. Again, how am I to know. I just know that my classes are way better than when I first started and what I thought were great ideas at the time I’ll never do again. But for some reason I am so much less satisfied. It can only be failed expectations. Also, this assembly line format, having so many different classes each day only once a week, makes it really hard to really grok each student. I need the relationship or else I just feel kinda useless and expendable. I know that’s a lot to ask wherever I teach, but’s already hard enough with the language barrier. Anyway, I have enough longer classes with some real gems that I won’t get depressed over it or anything.

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The freedom of it all (teaching & living) really does come at a psychological price for me. On one hand, it’s what allows me to be the teacher and person I will naturally become/what is most suited to me/meant to be(?). But then who’s to say that this person is the most effective to achieving the outcomes that you really want? Maybe I/we all would be better off with some steering, or limits. At least when there is constraint then you can shoulder the blame to the circumstances and not feel so responsible. With freedom, the degree to which you can be satisfied is virtually limitless, and what is satisfaction but a feeling that you have done everything in your power?

Ugh, enough of this! I could think myself senseless if I let myself. I need better control of my thoughts, then I’ll have a chance with my actions. I’m dabbling in meditation now. Well, I’m on day 8 of the app I’ve had for 2 months. Just 10 minutes a day. I’ve been told by too many people I respect over the years how necessary it is, but I’ve always been skeptical. Then I realized that so many intellectual skeptics swear by it too – including my number one, Sam Harris, so I really ought to give it a real go. I’m kind of desperate here. Maybe desperate enough to delude myself into a clear mind if I try hard enough.

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Sorry I’m not writing more about life in Japan. It’s just life now (one I am so grateful to live seriously it’s the outer life of my dreams) and I’m back to being a neurotic, dissatisfied, self-loathing person of unknown intent. Wow, happiness isn’t dependent on external circumstances? What a revelation!

I just wanna write. Whatever comes out when I manage to sit myself down and open up a Word document and place my fingers on the keyboard is the only kind I can really do unprompted. I just hate forcing things, always have. I’m not bragging, it just sounds better than “I hate trying”. But it doesn’t feel good to be so excessively self-indulgent like this. I have so much else I want to talk about. I’ll try and write something more anthropological about Japan next month*. And I’ll try to be a good partner.

Thank you for reading anyway, and ’til then,

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  • Jess

  • If there is anything in particular you or y’all would like to know about my experience so far as it has to do with Japan or teaching, please ask in the comments and if there’s enough I can do a little Q&A

Practical philosophy

Files found in a scrapbook:

Back in another century I had a newsgroup for philosophy students.

existentialism
They could ask questions about course content, rant about most anything,
and communicate any time of day or night. The first piece comes from
the newsgroup for existentialism:

I don’t wanna make a long talk even more drawn out, but I feel compelled
to relate my story. 1’11 keep it brief.
Towards the end of the semester last year I was diagnosed with a sinus
arrythmia and premature ventricular contractions -layman’s terms: a
funny heart beat that sometimes beats backwards. Fortunately these are
relatively benign conditions and since there’s no underlying heart
disease I’m gonna be safe. However, it was during the first week or so
of my diagnosis when I was completely terrified that I first discovered
aloneness. It was the oddest thing, during one episode of a tachycardia
(a racing heart beat) all the people in the room and everything I was
watching became something akin to a TV screen. It was as though I was
just watching actors on a screen, that they really weren’t people and
that there was only me, for if my vision did fade and I fell into that
black hole that I’m constantly struggling against those people I saw
would be gone away from me and no longer BE THERE. I was alone. I wish
I had to words to explain it, but there I was alone. Everything else
was just a fiction, the only thing there was for me was me, waiting for
my heart to explode. Scary stuff . However, when I came home to my
girl friend, and saw the worry, pain, anguish and everything I felt
reflected in her face, and then when our eyes met and I realized that
those feelings she had were because of me, I realized I was not alone,
and that everything I do is connected with her. A deep and touching
moment. I do now believe that if there is one saving grace in this
lonely world, it is love and with love you don’t need to be alone, for
love transcends words, consciousness, all that love says what words
can’t. In other words, I’ll never die alone as long as my girlfriend is
with me, I’ll just be alone after I die.

Deep stuff huh?




The following exchange is from an email discussion:

Bob:

I just wanted to thank and congratulate you on “The Absurd Hero” which
I just finished reading from the Internet. Camus is my hero, really, and I
find him, among all, the most courageous and honest of humans in his frank
confrontation with life. Your essay is timely. I have a heart disease which
which is progressive and can only be treated by transplant sometime in the
next few years (whenever my condition reaches the point of end-stage). My
problem is: being a follower of Camus, and agreeing with him that life is a
struggle of Sisyphus’ proportions, why get a transplant?  It seems to me
that he’s right about suicide, and that, like William James, the passion
and the struggle to do the right thing make it worth it, to seek to extend
it 15 years (by transplant) when one is given by nature an “out” is
another, more tormenting, choice. At present, I’ve “gone along” with the
intent to transplant me (I’m seeing transplant clinic doctors every other
month), purely on the pretense that when I am in a hospital bed, and the
only thing that can save my life is a transplant, I’ll see things
differently. However, I am tormented by my lack of authenticity here: I am
not making a choice that I would make if I were going along with my real
desires, which is to let nature take its course and quit the struggle. I’d
welcome your observations. How would you, or Camus for that matter,
respond to my plight?

Dr. Richard ****,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.



Richard,

Thanks for the message. I appreciate your comments on my paper, and the
description for the tormenting problem you are facing. Your description
of your situation is moving and the torment sounds genuine.

Observations? Let me start with my favourite quote from Camus: ‘To
breathe is to judge” – whether taking the next breath is valuable or not
is a judgment you must make; no one can make it for you. Just remember
that although Camus starts with that provocative sentence about suicide,
his essay is really an argument against suicide. Part of the struggle
may indeed be to have a heart transplant which, I’m sure is a struggle.
As you indicate, the real torment comes from your attempt to be
authentic, by which, I take it you mean to match your desires and your
actions. But you don’t, I take it, have the necessary information to
make any final decision now. Nor can you predict’ with anything like
certainty, what your decision will be as you approach the O.R.

I wonder also about your notion that you should let ”nature take its
course” – which ‘seems to presuppose that nature has a course. But as
Camus would say, nature has no particular course, she just IS. We’re the
ones who make decisions, have a program, look for value.

As Koheleth says: ‘Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is
to behold the sun.” As long as that is possible, celebrate it.

Bob
Director, Institute of Practical Philosophy


Bob,
Many, many thanks for your observations. This is precisely what I
needed and conforms to my intuition about things. What I am feeling right
now, is, I wish I knew this Bob Lane. I very much admire the handle you
have on the greatest philosopher I have ever read.
Thanks again, Bob Lane.

Richard

Richard ****,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Sunday’s Sermon: LOVE


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Let’s begin with a brief quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

This article examines the nature of love and some of the ethical and political ramifications. For the philosopher, the question “what is love?” generates a host of issues: love is an abstract noun which means for some it is a word unattached to anything real or sensible, that is all; for others, it is a means by which our being—our self and its world—are irrevocably affected once we are ‘touched by love’; some have sought to analyze it, others have preferred to leave it in the realm of the ineffable.

Yet it is undeniable that love plays an enormous and unavoidable role in our several cultures; we find it discussed in song, film, and novels—humorously or seriously; it is a constant theme of maturing life and a vibrant theme for youth. Philosophically, the nature of love has, since the time of the Ancient Greeks, been a mainstay in philosophy, producing theories that range from the materialistic conception of love as purely a physical phenomenon—an animalistic or genetic urge that dictates our behavior—to theories of love as an intensely spiritual affair that in its highest permits us to touch divinity. Historically, in the Western tradition, Plato’s Symposium presents the initiating text, for it provides us with an enormously influential and attractive notion that love is characterized by a series of elevations, in which animalistic desire or base lust is superseded by a more intellectual conception of love which also is surpassed by what may be construed by a theological vision of love that transcends sensual attraction and mutuality. Since then there have been detractors and supporters of Platonic love as well as a host of alternative theories—including that of Plato’s student, Aristotle and his more secular theory of true love reflecting what he described as ‘two bodies and one soul.’

And then please go here and read a recent post and comments on topic.

And finally and most importantly please add your own comments! Tell us your love story.

 

Love

Review – Understanding Lovelove
Philosophy, Film, and Fiction
by Susan Wolf and Christopher Grau (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2013
Review by Bob Lane
Feb 24th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 9)

With the possible exception of television, which more and more is turning to old movies for its programming,  film is the popular art form in North America today. Millions of North Americans every week sit in front of movie screens to be entertained, titillated, educated, or simply to find an escape from quiet desperation.

Read the review.

Love

Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor   Love: Emotion, Myth and Metaphor
By ROBERT C. SOLOMON
Prometheus Books, 1990. 347 pp.

 
In this reprint of a 1981 Anchor/Doubleday book, Prometheus has brought us an inexpensive yet attractive edition of’ Solomon’s discussion of love: romantic love, silly love, committed love, enduring love, phony love, and more. First of all, this is a readable book. Do not be put off by the fact that Professor Solomon has written widely on the existentialists, or is also well known for his introductory texts in philosophy — Love is a pleasure to read. You will find no technical vocabulary to wrestle with and no bloated prose. It is also fun to read.
The book is rich with examples from psychology, literature, films, personal experience, and is given form by a continued and systematic argument that identifies love as one of many emotions we experience in a complex way which is finally not irrational but
decidedly rational. “My purpose in this book,” he writes, “is precisely to separate the passion from the illusions, to explode the myth without in any way demeaning or denying the importance of the emotion.” To talk about love in this way requires a discussion of
emotions, and Solomon, drawing on his earlier book, The Passions, provides us with the necessary theoretical groundwork. “Our emotions are neither primitive nor ‘natural,’ but rather intelligent constructions, structured by concepts and judgments that we learn in a particular culture, through which we give our experience some shape and meaning.”
Drawing on the work of John Austin, Solomon gives us an analysis of how the simple sentence “1-love-you” functions as a speech act in our culture. “I- love-you” is not a “description or confession of feelings already felt but the creation of an emotion, a work
of conceptual art, the shared fabrication of an experience.” In short “I-love-you” is a performative and not a descriptive act.
Here are a number of “love is . . . ” sentences from the book which will give you a flavour of the work:
– Love is an emotion, just an ordinary, non-cosmic luxurious but not essential emotion.
– Love is more a process than a single scenario.
– Love is a development, a matter of mutual creation.
– Love is an emotion through which we create for ourselves a little world — the loveworld, in which we play the roles of lovers and, quite literally, create our selves as well.
– Love is a decision.
– Love is a process, a dialectic, a movement.., toward a shared identity, the creation of a shared self.
Solomon’s book is worth reading. It is solid without being stolid; personal but not confessional, philosophical and thoughtful, but certainly not a “self help” quickie.
People from teen-agers to golden-agers can learn from this book.