CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – SYNTHESIS (further continued)

Each of the three pyramids is founded on virtue, but above that foundation they have little in common. Moreover the kind of virtue that dominates varies. The model of engagement is ultimately founded on virtue at every level. Inner virtue is key to external virtue, and a life of involvement in the world includes proximate, social, and cosmic reality. To fully function in the world, one needs, as Confucius tells us, to create order in the home. Social purpose imposes a need for proximate and social virtue.

The pyramid of engagement is likely to dominate the majority of early and middle life for most of us as we focus on purpose inside our family, with our friends and close associates, and in society or for cosmic ends. The crux of contentment within these latter purposes is the ability to come to terms with a key truth – success in social or cosmic purpose is contingent on factors outside oneself. Equilibrium is maintained not by dogged resistance to this truth, but by offering the best we can and disconnecting our happiness from the final result as we have been taught by the Bhagavad Gita and by Laozi.

   PYRAMID OF ENGAGEMENT

Within this world of engagement with its crowds, traffic jams, ceaseless stimulation, and ever-growing list of problems and crises, a key skill is the ability to retreat inside oneself as Marcus Aurelius discovered two thousand years ago. The disequilibrium resulting from an inevitable sense of fatalism in the quest for social purpose is managed by some degree of acceptance of the nature of the world and one’s place within it, i.e. one’s lot in life as Horace so poetically wrote.

Nonetheless each person is likely to encounter at least intermittent psychological hurdles that impair contentment in the engaged model and so techniques enumerated by three generations of psychologists offer additional relief. Friendships offer a less available but highly effective retreat from the disturbances of the engaged life so they too must be nurtured. Quietude and solitude are difficult to deploy by the person fully in the world, but serve as temporary pressure valves as for example when we leave on vacation or take a “mental health day.” However the environment for engagement is to a large extent fixed and thus this is of lower importance.

We end with the least critical factor for contentment in this model, confrontation with mortality. To some extent we must deploy Becker’s denial of death to acquire sufficient equanimity to fulfill social purpose, but we also must recognize Heidegger’s temporality to permit optimal focus for any hope to succeed. Final acceptance of death is likely a late phenomenon for the content person engaged in the world, but remembering our limited time helps alleviate the strain of purpose when we take up retreat into our inner self.

(third continuation next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SYNTHESIS

“It is best for a man to live his life with as much contentment and as little grief as possible; this will come about if he does not take his pleasures in mortal things.”  – Democritus

The major thesis of this site is that a meaningful life is assembled on four parallel tracks: virtue, purpose, contentment, and the experience of ultimate reality. In the last 63 blogs we have examined many facets and viewpoints of contentment, but one still might ask how to best negotiate the labyrinth of seemingly endless disturbances and impediments modern life throws at us on the road to it.

It seems to me the fundamental question still comes down to one’s individual preference or level of comfort in choosing one of three general approaches to the world: withdrawal, restraint, or engagement. Each leads to a different pyramid of factors with subtle differences in many of those factors based on the approach chosen. In the appendix (to be published 9/21/22) is a matrix of the ten basic factors we have seen are operative in contentment: (1) attainment of virtue and thus freedom from guilt, (2) achievement of purpose, (3) freedom from desire and passion (including asceticism), (4) quietude and solitude, (5) apatheia, (6) meditation and relaxation techniques, (7) friendship, (8) environment, (9) confrontation with the inevitability of death, and (10) embrace of final truths.

From that table, we can construct three pyramids with the factors most influential for achieving contentment forming the lower levels and less vital or less emphasized factors at the top. Since I believe the life path for most readers and, in fact, for most modern people is one of engagement with the world, that pyramid comes first. A smaller number of individuals may choose the partial withdrawal of Epicurus, so that comes next. Few people born into our time will choose to renounce society and pursue a path similar to Buddha, the Cynics, or the medieval monks, so I place it last.

Nonetheless I believe there may be a chronological element here as well. The wisest among us are likely to choose the path of engagement in their younger and socially productive years followed by a move to increasing restraint in middle age  near the end of one’s career and after one’s children are grown and secure, but final contentment may be facilitated by or even depend upon choosing a higher degree of withdrawal late in life.

(continued next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – SUMMARY (finish)

In our ongoing synopsis we have already reviewed definitions and distinctions of, and antagonisms and approaches to contentment, and the thoughts of ancient and later thinkers on it. That takes us to scientific pathways presented by psychology. Models include: (1) Erich Fromm’s humanistic paradigm of  meeting authentic needs buttressed by self-respect, ethical behavior, and a capacity for relaxedness, (2) Psycho-analytical treatments of chronic anxiety which eradicate its causes and redirect energy into healthy and productive lifestyles, (3) Cognitive/behavioral techniques that facilitate tranquility and insight, (4) Positive psychology with its focus on subjective well-being, (5) Self-guided programs involving practices such as breath control and progressive muscle relaxation, and (6) Pharmacologic therapy adjunctive to psychological and philosophical efforts. To a large extent most psychologists encourage the guidance of a professional but I still believe some of these techniques and eventual success are possible by the individual alone for many of us.

We next surveyed three portals to contentment: silence, solitude, and aestheticism. Silence refers not only to finding a quiet space, but also listening to the universe, attending to the gap between sounds, and suspending unnecessary action. Solitude is a sweet spot of voluntary but reversible separation from others without subjective feelings of loneliness and augmented by self-sufficiency. Asceticism brings serenity through disciplined but moderate and ethically-consistent privation accompanied by mindfulness, and spiritual freedom.

We ended with Horace, part poet/part philosopher, who provides insights into contentment that sort into two broad categories: (1) individual actions, such as living each day fully and embracing one’s lot in life, and (2) special considerations – such as the value of friendship, the perils of romantic love, and the need to confront and prepare for death. Success, for Horace, is measured by a steady mind which we are assured is entirely within the grasp of the individual.

This completes our summary, but we have one last step in finishing our analysis of contentment as a feature of the meaningful life – a synthesis of these many pieces and philosophies into a whole accessible to people faced with the challenges of modernity. I will attempt that next time.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANING OF LIFE – SUMMARY (continued)

In closing this section on contentment I began with definitions and distinctions, methods to free ourselves from emotional and empirical obstacles, and structures based on three approaches to interacting with the world. Our review next returns to the lessons of several great traditions and thinkers. First the ancient Eastern masters emphasize withdrawal, renunciation, or non-intervention, combined with recognition and meditation on eternal truths, the reading of scriptures and texts, and often the guidance of spiritual teachers. They downplay the need for lasting purpose and elevate the importance of the experience of ultimate reality. Peace for them comes not from the direct seeking, but from letting go of worldly concerns and individual desires, unmasking the truth of reality, and at last finding enlightenment.

From the ancient Western philosophers of Greece and Rome we saw that contentment distills down to freedom – freedom from wants and from worry and to order the soul for inner peace. Theirs is an inviolable freedom no person or law can threaten. Three ancient Greek terms ataraxia (untroubledness), apatheia (detachment), and euthymia (spiritual peace and well-being) enclose a triangle of tranquility located within a mental retreat beyond the crowd and its disquietudes where one can contemplate the harmony of one’s existence with Nature and the universe.

Later thinkers offer points for fine tuning contentment. Boethius sees contentment reflected in the final truth of the goodness at the heart of things leading to a love that re-establishes one’s union with the providence of the universe. Philosophy, he tells us, provides an explanation as to why we must accept our individual fortune within the construct of the cosmos and the means to self-mastery and internally-focused tranquility. Montaigne encourages rational withdrawal, particularly from avoidable evils, which following a youth of instruction and an adulthood of good practice should bring one to contentment later in life in a setting of solitude and freedom from worldly concerns and which permits sufficient time to overcome one’s fear of mortality and to prepare for death. Arthur Schopenhauer tempers excess expectations, asserting that contentment is not happiness but the acceptance of a moderate life and freedom from anxiety, society, unnecessary mourning, and the folly of excessive desires, enhanced by ceaseless learning. Sigmund Freud is pessimistic, finding happiness and lasting content are improbable, but after considering several approaches, offers sage advice: there is no universal recipe, rather one must find one’s particular means to peace and be careful in pursuing any means to the extreme given the disappointment of possible failure.

(finished next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – SUMMARY

“Do your work then step back, the only path to serenity.” – Laozi.

In this section we have seen that contentment accompanies virtue and purpose as the third key ingredient of a meaningful life. For our purposes, I defined contentment as lasting tranquility combined with genuine satisfaction with one’s lifestyle, virtue, and purpose. It is not pleasure, joy, or salvation, nor is it contingent on leisure, the absence of responsibilities, or a good life, although several of these may be conducive to it. It is not the same as happiness, nor sufficient to sustain happiness. One cannot have too much contentment as in the case of pleasure nor share it as one can share happiness.

Contentment differs from virtue and purpose by manifesting nearly completely in internal reality while the other two are shaped more by proximate, social, and even cosmic reality. Contentment is thus highly subjective, and some persons might even argue their life can be meaningful without ever reaching the point of contentment. To them I would say that contentment is, at a minimum, an indication of the attainment of virtue and purpose, and the absence of contentment may be a warning sign that the meaning of one’s life is precarious or incomplete.

We began on the path to finding contentment by looking at its antagonisms: emotional states such as anxiety, fear, dread, and unease (especially guilt); and empirical states such as suffering, want, dissatisfaction, and absurdity. The former are alleviated by meditation, atonement, psychological techniques, or even medication. The latter are overcome through embracing four critical truths: (1) suffering is universal but manageable, (2) desires are either readily satisfied or illusion, (3) dissatisfaction is merely a temporary setback on the road to contentment, and (4) the apparent absurdity of life, is in the larger sense, a deception. From this analysis we discover that contentment entails radical freedom, that is, freedom from the experience of ourselves and reality in negative terms.

Contentment also has three different structures originating in one’s approach to living in the world: (1) withdrawal, (2) restraint, and (3) engagement. Withdrawal makes sense when one sees the world as an endless and tedious cycle where action is futile, and abstention can induce personal peace, especially when paired with disciplined meditation. Restraint in one’s interaction with the world is epitomized by the ancient Greek philosophers’ striving for ataraxia through partial withdrawal from worldly affairs combined with a conscious effort to avoid all sources of unease or troubledness. In that case a reduction in wants and passions, and individual purpose found in simple pleasures within a limited community and the contemplation of nature, rather than total seclusion and meditation, bring about contentment. The third model seeks contentment within a context of continued activity and purpose in the world, and thus peace is found in detaching one’s feelings from the results of one’s actions, a dispassionate attitude to one’s environment, and an intense focus on completion of tasks (mindfulness), perhaps with some form of regular meditation.

(continued next post)

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – HORACE (continued)

Last time we began our investigation of the thoughts of the ancient Roman poet, Horace, on contentment by addressing internal and behavioral adjustments he advocates to bring it about. Today we consider three special areas Horace believes influence personal tranquility. The first is friendship which Horace, following Epicurus, believes is advantageous to lasting contentment as long as it is based on character and virtue, not social status. Friends offer relief from public pressures, an environment for relaxation, a positive influence on happiness, and service in consoling one another. They also form the community of peaceful retirement. Consider this poem by written by Horace to a friend:

 

When Jupiter grants a lengthy spring

And warm mid-winters, and the Aulon valley,

Friend to fertile Bacchus, need feel no envy of

The grapes of Falerii.

 

That is the place that calls you and me

With its happy citadels: there you will scatter

With due tears the still-warm ashes of

Your friend the poet.7

In contrast to friendship, romantic love is, for Horace, an impediment to contentment.  Peace of mind and psychological balance are disturbed by the erotic passion of Eros. Romantic love is, for him, a stage for youthful excess and emotional highs and lows which are “tempered in time by the moderation of middle-aged wisdom.”8  Add to this the destructiveness of jealousy, the folly of petulant protest, and the brevity of intense love and one recognizes that moderate monogamy is more conducive to the imperturbability of the truly virtuous and wise person. Love is like the sea, appearing calm from a distance, but stormy when riding its waves.

The last special consideration is death; Horace counsels us not to foster long term desires, but to live each day as if it is the last because “Sweet is the hour that comes unexpected…”9 Since life is brief and death inevitable the content person will wisely face death with equilibrium. And suicide, when reasoned, remains an honorable choice for the contented. Consider this ode:

 

Be sure to keep a level mind in steep times

And likewise on that is restrained

From excessive joys in good times,

Dellius, doomed to die,

It makes no odds if you are rich and spring

From Inachus of old, or whether you are poor

And of humble family in your stay under the sky,

You victim of Hades who has no pity:

 

We are all herded the same way, for all of us

Our lot is shaken in the urn, destined to leap out

Sooner or later to load us

On the boat to eternal exile.10

Much of what we hear from Horace sounds clichéd, even trite, but then we must remember he was first or among the first to compile these simple thoughts and tips for our benefit. Perhaps if Horace were here he might compose a rhyme to remind us that we make contentment far too complex and difficult. At the end of the day, this particular facet of the good life is ours for simply for the taking.

———————————————————–

8Harrison, Stephen (editor/translator), How To Be Content – Horace. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2020. ISBN 978-0-691-18252-0, page 145.

9Ibid., page 85.

10Ibid., pages 199-202.

CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – HORACE

…carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.1 – Horace, Odes 1.11.

We return now to the topic of contentment which I have asserted is one of the four key components of a meaningful life. We have already analyzed the ancient Eastern and Western understandings of contentment as well as those of some more recent thinkers and explored three portals to tranquility – silence, solitude, and asceticism. Before we conclude, I would like to examine contentment through the eyes of a single individual, the Roman poet, Horace (65 B.C.E. – 8 B.C.E.).

Horace’s counsel seems to fall into two broad categories: (1) internal and behavioral adjustments (which make up today’s post), and (2) special topics (discussed in the next post). His most salient advice is to be content with one’s lot in life, that is to avoid the vice of mempsimoiria, the Greek word for criticism of one’s lot in life and envy of the circumstances of others.2 Each of us must be willing to get by with a small sufficiency of possessions and learn to stop worrying about the future. We must learn to “endure whatever will be”3 and remain in the present since nothing can be known about tomorrow – his formulation of mindfulness or staying focused on the current moment.

He goes on to urge us to avoid stress and excess in an age of anxieties and extremes (like his and ours). He repeatedly recommends living in the country, citing his preference for the quiet residence of his Sabine farm. A rural environment enhances our ability to live in accordance with nature, is quieter and less disruptive to sleep, offers milder weather, and provides an idylic landscape (locus amognus).  Horace again: “Avoid great surroundings: in a humble house you can surpass kings and kings’ friends in living.”4 Truth in ethics, rustic meditation, and country life are likewise more conducive to preparation for inevitable changes in fortune. Consider this segment:

“About the way to get through your life without friction:

Whether unfulfilled desire is always to harass and vex you,

And panic and hope for things of modest use,

Whether learning leads to virtue or heredity confers it,

What reduces your cares, what reconciles you to yourself,

What gives you real contentment – office and sweet lucre,

Or the road of retirement and the path of life that passes unknown?”5

Horace believes we should wish only to have what we now possess or even less – for him just books and corn. We should ask only of God life and necessities and acquire for ourselves a steady mind. He is convinced mental steadiness alone is essential to contentment. and that is within one’s own control. It is best to remain indifferent to material circumstances as riches bring bigger burdens. He urges us to be unimpressed by merely material things and daunted by nothing and no one. Even the pursuit of virtue beyond what suffices is madness for Horace. He also tells us to resist the urge to travel: “those who speed across the sea change their climate not their temper…what you seek is here… if your have a sufficient steady mind.”6  He leaves no room for doubt; the mentally disciplined person is content anywhere.

(continued next post)

———————————————————–

1“…Harvest the present day; trust minimally in the next.”

2Harrison, Stephen (editor/translator), How To Be Content – Horace. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2020. ISBN 978-0-691-18252-0, page 31.

3Ibid., page 35.

4Ibid., pages 44-45.

5Ibid., page 50.

6Ibid., page 72-72

CURRENT EXPERIENCE – SUBSTITUTE TEACHING (final continuation)

In the last two posts I summarized my reasons for becoming a substitute teacher and my experience of the first day in that role. Today I offer my observations and philosophical deductions from that fascinating day in an unfamiliar arena.

First my observations:

  1. The school was extremely clean.
  2. All of the staff were nice and expressed appreciation that I was helping out.
  3. We wore masks the whole day, something I as a physician think is obsolete. (Covid is simply too endemic now).
  4. There was generally order between classes.
  5. Most of the school clocks were off; this has apparently been the case for some time – “Does anyone really know what time it is?”
  6. The students are behind due to the Covid pandemic
  7. Kids are mostly good even lovable, despite challenging us adults.
  8. When asked, about half the students said they thought they learned something from my instruction.
  9. Some kids came up to me to express their appreciation for my efforts or their regrets for bad behavior or just to introduce themselves. Others helped me when they saw me floundering.
  10. There are too many students in the classes to offer more than a modicum of individual support. I worry this leaves less versatile students struggling.
  11. The materials used today including technology are entirely different than what my generation experienced, but the subject matter is very similar to what we learned as children.

Philosophical points:

  1. Teaching young people is a powerfully purposeful activity. Of course it is hard to know the lasting impact one has, but it is likely substantial for some of them.
  2. We need to be sure to give every student a chance to learn by accommodating their particular differences.
  3. Teaching is a reciprocal activity; one both imparts and receives new knowledge as an instructor.
  4. Kids learn virtue though school – especially the importance of responsibility and care for others.
  5. Getting out of your comfort zone is exhilarating.
  6. Teaching middle schoolers is an excellent way to practice self-control and internal tranquility.
  7. We should wish to live in a country to which everyone wishes to pledge allegiance.
  8. Rewards not punishment is the means to elicit desirable behavior (I am reminded of Laozi).
  9. If kids think you care, they will cooperate and benefit from your influence.
  10. And last, it is both a form of supererogatory duty and a pleasure to contribute my pay for the day to the education of the very students who attended my classes .

To conclude, caring, virtue, self-control, finding new unpracticed purpose, and supererogatory duty are the philosophical lessons of my first day of substitute teaching. I also have to add that my respect for teachers is magnified by the experience.

Next time we return to contentment as described by the great Roman poet, Horace. Join me then.

CURRENT EXPERIENCE – SUBSTITUTE TEACHING (continued)

Last time I began telling the tale of my first day as a public school substitute teacher ending on the low expectations asked of the substitute. I arrived at the school by 6:00 AM, but had to wait in the front office until 6:55 AM when the administrative staff arrived to give me a key (classes began at 7:25 AM). I won’t deny I was anxious, so I came early hoping to get into the classroom to figure out logistics and to review the substitute package – I thought I needed to be well prepared to take on 30 students at a time. I was extremely thankful that the regular teacher had left me clear instructions and photos of each student by class. The students began arriving about 7:20 AM and knew they had a substitute that day, even that I was a practicing physician, although I suggested they just call me “Mr. C.”

The first ‘class’ was Advisory or what in my day was called Home Room. I took attendance which was difficult given the unusual names in vogue these days, then we listened to a few announcements and a corny riddle which elicited groans from the class, after which most of us stood up for the Pledge of Allegiance. Next we had some fun – one of 10 snacks at the front of the class could be picked by students whose names were drawn from a container. They universally declined switching to my alternative of awarding the prizes based on answering a question correctly, but were happy to have a chance at a second pick with a question (For example: “What is the largest prime number less than 100?”). Missed questions were then open to the rest of the class for a snack grab.

Next were two math classes, Math Block I and II, consisting of mixes of my first group and some from my Language Arts/Social Studies partner teacher’s home room. The students then had lunch and Related Arts (anything from music to P.E.) after which were the two science classes, Science Block I and II, again with various mixes of these same 54 students (of 62 total; 8 were absent). I would rate my performance a C+ since I struggled with the first math group, but finished the lesson plan with the second, and I finished the lesson plan with the first science class, but limped through the second. While the first math class degenerated into virtual mayhem, the rest were largely controlled, despite frequent requests to go to the bathroom or the library, and distractions ranging from constant chatter and leisure-book reading to forbidden cell phone use, and computer games.

(finished next post)