Gary “Z” McGee
“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” —Joseph Campbell
All of us were raised with a particular worldview. Some of us may have even been conditioned and/or brainwashed into believing a certain way. Either way, none of us had control of our preconditioning. We couldn’t control what sex we were born as. We couldn’t control what country we were born in. We couldn’t control how much money we were born into. And we definitely couldn’t control whatever religion/philosophy/ideology our parents or community decided to shove down our throats.
But once we reach a particular age, or certain level of maturity, it is our responsibility alone to take inventory of our current condition, especially as it pertains to our preconditioning. We must be able to separate that which is unhealthy from that which is healthy about our adopted worldview; otherwise we end up being blindly married to parochial values and hand-me-down belief structures that may negatively affect our world.
Now enter Self-inflicted Philosophy: a guide toward reconditioning the precondition by ruthlessly questioning reality and our place in it so as to discover our own personal philosophy. The result being that we discover our own path along the way.
If you don’t have a personal philosophy, life happens to you. If you have a personal philosophy, you happen to life. But, philosopher beware, like Lemony Snicket sarcastically warned, “Having a personal philosophy is like having a pet marmoset, because it may be very attractive when you acquire it, but there may be situations when it will not come in handy at all.”
Joking aside, what happens when we get too emotionally involved with someone else’s religion/philosophy/ideology? The short answer: self-authenticity is sacrificed for adulation and sycophancy. The long answer: the courage to consistently reinvent ourselves is trumped by the tendency to lean on the strength of another to the point that we lose the propensity to face our own authenticity.
In other words, getting emotionally attached to another person’s philosophy begets idleness, which means the end of our personalized journey. Which means we’re probably not on our own path, we’re on someone else’s. This is because as soon as we place “all our eggs” (faith/belief) into say, our parents’ “basket” (religion/philosophy), we not only renounce all other baskets, we end up renouncing the potential to create our own, and at the expense of all our eggs. This spells disaster for anyone seeking adventure and self-knowledge.
Here’s the thing: Philosophy is a poison for which it is also the antidote. Meaning: the cure for questioning reality isn’t found in answers, but in further questioning. We must be able to recycle our philosophical perspective, especially when it comes to borrowing another person’s philosophy. It’s better simply to “wear” the other person’s philosophy for a time, learn what we can, and then move on to the next philosophy.
Eventually, after immersing ourselves in as many philosophies as we can, and always emerging from them a changed person, we gain the capacity to create our own personal philosophy. The challenging part is realizing when it’s time to move on in order to discover new horizons. It’s difficult to let go. Our brains are like sponges. Either we proactively keep them wet and malleable with new knowledge, or we reluctantly let them harden and stagnate with old knowledge. The ability to absorb another person’s philosophy, and then let it go, is akin to a sponge absorbing water and then wringing it out so that fresh water can be absorbed.
It’s not that we forget what we’ve learned from the old philosophy, not at all, it’s that we’re transforming what we’ve learned from a rigidness that blocks us, into a stepping stone that propels us into higher learning. We’ve literally transformed a boundary into a horizon. Like Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
“The goal is to have so many pattern rules and so many labels and be aware of so many worldviews,” writes Seth Godin, “that they swirl together and allow you to become naïve all over again. To be naïve is to abandon your hard-earned worldview. It means seeing the world without prejudice and accepting it as it is, as opposed to the way you’re expecting it to be.”
But in order to see the world as it is, we need to be both mirrors and sponges. The sponge absorbs, but if left alone it hardens. The mirror reflects what the world is. It neither tries to own the world nor attempts to change it. It simply reflects it. And so we should also be like mirrors, where instead of clinging to a single image of the self, like narcissists do, we open ourselves up to eternity and the infinitely changing image of the cosmos. “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror;” wrote Chuang-tzu, “it grasps nothing; it refuses nothing; it receives, but does not keep.” So it behooves us to be both mirror-like and sponge-like, with the ability to receive and to reflect, and the ability to absorb and remain adaptable to change.
Walt Whitman once proclaimed, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes,” revealing, poignantly, that humans are contradictory creatures. We all contain multitudes, and not just physically. Our minds contain a vagary of multitudes. This is because our brains were designed by the constant trial and error of mutation and time—otherwise known as evolution. As such, the process of discovering our own philosophy reveals some startling contradictions and hypocrisies about our notion of the self.
From Shadow to Hero, and everything in between, the self is a cauldron of contradictions, a tangled web that we’ve only had a small part in weaving. Facing such harsh truths teaches us a type of humility that cannot be gained in any other way. It teaches us a kind of self-skepticism that goes beyond self-questioning, forcing us into the realm of self-interrogation, where we ruthlessly question our worldview. Such ruthless questioning is the epitome of clearing our own path. With self-interrogation we find that we can move mountains, if that’s what it takes to make walking our own path a reality. Like Pema Chodron wrote, “Only to the extent that we can expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is destructible in us be found.”
The best part about finally walking our own path is that we are more likely to stand on the shoulders of giants. More importantly, we are more likely to leap from giant to giant. Like Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The more shoulders of giants we stand upon, the further we see. The more we learn from all the sacred texts, not just one, the more spiritually plastic we become. The more masks of ancient heroes we don, the more sacred things appear. The world becomes a giant playground of interconnected, sacred knowledge, and it’s all ours for the seizing. Our path widens, branching out infinitely, until we find that we even gain the ability to subsume the paths of others without their path impeding our own.
At the end of the day, we are never more fully human than when we are creating our own path. We should let go of all other paths except the one in which we are free. We were born into a story not of our making within which we have to find our own way, to clear our own paths, and tell our own stories. The wise look forward to new horizons. Only fools trip on what is behind them.
Like Joseph Campbell wrote in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, “The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?” The answer lies within us all. The answer lies in discovering our own path, our own way, in discovering a philosophy as unique as our own fingerprints—a self-inflicted philosophy.
This article, which originally appeared here, is offered under Creative Commons license.
Z, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of BIRTHDAY SUIT OF GOD and THE LOOKING GLASS MAN. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world. His recent works can be seen at Z’s Hub, where this article was originally featured.