How to Shift Our Focus and Live a Substantive Life
It could be said that half of us want to live the unexamined life, assimilating into the culture, and half of us want to write our own marching orders. It’s not so easy, though, to be an original, to bring to bear the autonomy of self-possession. How we have already been determined and shaped by the cultural impress resists our efforts to be other than the relentlessly acquisitive-of-stuff individuals by which the metaphorical Scoreboard now grades us. Its end-all and be-all: to rank our merit based on its evaluation of the worth of the money we have or the stuff we buy.
Let me digress for a moment. What it takes to become economically secure has changed considerably. It was once (often) true that we could work hard, save, invest and expect to live out our lives in a meaningful and comfortable way. But in these times, neither job nor investment is predictably secure. Still, wanting to accumulate greater wealth, as a hedge against the uncertainties of these times, seems to me a prudent choice. Such a hedge is not the Scoreboard-driven, relentlessly acquisitive individualism that I am addressing here. I hope your hard work and due diligence are paying off economically.
So, what do I mean by a shift in focus? We can’t really escape the cultural impress. We’ll always have to wrestle with its contestable and contested truths and with what it says (arguably) constitutes meaning and merit. Still, we can create a life of our own design and bring into existence a new substantive dimension of resource — of mind, heart and identity that is no longer at the mercy of Scoreboard.
But it is also true that we must discover, invent and hold this possibility, not only in its design stage, but forever. This is because timeliness is critical to addressing the moments of each day as they call for decision, for action. As they call for a shift in focus.
Much evidence indicates that, by and large, we aren’t necessarily who we think we are — free, rational, political agents who manage ourselves by our own lights. The desire to know our own mind and to build the transcendent authority that self-possession requires is easily repurposed by Scoreboard’s point of view and lifeblood. So, to give ourselves the breathing space to create a life of our own design, we must shift our focus to the autonomy of self-possession and away from the authority of Scoreboard. The value of the self-possession that is gained from such a shift in focus is often underestimated, and the transformation it requires is easier said than done.
Scoreboard has become an almighty force that authoritatively and convincingly defines, manages and ranks our individuality by assessing the stuff we’ve acquired. With the best media-savvy in the world behind its program of acquisitive individualism, Scoreboard can march us to its tune.
Scoreboard has the upper, stronger hand because its play is based on the exploitation of the rivalrous impulse — the ancient biological drive for keeping the animal alive. Without self-possession as our timely and practiced focus, this instinct, inherent in our DNA, is easily manipulated.
Does Scoreboard transform this brute impulse into the civilizing energy of self-possession? No. Scoreboard has us use our juice to flaunt our superior stuff and choices, and show an overt or covert contempt for those beneath us in the pecking order. By these means, our (so-called) breeding is displayed.
Although this pattern of one-upsmanship is practically universal, it affects us uniquely. It can show up as an ongoing anxiety or troubling discontent or as an insatiable want, want, want. And, as I said, Scoreboard’s flagrant or insidious ranked comparisons throw us off purpose.
If we’re not worried about competing with the neighbors or peer group about the quality and mass of our stuff, then we’re dreading the contempt evident in their eyes if not in their words or actions. To be treated cheaply hurts even if we know it is a mistake to be embarrassed and dispirited by the cold acts of remote-from-substance Scoreboard players. We know it’s a mistake to think that show-off taste, style and stuff are more important than self-possession. But we’re born into Scoreboard’s domineering focus, and we stay there unless we can make the shift.
Admittedly, a shift in focus — from the relentlessly acquisitive individualism touted by the Scoreboard to self-possession — is not easy. And enlarging the frontiers of human possibility has always been a challenge. The effort to wrest ourselves from Scoreboard’s controlling grip by acquiring the autonomy of self-possession will always be contested by the many emissaries of Scoreboard who try to demean our effort. To really make a shift in focus, we must be able to see through the “obvious” worth of a time and attention-consuming rivalrous one-upsmanship and think for ourselves when Scoreboard tries to monopolize our focus.
But this is only part of what makes up self-possession. We must also be able to muster the heart and nerve needed to create a timely momentum on behalf of our convictions. We’ll be living, working, playing and rearing our children in environments that may put little emphasis (except lip service) on the ability to think for oneself. In other words, in a Scoreboard-driven contentious environment that gives no points for a substance it can’t see, we must be able to declare what’s valuable and then live, timely choice by choice, timely act by act, according to these lights.
- We know we value self-control, self-determination, self-initiative and self-possession, but of what active practices and restraints are these values made?
- How do we gain creative control, especially when our circumstances are far from optimal?
- We know that we value kindness, contribution and empathy, but of what activism are these values made?
- How do we gain creative control and stand for our values, especially when hate mongering has become such a popular means of exerting control?
- We know that we value moderation, integrity and fair play, but of what conduct are these values constituted?
- We know we value character, good citizenship, contribution and playing by the rules. How we will focus our attention on the substance we actually need to live “in charge” and self-possessed rather than at the effect of the cultural forces acting upon us?
- And by what measure do we want to know and be known?
And frankly, how ready are we for hardship? Some people are far luckier (or more corrupt) than others. But no one escapes the disappointment and shock that accompany being betrayed or seriously scammed; nor the anger stimulated by antagonism, unfairness and indifference; nor the melancholy attending fatigue, demoralization and loss; nor the repercussions of impulsiveness and excessiveness; nor the heartache and embarrassment that accompany a loss of dignity or damage to reputation; nor defeats recorded on the Scoreboard.
In other words, enlightened self-possession is the in-charge actual cognitive, communicative and performative behavior of human beings capable of and responsible for processing their self-possession albeit within the enlightened framework that has emerged in America.
It takes courage to interrogate the prevailing Scoreboard-shaped “reality,” and the wandering or angry thoughts, misconstrued feelings and misbegotten dysfunctional ego that accompany it, though none serves a principled purpose and each interferes with our ability to be agents of change. So, what we focus on is not our tangible, branded possessions and beliefs, but our self-possession, the hard-won behavioral control we have when it comes to designing a life for which we are intellectually, emotionally and energetically a good and unique fit.
Moreover, with the acquisition of self-possession, we experience an ease, a lightness of being, if you will, that puts an end to many of the needless subjective struggles self-imposed or laid upon us.
In short, when we value a shift in focus to the autonomy of self-possession, we’ll be able to use its power to our advantage anytime we need it. No matter what sting, disappointment, obstacle or curve ball that life serves up, we don’t really have time to suffer over it. We have work to do, commitments to keep, results to produce, conflicts to resolve, families and communities to contribute to. We don’t let Scoreboard’s stultifying values dominate or out-maneuver us for long.
We shift our focus and put our attention, as never before, on acquiring the autonomy of self-possession that leads to a substantive and personally rewarding life.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 37 years. This coursework offers a philosophic perspective, vocabulary and strategies for acquiring a life of our own design. As an American Philosopher, this work stands firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity for not just living our life but for owning our life. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.