What is being human?
A little disclaimer: I am not claiming to know the answers, I am only passing on what I have learned from books on philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology and my own epiphanies and opinions on the subject of human behaviour, namely my own and those of people in my environment. To me these subjects hold the key to finding our own meaning. The subjects are extensive and well worth getting into for yourself, I am adamant that you read as much as you possibly can on these yourself, knowledge is power after all. The aim of these blogs is to scrutinise the very way in which we think, to look at ourselves and fellow man through a microscope and hopefully come out with some solutions to these burning questions.
What is being human?
Being human within the context of philosophy is to understand the ‘why’ we should think a certain way, or ‘why’ we should challenge our own belief systems.
Being human within the context of psychology is to understand the ‘how’ we think a certain way, namely the biochemistry of the body and our environment that lead to certain ways of thinking.
Being human within the context of anthropology takes the two previous contexts and puts a historical viewpoint to them, how we came to think a certain way based on our ancestors behaviour.
Being human within the context of sociology is to take all of the above and apply it to the society which we belong and the role of the individual within that society.
I want to break each of these down into individual blogs as to not bombard you with information, which can get a little tedious, especially if you were hoping for a 5 minute read. I am sure as I begin writing these that each one will be broken down into even more subsections.
I started my journey into philosophy whilst on a little trip away with my dad in Hastings, UK, a few years ago now. I was already on a journey of self-discovery, trying to find the answers to the problems that kept arising and kept slipping me by. Whilst walking around town we were drawn into a little antique book shop with books stacked from floor to ceiling and in piles of their own, one atop the other on the floor and on antique tables. The shop smelt musky and at the counter was sat a nice little white haired lady with her head buried in a book, taking a momentary break to greet my dad with a smile and myself with a look of intrigue; I do not look like the sort of person to walk into a book shop of this kind. Whilst my dad browsed for books on birds of prey I casually browsed one shelf, a single book seemed to capture my interest, ‘The Mind in the Making’ written by James Harvey Robinson, originally published in 1926. I normally read a page or two to see if I am interested in what it has to say and the first page gripped me when I read the following line: “as an old stoic proverb has it, men are tormented by the opinions they have of things, rather than the things themselves.” I was immediately hooked.
The reason I have included this as part of my first blog on the subject is because up until this point I thought the torment I experienced at my own hand was due to some inherent wiring in my mind, something that was stuck forever, rather than simply being a belief I held and was not willing to change, nor holding the knowledge that it could indeed change. For the first time ever I was presented with the possibility that anything that caused me torment was because of the opinion I held on it and opinions can change. No longer was I to be stuck in my way of thinking. I continued to read the book until my dad wanted to leave and I had to buy the book, being 90 years old I thought the book would cost a fortune. I was grossly mistaken however, as the shopkeeper smiled whilst taking the book of me she said “we don’t get any young people in here, especially not buying books like this, I’ll take some money off for you” reducing the £4 book down to £3, I was more than happy to take it for £4 as the remark had made me feel somewhat special in that moment. I couldn’t stop reading, here was a book written long ago and yet it kept springing up with ideology I had already held. Ideology that pinpointed there being something wrong with society and the beliefs that perpetuated suffering for so many people.
If we take a moment to step back and view the bigger picture it is clear to see that there are things drastically wrong with society, people kill themselves all too often for having too little, or having too much and having it reduced to nothing. To me this presents an underlying problem, the problem of comparison or worrying what people will think of us simply because they think it. No longer are we tormented by the idea we have of things, but we are tormented by the opinion others have about us as things. We are under absolutely no obligation to stand for any torment based on others opinions, as such it is our own opinion that the opinions of others matters that causes our torment. My solution to this is to identify within yourself why you are tormented by this as it is often a truth we believe about ourselves that allows these opinions to harm us. For instance, if you are a little bit chunky like myself, you may be tormented by someone calling you fat. Accepting the reality that you are chunky is not necessarily a negative thing, it simply is a ‘thing’, neither positive nor negative. So when someone voices their opinion of you it can’t harm you, it becomes a statement of truth rather than an insult. This idea of accepting the truth for what it is rather than what others think of certain truths is paramount in beginning to take responsibility for your own emotions. In the context of being a larger or skinnier person it is important to know there are vast differences in the opinions people hold, as such, none of them are the neutral truth of the reality. Some people fall head over heels with incredibly obese people, some with skinny people, it’s just the way attraction works. Problems arise when we believe expectations of us based on cultural inculcation, that is the onslaught of images and messages in the media and our surroundings. This falls within the sociology side of things so I won’t go too deeply into that right now, but this plays a huge role in the opinions we have of ‘things’.
I hope my example of body sizes serves as a guide on how we can interpret the opinions of others as having any meaning in reality, rather than being based on that individuals experience of reality and the opinions that have formed within their minds based on that reality. Observing reality for what it is comes from stoicism, a philosophy born in ancient Greece. To be stoic is to accept that which is out of our control, such as the opinion of others, and realise that we can only truly control what happens within. We don’t even have to say what we are thinking out loud to defend ourselves, because that then becomes externalisation of our emotions, we can explore and define the things that bring us pleasure and exclude the things that cause us pain, an idea shared by the Epicureans and stoics alike.
Referring to the problem of comparison, especially with things like social media, comes the idea of limiting our expectations of reality. If we expect that we should look like those we see, have the same skillsets or same objects of desire and we do not have them then we are setting ourselves up to experience pain. We are not looking at the immediate vicinity and being happy or thankful for what we have, we are looking at those who have what we desire (based on that cultural inculcation) and judging ourselves as inadequate. Very little do we look at what we have achieved throughout our lives, what skills we have gained ourselves in order to draw happiness/pleasure from. This brings me to Diogenes, a very little known about dude from Athens. He lived in a barrel that he would cart around the city, would eat scraps from the floor and attend lectures without ever paying for them. He was a man of very little desire and as such seemed like one of the happiest people of the time. I won’t go into how he would walk around masturbating whenever he felt like it as that would land you on some kind of register, but I will use it as a means to justify my point about not caring what other people think of you and not having high expectations of reality.
In a nutshell, if you want to achieve a higher sense of pleasure and less pain, stop comparing yourself to others, lower your expectations of life and yourself, appreciate what you actually have and know that there is no ‘right way’ to think, which means others opinions of you are not worth listening to. You are a unique little ball of meat with a soul and you have the power to alter your perception, so begin now. Write down your most insane expectations of reality and put them in the comments below, I will be interested to see what impossibly high standards you are holding yourself to. I did this practise myself and managed to eradicate so many ridiculous beliefs that I held about my own reality that I was able to sit back and laugh and most of them afterwards. It was eradicating all the expectations that allowed me to concentrate on what I can do, and the Grum Reapur was one of those things.
Until next time