Throw away the lights, the definitions
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
– Wallace Stevens *
Ideally, how we were made or determined by nature and culture would guide us to a fulfilling, satisfying and equanimous life. But many of the instincts and sentiments to which we were born and bred are not a resonant and forward-looking match for us as individuals or for us collectively in the cosmopolitan and connected world we live in today.
For example, in the United States, many of us have lived sufficiently privileged lives that should have given us access to the intelligence and communicative practices that exist in the liberated range of human autonomy. However, the absence of a carefully acquired sentimental education that opened our minds and hearts to possibilities beyond our expedient determinism accounts for how this privilege actually plays out.
Think about it. If we grew up in America, there’s a real chance that our experiences, fears, and desires were not examined and considered in the light of the entirety of our responsibility for our way of being in the world. Instead, there’s a real chance that what could have been our unique promise was processed and focused on goals — acquisitions and ambitions — that stand in for thinking for ourselves.
Moreover, even though we’ve entered into them without due diligence, these goals now seem to be self-evident truths about what’s important and meaningful. As a result of this mass processing, which inevitably closes as many doors as it opens, whole vistas of possibilities have been made invisible and whole inventions of language have been made silent. In other words, way too often we’ve wasted the opportunity to live a life as artists of our own becoming.
Many of us have conformed to the ready-made identity. However, others of us find such a one-size-fits-all identity to be a poor fit and the invariability and rotted dead-ends of the everyday vocabulary uncomfortable. It is these to whom I address my posts and make my case for acquiring a sentimental education.
All of us have been trained to hide our conformity to the way it always/already is with our badges of achievement, or with compensating rhetoric, or with our sentimental journeys about the good old times or our climb up the ladder of success. However, the right sentimental education asks us to question the dead metaphors and meaningless clichés and to challenge the givens with which we customarily identify our opportunities and ourselves.
It takes effort, of course. But there are also great rewards for sleuths on the existential timeline who find a more open and satisfying description of how individuals can successfully make their way in the world and, at the same time, satisfy the desire to live a life of their own design.
*American Wallace Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955 and his work remains relevant and respected today. The verse cited is from “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit autonomyandlife.com for more information.