“Oh, how wonderful and rich and strange life can be when you stop playing out the roles that your parents and their friends wrote out for you. I feel like an explorer.” — John Cheever*
As inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, the civilized opportunity in our nation is put forth straightforwardly. It is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But there is more to being civilized than being lawful.
There is the opportunity within the framework of civilized personage to live a life of our own design. It is the opportunity to be self-possessed and to pursue a life we see fit to live and at the same time are fit to live.
Yet, to be in possession of ourselves via this personal form of life is an enduring challenge because life itself challenges any design we have in mind for it. Contingency, novelty, competition, bad luck or a bad market, etc., can destabilize our design.
Equally difficult is the challenge to create a design that is indeed our own, neither the unrealistic ego-sanctioned result of our personally unmediated aggression, duplicity and antagonism nor our ransomed enactment of the roles that someone else wrote out for us.
In my Nov. 2, 2015 post, Kiss your ego goodbye, I addressed the ego-driven design that promotes being on trend as our reason for being and positions us, if the truth be told, in a personally meaningless life. Now I want to address how a design that overly accommodates the will of past authority figures compromises the architecture of our personal space.
Yes, our original approach to life takes place under the thumb of others. Some of these thumbs are well-intentioned. Others not. But in general, even as adults, we may remain at the effect of their authority, perhaps in a form of which we’re not aware.
However, the art of autonomy and life — a life form in its own light — is the authority to which we wish to hold ourselves accountable, and it requires our own intentional focus and our personal responsibility for our own oversight. And, of course, the quality of our oversight is built by means of our deliberative and contemplative inquiry into the nature of who we are and, inevitably, by our experience with developing our stand in the matter of defining ourselves.
In autonomy’s light, our inquiries inspire wonder, our explorations excitement and our efforts fulfillment. In autonomy’s light, we can use the lessons of the past without being used by them. Indeed, in autonomy’s light, no longer ransomed to our beginnings, we are able to marshal the full force of our nature in the exercise of our personal authority: to marshal our spontaneity — to love our life; to marshal our imagination—to see things differently; and to marshal our courage — to speak to be.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes.
* The quotation is from John Cheever’s short story, The Fourth Alarm. Cheever’s subject, just like our own, is the human condition and circumstance and the conduct and meaning of an individual life.