A Few Things That I Know To Be True

A Few Things That I Know To Be True March 6, 2018

Today is my birthday, so I ask for your indulgence. Our culture tends to assume that with increased years comes increased wisdom, but as a Chinese philosopher once pointed out, some people just get older with the passage of time, and the wisdom thing never happens. With that in mind, here are a few things that, on my sixty-second birthday, I think I know to be true.

1. Some things never change: A Facebook friend reported the results of her online Myers-Briggs personality test the other day, which prompted me to spend several minutes with forty-five questions to see if I have changed over time. I haven’t.

You are an INFJ! Sensitive, empathic, and insightful, you care deeply about people, wanting to accommodate them on the one hand, and having strong visions that you desperately want to turn into reality on the other . . . Others are likely to describe you as tolerant, courteous, and appreciative, but also a bit remote and dreamy . . .

Blah, blah, blah. In truth, “a bit remote and dreamy” is not how others are likely to describe me negatively—“stuck up, superior, stand-offish, and aloof” sounds more like it (all of which are generated largely by my 91% I (introversion). Such is the life of an INFJ. I have taken the Myers-Briggs test at least a half dozen times in the past four decades, always with the same results. So be it; as Jeanne (an ENFP) says, “it is what it is.” Deal with it. On my tombstone will be carved “He was a hardcore INFJ. We tried to deal with it.”

2. Some things never stop changing: How to understand the dynamic tension between stability and change has been a preoccupation of philosophers since the idea of asking questions was invented. My latest metaphor for this tension is that a person is something like a center of gravity into which various things—people, ideas, experiences, and so on—are drawn into orbit, sometimes closely and semi-permanently, sometimes only for a brief time before they are ejected back into space. Who I am, who you are, at any given time is a function of what is most closely in orbit around that center. For the sake of convenience, we each call that center of gravity “I” or “me,” constructing a forward pointing narrative as we go.

3. I know more than I can put into words: For someone who teaches philosophy for a living, this one has taken a while to inhabit and embrace. Words, after all, are the tools of the philosopher’s trade, tools we use to construct logical arguments, to refute other arguments that we don’t like, and to reflect our fundamentally rational commitments. The older I get, however, the more I resonate with Iris Murdoch’s observation that

To be a human being is to know more than one can prove, to conceive of a reality which goes “beyond the facts” in familiar and natural ways.

What I know but cannot prove often is what is most important to me, important not because I can make a rational case for it but because it lies deeper than reason at the core of who I am. This tends to be very frustrating to commenters on my blog, academic colleagues, and students who expect me to embody the stereotype of the rational, intellect-worshiping philosopher. In response I frequently quote a favorite passage from Shakespeare, Hamlet’s response to his friend Horatio’s refusal to believe that Hamlet has seen the ghost of his dead father.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

4. I know less than I think I do: I’ve been aware of this for a long time, but I thought I’d put it out there because it, as the previous truth, runs counter to stereotype. We all know more than we can put into words and know less than we think we do—but academics, people with degrees, and people who are confident about themselves are not supposed to admit it. Fuck that, I say. Becoming comfortable in one’s own skin, which is hopefully something that becomes more and more possible as one gets older, involves admitting one’s finitude, mortality, imperfections, lack of certainty about just about everything—and loving it.

5. Attitude matters: A week ago, as the first of what I hope to be many birthday gifts, Jeanne took me to see “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at our downtown performing arts center. It was wonderful; the hundreds of people in attendance mostly looked like Jeanne and me—aging hippie refugees from the sixties. Carole King’s “Tapestry” was one of the first albums I ever purchased; her music was a cherished part of the soundtrack of my youth.

The show ends with Carole King sitting at a grand piano during a 1971 Carnegie Hall concert, her first performance in front of a live audience. She sings “Beautiful,” which is one of my King favorites.

You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile in your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better, you’re gonna find, yes you will
That you’re beautiful, as you feel

As the Stoics tell us, although we cannot control what the world sends us, we can control how we will process and respond to it. How I approach the world is a choice, and I choose—when I have my wits about me sufficiently to remember—life and love. I choose not to be afraid. I embrace Iris Murdoch’s definition of freedom:

To be free is something like this: to exist sanely without fear and to perceive what is real.

As I’ve learned over the past several years to embrace an evolving faith rather than to struggle against it, I’ve found it more possible to find the divine in the ordinary, in the pleasures of daily life in the classroom, with Jeanne, with my elderly dachshund, screaming at the top of my lungs with 12,000-plus fans at a basketball game. And I realize that I’m finding the divine more and more often because I’ve become more and more comfortable as an incarnated being.  The central claim of my faith is that the primary way the divine gets into the world is—despite our mistakes, flaws, imperfections, and downright evil—in human form. The older I get, the more I accept that when it comes to getting the divine into the world, I’m it. And so are you. It goes with the territory.

So here’s what I want from you for my birthday. I want you to embrace your humanity. Fully, without reservation. Because in doing that, you are embracing something much bigger than yourself.

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