July 30, 2012

Balancing Philosophy and Life

In my previous post I gave one reason I haven't been blogging. There is another reason as well. It is that I was having difficulty balancing my philosophy and my everyday life.

This was most obvious in the case of my work. I have been working at a non-profit as a temp for the past six months. In the first three months I completely enjoyed the work: it was new and refreshing, a welcome relief to be working again after the six months I took for myself after leaving academia. And it was invigorating to be doing something practical after years of thinking of work in terms of making progress on interminable conceptual problems. It was great as well to come home from work and not have to think about it. The work felt fresh and freeing, as if it drew me into itself and I was doing it with a smile.
Then I started blogging. I wrote the blog posts with the exhilaration of long pent up ideas and emotions. To even just be writing about these ideas into a public space felt new and amazing. Here was an experience I had never had before with philosophy: expressing it in public from the bottom of my heart, with full conviction, with complete identification with what I was saying. As a student and even as a professor I always felt that an essential part of me was missing from my expressions, that there was always a part of me which held back from affirming what I said or wrote. As if I wasn't fully present in my expressions. And I wasn't. Back then I was so busy constantly trying to show only this side of me here, and only that side of me there that I hardly had the feeling of expressing myself fully. After a while it became such a habit that I would do it even when it wasn't necessary, just because I never developed the capacity of expressing myself with a unified voice. But when I started to blog, here was this unified voice which I was suddenly writing with. What a gift and treasure to speak with one's whole being! Instead of all the parts of oneself squabbling amongst themselves, they work together, march together and point towards a common goal which they aim to achieve together. The way a country enjoys the declaration of peace after years of seemingly interminable civil war, so too my spirit rejoiced at the peace I felt at having finally found a unified voice.
Part of the excitement was also that I was doing philosophy publicly again. True, it wasn't the same as talking philosophy with colleagues or students. With a blog many of the joys of doing philosophy physically together are lost. But when blogging there is at least the having of a public voice of philosophy--of speaking out into a public space and expressing oneself philosophically. In a way I had not expected when deciding to leave academia, the thing I missed the most about academia was the opportunity it provided to have a public voice. A teacher is like an actor or an athlete in that she performs her task on a public stage, a platform which unites her with the history of the subject and with all the men and women through the ages who have contributed to that platform. To speak with a public voice in this sense is to speak with the voice of humanity, as part of something larger than oneself. Certainly any person can speak with this voice when they express the common humanity they share with all people. Just as any person can enjoy the pleasures of basketball in their driveway or of singing in their shower. But it is a different thing to do it in a public way where other people look to you to channel such a voice. Once one experiences this public persona, it can be addictive.
And I was addicted to it, even though I didn't know it. I realized it after I left academia when I found myself thrashing about for something that I seemed to have unexpectedly misplaced. I was grasping for the public voice I had lost. No longer a professor, I discovered that when I did philosophy by myself it was still fun and pressing and exciting, though it felt 2-dimensional instead of 3-dimensional. A certain resonance was lost. The boom of the voice displaced by a quiet speaking to oneself. That I had gone from playing in the NBA back to playing in my driveway. No doubt it was an unconscious desire for my lost public voice which drove me to blog in the first place. And having found some semblance of a public voice, I held on to it for dear life, as if I would never let go of it again even for a second.
And after blogging for a few months that holding on desperately to a public voice started to suffocate the rest of my life. Suddenly I wanted to blog all the time, feeling excited to have found again some link to a public voice. I was most happy when I was blogging. When I wasn't blogging, I was thinking about possible blog posts. In a way I had not anticipated when I started to blog, the blog suddenly threatened to take over my whole life, and I was loathe to distance myself from it lest I lose the public voice of philosophy once more.

At work I started to take little 1 or 2 minute breaks (or longer!) to check out my blog, and to reread what I had written. Just to see if in this instance here, or that instance there, I had expressed myself as I wanted to. Drawn into the philosophy blog in this way even while I was at work, a new sensation started to appear, one which had so far not bothered me in my new non-academic work: boredom. Whereas earlier I had enjoyed my relatively simple tasks (answering phone calls, data entry, organizing events, editing documents, etc.), now my mind started to rebel. "Oh, this work is so silly. And so beneath me. I am a philosopher, thinking about pressing issues about the nature of human beings and the direction of human society. I have a PhD from Harvard, after all! I have important things to do. Somebody else can do this administrative work. Perhaps someone with lesser talents than me! Me, I am meant for bigger things, such as my blog!"
With the dawn of this voice, the natural innocence with which I was enjoying my work was lost. Now the work looked misshapen, ugly, as if it were a predator looking to trap me with its meaninglessness. When my mind was free of other things, it was able to enjoy the work whole heartedly and with a sense of true ownership and with the feeling that this work too must be done for a good society and that I am grateful to have the opportunity to do it. But once the mind was hooked by the thought that what it really wants to do is that other thing, then this thing, this work took on an ominous hue, as if it were an enemy I had to battle.
After a couple of weeks of such mental struggle, I sensed that I needed a break from the blog. In truth, I really was enjoying my new work, and I was disheartened to find myself alienated from it. Especially so since to accept that I am bound to be alienated from my new work was to accept that my experiment to do philosophy in the midst of everyday life had failed. For when I found my work boring, what I felt was that I wanted and needed to spend all my time doing philosophy, just the way I had been able to when I was a professor. In other words, that for me doing philosophy required that I have a professional philosopher's lifestyle. And yet the experiment was meant to question just this assumption, to see whether one can do philosophy in the midst of having a non-philosophy job, and if so, what contours such a philosophy would take.
In the end, I was not willing to give up the experiment. I realized that non-academic work and blogging were both new to me, and that I was simply having difficult balancing both. And that this was an instance of my general difficulty of balancing my life and my philosophy. It is exactly this kind of a difficulty which one is apt to overlook when one is a professional philosopher, because doing philosophy for 8 or 10 or 16(!) hours a day can seem just a part of daily life. The difficulty in such a situation can seem to be not in finding time to do philosophy (though one has to find time for "research"), but in the philosophy topics themselves. But is it possible that having so much time to do philosophy is actually distorting one's understanding of philosophy? That in order to do philosophy well, one actually has to do it not in such big chunks of time, but in smaller chucks appropriately placed in one's day? That one has to do it within the context of a non-academic job, and not outside of such a context? These questions still had a grip on me. And so it seemed wiser to set aside the blog until I felt that I could integrate it more fluidly into my new life.

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