This book caught my eye when my fellow graduate student and book enthusiast, Arushi, added it to her Goodreads list. The title called up multiple images to mind, including a grumpy old man (perhaps Uncle from Jacki Chan Adventures?) and memories of the fear associated with my two years as a Mormon missionary in Germany. It also reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books written by Max Lucado, You Are Special. In a world inhabited by wooden toy figures, the whole point of existence is to exchange either gold star stickers (for acts that are praiseworthy) or black dot stickers (for acts that are uninspiring or embarrassing). The protagonist, Punchinello, discovers that the stickers fall off, when he recognizes the love of his creator, the toymaker. I also assumed just from the title that much of the advice would go counter to much of the common advice or trends of the world. Most jobs depend on networking– essentially coming down to being liked– and career climbing, and the entire premise of social media is gaining likes.
The book was written in the form of a Socratic dialogue between a youth and a philosopher. The premise is described as follows: “On the outskirts of the thousand-year-old-city lived a philosopher who taught that the world was simple and that happiness was within the reach of every man, instantly. A young man who was dissatisfied with life went to visit the philosopher to get to the heart of the matter. This youth found the world a chaotic mass of contradictions and, in his anxious eyes, any notion of happiness was completely absurd.” The philosopher describes his view on life as a combination of Greek philosophy and Adlerian psychology. I was previously unfamiliar with Alfred Adler, who was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, and established a theory of psychology that disagreed with much of what Freud taught. Adler had a very negative view of Freud’s theories:
Life isn’t just hard. If the past determined everything and couldn’t be changed, we who are living today would no longer be able to take effective steps forward in our lives. What would happen as a result? We would end up with the kind of nihilism and pessimism that loses hope in the world and gives up on life. The Freudian etiology that is typified by the trauma argument is determinism in a different form, and it is the road to nihilism.
In contrast to Freud’s theories of cause and effect (etiology), Adler framed things in terms of goals (teleology). For example, let’s say you accidentally destroy my phone, and I get angry and start to yell at you. According to etiology, your actions were a cause for my anger. Perhaps I have some control over my emotions, but the action of you ruining my phone has an inevitable impact on my emotions. According to teleology, I fabricated the emotion of anger for a specific goal: to justify yelling at you. Emotions are just a tool to get certain outcomes.
With this as the basis of the discussion of the entire book, the philosopher and the youth flesh out a fascinating and I would argue empowering approach to life. Many of the ideas are familiar ones– and the author points out that Alderian psychology, while itself unknown, has made a mark in the world. He mentions Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as two examples influenced by Adler. I really wanted to give this book a 5, but there were some arguments I didn’t feel entirely convincing, and the philosophy waxed dogmatic in certain points and didn’t allow for nuance.
The philosopher makes a variety of bold statements and claims:
“You, living in the here and now, are the one who determines your own life… The past does not exist.”
“We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences– the so-called trauma– but instead we make out of them whatever suits our purposes.”
“Adlerian psychology denies the need to seek recognition from others.”
The youth and the philosopher exchange examples and counter-examples to try to prove or disprove each point, with the philosopher ending up on top in the end. Perhaps I am too much like the youth in questioning the finality of the philosopher’s statements. I agree that not being dependent on the past is an empowering approach to life. But I think the influence of the past, our environment, and our dispositions, while malleable, have both influence and value. I agree that we are free agents, but we have to learn to deal with our given conditions and leverage them to our advantage. For instance, habits are a powerful thing. They can make or break us. Rather than constantly having to exercise our freedom all the time (which would be exhausting), we can build habits to direct us. The same with our environment. At work, the environment has an enormous influence on how I feel. I can’t always change my environment, but I can move to a different environment, say take a walk outside or move to a quiet space, to help me accomplish my goals.
And perhaps the philosopher wouldn’t disagree. He does acknowledge the importance of the past and the environment in passing (“The important thing is not what one is born with but what use one makes of that equipment.“), but the statement “the past does not exist” still seems pretty strong.
Adler’s philosophy is extremely invdividualistic– the whole “I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul” approach. But there are two to three areas where I feel this falls flat. First, his idea of community feels very weaksauce to me. The philosopher explains:
“When Adler refers to community, he goes beyond the household, school, workplace, and local society, and treats it as inclusive, covering not only nations and all of humanity but also the entire axis of time from the past to the future– and he includes plants and animals and even inanimate objects.”
I don’t think that, by itself, this is a bad idea. But he dilutes the value of smaller but stronger communities by emphasizing their non-permanent-ness; the only relationship he views as semi-permanent is the parent-child relationship. I think this is an entirely wrong approach. I think the community has a claim on the individual, and that the best communities provide with a source of identity that can’t be erased at will. I grew up Mormon, I still am Mormon, and I consider it a vital aspect of who I am. Granted, I go through different phases. There’s parts I don’t like, I try to change, grow, and work with my community. And even if I chose to leave this community, it would still be a part of who I am. Many today don’t have a community with that kind of claim on them today, and I think this ultimately leads to instability.
Second, I would never apply this philosopher’s advice to raising children. He advocates that all relationships should be horizontal, not vertical. He describes all vertical relationships (such as parent-child) as, at core, manipulative. And any attempt to intervene in another person’s life is condescending and an infringement on agency. Has he even had children? He gives an example of the appropriate way to encourage your children to do their chores:
Imagine the following kind of scene. It’s after dinner at home, and there are still dishes left on the table. The children have gone off to their rooms, and the husband is sitting on the sofa watching television. It’s been left to the wife (me) to do the dishes and clear everything up. To make matters worse, the family takes that for granted, and they don’t make the slightest effort to help. In such a situation, normally one would think, Why won’t they give me a hand? or Why do I have to do all the work? Even if I do not hear the words “thank you” from my family while I am cleaning up, I want them to think that I am of use to the family. Instead of thinking about what others can do for me, I want to think about, and put into practice, what I can do for other people. Just by having that feeling of contribution, the reality right in front of me will take on a completely different hue. In fact, if I am grumbling to myself as I wash the dishes, I am probably not much fun to be around, so everyone just wants to keep their distance. On the other hand, if I’m humming away to myself and washing the dishes in good spirits, the children might come and give me a hand. At the very least, I’d be creating an atmosphere in which it is easier for them to offer their help.
His solution? Create an environment where the children will feel encouraged to help. That would work, like, once. Wait til they are teenagers. Part of a community is expectations. Perhaps at the beginning this is established by some positive or negative reinforcement, but expectations, or the claim of the community on the individual, is what keeps that community alive and running. His vision of a community of perfectly free individuals seems to fall apart in my eyes pretty quickly.
But there are other moments in the book where I find the philosopher utterly profound. For example, his idea of life as a series of moments rather than a continuous line:
PHILOSOPHER: Think of it this way: Life is a series of moments, which one lives as if one were dancing, right now, around and around each passing instant. And when one happens to survey one’s surroundings, one realizes, I guess I’ve made it this far. Among those who have danced the dance of the violin, there are people who stay the course and become professional musicians. Among those who have danced the dance of the bar examination, there are people who become lawyers. There are people who have danced the dance of writing and become authors. Of course, it also happens that people end up in entirely different places. But none of these lives came to an end “en route.” It is enough if one finds fulfillment in the here and now one is dancing.
YOUTH: It’s enough if one can dance in the now?
PHILOSOPHER: Yes. With dance, it is the dancing itself that is the goal, and no one is concerned with arriving somewhere by doing it. Naturally, it may happen that one arrives somewhere as a result of having danced. Since one is dancing, one does not stay in the same place. But there is no destination.
This book has left me with a lot to think about, and I look forward to more engagement with Kishimi’s ideas.
Image Credit: You are Special by Max Lucado