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)