Saturday, 20 May 2017

On hope, ethics and uncertainty - or what my holiday reading taught me

On holiday recently I read a few books that made me reflect on my own way of being in the world. Unless we're religious (and often even then) I get a sense that we don't often consider our own personal philosophies of life; we might look for quick fixes through self-help books, or seek out new ways to make us happy (yoga, meditation, travel, therapy*) but a deep examination of values and ethics isn't really the 'in' thing. Alongside our personal struggles, and intrinsically connected with these, there are of course the massive global issues; immigration, technological change, future of work, climate change, and so on. Proper consideration of these challenges requires us to engage in ethical, moral and philosophical debates, yet the political, like the personal, is usually distilled into soundbites or simple solutions, or worse, denied in a fog of 'post-truth'.

In my teaching I encourage new educators to consider the place of personal values, morals and ethics in everything they do, and this is usually through processes of reflective practice. Reflection (done well) encourages us to consider our own reactions to events, and prevents us tumbling repeatedly into situations and relying on old convictions or beliefs that may not actually serve us any longer.  We can be led by the heart or the head when we act, but rarely examine which or why.  Sadly, when we leave teacher training behind, reflective practice is often forgotten too.  I chose a number of holiday books which I hoped would help me to get back into this space.**

My thinking has been shaped most recently by posthuman and nomadic thinking (Braidotti, 2013).   Braidotti draws heavily on the writings of Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who was a lens grinder and social outcast for much of his life. His book, Ethics, makes readers question their most basic assumptions about life, truth, religion, politics and science. It is his emphasis on affirmative action and our need to act ethically that has been forefront in my mind recently as I attempt to navigate this post-truth, neo-liberalist, individualised world.  So my first reading choice was Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio.   This book is a fascinating blend of philosophy and neuro-science which supports Spinoza's rejection of the mind/body split through recent scientific research. It examines the notion of 'emotions' and recent discoveries which prove that they are literally embodied in our brain chemistry, physical responses and muscle memory.  'Feelings' are our response to emotion, and it is how we interpret and act on these that can be pivotal to our survival and interaction with others.

My second read was The Path by Michael Puett, and I was surprised to find echoes of the same themes. This book offers a guide to 'living well' and encourages us to 'rethink the concepts of our lives...behaving in ways that bring about real change.'  It is more philosophy than self-help fortunately, and based largely on the principles of Daoism. Like Braidotti's call to 'think global, act local' it asks us to focus on daily moments rather than worrying about the big stuff.  The overarching question here is, 'How are you living your life, on a daily basis?'

Puett's thinkers (including Confucius and Zhuangzi) see the world as a series of fragmented and messy encounters - their view is that a need to bring order to this complexity is one of our greatest sources of pain and frustration.  Yet, rather than simply 'going with the flow' or accepting uncertainty (often the mantra of mindfulness practices) we are taught here to hone and refine our responses to every day situations. This is still mindfulness but in an active sense; taking notice of our instinctive responses and then refining them, with propriety.

The book suggests that the idea of living with complexity and uncertainty is challenging and counter-cultural. We take comfort in binary thinking; in the security of being on one side or another, perhaps still programmed for earlier, tribal times. We feel safe in our separateness from nature and anything 'non-human' and seek out spaces where there is one truth and lines are clearly drawn.  Old, familiar behaviours and the affirmation of echo chambers can feel as comfortable and reassuring as an old cardigan, but like old clothes at some point they stop suiting us.

Puett suggests that making change and sloughing off old ways of being is best done through the use of ritual. In this context it means acting 'as if'; taking on roles that are different from our usual ones and constructing new ways of being in the world.  We are usually saddled with beliefs about our personalities and traits, seeing them as fixed and static ('I'm an introvert'; 'I've got a quick temper','I don't like change.') We fix the traits of others too, based on our past experience of them and their own assertions about themselves. This polarised thinking can harden assumptions and make us repeat the same arguments time and time again.  What if we take on a new role though, and act differently next time around?  For example, how might I act the next time I argue with my sister, if my actions were no longer based on the belief that I was always stubborn and that she only thought about herself?  The idea of acting 'as if' is echoed in the Spinozan idea of 'potensia' - soft power, which I talk more about here.  It is affirmative, hopeful and asks the question 'and why not?'  (Of course, the ultimate 'as if' is the phrase 'I love you' which we repeat with hope, despite the fact that it is impossible to love every part of every person, all of the time). Puett invites us to act with others in 'what could happen if..?' interventions; actions which require humility and the ability to admit that the behaviours that always served you all in the past are no longer useful.

My last book, Rebecca Solnitt's Hope in the Dark is an inspiring read for anyone already jaded by the General Election.  It reminds us that change isn't linear; a forward progressive march, but more a 'crab scuttling sideways'. Again, the emphasis is on embracing uncertainty and having an understanding that change, when it comes, can happen in unexpected ways.

I would commend all of these books as a way to question and explore accepted truths about the human condition.  They invite us to act in a way that opens up a constellation of different possibilities; but also require hard questioning of ourselves and continual examination of our feelings and reactions.  There is in each an acceptance that we are fallible, but an overwhelming sense of a journey filled with potential, if we choose to seek it out. As Solnit states:

'Hope locates itself in the premises that we don't know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes - you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.'

*I'm guilty of all of these

**I did have some fun too, honest :)

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Damasio, A. (2004). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. London: Vintage Press.
Puett, M. (2016). The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Tell Us About The Good Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Solnit, R. (2016). Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Chicago: Haymarket.

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