Politics and Marriage

Our political situation reminds me of my marriage. I am an Indian-American married to a Brazilian-German-Mexican-Norwegian-American. Our daughter is a mix of all of that.

When I got married 12 years ago, some in my broader extended family thought a marriage like this (“a love marriage” as opposed to an arranged marriage, but also a “mixed” marriage) was a bad idea. That Indians like me should marry other Indians, for otherwise our culture would disintegrate. What would happen to the values of my parents and grandparents’ generations if I thought just of myself and chose a mixed marriage? Wasn’t this a kind of selfishness? Don’t I owe my family, my culture, my parents the gratitude of continuing their way of life – and how can I do that if I married a non-Indian? Our family was under threat from the modern way of life and I owed it to them and to myself to resist it. This was the “Make the family great again” or the “Keep the family great” view.

I felt the force of this view. I had a nostalgic sense for the india I left behind at age 11, of the neighborhood park in which I played cricket with friends, and a life in which my friends’ parents knew my parents and we all had the same way of life and the whole street seemed like one community. For a long time in America, well into my twenties, I couldn’t imagine dating because it seemed to shatter this nostalgic vision I was holding onto. I didn’t want to date not because of my parents but really because of myself – because of my own need to hold onto that nostalgic sense of a world which seemed to be slipping away, and which felt like if I asked a girl out would disappear in a flash. I would have crossed the line and the park with the cricket playing and the Indian family life I knew and loved would all evaporate in an instant – I would have become one of “them”, the moderners who valued their personal growth over their community’s survival.

When I finally started dating the woman who would become my wife, I had huge bouts of guilt. Anxiety. The first time I went home to New York with her so she and my parents could meet, on the drive back to school I pulled over the car so I could cry. I had crossed the line into being a moderner, and I thought I lost the Bharath I used to be and that I was contributing to the dissolution of my family’s way of life.

But I was also relieved after the crying. For having the crossed the line, something unexpected had happened: I didn’t lose my Indian identity. Indian culture hadn’t disappeared in a puff of smoke the moment my girlfriend and I entered my parents’ apartment. The Indian culture that I was carrying within me was carried along with me across the line, into the new terrain. Indianness wasn’t a sealed, airtight ballon which would lose all its air if a single hole of a love marriage was made in it. Indian culture could move through the air, take in different shapes and adapt as the circumstances needed. Indeed the Indianness I saw through the prism of nostalgia had itself for hundreds of years been moving, evolving and transforming. It was not one static thing, but many fluid things which can absorb change into itself.

Thinking today that 60 million people voted for Trump, even after all that has happened in the last four years, fills me with a kind of dread. “Oh my God, how will we ever reach out to them and make common cause?” They feel way over there, away from where I am over here.

But when I remember the anxiety I felt before accepting my mixed relationship, I instantly feel a connection to them. They are no longer an incomprehensible other. They are like my old self, wary and anxious and paranoid of what lies on the other side of the line, and who feel the need to resist crossing it. Who feel that if they cross it, life as they knew it will be over – their own identity will disappear in a cloud of smoke. And so with existential anxiety, anger and passion they don’t want the mixing and the change and the perceived lose of control. Yes, racism is rooted there. But not just racism, which can be a dehumanizing way of looking at it. What is moving them to ignore their own complicity with racism is their all too human and understandable feeling of guilt and fear – of not knowing how they can relate to their parents and grandparents and where they “came from” if they cross that line. They are me when I refused in college to date or go to parties or to let down my guard at departmental events – things which I felt would pull me down into the rabbit’s hole of a mixed America which was shapeless and confused.

This is one reason I am not surprised some Indian-Americans and other non-whites are Trump supporters. The fear of the rabbit hole of modernity – that one would lose one’s identity and all that matters if one crossed the line into the murky terrain of mixedness – is an anxiety anyone, irrespective of color, can feel. It need not be, “white vs non-white”. It can be “all of us who value our distinctive and separate cultures vs those who want mixedness.” I imagine there are many who are moved by this opposition. Many immigrants even who support Trumpism because they fear mixed relationships more than a revival of the KKK. Who see themselves not so much supporting white supremacy as resisting the possibility that all their children will enter into mixed relationships. As if the moment they vote Democrat, they are accepting that their white son might bring home a brown girlfriend, or their daughter might bring home her girlfriend, or that their Hindu daughter might bring home a Muslim boyfriend.

Of course, I crossed the line. I got married. And I entered married life with a kind of liberal fantasy. I thought “I am Indian, she is white” and we will make our marriage work by bringing the “two” cultures together. When I got married in August of 2008, Obama’s Hope and Change message was in the air. I felt that as with a new America which was embracing the future of a mixed country with a half black and half white president, so too my marriage would be one of bridging my culture with her culture.

For several years I doggedly kept to this mixing approach. I would think, “I will give up this part of my Indian background if she gives up that part of her American background.” I will recognize her difficulties as a white woman if she recognizes my difficulties as a brown man. Simple, straightforward. If we just recognized our identities and their historical trappings (she was woman, but white, and I was a man but brown), then we can do the calculations of who had what advantage in which situation, talk honestly about it and resolve any argument we were having.

It took about eight years and too many fights to count before I realized this way of thinking of the marriage wasn’t working. The bottom fell out of this framework one day, in the middle of a heated argument, when in response to some point I was making about how she was taking her white privilege for granted, she suddenly said, “I am not white!” It was something she had felt for a long time, but couldn’t get herself to say, as we both had embraced the “He is brown and she is white” narrative of our marriage. The statement unnerved me. My first thought was, “If she isn’t white, then what is she? And what is this marriage?”

My wife looks “white”. Her mother is Brazilian-German (her German ancestors moved to Brazil) and her father is Mexican-Norwegian (his Mexican-American father married to his Norwegian-American mother in the 1940s). My wife in America is thought white. In Brazil she would be seen as just a whiter-skinned Brazilian. But also her Norwegian side is dominant in her looks. As important as all these are to her, so too is her Mexican background, and also the African roots she has from Brazil.

When she said she wasn’t white, she didn’t mean that she was actually black or brown. I don’t know exactly what she meant. But what I have come to think is that she was correct. For at the very least what she was resisting was my forcing her into a identity category as a way of mapping out the matrix of her possible actions, privilages and possibilities.

Over time I realized I was thinking about the marriage all wrong. I was thinking that I had a certain identity (brown) and so had she (white), and that it was the marriage that was mixed. It’s like there is water and there is oil, and the marriage is the mixture of the two. That’s how I was thinking of it. An obviously bad analogy given that oil and water don’t mix!

But in that one comment my wife disrupted this whole picture. For what “I am not white!” brought home to me was that in a deep way she is mixed. When I thought of her as white, I imagined she was more like Barbara Bush than like Michelle Obama. But she was like neither. She was a third-generation atleast mixed person. Her father’s parents went against their societal norms in getting married in mid century America: a brown man marrying a white woman. Then her father and mother were also a mixed marriage: a Mexican-Norwegian-American man with a Brazilian-German-American woman.

When I thought of my wife as white, I was treating “her culture” as analogous to “my Indian culture”. If I was going to compromise on my Indian cultural habits, I felt she had to compromise on her cultural habits – which I named “white” mainly to have something to point to. But what is “the” culture of someone whose family background isn’t one of just continuing the nostalgia of a homogeneous cultural bloc, but consists of continual crossing of the lines and blurring of the boundaries? The line I was afraid to cross, her grandparents already crossed it sixty years before we met. Then her parents went further down that line, and that was her background.

When it sunk in that she was mixed and not just white, I didn’t know how to argue with her anymore in the way I used to. She suddenly seemed amorphous, un-pin-downable. If I wanted to say, “ok, we will have Indian food on Monday, and your family food on Tuesday,” what does that mean? Which part of her family? Are we having Mexican or Brazilian or German or Norwegian food? Or just burgers and pizza since she is American? Or was it kale salad and tofu since she grew up in Berkeley? And what happens to my calculation if she likes Indian food more than I do? How do we find a “balanced” approach to meal making? To finances? To keeping the house? To raising a child?

Initially it felt like my worst fears of crossing the line were realized. Gone was the nostalgic sense of holding onto my Indianness. I was plunged into a relationship which was not just white and brown, but which spanned cultures from many parts of the world, mixed together in ways too subtle and complicated for them to be neatly delineated. I yelled back at her “I can’t argue with you!” and slunk away to gather my bearings.

Only slowly did the liberating realization dawn on me. Could it be that she isn’t the only mixed one in the marriage, but that I am also mixed? That I am not a clunky conjunction of Indian and American, but that I am my own particular form of mixedness of the two and so much more?

The model I had imposed on my marriage was actually the model I had imposed on my own self since I immigrated to America. I assumed that there was on the one hand my Indian self and then on the other hand my American self, and being at peace with myself meant constantly weighing my commitment to one side with my commitment to the other side. As if the two sides were fighting countries and I, the unifying self, is like the United Nations. It is a completely exhausting conception of the self. And it led to a completely exhausting conception of marriage.

Once I saw myself as mixed, as through and through mixed, I felt I didn’t have to constantly do the internal balance sheet of the Indian and the American sides of me; of when I could feel Western without feeling like colonizers and when I could feel Indian without worrying about my Brahmin privilages or my minority status in America. I was suddenly free to just be myself, without calculation, without anxiety and without guilt.

And from that space of accepting all of myself, including the myriad complexities and unresolved tensions within myself, I could see my wife not as white or non-white but mainly as a person I am with. Now the categories were secondary to the primacy of our interaction as two individuals, both complex, both mixed, both evolving, both unfinished and unfinishable. This approach doesn’t solve all the questions and differences about habits and home decor and finances. But it made them less central to our interaction as people. Those issues, though of continual importance and necessity, didn’t have to be resolved for us to live our lives. They might remain unresolved, as they are the background of our lives. But they are not what give meaning to our interactions, which is more about how we give each other space to be ourselves in our individual complexity and to grow and evolve as each of us is moved to.

There is a peace to be found in accepting the intrinsic mixedness of each person. A peace on the other side of crossing the line but which doesn’t seek to navigate diversity through essentializing ourselves as white, black and brown, or man and woman, or the oppressed and the oppressor.

If Trump Republicans are like myself when I refused to cross the line into a mixed relationship, some Democrats are like me in the early years of my marriage when I thought of a mixed relationship too much through the filter of identity categories. Both involve a kind of reifying of identities – one for the sake of keeping the identities pure and distinct, and the other in the name of mixing the identities in “the right way”. But as with human relationships, so too with national bonds: they cannot be forged through isolating ourselves nor through applying metrics for integration, no matter how enlightened.

Four Meanings of “Global Philosophy”

In philosophy the 21st century will be a century of global philosophy. This is a change in consciousness of how to think of philosophy, and we are seeing in academic philosophy the birth pangs of this transformation. But we are also seeing the birth pangs in our broader cultural transformations.

What does “global philosophy” mean? It’s worth distinguishing four different meanings of the term.

1) Decolonizing philosophy. Here global philosophy is contrasted with Modern-European philosophy. In the last 400 years, and especially since Kant and Hegel 200 years ago, philosophy was identified in Europe with European philosophy – with the explicit implication that no other civilization was capable of philosophy. This colonial idea permeated through the academic institution and society more broadly. One sense of global philosophy is negating the effects of this colonial vision of philosophy.

2) Comparative philosophy. Here the focus isn’t necessarily on decolonization, but on simply getting different traditions into dialogue with each other. Connecting European philosophy with Chinese philosophy, or Latin American philosophy with African or American philosophy, and so on.

3) Philosophical anthropology. This is the project of explaining the origins of philosophy in human culture. In individual traditions, such as those starting with the Greeks or the Indians or the Chinese, the origin of that tradition is seen as a magical beginning – of a first great thinker or groups of thinkers emerging from the haze of superstition. From a global perspective, this is extremely simplistic. 200,000 years separate the beginning of homo sapiens from the sages of the axial age 2,500 years ago such as Socrates, the Buddha and Confucius. And prior to that 200,000 years, there is several million years of homonid life with the advent of tools, fire, burials and so on. So there is a global explanation waiting to be discovered for how transformations of human life from hunter gatherers (100,000 years ago) to the agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) to the dawn of mass civilizations (5,000 years ago) led to the forms of life of Socrates, the Buddha and others around the world.

4) Existential globalism. While philosophical anthropology tells us how we got to the present, we are still left with the existential questions of: What now? What do we want to do? What should we do? How should an understanding of (1)-(3) guide our decisions and practices of what we want philosophy to become?

In academic philosophy right now there is a lot of focus on decolonizing philosophy because for those who are attuned to it, they can see the effects of the colonizing framework everywhere around them. This naturally makes this sense of global philosophy highly contentious and emotionally laden.

It is worth remembering that decolonizing philosophy is not an end in itself. Some of its proponents sometimes talk as if decolonizing philosophy will create or unveil a beautiful global framework of how all traditions can intersect. This is pure fantasy, akin to that of the noble savage. Counteracting white supremacy in philosophy is a step in the direction of respecting and seeing the importance of all the world’s philosophical traditions. We are then still left with the task of making sense of whether, how and how best those traditions can intersect. Decolonizing philosophy is a step, at first, towards comparative philosophy.

But comparative philosophy itself is not the end of global philosophy. The more we know about different traditions, the more the question becomes pressing: what connects these traditions? Philosophical traditions are not unitary blocs moving along separately from each other (the Greeks here, the Indians there, etc.). In Eurasia, the axial age philosophical traditions are an outgrowth of already by then thousands of years of cultural, economic and intellectual cross currents.

We don’t recognize this for a simple reason: we think of the dawn of philosophy in terms of how the axial thinkers themselves thought of what they were doing, and they didn’t consciously realize the global, cultural underpinnings of their thought. That is, we think the philosophical originators must be taken as guides to what philosophy is since, after all, they created it! But this is as strange an assumption with Socrates as it is with Christ, as simplistic to grant such self-knowledge to the Buddha as it is to grant it to Ashoka.

The power of philosophical anthropology is that it separates the origins of philosophy from the stories the axial thinkers told about themselves. Philosophical anthropology situates the origin stories themselves in a broader context – one which none of the great philosophers of the last 2,500 years themselves knew or could have known. That has the potential to radically reorient our understanding of those philosophers – and of ourselves.

But again, philosophical anthropology is not the end of global philosophy. For we are left with the existential question of what (1)-(3) mean for us now. To address the future without taking into account (1)-(3) is like walking into a hurricane without any protection. (1)-(3) are our gear for how to confront the changing times we face. But as with any gear, (1)-(3) are only the tools, the knowledge we carry. What we do with it is up to us and how we can forge a global consciousness.

Decolonizing philosophy is one point of entry into global philosophy. But I predict that in a couple of decades, after its insights are absorbed, it will run its course, and give way to the broader projects of global philosophy. Comparative philosophy will become more prevalent, and it will be partly soothing because it can be interpreted as “we each just need to appreciate the other, while retaining our own tradition.”

But the great challenge will come as philosophical anthropology gains steam. It will be to the 21st century what the new physics was to the 17th century. The new physics challenged our sense of the world around us – that the physical world was vaster than how we move in it and how we experience it. Philosophical anthropology will do the same for our sense of our narratives about ourselves – that our cultural practices are themselves vaster and more subtle and more integrated than how we experience them. People will resist this with fury, as if the new global philosophical frameworks were trying to rob them of their very identifies and histories – their own agency to tell the stories they like best about themselves. This will be a great part of the cultural fights of the 21st century, and it has already begun.

I have hope we will come through it better and more self-aware as we did in previous ages of tumult, as in the axial age and the enlightenment.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Often in daily life the hard thing isn’t to discover new truths, but to let go of old illusions.

We already know dimly what is true. It is obvious in a sense. But we don’t want to accept it. We resist it. We deny it. We ignore it. We set it out of our mind. Push it away.

Having denied the reality we know so well, we continue: “Why is this problem so hard? So insolvable? Is it too hard for us to solve?”

What is required is wisdom – the practice of not pushing away uncomfortable truths, of facing up to the facts we already know so well.

But spurring wisdom, we turn the issue into one of knowledge – of us not having yet the right kind of knowledge, and of how hard we are trying to get that knowledge.

Here are facts I already know and which are obvious: I am extremely lucky to be alive and to have the generally middle class life I have. I have it better than millions of people. Better in a material sense than people who are being abused right now, better than refugees, better than those who are homeless. Even more obviously, I am lucky to have lived 43 years and lucky to have the prospect of living many years still. Many people have died well before 43. Many died as children, many in war as teenagers, many in holocausts and slaughters which boggle the mind and next to which, my life – with its general comfort and good fortune and no matter what happens next for me – stands as one of enormous good fortune.

I know all this. They are as obvious as that the world existed before I was born and will continue after I die.

And yet everyday, almost 95% of my waking consciousness, I live as if none of this was true. I almost willfully forget them, push them to the edges of my awareness. Most of my consciousness revolves around my anxieties, my fears, the obstacles to my goals, how unfair it all is to me, how I have to put up with callous people in society and how my life could be rendered “meaningless” or lacking in prestige or purpose or achievement by the blind stupidity or carelessness of my neighbors and fellow citizens.

Though it feels real, it is all premised on a giant illusion: that if I am not vigilant and stand up for myself and protect what is mine, then my life could become “wasted”. That I could lose what I am entitled to gain. It is an illusion fostered by my willful ignoring of the fact that no matter what, my life already is luckier than that of billions of people in human history.

“How can I be happy? How can I live a meaningful life? How can I be productive?” These questions I normally ask myself in the form of seeking knowledge I currently don’t have. As if if only I had that knowledge, I can get to doing it and living more happily and more meaningfully. But alas, that knowledge is beyond me, it is hidden, it is hard to find and we have to keep seeking it – and until then I can be as I am, without too much change.

An interesting thing happens when I give up the knowledge model. Then happiness and meaningfulness are not mysterious features of a future end state I may or may not get to. They are features of my not pushing away the obvious truths of my own good fortune compared to so many others. Holding on to the obvious truths which I already know opens up realms of experience and awareness which in fact surpasses what I assume even on the knowledge model.

It requires but a pivot. A focus to stay conscious of the obvious truths which no one can deny, but which we nonetheless pretend are not true.

Letting Go

I have been thinking about my last post in which I say that I feel alienated when reading great Western philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche.

This isn’t quite right. It’s better to say: the reasons I gave in that post are why I used to feel alienated when reading those philosophers.

Now I don’t feel alienated. It was helpful to write why I felt that for a long time. But it’s not my situation now.

I no longer read Kant or Nietzsche, Hume or Heidegger, Russell or Wittgenstein. I still from time to time think about these philosophers because I spent years pouring over their books. But they are not live authors for my thinking. Not thinkers who I engage with now in thinking about life.

This captures better why I left academia.

I didn’t leave academia because I was alienated from the great Modern Western philosophers. Rather, I left because I got what I could out of those texts and didn’t see much value for me in making them the center of my life.

If I am honest with myself, I see why I have been holding onto them for the past nine years.

When I left academia I wanted to be a writer. But a part of me was insecure. It was a big part really. That part wondered why anyone would listen to me as a writer. And so I held on mentally to the thing which I felt gave me standing as a writer: that I was an Ivy League educated philosopher who left a tenure track position at Bryn Mawr.

But this holding on perpetuated the same conflict I felt in academia. Yes I was alienated by large parts of academia. But could I have been more alienated than the many non-white male philosophers who stayed in academia? I don’t think so.

It’s important to distinguish not identifying with academic philosophy from feeling alienated from academic philosophy.

If you are feeling alienated, that makes it hard to identify. But not impossible. In fact, for many, their identification can be so strong that they choose to stay in academia to change what they feel alienated from.

For me the alienation certainly didn’t help. But I had other reasons for not identifying with academic philosophy.

This is because my earliest and strongest influence philosophically was by non academics. Personally my dad. But more generally Indian non academic philosophers such as Vivekananda and Aurobindo. And Western non academics such as Thomas Merton and Eckhart Tolle.

For many academic philosophers none of these thinkers would count as philosophers. But in a more colloquial sense they are usually sense as wise thinkers and philosophers – which is the sense of “philosopher” which has had the most impact on me. And which continues to.

But my insecurity kept me holding onto academic philosophy as what can give me a voice. And yet – I resented academic philosophy for that too since my holding onto it was actually keeping me from simply speaking as myself, without worrying about whether people will find what I say interesting.

Over time I came to see that my resentment of academia had less to do with academia and more to do with my holding onto it mentally. That the resentment and anger was just the flip side of my insecurity. No amount of analysis of Kant or Russell or academia philosophy would soothe the anger as long as at root I didn’t let go of my insecurity.

When I step out of the insecurity, something wonderful happens: the old alienation disappears. Freed from my own compulsion to define myself in relation to Kant, Russell and others of my education, I can see them again from a distance. And remember the good times I had with their texts. And can wish that goodness and more for others. Even as I can move on to the next phase of my life – intellectually and otherwise.

Kant, Nietzsche and Alienation

I said in the discussion of the previous post that I found reading Nietzsche alienating. This is true, more generally, when I read the great white philosophers of the past couple of centuries. What do I mean by this, and why do I say it?

I can appreciate the pure literary genius – and fun – of Nietzsche’s writing. The exuberance, the purposely outlandish exaggerations, the dressing down of great thinkers. As well as the insightful ideas and cultural analysis. But when I speak of alienation, I mean that there is also a move to push the book away with a sense that Nietzsche isn’t speaking to my lived situation or my perspective. To continue reading, to hold on to the good stuff, requires a lot of mental work and struggle. A kind of being constantly on guard against letting myself be pulled into Nietzsche’s framing of the issues, lest I forget or lose grip on other things which are very important to my thinking, but which are entirely missing from Nietzsche’s thinking. And not missing just in an incidental way, but which is contrary to the spirit of the grand narratives and big picture that is Nietzsche’s concern.

When I read Nietzsche – as when I read Kant or Wittgenstein or Russell or Heidegger – I have to work to keep my own independent critical thinking alive by standing apart from some of their main moves. I have to work to resist their natural universalizing tone that they are speaking for the human condition. To be mindful of when they are actually speaking in a way which applies to all people and when they are speaking from a more blinkered perspective of taking their white maleness of their time for granted.

I don’t deny the greatness of these thinkers and of their appeal. Which is why I have to work to separate out what can apply to me – what is inspiring me in their writing – from what doesn’t apply to me and which is getting covered over by their prestige and position. With lesser thinkers I wouldn’t feel the need to do this, because there is nothing for me to gain by putting myself through this struggle of inspiration/alienation.

To some extent resisting an author’s worldview is just part of intellectual engagement. When Kant disagreed with Hume, he felt he had to resist being pulled into the extremes of empiricism and skepticism. But of course Kant wasn’t alienated from Hume’s writings. To the contrary, he found in the logical space of Hume’s views a possibility for a respectful disagreement, where in principle Hume might see Kant’s resistance as that of an equal.

In alienation, this sense of one’s resistance as that of an equal is precisely what is missing. Alienation from a text is to feel a blank stare from the author. It’s a form of unrequited love. When I spend time with the texts of Hume, Kant or Hegel, there is a kind of imaginative gaze of mutual recognition between us which doesn’t exist right now. I have to put in all the work to understand them, and they stand aloof, unmoved by my concerns and uninterested to understand me

But this is dance with three parties, not just two. It’s not just a question of me the reader and Kant the author. For my engagement with Kant the author is through the prism of contemporary academic philosophy – that is, through the gaze of current philosophy professors

When I read Kant I am aware of his greatness as a philosopher. It is exactly that awareness which hurts. For if such a great thinker accepted so easily that only Europeans can do philosophy, maybe there is an insight there. Maybe I don’t deserve the imaginative look of equality from Kant. Maybe I am unlovable, or at least not as lovable as Kant would find Strawson, McDowell or Rawls.

Perhaps this is a silly thought. Perhaps I should just push through and affirm a mutual recognition between me and Kant.

But this is made hard not by Kant or what he thought in his time. After all, Kant is long dead. Rather, It is made hard by the fact that Kant’s racism and its impact on his philosophy is ignored or excused by most of my contemporaries. The blank stare I experience peering back at me from Kant’s pages is actually a reflection of the blank stare of my professors and my colleagues. That blank stare is rooted in a presumption that I should just naturally be able to set aside Kant’s racism – and that if I am not able to, it must reflect my limitations as a philosopher. That I can’t get on in the right way. That I am like the student who continues “2..4..6..8..” with “-42!”.

Too often the picture of alienation is that of a reader who can’t enter, say, the world of Kant’s books. Where the racism is a block which keeps one from engaging with the books altogether. This is unfortunately true for many people – and the philosophy profession ignoring this is a moral, pedagogical mistake, akin to a math teacher who always sees a struggling student as a bad student.

But alienation can take on a more subtle and complicated form. A person can acknowledge the greatness in Kant’s work. That person can in fact love aspects of Kant, and so seek to find a wholesome, positive intellectual relationship to Kant. And yet that person can still be alienated, if he feels that his appreciation of Kant is premised on him having to squash doubts about Kant’s great mistakes about race or if he is supposed to dismiss them in a perfunctory way.

Developing a relationship with a great thinker is like developing a lifelong friendship. That is only possible if all the doubts and concerns one has about that thinker can be aired and discussed in an open and critical way. If one just asserts the answer is obvious – that obviously Kant’s racism is irrelevant to his philosophy, or that obviously it maligns all of his thinking – then one is cutting off the room for the give and take, the listening and the learning, the vulnerability and the growth required for a deep friendship.

***

So back to Nietzsche: why I do feel alienated when I read him?

Is it because he is white, and western philosophy in general is racist? No. I don’t feel alienated when I read Plato or Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. It makes no sense to speak of western philosophy as such as racist, for the racism we are familiar with is a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Is it because Nietzsche is a part of modern Europe, and so implicated in the broader colonialist practices of his time? No. I don’t feel alienated listening to Mozart or Beethoven, which I greatly benefit from. In these cases I can obviously distinguish the work from the social context of its origins. When listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas I don’t find myself thinking, “This is really good, but I need to resist it also!” I find myself letting go fully and to immerse myself in it without reservation. Just the kind of immersion – of a philosophical kind – I find hard with modern Western philosophers.

Is it because, like Locke, Hume or Kant, Nietzsche said and did racist things which it is hard to ignore? The way in which one may find it alienating to read Heidegger knowing his embrace of Nazism? No, this isn’t it either. I don’t familiar of any particularly racist things Nietzsche said or did. It is by now pretty clear that he was, unlike many Europeans of his time, against anti-semitism, and was more cosmopolitan and against German nationalism.

So then what is it?

Let me get at this by first saying what I like about Nietzsche. I love the idea of the reevaluation of values. In particular, that people and organizations tend to reify old values and treat them as timeless, universal truths which we have to abide by. One of his great insights is that universities do this as much as churches – if in a different way. Metaphysical notions of faith and reason become limits on our sense of possibilities, creating boundaries which we feel we can’t trespass. Seeing that these reified abstract nouns – Faith, God, Reason, Philosophy – are mainly historical relics which are ossified is both necessary for growth and can be traumatic. The death of God – also of Philosophy – can shatter a sense of a well structured world, leaving one feeling disoriented. But in this time of crisis, Nietzsche affirms life by saying that idols are meant to be smashed, that the current idols are themselves the result of older idols having been smashed. That in the pain of the disorientation one can also find the will to power, to create anew, to say “Yes!” to life, not on anyone else’s terms, but in terms of the genius and the will to create that one find’s in oneself.

As with his book Thus Spoke Zarathurstra, all this is a kind of secular spirituality. Nietzsche captures – and lived – something like the phenomenology of spirituality, but written entirely in a modern, scientific, atheistic, playful, psychologically insightful way. It is William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, but from the inside out – written not with James’ gaze of a sympathetic observer or with James’ ambivalence, but written by a true “believer” (as in James’ “Will to Believe”) who finds the strength to say yes without turning away from the pain of existence. To be sure, it is not a spirituality of serenity or equanimity, but more like that of a frenzied artist high on breaking through his own limits. This spiritual Nietzsche is not one that contemporary analytic philosophers usually highlight, but it is the Nietzsche I admire.

All this is great. But the problem – for me – arises when Nietzsche himself gives into wanton generalizing and abstractions – which he does constantly. The metaphysical impulse of turning away from life and of essentializing resentiment, it turns out, is what everyone from the past did who Nietzsche disagrees with. It is the fatal sin not just of Paul or the Church fathers, but also of Plato and Kant, of the Buddha and Hindu Vedanta, and also what is ultimately wrong with Schopenhauer and Wagner. Turns out all these people, across time and culture, are all implicated in the same mistake of denying life and the multiplicity of perspectives, and covering it over with a deceitful, resentful will.

Why does Nietzsche run all these different thinkers together? To understand that we need to turn to Kant.

***

Just as there is an important difference between pre-modern and modern Western philosophy in terms of racism, so too there is an important difference between pre-Kantian and post-Kantian modern philosophy in terms of racism. (The outlines of the following historical story I get from Peter Park here, and Bryan Van Norden here and here.)

Before Kant it was still common in Europe – even as it was pursuing colonialism – to think that philosophy began not with the ancient Greeks, but in Asia or in Africa. Pre-Kantian European philosophers were still living in a world with ties to the medieval world when the Islamic and the Chinese empires dominated – and so where a sense that other civilizations developed their own traditions of philosophy was natural.

With Kant this changes radically. Kant, along with Hegel after him, merges the history of philosophy with the developing pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy to suggest the new story that only Europeans are – and have been- capable of philosophy. Now the narrative takes hold that philosophy began in ancient Greece and only there. Not in Egypt or Mesopotamia, not in India or China, nor any place else. The story now goes that until the pre-Socratics abstract thought didn’t arise at all, but people were only mired in mytho-religious symbolism. Some of the ancient cultures – as with the Jews and perhaps the Hindus and a few others – were more advanced as religions (though not as advanced as what Christianity would become), but they couldn’t achieve the kind of self-conscious, conceptual inquiry which is philosophy.

Due to Kant and Hegel’s influence in the 19th century, this story of the uniqueness of Western philosophy spread and is now fossilized in the curriculum and practices of contemporary philosophy departments. So much so that the idea that philosophy began in ancient Greece is treated as common knowledge. But it is striking that this story is really no more than 250 years old, initiated in the later half of the 1700s, well after Descartes and well into the modern period.

Perhaps this story is only 250 years old because only then were Kant and Hegel, and their contemporaries, able to analyze all the world’s traditions and see that actually philosophy only began in Europe? If this were true, even if they got the story wrong, it would have right form of a justification. But that’s not what happened.

For Kant philosophy concerns the a priori conditions for experience and thought. Therefore philosophy cannot be empirical. It follows that an understanding of the nature of philosophy also cannot be empirical. But the origins of philosophy is part of the nature of philosophy. Therefore an a priori understanding of philosophy must include an a priori understanding of the origins of philosophy.

So in the Kantian framework, “Philosophy began in Europe” becomes a kind of synthethic, a priori truth. As far as I know, Kant never explicitly says this. But when I imagine why the idea that philosophy began only in Europe really takes hold with Kant, this starts to make sense. The claim is synthethic because the concept of began in Europe isn’t contained in the concept of philosophy; hence people can entertain the idea that philosophy began elsewhere. But it is also not an empirical truth, so Kant doesn’t have to go read other traditions to see if possibly philosophy began there. To the contrary, the a priori nature of philosophy means precisely that he doesn’t have to read other traditions to know how philosophy began.

On Kant’s view, space and time, and categories such as substance and causation are the lens through which we have to see the world to have experience at all. Kant pulled the history of philosophy into the realm of the lens as well, so that as Europeans were discovering more about other cultures’ intellectual traditions, none of those discoveries had to be engaged with alongside the texts of Plato, Hume and Kant

The Kantian framework of critical philosophy provided an a priori justification for why philosophy professors only had to read Western philosophy. Kant, beyond his great work in epistemology and ethics, thus had the greatest impact on the institution of modern academic philosophy. The “critical” philosophy was the foundation stone for a Eurocentric lens on the history of philosophy. “Philosophy began in ancient Greece” is not only treated as a truth, but as a foundational truth which justifies one in not engaging with other traditions so as to keep philosophy within the realm of “pure reason”. 

Hegel filled out this a priori history of philosophy beyond the basic “scientific” racial framework embraced by Kant. And this Eurocentric framing of the history of philosophy spread along with German idealism. Institutional foundation stones being what they are, even as later thinkers started to disagree deeply with Kant or with Hegel, the “Philosophy began in ancient Greece” framing became more and more enmeshed in the background practices of academic philosophy.

The great breaks from German Idealism in the late 1800s and early 1900s – Analytic philosophy, Phenomenology and Pragmatism – still embraced the Eurocentric framing of the history of philosophy. The disagreements between, say, Russell and Moore and their Idealist teachers were certainly enormously important and productive. But with regard to the Eurocentrism of philosophy, they were still essentially Kantian.

This is one way I find reading Russell or Heidegger alienating. If you take their texts at face value, they speak of the “revolution” in philosophy they are enacting – obviously very different revolutions for Russell and Heidegger. The sense of revolution speaks to a new beginning, a radical breaka starting fresh, standing apart from Kant and Hegel. As a student I was captivated by Russell or Wittgenstein, Husserl or Heidegger precisely because of their push for a radical transformation of philosophy.

And yet, what I felt over and over again was that their revolution in philosophy was never a revolution in rethinking the contours of – and the history of – philosophy departments. Of rethinking the curriculum, or even just trying to understand why the curriculum or the pantheon looks the way it does. Strangely, it seemed as if the very nature of philosophy was being rethought even as the way philosophy is taught and who is taught never changes much at all.

My alienation from the texts of Russell and Heidegger then are at root a cultivated cautiousness on my part. Developed over years of running head long into their texts with the excitement I shared in their projects, only to find – time and again – that at a crucial point, where I start to relate their revolution to my lived situation, I am met with the disappointing fact of a blank stare from them as an author. Which raises for me the question of the ways in which their revolutions left unearthed the Eurocentric foundation stone laid by Kant.

***

Nietzsche of course was not a philosophy professor. Along with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, he was part of an alternate, anti-academic trajectory in 19th century European philosophy that separated itself from the tradition of Kant and Hegel. Whereas Russell and Heidegger sought to revolutionize philosophy from within the academic structures influenced by Kant, Nietzsche stood apart from academia lobbing grenades at the entire edifice. Surely this is something I can identify with and appreciate?

Certainly it is, and I do. Yet my alienation persists when reading Nietzsche because his grenades never hit – nor even seek – the Kantian foundation stone which is the overall cause of my alienation.

Nietzsche is like an author in the 1850s in America who criticizes the American South for succumbing to metaphysical thinking and for embracing the “slave morality” of Christianity, while never mentioning in his criticisms the actual slavery in the South. What jumps out to me when I pick up Nietzsche is not only the fascinating stuff about morality and moral psychology, but the gaping hole of the things which even he – the great reevaluator of values and the great psychologist, who is “a destiny” unto human kind and who affirms the eternal recurrence of even the most painful experiences – passes over in silence and never mentions, let alone analyzes. 

As Nietzsche might say, surely that tells us something about the man and his thinking – and about the structure of thought and society – beyond what he says about himself!

It’s not just that when reading Nietzsche I have to set aside a few of the annoying mannerisms or some of the outdated ideas. Nietzsche’s entire tone as an author is as a renegade, as someone who is alone, and who alone sees the depths of the motivations of philosophers. The incessant self-affirmation of his genius is like a siren call, which if I am not on my guard I find myself nodding along to – especially because the affirmation of his misunderstood genius is now affirmed even in analytic philosophy departments.

And yet his very stance of questioning all values covers over so much that is of paramount and urgent importance, personally, culturally and philosophically to myself and to so many people that a part of me even says: Given how little we are thinking about the issues that have been covered over even by Nietzsche, I endorse feeling alienated when reading him.

The alienation I now feel is a marker of the end of my reading him subserviently – as if at every turn I have to accept that he is a genius and I am a mere reader and so I have to continue to learn my way into his framework. Being aware of my alienation and not feeling ashamed of it is my own will to power that Nietzsche – along with Kant and Hegel and Wittgenstein and Heidegger – are idols whose turn it is now to be smashed while I philosophize with a hammer. Not smashed as in tossed aside, for I still benefit from reading them. Nor smashed as in smashing their statues, for that is not of interest to me. But smashed in terms of stepping out beyond the one sided gaze of recognition, and for me to look back at them as an equal. 

For years the alienation was painful – something I felt ashamed of – because it felt like a defeat on my part. That it shows I will never experience the mutual gaze of recognition with the authors I admired. Nietzsche was right that mutual recognition doesn’t have to take the form of two people engaged in polite, gentle conversation. Sometimes people recognize each other only in parting, only when a break happens, when one pushes through the structures limiting the interaction and wills a new mode of being. 

That will to power can not only be a will to change things and to stand up as an equal, but it can also be – which Nietzsche usually didn’t recognize – a will to love. A will to move from a position of pain to a position of strength while being mindful to try not to pass the pain onto others.

This is the opportunity afforded by truly shedding light on the Kantian foundation stone of Eurocentrism in philosophy. Not simply to push back against Kant and Nietzsche or to push them down. Nor to take over the building in the name of the oppressed. But to unearth the Kantian foundation stone in order to replace it with a better, more healing, more loving foundation which reflects our shared humanity.

Professors and Priests

Does academic philosophy have value?

I just finished reading Sue Prideaux’s interesting recent biography of Nietzsche. A persistent theme in Nietzsche’s work and life is how silly, obtuse, self-deluded most philosophers are, and especially professors of philosophy.

Nietzsche’s criticism of philosophy professors is analogous to his criticism of priests. He says both reify truth and then – conveniently – place themselves as gate keepers to the enchanted land of truth. But, Nietzsche asks, what if there is no truth as such? What if there is only individual transformations? Then what gives priests and professors their power isn’t a link to a deeper understanding of the world, but they are able to – or seek to – impose their will on the general population. But instead of being honest about it, they color it up with fancy words of truth, rationality and objectivity.

For Nietzsche this is not true just of professors and priests. All people seek to do this. And in history the great philosophers and religious seekers succeeded more than most. Socrates claimed not to know anything, but his will was strong. Similarly for St. Paul or the Buddha. Whether we are talking about philosophy or faith, for Nietzsche the main issue is whether one is being honest about their own will to power.

Nietzsche concludes from this that academic philosophy is mainly a fraud. Just like churches are a fraud. Both hide their own will to power behind a rhetoric of unbiased impartiality.

This is too strong. Nietzsche usually didn’t let subtlety get in the way of a strong conclusion.

This doesn’t show that philosophy departments don’t have value. It only shows they don’t have value for everyone. That indeed they never can. They can be valuable to people who like what professors will, the mode of inquiry and life they exhibit. But – and this is the kicker – there is no objective reality about the nature of philosophy or what Socrates or Kant “really” said which undergirds what the professors’ value. There is only at bottom the fact that the professors value it. Their own will to what they value.

Why is it, for example, that when I was an undergrad at Cornell Kant and Nietzsche were taught, but not Du Bois or the Buddha? When I asked this question back then, I was met with answers such as, “Those are not philosophers. Du Bois was a sociologist. The Buddha was a religious figure.” Nietzsche would have smelled the bad faith of these answers. One of his recurring themes – one which Wittgenstein picks up later on – is how often abstractions (Philosophy, Sociology, Religion…) are used as explanations, but without really explaining anything. For the use is not to explain, but to assert authority – that is, to assert one’s own will.

My undergrad professors would have been more honest if they said, “It never occurred to us to teach that. It’s not what we are interested in. We want to do what we are doing.”

In current times this kind of assertion would be met with a different criticism – that it is white supremacist. “Look at all these white professors asserting that they will just teach what they want to! They have the power and they don’t want to give it up!”

Let’s go slowly. “White Supremacy” is also another abstract noun which has the whiff of explaining something. But does it?

If we apply the Nietzschen view to the “woke” assertions of fighting racist structures, we have the thought: the woke critics are themselves simply asserting their will, but hiding this behind a vaneer of fighting the “objective” wrongness of how philosophy departments used to be.

It is clear enough why the old guard wants to do this. Because it’s easier for them to say their habits are grounded in the nature of Philosophy than to say it’s grounded simply in their will. But why does the new guard also fight using abstractions?

Well, imagine if they – the woke – said “We just want to do philosophy this way!” The question arises: who is this we? Is it just the people who now get to be professors? The problem is in form this is no different from what the old guard said. Those who get to be professors just do the kind of work they want to do. Professors at Cornell didn’t want to teach Buddhist philosophers 25 years ago. But the professors there now do.

Is this an objective improvement? It is certainly an improvement for those who want to study Buddhist philosophers. But what about people who want to study Native American philosophers? Or Mayan philosophers? Or those who don’t make a distinction between philosophy and religion and who see – like Thomas Merton – prayer as itself a form of contemplation? A slippery slope is forming.

Hence the woke also find abstractions useful. It gives the vaneer that the curriculum they will implement will somehow capture truly what Philosophy is. This is the myth of the diverse curriculum. The fantasy that their canon will be really the global philosophical canon.

In contrast to both the academic old guard and the new guard, I find Nietzsche’s view more honest. Or rather: more what I like. What I will. What I want to build on.

It’s revealing that Nietzsche was not a philosophy professor, or even a professor when he wrote his main works. Though for the last century Nietzsche is in the canon in academic departments – even in analytic departments for the last 40 years – that is not what mattered to Nietzsche. Nor is it why Nietzsche’s work found an audience in broader society.

Nietzsche didn’t write aiming to be part of the normal philosophy canon. He mostly piled criticism on the traditional canon, on Plato, Kant and Mill. He wrote because he wanted to. He wrote about whatever he was moved to, bringing various parts of his life together. And he struck a nerve in many readers because they liked what he willed. To explain his attraction to readers by reference to the nature of Philosophy misses that part of his attraction – at least to me and I think many others – is that one can meet his thoughts just on their own. Unlike with Kant or Hegel, or Quine or Rawls, or Husserl or Heidegger, his thoughts are not mediated through an institution of people who claim to speak for Philosophy.

Nietzsche at root speaks for no abstract noun. He speaks just for himself. When he wills, it is clear. It is sometimes moving and inspiring. Sometimes silly and sophomoric. The profound and the silly dance often together because that was his form of willing. He was grand and deep, but was also trapped in a teenage angst of mock rebellion against everything and everyone.

Nietzsche was on to something when he saw that the greatness of great thinkers concerned their will. Their effort to not just get closer to universal values, but to change our values. That change isn’t worthwhile because it gets closer to the truth. One can say that, but it is really a tautology. It just means: that change was worthwhile because we now value it too.

Hence his criticism of professors and priests. Churches aim to help people be like Christ. Philosophy departments to help people be like Socrates. And yet to truly be like Christ or Socrates means to find the greatness of one’s own will and to follow that – not because one can then be better at faith or reason, but because then one can open new horizons and reinterpret what faith and reason themselves can mean.

Philosophy departments, like churches, can help in this process. Not everyone can transfigure values on their own, without help. Most people need help. To that extent professors and priests are valuable. Can indeed be very valuable.

But that value isn’t an end in itself. It is realized when one moves beyond teachers and can rest in the ungrounded terrain of one’s own will. When one can grow by continually overcoming oneself.

Courage

Instead of “Philosophy is X”, try “This is the kind of philosophy I find interesting.” In place of essentializing, affirm your own preferences.

Doesn’t this make philosophy subjective? Just a matter of whatever anyone wants it to be? What if one says, “Philosophy is cooking”, or “Philosophy is gibberish”? Surely, these are objectively wrong?

Why surely? And why do we need it to be wrong, let alone objectively so?

I don’t breathe because breathing is good. If someone says, “Breathing is over-rated”, do I need to prove him wrong to feel confident in my breathing?

I breathe because I do. I don’t end my life because I don’t want to. To live I don’t have to show dying is wrong. Or Suicide is a mistake. We don’t choose by eliminating every alternative. We don’t have to.

In order to think how I want, I don’t need to fit it into a category first (philosophy, analytic philosophy, religious philosophy, spirituality), then defend that category against objections (why “religious philosophy” is not an oxymoron), and then – having secured the foundation – go on to think that way.

Courage is required to say: I do this because I want to. I am open to objections, but not constrained by them. I give others the same freedom I take in pursuing my path. I wish well those who choose a different path. And when we try to reach the same audience, may each try their best – and people respond as they will.

Future of Philosophy

I read two things today that show in stark relief how things have changed in academia.

The first is autobiographical reflections of Hans Sluga, a philosophy professor at Berkeley. Sluga writes of how he went from post WWII Germany to Oxford to study philosophy, and from there to teach philosophy at London and Berkeley. Around 1960, when he is studying philosophy at Oxford and embarking on his academic career, it must have looked like academia was going to keep expanding as higher education opened up to the masses (to people from lower economic classes, women, minorities, etc.)

The implicit assumption being of course that the expansion of higher education means the expansion of brick and morter colleges. That is, more and more spaces in the world would try to emulate Oxford, Harvard and so on, or emulate anyway less pretiguous physical colleges. That, looking 100 years down the line from 1960, one would see a blossoming of residential or at any rate physical universities and colleges. Certainly the expansion of colleges in America in the 50s and 60s probably gave this impression.

The other thing I read is an interview with Scott Galloway, in which he predicts: “In ten years, it’s feasible to think that MIT doesn’t welcome 1,000 freshmen to campus; it welcomes 10,000. What that means is the top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger. What it also means is that universities Nos. 20 to 50 are fine. But Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves. “

Galloway’s prediction is that there is going to be an confluence between big tech companies and the elite universities, resulting in MIT@Google or iStandford, or some such. These big tech-pretiguous college accrediting behemoths will dominate higher education, as through online teaching the pretiguous schools will have enrollments in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Tier 1 colleges will thrive and get richer in the long run and tier 2 schools will adjust and survive. But most brick and morter colleges will disappear, or be doing something very different from liberal arts education.

If Galloway is right – and I suspect he is – then the expansion of higher education will not only not mean the expansion of brick and morter colleges, but actually mean the significant closing of most such colleges. This is something most people could not have forseen in 1960. Or in 2000.

What does this mean for philosophy in academia, and also for philosophy in the broader society?

Right now some of the big issues in academic philosophy are seen to be broadly issues of diversity and global philosophy. That is, how to do philosophy that is more diverse and also open to the world’s traditions?

These important issues recently have been raised (say, in the last thirty years from 1990 – 2020) broadly under the old assumption of the brick and morter future. That is, the framing of the issue has been roughly: “Philosophy done in departments in 1900 or 1950 or 1980 were eurocentric, patriarchial, etc. How can we change the departments so they are more pluralistic?” Implicit in this framing is a kind of reimagining what could have happened in, say, the Harvard philosophy department in 1960. As if we were accepting the material conditions of the 1960 department, but thinking how it could be better intellectually, socially and morally.

But this way of framing the issue is soon to become moot. It’s like trying to think what diversifying the work place would look like while assuming a Feudal framework.

My sense is that a lot of the diversity philosophy stuff has hit a kind of intellectual dead end. Because they are trying to fit the diversity questions into the outdated model of academia.

Many of these questions are going to have to be reframed into the kind of academic world that Galloway is predicting. So the questions of diversity and opening of horizons into world philosophy will have be analyzed along side questions of how academia is entering a wholly new stage. The two sets of questions can’t be dealt with on their own, but have to be tackled together. I suspect that will open up a new exciting logical space of views.

And these two sets of questions – of diversifying philosophy and digitalizing academia – will have to go hand in hand with a third set of questions about philosophy outside academia.

When the expansion of mass education was assumed to go along with the expansion of brick and morter colleges, there was a natural link between the professor and the graduate students: the hope that the graduate students in turn will become professors at the one newly built physical colleges.

But if it turns out that in the near future (10 or 20 or 50 years) philosophy – like most of the humanities – will mainly be taught in the top 50 universities in the world, that means there is no hope even that most graduate students can live a life like their professors. Which in turn means that in the future the expansion of philosophy can’t mean the expansion of academic philosophy.

Academic philosophy as a job is going to become an extremely niche profession, available only to a very select few people. Those few people (say, 1000 around the world) might reach and teach millions of people.

The teaching philosophy to the millions is great. I love it. What are those millions going to do with the knowledge they gained in the classes? Less than 1% of them can hope to be a professor with a similar reach as their professor.

This sets up the future I am looking forward to: philosophy is going to be awakened at a vast rate through mass education, and there won’t be even a fantasy that the creative juices unleased in that way can be absorbed back into academia.

Which means: there are going to be new creative non-academic avenues for engaging in philosophy in the broader society. The end of most brick and morter philosophy departments will mean the flowering of a new era of philosophical salons, or other grass roots modes of doing philosophy. And since these modes could tap into the same kind of reach to the masses through online activity, it can be a real counterpoint to the work within academic philosophy.

In this future, philosophers who are not academics can push the future of philosophy in a way that academics might not be able to, and vice versa.

Happiness and Trauma

Yesterday I wrote about the part of us that is unconditionally happy. I didn’t write this (nor do I normally write) because I am deeply in touch with this part of myself. To the contrary, I write because I am so often not in touch with the unconditional happiness within me. Writing is a way for me to reorient myself towards that space. A way to tell myself and help me see and feel that wisdom is real, that it is alive within me, even if I so often feel lost, anxious and adrift.

Today was a day when the anxiety was particularly intense. I got triggered by something in an interaction with someone (doesn’t matter what or who exactly) and it created a sense of panic. Something like, “There it is. It’s happening again. I am going to be taken advantage of. I am going to lose out, while the person I am interacting with and others around me will get what they want. I need to protect myself. I need to fight for myself.” I hate feeling like this. I don’t actually end up “fighting for myself”. What happens instead is I freeze mentally. I get a panic attack which reverberates in the back of my mind all day. I don’t like being aggressive with people, nor do I like being submissive. I feel I have been submissive too much in my life, and I don’t want that anymore. And yet the alternative of being aggressive or fighting feels off putting, and perhaps just scary. Too much like things are out of control. I prefer control. And clarity. People getting along and taking care of each other.

I love to take care of others, as in think about their needs. It comes naturally to me. It always has. And yet I easily get upset because I feel others don’t think about my needs. Like I am being taken advantage of because of my kindness and goodness. Or maybe it is just because of my need for getting along. Others seem more ok to think about themselves without worrying about how it effects other people. I have never been able to do that. It always felt like a struggle to be selfish. Not that I am a saint. I mean rather that my default mindset is to begin with thinking, “what is the fair thing for everyone here?” My own selfishness – which is intense of course – never feels like the last word, or the first word, to me. The first word begins with a “we” and the last word ends with a “we”. This is not a virtue or wisdom. It is just my temperament or personality.

It’s one reason I love to discuss ideas and emotions – usually the mix of ideas and emotions. Engaging with a person or people as we navigate our collective “we”. Because for me the “I” – even my sense of my “I” – comes in the midst of a “we”, I am often feeling half empty or alienated, as if left to myself I am but a shell of myself. To understand myself, it feels like I have to understand a we that I am a part of. And so in interactions with people I long to find that we.

Yet often I have found that my hope for a we in this sense becomes dashed, as it seems like most people I interact with are happy to be simply “I”s who feel they are perfectly well defined without me. That they don’t look to me to better understand themselves and to be a better them the way I feel I look to them in order for me to be a better and more full me.

What it feels like is that I am doing the trust exercise with another person (you know the one where one person falls backwards and the other person catches them), only to have the other person turn around and walk away as I am falling. I fall down. Upset. Hurt. And I want to yell, “You should have been there. How could you walk away? You need to do X….” Yet all the other person seems to hear is not my desire for a common we but rather my trying to control them according to some magical, mysterious sense of how things “ought to be done.”

As I was saying, today I had another episode of this. It’s familiar to me. I have had it with colleagues. With family members. With friends. With my spouse. As I have seen this happen over and over again – me feeling somehow wronged by the others not listening to me enough and not reciprocating enough – I have come to see that what all these situations have in common is my own expectation and mode of being. Perhaps there is something in the way that the “I” and “we” concepts have been intertwined for me for so long that I keep having the same tension over and over again in different parts of my life.

As I was in the midst of this episode of anxiety and feeling out of control – almost like a panic attack – I thought of my post from yesterday. And I thought, “Yes, there is right now a part of me that is unconditionally happy. That part of me isn’t touched by this nausea I am feeling or sense of being trapped. Yes, there is that part of me. I can sense it. I can remember it. But I can’t really feel it.”

And I couldn’t feel it. The unconditional happiness felt like a medicine I had forgotten at home, and I couldn’t take it now that I am on the road, far from home.

I closed my eyes and tried to find a sliver of that unconditional happiness. But most everywhere I was feeling only the flames of the emotional unrest I was caught in. What I wanted was conditioned happiness – for the world to be a certain way, for other people to be different, for the we that I so long for to be palpable in my life so that I can rest assured within it, and can relax in the world that I belong in.

And then I had a thought, a flash of a memory, so dim that I could barely remember it, but full of reality. It was me playing cricket in the local park with my friends when I was 10 in India. I was set to bowl, and looked to my friends who were fielding and ready to catch the ball the batsman would hit. There was a we! A joint activity in which we were bound as one, in which I could hardly separate out myself from my friends, and themselves from me, bound together in our childhood in a way that is possible so easily in childhood.

As I thought of that Bharath, at ten years old, carefreely focused entirely on that game, I sensed how fragile that memory was. For in only a year or two I would never play cricket again. Never experience again that unthinking bond with other kids, and with a park and a land, and that street (oh that street where I grew up!), with our house at the other end of the street from the park.

A year or so later my father would have a heart attack. My parents would leave for America so that my father could get better medical care, and my brother and I stayed back for two months with other family members. Then after those two months, my brother and I boarded a plane to come to America. As my father was recovering from his surgery in New York, and he and my mom were trying to get jobs and get used to America, my brother and I went to live with other family members in Pittsburgh for four months. After that, we moved to New York, happily back with our parents again, settling into our new life.

But how much had changed in those six short months! The possibility of my father not surviving his heart attack or his surgery. A move from India to America. Not sure I ever really understood any of it at the time, at the age of 11. I moved in a daze. Just as I imagine my parents and my brother did in their own way. And every time I passed a park and say kids playing a funny game called baseball, which I didn’t understand and which I couldn’t play, I sensed the memory of the past that was now lost – the memory of the cricket game and the unreflective we that it provided.

Why did this memory come to me as I was searching today for my unconditional happiness within me?

I think because what lies between unconditional happiness and conditional happiness is trauma.

By “trauma” I don’t mean that my childhood experience of immigration was somehow particularly traumatic. In comparison to many others, it is pretty mild. It is a walk in the park compared to people dealing with memories from childhood of sexual abuse or starvation or loss of their parents or dealing with disabilities or not having loving parents and so on. Compared to all that, moving from India to America in a haze of concern for my father and our family is not all that bad.

But, for all that, it is part of my psyche. It is what I have to deal with. It is one of the things which convinced the young, child Bharath that happiness can be lost – that it is conditioned.

Children live in unconditional happiness without trying to. They do so mainly because they live mainly in the present. And also because they haven’t yet developed the memory of the loss, which ruptures the growing consciousness into the world as it was and the world as it is now, with the awareness that what was lost in the world as it was might never come back again.

As this awareness of loss starts to grow (for some probably as early as 2 or 3 – I was a late bloomer at 11!), they start to build their lives and sense of self from the happiness that they can construct. This is the beginning of conditioned happiness – also the beginning of what we call individuality or self. Personality is nothing other than the highly particular ways that children start to construct their conditional happiness. So much so that as the children become adults, these ways seem synonymous with who they are. I am joking of course that I didn’t start to do this until I was 11. What happened at 11 is just a particular intense series of experiences. But I started constructing my personality, like every one, well before then.

This construction of personality has a fatal limit. There is no guarantee that the conceptual and emotional infrastructure that was started to be built at 2 or 5 or 10 will do the job well when one is 18 or 35 or 60 or 90. In fact, as people grow what makes the conditionally happy itself starts to grow and change and evolve. And so it becomes ingrained in us that to be myself is to be conditionally happy – that is, to have the things that I want and to avoid the things I don’t want.

This sets the stage for adulthood. Millions of people basically in a sprint to be conditionally happy, vying with and against each other for the resources and recognition that enable conditional happiness. We can no more all be happy than all the animals in a jungle can be happy together. Even more: we can no more be happy than an addict can be continually happy. For that is what ultimately adulthood is – addiction to one’s conditional happiness. The excitement of getting what one wants, the sadness of losing it, the anxiety of withdrawal, the anger of being confronted, the high of hoping for a new day and a new possibility, and so on.

The anxiety I was feeling today was the screaming of the addict not getting his hit. Being confronted with the loss of the conditional happiness I want to take for granted – as what I am owed, what I deserve, what is supposed to be happen.

In the midst of that, of course the unconditional happiness feels far away. Because the me that craves the conditional happiness long ago gave up on unconditional happiness. He long ago accepted that he can never go back to that playground again and play cricket with this friends in the afternoon with their boyish sense of hope and that all things are possible.

In the face of my conditioned happiness not being met, it feels like adding insult to injury to suggest that I could be more than conditionally happy – that I could be unconditionally happy. Isn’t that like telling a starving person that though they lack food, they can have the fulfillment of having eaten in the finest restaurant! The mind wants to say: “No, that is a pipe dream! No, that kind of happiness is an illusion. Reserved at best for children. The most I can get is conditional happiness, and that is what matters!”

But perhaps there is a way to get to that unconditional happiness after all. If conditional happiness accepts the past traumas, and tries to build anew after the fall of those traumas, then unconditional happiness lies on the other side of those traumas. If we refuse to face up to the traumas, only conditional happiness seems possible. But if we face up to the traumas and relive them without fear, then we can tap back into the unconditional happiness.