The first day of the rest of our lives

It may have been just another day, and indeed the heavens conspired to make it typical, but the calendar we use to mark the passing of time permits us to see it grandly, as the start of the new year, the eve of a new century, and the turning point of a new millennium.  In awe, we take hold of ourselves, pledge to alter the way we live, and resolve to be better than what we are.  With such sublime thoughts do we begin the first day of the rest of our lives.

Some vow to be more loving, less hot-tempered, more gentle, more tolerant, more generous or more forgiving.  Others simply promise to quit smoking, or to start dieting.  Whatever they may be, and no matter how briefly they may usually last, the annual commitments we make to ourselves on New Year’s day signify an unflinching belief in our ability to transform the way we live.

But to philosophers like Richard Rorty, such resolutions are not as important as having the capacity to redescribe our life in infinite ways, or the leisure to contemplate and reimagine our personal past in a novel way.  Our lives are so much the product of contingencies, of circumstances beyond our control, that there is really little we can do but to tell “the story of their own production in words never used before.”  “The paradigm of such a narrative,” Rorty says, “is the life of the genius who can say of the relevant portion of the past, ‘Thus I willed it,’ because she has found a way to describe that past which the past never knew, and thereby found a self to be which her precursors never knew was possible.”

Rorty suggests that all attempts to live a life consciously begin with this – a self-understanding not imposed by some authority figure, but wholly a result of our own struggle to come to terms with those blind events in our individual past that had shaped us and from which we strive to break free.  Such a life is a project of constant overcoming.

Other philosophers, however, find Rorty’s notion of self-creation so confined to discursive matters as to be of any use to practical life.  His emphasis on redescription as the main mode of self-creation ignores the non-discursive dimensions of human experience, says Richard Shusterman in his book “Practicing Philosophy” (1997).  “For example, we need to become conscious both of how to hold the head in different positions and of which position gives us the best ‘felt’ quality and ease of breathing…. since better breathing can mean better awareness and more steady concentration.”

Rorty will likely find such discussion of somatic experience as lying outside the province of philosophy.  Yet, as Shusterman observes, there is probably a greater need today to apply philosophical insight into the nature of somatic or bodily experience.  “Contemporary civilized conditions are unsuited to the inherited forms of somatic expression and moreover subject us unconsciously to new customs and regimes of body control.” Many modern maladies that hamper physical and mental functioning, such as lower-back pain and various kinds of neurosis, stem from conditions which subject the body to unusual pressure and strain.

The body-mind coordination that Shusterman advocates finds resonance in the modern proliferation of disciplines of somatic plasticity, such as Yoga, Tai-chi, Qi Gong, and even ballroom dancing. The idea is that the mind works better when the body has been habituated to correct posture and rhythm.

Anyone who has gone through the tribulations of road traffic will surely sympathize with Shusterman.  I had my taste of this particular type of somatic experience last Dec. 30 on the North Luzon Expressway, when on the way to Pampanga, my family and I found ourselves stuck for several hours somewhere near the Bocaue exit.  As other vehicles sped by from the shoulder of the highway, I tried to keep an air of stoic serenity that became progressively thinner by the minute. I felt trapped in my seat and debated with my moral self whether I should follow the example of the anarchists.

I was catatonic by the time we reached our destination.  I had lost my poise and sought to avoid human contact until I could settle down.  My back ached and I dreaded the thought of going back by the same route and to be tested by the same experience.  But, as it turned out, the return trip took even longer.  On the Gapan-Olongapo road, motorists went against the traffic flow and overtook us from the left and from the right.  The same situation confronted us upon reaching Manila.  Almost imperceptibly, I drifted into a defensive depression. My mind was filled with fantasies of people murdering one another with assault weapons because they had found themselves immobilized by a gridlock.

I knew then that no amount of Rortian redescription or Nietzschean self-overcoming would restore my equanimity.  I was no longer thinking properly because my body was aching.  Shusterman is right: we must learn to listen to our bodies too.  “By acute attention to the body and its non-verbal messages, by the practice of body disciplines which heighten somatic awareness and transform how one feels and functions, one discovers and expands self-knowledge by re-making one’s self.”


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