“I concern others and they concern me” (Ethics of Ambiguity). French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir sums it up. We’re not alone. Our actions and omissions affect others. If I don’t work at creating good qualities and going after my worse tendencies, you’ll be left with the ugly consequences. Beware fallout!
I thought of the existentialist philosophical focus on respecting the freedom of others as an essential requirement for valuing one’s own independence after an extremely unfortunate incident. At a standstill in a traffic jam, I slowly backed up to allow a school bus to turn down a side street, thereby tapping the fender of the stopped car behind me. The driver was on his cell phone with a very young child in the passenger seat. He motioned to me to pull over when cars began to move. When we got out of our respective vehicles, he lost his mind, literally. His anger was life-threatening, his language some I’ve never heard in private let alone public, his awareness of the school bus full of watching and listening children and the faces of alarmed construction workers non-existent. Balled up fists, escalating fury, he could not stop himself. There was no damage to his vehicle whatsoever, so ... What about the child in his passenger seat? What about the next person whose driving enrages him? What if we had not been in a very public place?
Clearly, he had demons lurking no longer below the surface. His failure to deal with them landed hard on me and every scared bystander. His lack of responsibility for his behavior became my problem.
Each of us owns our lives whether we are taking good care of ourselves or not. Over the years, my college students of all ages have taken heart in the following promise from de Beauvoir: “It is because there are real dangers, real failures, and real earthly damnation that words like victory, wisdom, or joy have meaning. Nothing is decided in advance … because he can lose he can also win” (Ethics). Here are three notable examples, out of so many from which to choose, of hard-won victory over obstacles that restored joy and hope to several of my students.
1) A man, who suffered childhoodtrauma which he had left buried, sought help and gave voice to his wound for the first time. Learning not to blame himself for harm he endured as a youth, he recognized that he substituted drama for real emotion and settled for shallow relationships due to his unwillingness to do the work of revisiting the painful past. His smile is wide now. He owns a better life.
2) A woman with a penchant for angry outbursts took up meditation, practicing hard, slowly growing in inner quiet. She is less hard on herself and therefore on others as well. Her coworkers and loved ones live more happily. She owns a better life.
3) An insecure person whose posturing arrogance turned off and then away both friends and intimates, unveils the issues that lie behind that insecurity in order to deal with them, opens up emotionally and honestly, and wins back the hearts of others. Now, the owner of a better life, the work goes on.
When we tackle our personal weaknesses, we take charge of our lives. Our strengths shine through more clearly. We find “hands free and ready to stretch out toward a new future…to plan new possibilities” as de Beauvoir says. When we try ducking ownership of our character, the one which we alone freely create, we trick ourselves (almost) into thinking it’s possible to live in isolation. We hurt others repeatedly and leave it to them to suffer and often to clean up the mess we’re making. This refusal to own one’s life and do the best job on ourselves we can is, among other things, unfair to everyone whose life we touch.
We’re all in the soup together. How about taking this pledge of ownership? “I pledge allegiance to my life.”
Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.