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The wisdom of the vulnerable life

A Fragile Life. Accepting Our Vulnerability
Forfatter: Todd May
Forlag: University of Chicago Press (USA)
Todd May is rediscovering philosophy as a life art, as a practical-therapeutic matter.


Suffering and crisis affect us all. So how to live with our fragility? How to deal with our sense of powerlessness that is so widespread today – our anxiety, defeat, physical and psychological scars, the weight of the past and the future – without making us immune to our vulnerability or being subject to it as a burden?

How to live? American philosopher Todd May has previously published "existential" books on the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, but also on the latest books on death, nonviolent resistance and life opinion. A common feature is a rediscovery of the ancient idea of ​​philosophy as a life art, as a practical-therapeutic matter. Against the philosophy of therapy and psychology one can object that what is important to me must be general and thus moral-ethical in order to characterize me. May therefore neither writes self-help books nor conducts therapy in a psychological sense. Increased self-understanding should lead us to a common question: "How could you live?" – that is, the notion of possible life. The book is also an alternative to the coaching industry's resilience and robustness ideas that often end up as an adaptation to the world out there. Rather, according to May, it is the recognition of one's own vulnerability that is the basis for reaching out to others and for dealing with the uncertain. But we must not only take on the vulnerability, we must learn to temper and dossier it.

Buddhism and Stoicism can teach us that there are important things, and then there are less important things – and thus find a "substantial life". Not all the effects and turbulence of this world should be taken away – because by constantly being vigilant, afraid, we guard and adapt, something that simply leads to political and ethical paralysis. In doing so, we also shut down our imagination which could tell us about a possible second life.

Buddhism and Stoicism's clarified relationship to death also purifies the existence of the colors and forms that create a rich and marvelous life.

Vulnerability. Man is vulnerable to suffering in a way other than animals; we live in and through projects that we invest ourselves in – careers, friends, family, ideas and social / political work. Through this self-investment, we build a sense for our self. This “project life” and being subject to forces beyond our control set the stage for our particular vulnerability to suffering, which is associated with both our past and future. It is the narrative course of our lives that makes it meaningful – what May calls an "upward trajectory" – not necessarily success, but that it is a coherent narrative. In the interruption of this coherent narrative, suffering emerges. If a person resigns from his previous job to become a writer, but is unable to support himself in writing and therefore has to give up everything, it is the weight of the past that weighs on and causes pain. Our choices carry the burden of the past; you can say that they have created their own necessity. This gives life weight – the opposite the unbearable ease of existence (Kundera). But despite the shadow of the past that our choices precluded other choices, we have to accept that there are things in life we ​​have no control over. Death eliminates our project life, the future expectations we are spun into – which is why we fear it. Hence the paradox of mortality: "We need death for things to make sense, but it is precisely this meaningfulness in our lives that makes death so scary."

Release or use the disorder. According to Buddhism, we identify people's happiness, well-being and success with pleasant feelings, and pain and unhappiness with unpleasant ones. But these, like everything else in the universe, are nothing but fleeting vibrations that change every moment. The root of the suffering is thus not the pain and meaninglessness per se, but our endless pursuit of something that is fleeting and therefore leaves us in a constant state of discontent. Through meditation we can be detached from our links to things and reinforce the compassion for all living, not by making ourselves immune to the world, but by approaching it without being guided by selfishness and the desire for possession and mastery. Through the serenity, we become better at taking on the suffering of others and teaching them to minimize their own suffering (bodhisattva).

Buddhism describes desire as a need that can be met, while psychoanalysis also considers desire as the driving force that animates our imagination and thought life. Here is happiness in desire itself – that which gives rise to new thoughts, new forms, and thus new life. May also stresses that it is actually concern and turmoil that engages us politically in the fight for justice, for the other. Buddhism's – and stoicism's – clarified relationship with death also cleanses the existence of the colors and modulations that just create a rich and marvelous life. With age, though, the clarity of invulnerability can help, through forgiveness and acceptance, to find peace. Conversely, it is by confronting defeat and disappointment that we learn to care for others. But in a world of increased competition, acceleration and the pursuit of success, the awareness of one's own vulnerability is tight. We push it away from us to be in control, to be successful, to reach the goal as soon as possible; we become cynical. We have become invincible without being Buddhists! – but this is a false invulnerability. In order to live a rich life, one has to learn to live with his fragility.

We need death for things to make sense, but it is precisely this meaningfulness in our lives that makes death so scary.

Spiritual Exercises. May prefers Buddhism and Stoicism over psychoanalysis because they combine compassion with invulnerability in the sense of a clear vision of all potential suffering, and a belief in philosophy as an exercise that can actually change our relationship with the pain. The French philosopher Pierre Hadot called it "the practice of thought": reading, writing, conversation – what makes us better able to distinguish materially from essentials. Learning to not take oneself too seriously, to become less dependent on things and on status, humility and self-limitation. In a world where we are more than ever subject to the gaze and outward attraction of others, Buddhism teaches us to care for things without being chained to them, to have compassion without suffering, to be controlled and emotionally encapsulated.

But can one be engaged and involved without also being emotionally torn? No, May replies, seeing the restriction of Buddhist emotional distance between one's self and the world. But primarily it is the sheer invulnerability he sees as the problem of Buddhism and Stoicism. Its teachings of mind training can still help us to rise above the roller coaster of passions and reach the acceptance of a life of vulnerability. Like the samurai, to use the opponent's unexpected powers in favor of their own strength.

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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