Ronald Haines, Author

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Tag: freedom

Choices and the Pursuit of Happiness

The recognition that human beings are free gives us the individual freedom to make whatever choices we want for our lives. But anyone who embraces their individual freedom must also accept the personal responsibility to make it happen.  Simply wishing for something to happen is not going to do anything; no external force is going to give it to you.  Your life is completely up to you, and you are solely responsible for it.

choices-bridgeWhile you are free to make your own choices, it is obvious that the choices you make will be influenced by the society and culture you are in, and that is fine. The key is to live the life that you want, and many of the things that influenced you prior to this point are important to you so of course you’re going to keep them. The important first step is to describe what the ideal life means to you before you can determine how you are going to get there. This isn’t going to be physical things such as possessions, but about how you want to feel.  Knowing that, you are able to examine the various ways you can achieve those feelings.  This is your goal.  It is then your responsibility to set a plan in motion to get there, to do what it takes, to achieve it.

You may be wondering if taking such action, veering from the path of conformity, is risky. Not at all, the biggest risk is to plod along and end your life with the words, “I wish I had,” on your lips.  Take heart that it isn’t the achievement of the goal that makes you free.  It is the journey, knowing you are in control of your life that makes it so:

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal. ~ Frederick Nietzsche

The American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, hit it on the nose when he penned:  “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” in the declaration of independence. Jefferson understood that happiness in life it was all about pursuing one’s goals, not necessarily achieving them.  If you do achieve a particular goal, you will simply have to create another so as to always feel the happiness of freedom.  Your life is all about the choices that you make for it.

An Ideal Religion Checklist

For an individual who might be considering a different religion, an ideal religion checklist could be very useful.

What is religion

Before defining the components of the ideal religion, we should first define what religion is.  If you asked people that question in Europe or the Americas you might get a definition of Christianity, whereas in China the answer might be Buddhism or in the Middle East it would be Islam.

Some people might say religion requires a belief in god or gods. But there are many atheistic religions in the world, and in the United States of America the government recognizes atheism itself as a religion.

Another response may be that religion at least involves a belief system, but humanism and other religions who extol questioning actually shun the concept of belief.

We therefore need a definition that all religions would all fit into, a working definition of what religion actually is. Perhaps a more fundamental approach is not to analyze what religion is, but to examine why it exists and how it is structured.

Religion provides answers

Throughout history religions have arisen in an attempt to provide the answers to questions about life in general. They developed from within various cultures and reflect the body of knowledge available to those people at that time.  Religion therefore initially exists to provide the individual with answers in the form of a structured view of the world.

Religion provides community

Humans are social creatures, and religion is also is a social construct offering the individual a sense of belonging or community with other people with like minds by providing them with a common world view. A second definition of religion, then, is that it gives the individual a sense of community.

Religions create institutions

As religions develop over time they become hierarchical institutions and soon become focused on the institution itself rather than the individuals they were originally intended to serve. They also elevate certain members of their societies into privileged ‘priest classes’ who then develop self-serving resistance to change and promote themselves in an authoritative position of the religion over the followers.

When they offer only static solutions religions fail to allow for the dynamic of change as new information is discovered. Rather than seeking fresh answers to new questions, institutionalized religions instead fall back on established dogma and view alternative ideas or emerging religions as threats which they feel compelled to oppose, often by force or exclusion from the society itself.  The more they become institutionalized, the more religions lose their ability to provide satisfying answers.

Religions create group mentality

As religious institutions become more intolerant they cause their followers to fall into an ‘us versus them’ mentality and even try to deprive them of the freedom to associate with those who have conflicting views without condemnation.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, argues that embracing our own personal freedom requires us to fight for the freedoms of all. This sentiment can appropriately be used when discussing freedom of religion and strongly suggests that, to be successful, a religion should also recognize other religions and respect the choices made by individuals to subscribe to whichever one works the best for them.

An Ideal Religion

Since humans are social creatures with the need to ask questions about everything, an ideal religion should be able to satisfy those needs without being threatened by the dynamic of change as new information is discovered.   An ideal religion would be flexible enough to embrace and incorporate these changes, or help guide the individual to their own answers by providing them with the means to seek knowledge and truth on their own.

Ideal Religion Checklist

Using the information from above, we are then able to define an ideal religion as one which has the following five characteristics:

  1. Satisfies an individual’s need for knowledge about their relationship with the world
  2. Is focused on the individual’s needs rather than on preserving the group
  3. Provides a shared worldview with others
  4. Is flexible and allows for updates as new information becomes available
  5. Is tolerant of other points of view and treats all humans with respect

We now have a simple checklist for the individual seeking a different religion to evaluate it.

Humanism Connects the Individual to the World

Humanism embraces the ability of the individual to bring advances to society using reason in the pursuit of knowledge, and as such it may well be referred to as a religion based on reason.

Erich Fromm wrote that the person who accepts their freedom, whom he called the individualized person, may often feel left without the primary ties of belonging. In order to remain authentic, then, it is important to have a solution which Fromm called unity, a sense of oneness between the individual and the “natural and human world outside.”

Humanism provides the individualized person with this unity; the ability to be an active participant in the world without losing their freedom.

Humanism

There are many different types of humanism which range from the traditional religious, including Christian, to the agnostic and atheist, and people often make a distinction between what is called religious humanism and secular humanism. What they all have in common are three core principles, nature, rationality and belonging, which make up what humanism is actually all about.

Nature

First, humanism embraces the natural world and recognizes that humans are part and product of nature itself, tracing a heritage that goes back to when life first appeared on our planet over two billion years ago. Erich Fromm introduced the term biophilia, or love of life, to describe this human orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital.

Rationality

Second, a humanist uses reason and questions everything, both religious and secular, in their search for truth, and they challenge accepted doctrines rather than simply accepting established creed. Consider how much of human progress has been in defiance of religion or of the accepted natural order.

This emphasis on rationality in no way puts humanists in conflict with existentialists, however. On the contrary, intuition, hunches, speculation, and flashes of inspiration, products of the creative mind so prized by existentialists, while not considered to be valid means to acquire knowledge, are embraced by humanists because they are the sources of ideas that will often lead to new ways of looking at the world.  These ideas, when assessed rationally using the scientific method, often lead to alternative approaches for solving problems.

Belonging

Third, humanism provides the individual with a sense of belonging to the world by emphasizing that we are the beneficiaries of the collective knowledge of all of the humans that came before us. Additionally, if we wish to, we have the ability to make our own contribution to this ever lengthening legacy of humankind.  Relishing the adventure of being part of new discoveries, seeking new knowledge, exploring new options, and then sharing what we have learned with others forms the commonality that connects humanists together.  The products of our creativity and rational thinking are what enable us to establish ties with the world at large.

 

…the above is an excerpt from the upcoming book:  How to Deal with Angst & Make Sense of The World with Existential Humanism

Relationships with Others without Frustration

While recognizing that relationships with other people are going to essentially produce conflict and frustration, we must also consider how they are nevertheless important to us. Certainly the strongest relationships come about where each participant wholeheartedly throws themselves into the relationship, but while doing it is still important to retain one’s own sense of self.  By allowing each other the freedom to pursue their own goals and interests, relationships can be of tremendous benefit to both parties and can actually add more meaning to our lives.

Unfortunately, people too often use relationships with others as an escape from the world. According to Simone de Beauvoir, the feeling of security may be comforting, but it can become a problem when people make the relationship the only source of meaning in their lives.  Instead, she advised people not to become so dependent on one another that they can’t exist without each other. Relationships are much more interesting, and stronger, if the participants also enjoy the diversity of their own independent goals.  In this way they are free to focus their energies on continuing to develop their authentic selves while also supporting each other’s goals, instead of holding each other down with petty power games.  Relationships can have so much more to them if the participants are both strong-willed individuals and good friends.

Unfortunately, there is a common theme in western culture around the idea of finding what is referred to as a soulmate; that somehow there are people in the world who were “made for each other” and destined to be together. Since individuals are free and must therefore define themselves (that existence precedes essence is key to existential thinking), there can obviously be no such things as soulmates.  Not only is this a useless romantic illusion, it is also dangerous.  de Beauvoir argued that a belief in soulmateship seduces lovers into turning away from their own authentic goals for the sake of the relationship.  Buying into the soulmate delusion is almost a guarantee of future frustration with the relationship.

Successful lovers are first and foremost individuals who take responsibility for creating their own lives and do not become reliant on a relationship with another person to be their meaning in life.  The best kind of relationship, one without frustration, is one where the participants respect each other’s freedom and support each other’s working towards whatever goals they choose, even if it means pursuing goals that may ultimately pull them in different directions.

Freedom and Responsibility: How to Be Authentic

FREEDOM & AUTHENTICITY

Authenticity is the degree to which a person is true to themselves in spite of external pressures.  How to be authentic?  One must accept individual freedom and take authentic actions, choices which come about as the result of personal understanding.  Choices which are made in a manner which is consistent with a person’s true self, rather than merely acting from conformity according to the society in which that person lives.

Yet we are born within our respective societies and raised to accept the associated conventions, relationships, and in many cases the religions that characterize them. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger so aptly stated, “We are thrown into pre-made worlds.”  Our parents and teachers infuse us with what we need to know in order to get by in the societies that we live in and often pressure us into behaving according to this established norm.

But if we just blindly follow those rules and expectations, which in many cases means we would be acting inauthentically, then we may begin to suffer from stress as a result.  Choosing to behave based on who we are, however, results in our eliminating stress by being authentic.  It’s important, therefore, to define who we really are in order to be able to live an authentic life.  To achieve authenticity, an individual must accept their own freedom and create their own purpose.

FREEDOM & PURPOSE

The first step to being authentic is to recognize that as human beings we have no purpose other than what we create for ourselves. A major theme of existentialism is that every human is a free individual as explained by Jean-Paul Sartre:

“What does this mean? If one considers a manufactured object, say a book or a paper-knife, one sees that it has been made to serve a definite purpose. It has an essence, the sum of its purpose and qualities, which precedes its existence. The concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of paper-knife in the mind of the artisan.  My atheist existentialism is rather more coherent. It declares that God does not exist, yet there is still a being in whom existence precedes essence, a being which exists before being defined by any concept, and this being is man or, as Heidegger puts it, human reality. That means that man first exists, encounters himself and emerges in the world, to be defined afterwards.” Jean-Paul Sartre.

 

Since we arrive in the world having no predetermined purpose, it is up to us to determine what out lives will be all about.  That is freedom.

FREEDOM & RESPONSIBILITY

Human beings not only have the individual freedom to determine what our own lives will be, but we also have the responsibility to do so. Sartre summed it up by stating, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”  Freedom, then, is not only fundamental to being human, but as Erich Fromm so eloquently stated,  freedom is something that we must either embrace or escape from.  Fromm observed that embracing our freedom was healthy, whereas escaping from freedom was the root cause of psychological conflict.

The societies that we live in, however, tend to encourage escaping from the responsibility of freedom by promising a us feeling of comfort in return, and as a result many people do so.  A common escape from freedom can be obtained through conformity. By changing oneself to fit the perception of society’s preferred type of personality, one can displace the burden of choice from oneself to society.  To do this a person might tie their identity to an image which corresponds to some sort of social norm, such as becoming a dentist or a banker for example.  The person then acts according to the image they have of how a dentist or a banker should act.

Another means of escape is through authoritarianism; relinquishing control of oneself to another person, or in the case of some theist religions to a deity or supernatural being.  By submitting one’s freedom to someone or something else, individual freedom of choice can be removed almost entirely.

Human beings are free, but the responsibility resting on the individual to create ourselves and then be willing to act accordingly can be somewhat daunting.  Consequently, the above comfort mechanisms that society offers do tend to appeal to the majority.  But these people who do escape from freedom are denying their true selves in the process.  They may live exemplary lives, but studies have shown that over a third of them will lie on their deathbeds regretting that they had not followed their dreams or taken more risks with their lives.

Now this does not mean that all acting in accordance with social norms is necessarily inauthentic.  How to be authentic is about the attitude a person takes to their own freedom and responsibility, and the extent to which they act in accordance with that freedom.  It is quite reasonable that a person is able to behave within the norms of society and still remain a free, self-determined individual.

 

 

Eliminating Stress by Being Authentic

Most people close to me know that I’ve always been an existentialist, and the current non-fiction book I am working on deals with eliminating stress by being authentic in one’s life. Here’s an excerpt from chapter nine:

Other people see us in a ways that we have no access to, and vice-versa. We are first and foremost an object to other people, just as they are to us, and according to Jean-Paul Sartre this is the basis for relationships between individuals to be one of conflict. Other people cannot see us as we really are, so our existence is one thing for us and something else for them.  If we allow the judgment of others to influence us we run the risk of not being authentic and will experience stress as a result, so how can one be a part of the world and live authentically at the same time?  We can try to tell people who we really are, but it is only through our actions and the products of our actions that they will judge us.

Consider a man who is living in a shack on the beach. Other people see this person with a scraggly beard and long hair blowing in the breeze walking around every day and they label him as a beach bum.  They are unaware that it is the daily wandering that drives his inspiration and creativity, and even if he told them that he was a genius working on a new project they would most likely look at him askance and still judge him to be a beach bum.  However, once he publishes a book or produces a painting these people will change their judgment, and from that point on they’ll recognize him as an author or an artist.

It is one thing to see ourselves as artists and tell other people at parties how we have great books or paintings inside us, but quite another to actually be that artist.  That requires us to make choices and act on them.  So whether we remain as inwardly frustrated artists who dress in suits and go to work in an office every day versus living an authentic life and producing art comes down to our accepting individual freedom and making the appropriate choices, in spite of the judgment of others.  It is easy to come up with excuses in order to justify not taking action, but Nietzsche would have considered it weakness to deny ourselves:

“What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

You may well be considered a nonconformist bum when you start out, but those same people who deride your choices will be the first ones with their congratulations on your success and will readily accept what they will then consider your eccentricity. More importantly, you will achieve happiness and be free from the stress of inauthenticity.