“You think, ‘What do you want?’ You think, ‘Make a decision’…”

If you have confronted some serious inadequacies in your understanding of the world, and have one or a few candidates for possible alternative understandings, but feel stuck, constantly noodling with meta-questions and “But how can I know for sure?” and never actually getting to the point where you change your life… here are some things you might try.

1. Ask a new question. The one I really like is, “Which of my possible beliefs and actions are kind of banal, and what would be the sublime alternative?” Banality/sublimity can be a really fruitful dichotomy to use as a lens for viewing and judging worldviews when more common ones like consistency/inconsistency or definite/unsure don’t seem to be leading to any insights.

Contrasting banality and sublimity may also lead to an increased sense of one’s life as an incarnate being, the importance and meaning of the flesh, since so much of the obvious banality in contemporary culture comes from denying that the body is anything more than a tool by which we gain the things we want.

2. Do the corporal works of mercy. You are a person in need. Why not seek out others in need? Your goals here should be surprise, solidarity, and working with your hands. Surprise, because you’re stuck. Solidarity, because you’re approaching the people you serve as someone in need, not a Lady Bountiful who can scatter beneficence across the blighted lives of others. Working with your hands, because see above re: the flesh is not banal. This is also a way to avoid the skid from seeking/”the examined life” into self-centered navel-gazing.

3. Look for people who “have what you want” and ask them how they got it. This one should be self-explanatory. It also forces you to focus on building relationships with other people rather than collapsing into endless self-examination.

4. Since you’ve already got possible alternatives, explore both the parts of those alternatives which really call to you and the parts which you find intensely alien. Both of those may be the places where you’re most ready to learn. If you like the ritual, art, community, or moral code of Catholicism, to take an example I see now and then, but find the Christian conception of God baffling at best and disgusting at worst, maybe pray through the Stations of the Cross at a local church. (Kneel at each station, because the flesh is still not banal.) With all of these explorations keep your expectations low to nonexistent–a practice like prayer isn’t an experiment you can do to answer the question of whether you should seek baptism or go to confession. It’s a way of exploring the part of Catholicism which troubles you most.

5. Look at the areas where you feel most inadequate. How would your possible alternative worldviews understand these areas? What would they recommend you do? If you’re comfortable where you are, you have less incentive to make a leap of faith and therefore much more incentive to give in to inertia, conformity, fear of commitment, endless analysis. So maybe look especially hard at the places where you are least comfortable with your current way of life.

Look at what you don’t want to look at: guilt, grief. Philosophy, done right, is also a practice of healing.

You may be less stuck than you think you are. But if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels philosophically and spiritually, maybe see if some of these ideas speak to you.

(For Libresco, the song this post title comes from.)

About Eve Tushnet

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