Monday, August 8, 2016

Gentle Cynicism as True Life - Part I: Becoming More Fully Human

The height of human bliss? To die happy.

Being-in-the-world requires more than mere survival or das Man (quiet conformity to the conventional world) if one is to experience eudemonia (human flourishing)[1] or using Heidegger’s term, authenticity. The masses too easily conform to dominate narratives (social and otherwise) that include activities regarded as worthy of one’s time and effort, values and meanings to pursue, and particular styles and forms through which to pursue assumed goals. The cynic historically via contemplation and reflection grows or expands into authentic life, i.e., to “become what one is.”  Such a project means critical self-reflection, a coherent theory, committed engagement in practical philosophy and eschewing aspects of one’s contemporary social world, not wanting to simply be one of the masses that functions as merely a place-holder in a society that constantly reduces possibilities to the lowest common denominator—“inauthenticity.”  Without authenticity, one has not the grounding by which to develop one’s own story and the virtues that lead to the promise of eudemonia.[2] If one is to follow the way of true life, one has to wrest control of one’s own life from society. If not, then all of one’s decisions will continue to be made for him/her by the unnoticed forces of the cultures in which one lives.

Heidegger alludes to this phenomenon as lostness (in conformity) and the reversal of this mass plight in the search for being (Being and Time).
'They' even hide the process by which 'they' have quietly relieved us of the 'burden' of making choices for ourselves.  It remains a complete mystery who has really done the choosing. We are carried along by the 'nobody', without making any real choices, becoming ever more deeply ensnared in inauthenticity.  This process can be reversed only if we explicitly bring ourselves back from our lostness in the 'they'.  But this bringing-back must have that kind of being by the neglect of which we have lost ourselves in inauthenticity.

It is with this spirit (Geist) of reversal that I further promote Gentle Cynicism (GC) as a disciplined practice with the aim of turning toward an authentic being in time, where speech breaks from the discourse and practices (values, interests, behaviors) of das Man and attempts to take responsibility for one’s life as a whole. I have experienced the emerging philosophy of GC as a dynamic filter between the flourishing (possibility of) self or authenticating self with the larger society (das Man) and its dominant scripts (narratives),[3] like sifting chaff from wheat.  GC is ultimately a search for what is best or good rather than what is simply accepted. The gentle cynic  reads, listens, contemplates with his/her mind (Geist) the wisdom of prophets, poets, writers, philosophers, musicians, theologians, sages of history and perhaps a tradition or community  versus the dominant scripts or myths peddled by popular media, Hollywood, politicians, military, sports, advertisers, big business. GC seeks to actually participate with or work toward a vision of human flourishing (human centered) while differentiating what misses the mark (illusions both personal and societal).

Hence, Gentile Cynicism has become a way of protecting one’s autonomy by training the whole self (as subject) to actively explore, examine, test and experience more fully the vibrant, flowing, and invigorating reality of humanity's creative energy and purposes, and less the draining emptiness and existent bitterness of a fragmented world. It is a way of moving through (not stepping away from) tensions where there is a complex array of easy-to-get-to thin practices, answers and ideals on one side (along with their alluring advertisements); while on the other, profound, thick sources of questions, contradictions and insights that invite persistent souls toward the way of becoming more fully human.

[1] See Moving from the thin idea of “Happiness” to the classical pursuit of Eudemonia:
[2] R. Ryan, V. Huta, E. Deci, “Living Well: a Self-determination Theory Perspective on Eudaimonia” Journal of Happiness Studies (January 2008, Volume 9.1, pp 139–170) presents a model of eudaimonia that is based in self-determination theory, arguing that eudaimonic living can be characterized in terms of four motivational concepts which appears to explain the motivation psychologically of the GC:
(1) pursuing intrinsic goals and values for their own sake, including personal growth, relationships, community, and health, rather than extrinsic goals and values, such as wealth, fame, image, and power;
(2) behaving in autonomous, volitional, or consensual ways, rather than heteronomous or controlled ways;
(3) being mindful and acting with a sense of awareness; and
(4) behaving in ways that satisfy basic psychological needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
In fact, they theorize that the first three of these aspects of eudaimonic living have their positive effects of psychological and physical wellness because they facilitate satisfaction of these basic, universal psychological needs.

[3] Walter Brueggemann describes the dominant (American) scripting (narrative) in our society as a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative, which is enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television (media), promises to make us safe and to make us happy. Brueggemann further calls for descripting, relinquishment and disengagement from the dominant script and a counter narrative/script that is managed by disciplined practice that may well be linked to a tradition or community.
Image: Brandon Kidwell:

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