Casey looks deeply into Lynne’s eyes, as instructed by their relationship therapist, Jacob.
“Now, Casey,“ Jacob’s voice was hypnotically smooth. “Maintain eye contact. Take a deep breath and answer honestly. Do you still love this woman?”
Casey is fully committed to the process. He is maintaining his posture. He is monitoring his breath. He maintains eye contact with Lynne. “Of course.” His brow furrows a bit. Was that even in question? How confused have things gotten if questions like this are really necessary? “Yes, yes, of course I still love her.”
A few minutes later the therapeutic hour came to a close and what had been a very difficult session ended with a moment of warmth.
For months, Casey and Lynne left each session feeling like progress must be being made. Each week, they entered feeling tense. The problems that were ravaging their relationship never seemed to go away. But, each week, they rallied their collective wills and showed up for what they knew would be an emotionally draining experience. And, each week they emerged knowing a little more about each other and themselves.
Both Casey and Lynne believed in the process; the feelings and increased understanding were too palpable to deny. The weekly ritual had become an essential pillar of their lives. Their only real intimacy followed their sessions. And, they both slept most soundly those nights.
But, a day or two after their sessions, the communication problems, boundary issues, and resentments would resurface. In some cases, they were even worse now that each had fancy terms and backstories to use as surgical instruments to make their case in the spiteful arguments that — though increasingly brief — deepened their real divide with each succession.
Lynne was the first to vocalize the concern that they might have developed an addiction to the painful and unhealthy cycle, that they might have somehow enlisted their therapist into a vicious mire of codependency. Raising her concern between sessions, in a moment of peace, Casey was receptive to the possibility, and deeply disturbed. Talking it through, the more insidious possibility was touched upon, that their therapist had created the dynamic deliberately.
At their next session, neither Casey or Lynne wanted to bring up their new concern. It felt ungrateful, paranoid, and accusatory. But, they were both quieter and more uneasy throughout the session. Then, at the thirty minute mark, when Jacob was about to set into one of his customary reuniting exercises, Casey was struck by Jacob’s use of the word ‘love’.
“Love.” Casey abruptly interrupted. “Jacob, what do you mean when you say ‘love’? We come back to it a lot at the end of these sessions, but what if we don’t all mean the same thing?”
“Casey, I hear that you’re frustrated. You’ve been a bit withdrawn through the whole session. It seems that your therapeutic process has plateaued — which can happen for a while — and that is genuinely frustrating.”
“No.” Now Casey really was frustrated. People only like to have their questions deflected when they’re actually looking to abdicate control ( and usually blame along with it ). Casey was ready for control. And, he was ready to take on blame, if it would actually get somewhere. “I’m frustrated because, as enlightening as it is to learn about our different childhoods, we aren’t getting anywhere! And, damnit! I’m pretty sure we could be if we were asking real questions.”
“Casey,” Jacob’s voice was as calm as if no outrage were occurring. It was slow, potentially condescending, yet also professional, and effectively calming. “I can hear that you’re frustrated. And, I want you to know that it is perfectly natural to feel frustration about not seeing progress a few months into a therapeutic process. Are there any feelings other than frustration that you’d like to bring awareness to?”
Casey knows what Jacob is doing, but it makes sense. Jacob is being a rock, a fixed point, unflustered by Casey’s emotional outburst. Jacob’s calm voice and manner gives Casey something to focus on, something to guide him back to self-regulation.
“No. I’d say that frustration is a good summary of what I feel.” Casey is calmer, but he keeps his eyes fixed on Jacob, watching for the turn. It isn’t that Jacob maintains stability that is bothering Casey. It is something else.
“Casey, your frustration, and the fact that you keep coming in despite this process being frustrating and slow, tells me how committed you are to this process. And, if you’re committed to this process, that tells me that you are deeply committed to this woman.” Jacob turns to Lynne, “Lynne, I know that the emotions are hard, but can you see this man’s commitment?”
“I can.” Lynne speaks genuinely, but she is also focusing on Jacob now even more than she is considering Casey. Is he checking in with her to be sure that she is enrolled in the moment or for backup? Or, is he just checking to see if he’s being ambushed, if he’s been caught in his deception? She remains unsure, but vigilant.
“Casey,” Jacob turns back with a tone that suggests conclusion. “Sometimes we want to shift our focus to words. It feels stronger to wax philosophical about what love really means and ideas about how things really are. But, your relationship doesn’t live in a dictionary. When I’m asking you if you love Lynne, I’m asking you about your truth.” Jacob shifts to be more inclusive and opens his arms. “Both of you have your own truths, and that’s all there really is. But, if you allow yourselves to be vulnerable, then you can both see into each other’s truths a bit. It’s through that connection that we slowly heal the relationship.”
On the way home, Casey stopped at a grocery store and told Lynne that he’d be right back. He appeared a few minutes latter outside of the passenger door holding a single rose. When she noticed him, a bright smile stretched across Lynne’s face. She stepped out of the car and faced him with a tear in her eye. But, her expression changed to confusion when she realized that he was not holding the rose delicately between his fingertips, but with his whole hand. Blood dripped slowly down the stem below his grip.
“Love is real.” Casey stated tenderly. “The thorns are real too.”
Lynne embraced Casey, smashing the bloody rose between them with abandon.
“Things aren’t all subjective. And, even if we can never have a perfect answer, I want us to work on our relationship by working toward what’s real. Let’s find something that isn’t just coping mechanisms and cheap band-aid solutions.”
“I want that too.”
Modern hairless apes make a lot of noise about the greatness of this age of information. We proliferate technologies, methodologies, frameworks, and processes at breakneck speed. And, our rates of change and collections of information might persuade a passive observer that we are thinking more deeply and critically than ever before.
We are not.
In the above example, a desperate patient is told that he intellectualized the subject at hand as some kind of a shield or a withdrawal from the necessarily emotionality of the process. And, there’s some legitimacy in critiques like this. It is not infrequent that people know exactly what they need to do, and choose to fall into wheel spinning instead of committing to the action which will create traction and move them toward their stated goal. That happens. I get it. Actually, here’s a post I made a while back on how the idea of overthinking can be productively broken down and overcome.
Want an effective, though difficult, test to know if you’re intellectualizing as a form of retreat? Folks who are paving over opportunities for emotional development and integration do so with rationalizations and hypotheticals — not honest questions about the task at hand.
Everyone’s experience is unique and everyone’s feelings are relative to their unique past experience. This much is defensible and importantly true. But, just like taking the wholesome coca leaf and processing it until it’s profitable, pop culture has taken this necessary and important truth and perverted it into a toxic drug.
Meaninglessness, the drug derived from the truth of relative experience is sold as a panacea for all of the discomforts that adjoin diligence, responsibility, intellectual rigor, and the wellspring of all of these — philosophy.
When we’re high on meaninglessness, there’s no distinction between everyone having their own unique experience and everyone having their own unique truth. Tomato, tomato.
People stop looking for answers even to the questions most important to them. They believe that only lesser people believe that such answers exist or are worth seeking. The topology of meaning, value, and truth all flatten down to deliberation on facts. Facts are to meaninglessness junkies as Doritos are to stoners, because facts — in and of themselves — are inherently fleeting and hold no meaning.
Meaninglessness really is like a drug. It hurts so good. It provides safety, comfort, and pleasure. But, it never even hints that it might make anyone happy. Instead, it settles into the minds of those it infects and convinces them to mock honest, happy people instead. What fools? Who are these idiots who believe that some answers are better than others and that reality exists outside of our imagination of it?
It begins with acknowledging two things:
Meaninglessness, like most drugs, did not start out as a recreational drug. It is not anything that anyone sets out to abuse to their own demise. It is a pharmaceutical. It’s intended use is as a palliative aid for the suffering which adjoins the unphilosophical life. Some folks lean on this palliative only sparingly, to treat blisters they come by as they repeatedly run up against truths too frightening for them to look at directly. By moderate use, they do not come to despise philosophy.
But those who lay into the tonic of meaninglessness steadily distance themselves from philosophy and must necessarily come to hate it, and to look down on anyone who lives a philosophical life.
A meaninglessness addict must, in time, begin to cultivate a hateful story about reason and truth. They will straw-man the practice of reason, associating it with base dogmas which claim to be reasonable. And, they will abuse the name of Truth by using the word in the place of ‘experience’. In these ways, they will create a lattice of narratives which help them to form excuses to remain a servant of the addiction.
It may be necessary, at this point, to demonstrate the error of these standard escapes from accountability — which are common to all addicts of meaninglessness.
When I say ‘philosophy’ I mean exactly what the term is saying. Because ‘philosophy’ is actually a portmanteau of the phrase ‘love of knowledge’.
Returning full circle to the allegory above, I’ll offer a few thoughts on the meaning of love ( acknowledging that ‘philo’ means ‘the love of siblings or comrades’ and the allegory above is clearly more about storge, eros, or both ).
Whatever meaning one assigns to the word ‘love’, which is admittedly difficult, we do have some models and framings that are widely agreed on. One of the most frequently iterated attributes of love is that it is not possessive. In simple romantic books and films, the conflict is usually between one suitor who wishes to have the love interest and a suitor who deeply understands and values the love interest for who they are. In more sophisticated stories, the characters are less archetypal. The conflict is within the lovers themselves between the same two compulsions.
Most narratives about love focus on this conflict in romantic partners. Probably second to this is the corrupted love of a parent. Parents display this vice when they use their children for their own pleasure — rather than acting as servants of their children’s development. They vicariously live through their child’s immaturity, and end up acting to prolong that immaturity to sustain their own pleasure. When a parent fixates on the pleasure of witnessing the wonder and curiosity of innocence — which is falsely thought to be freedom — they arrest the process of development to maturity. Another is the pleasure of claiming the identity of a parent — which externalizes self-worth, trapping the parent in the search for external validation. Most subtle and insidious is the pleasure of the illusion of immortality — parents using their children as a way to escape from death.
All of these same corruptions exist in the relationships of employers toward their employees, in teachers toward their students, and in all authorities. People, mostly those who have never been responsible for others, experience this corrupted love and falsely conclude that the trouble is with the structure of hierarchy itself rather than the absence of loving service — whether hierarchical or otherwise. A pair of lovers, or any group of peers, can abuse each other in perfect equality and democracy just as abhorrently as any tyrant.
So, if we know that love is not possessive, and philosophy is the love of knowledge, what does this mean concerning philosophy and the philosophical life?
Perhaps that philosophy isn’t about owning answers. Perhaps philosophy is the persistent deepening of our relationship with divine, unknowable Truth.
Over the long march of history, thinkers such as Le Guin, Einstein, Socrates, and Lao Tzu have made it very plain that of the greatest benefits which are to be gained from the philosophical life none compare to the difficult prize which is an embodied uncertainty in knowledge. A philosopher knows only that they know nothing. This does not diminish the value of philosophy; it is the value of philosophy. This is a form of union with the unknowable vastness of existence.
Coming to a slow and deep understanding of what this uncertainty might imply, and the many-splendored gifts that uncertainty offers us, is not something that one may grasp through mere agreement with the idea. This notion forever diminishes the roles of things like agreement and belief to mere circumstantial phenomena. What we happen to believe, we happen to believe. And, sometimes we agree with on idea or another. It is inevitable, but never the point. Agreement and belief cease to mean very much at all. In their place, diligent process, increasing clarity, spacious inquiry, and abundant connection arise and are discovered to be more fulfilling that the dogmatic dead ends of belief and fixed assumptions. In loving uncertainty the path and not the destination reveals itself as the ever shifting and growing center point of our experience.
Sometimes a person just wants to be right. They use fallacious rhetorical devices to “win” a disagreement. This is un-philosophic and wrong. A meaninglessness addict cannot see a difference between this and a humble servant of Truth doggedly chasing down the threads of a worthy question. Even though the latter pushes no conclusions, no dogma, no certainty, and the mere fact that they think critically implies that they are seeking Truth. Meaninglessness cannot abide even the diligent, process-centered, honest pursuit of understanding. All protracted thinking whether it is rigid or rigorous are treated the same. Wrong and right are both seen as the enemy of meaninglessness, because they imply that something is real.
These two agendas, rigid dogma and rigorous inquiry, are as true a pair of opposites as ever there have been — in both process and outcome. By “winning” and convincing folks of our ideas, we insulate any errors in thinking which led to our conclusion. We hide the real and worthy questions at work. Contrasting this, when we expose every facet of a question to light we create clarity — whether it leads to a conclusive answer or not. The clarity concerns the question, its nature, and the possibilities implied by different solutions to problems posed within it. Through this process we may also discover new questions, new gems of understanding. Inevitably, this exposes many ideas as intractable. And, even these intractable ideas, as they are demonstrated to be false, clarify the field of inquiry.
We see this in Seneca’s brilliant exposition of the flaws in the reasoning of Aristotle. Through philosophical processes, both thinkers are collaborators, even when separated by both centuries and fundamental disagreement. Seneca himself celebrates the beauty of this collaboration — even as he dismantles the thinking of his collaborator. Seneca, a stoic, then turns his scalpel on the widely held presumption that to be a stoic must be to bemoan Epicurus — whose thinking is antithetical to stoicism. He points to all the brilliance, diligence, and beauty of Epicurean thinking. That Seneca believes Epicurus to be generally wrong is irrelevant to the fact that Seneca reveres Epicurus for doing his part to help us all think better, or at least less badly.
If there are ideas that, despite being safe, comfortable, and pleasant, cannot be true, exposing them gives dimension to meaning. Suddenly, one’s experience — even though it produces emotions through fully valid and empathizable processes — is no longer any kind of personal truth.
The idea that everyone has their own truth falls quickly away for one initiated into the philosophical life.
Personal experience is a shadow on a cave wall. Even if that shadow is the whole of our home, and we are two-dimensional beings, the shadow is not the object which casts it. When meaning has dimension, meaninglessness is threatened. But meaning does not threaten the validity of experience. Understanding this is the headwaters of honesty. And, honesty in thought may be a near synonym to philosophy.
Through courageous and honest inquiry we do not discover that we are certainly right about anything — even though we frequently discover that we are certainly wrong about plenty. This is the creation of spaciousness. One whose perception shifts to an understanding that — even though falsehood can be clearly seen — concrete and purely correct answers are rare and uncertain. This person becomes increasingly patient and compassionate. This person does not accept dogma. This person neither overthinks nor accepts assumptions. This person is a philosopher. And, only a philosopher can correct the fundamental error — the assumption of meaninglessness. Otherwise put, anyone who casts light on the shadow of the fundamental error is — in so doing — embracing the philosophical life.
To embrace philosophy does not mean to write diatribes, like this. Socrates wrote no essays. To be a philosopher means to love knowledge. Knowledge necessarily is bound up inextricably with reality itself, being only the understanding of reality. We are lovers of what is real.
Reality is not an easy thing to love. But, to love at all is to love reality.
So, if we are to love at all, if we are to solve any problems, if we are to correct the fundamental flaw, we must love what is. And, we cannot begin to love what is by denying that there is an is to begin with.
In two weeks, I’m going to drop my report from our tests of the Community Rule web app.
As I review our test sessions, this is my primary question:
Does this tool help people to discover and communicate meaning?
Or, does it merely help people to conceal their escapist scrambling into the darkened corners where meaninglessness comforts and soothes?
P.S. Ona and I are fine. The above example is fictional. And, though we would absolutely see a counselor if it were appropriate, I wouldn’t write about it on Patreon — at least not in lament. No, if things were like that, I’d make a cocktail and call you to rant-cry about, though. You know who you are.
Also, that example is not meant to disparage the profession of talk therapy. Very similar parables could be told using any service profession. Therapy allows for a conveniently obvious emotional dynamic. The dynamic in the relationship above is actually something that Eric Berne — a talk therapist and researcher — has written volumes on, specifically Games People Play and Beyond Games and Scripts. In these texts, he outlines how even therapists end up in mutually destructive codependent relationships with their clients. The dynamics can be worse for consultants, designers, and other service professions who are in greater lack of tools to address the issue.
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