“If an individual realizes his self by spontaneous activity and thus relates himself to the world, he ceases to be an isolated atom; he and the world become part of one structuralized whole; he has his rightful place, and thereby his doubt concerning himself and the meaning of life disappears. This doubt sprang from his separateness and from the thwarting of life; when he can live, neither compulsively nor automatically but spontaneously, the doubt disappears. He is aware of himself as an active and creative individual and recognizes that there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.” – Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 1941
(Apologies ahead of time: this turned into a self-indulgent post where I talk about me a lot. But hey, I’m writing this on March 1st, my birthday!)
I am generally a person content and happy with my life. Although I’ve had bouts of anxiety and loneliness at various times, I cannot recall ever feeling truly depressed or so overwhelmed that life was unbearable. I have my share of bad habits and especially when I was younger there might be fits of anger, jealousy or frustration. These were always there and then gone, they’ve never stuck. I have never been able to hold a grudge. And though my mind can get caught up in fantasies of conflict where some evil person is treating me or someone else unfair and I have to fight back — perhaps breaking some fingers or inflicting physical plan (had those thoughts about Saif al Islam Gaddafi recently), I zip through them and then back away.
I mention this personal autobiographical bit because Fromm’s bit about spontaneity really speaks to me, and describes how I try to approach life. Life is the act of living, nothing more. Whenever I feel stress or anxiety come on, I try to disengage – and immerse myself completely in the moment. I look at the colors around me, and find that whether I’m in my office at work or on the ski slopes, there is a kind of beauty and serenity around me. Even if it is a busy scene, the act of stopping and simply being in the moment removes stress and anxiety, and creates a sense of power and purpose. It is the essence of spontaneity, nothing matters but what I think and feel at that moment, I become centered.
When I was 25 I was in my third year working for a US Senator in Washington DC. I had been moving up the ranks within the office, had contact with people from foreign policy think tanks, and of course met a lot of famous people. The young Senator in the office next to ours was perhaps my favorite. Unlike others who would ignore staffers when they got on the elevator, this guy was talkative, intrigued by the tacos we could make in the snack bar and bring back to our offices. He said they looked better than anything in the Senate Restaurant. I chatted with this guy quite a bit, he was brown haired, youthful and his name was Joe Biden.
Yet after accompanying the Senator I worked for to Greece and Turkey and having talk of a promotion, I decided to quit. I wasn’t feeling like I was myself in that job. The pressure on me not to quit was immense. My dad pleaded with me not to give up the opportunity I had. Colleagues told me how young folk from all over the country yearned for a chance to get a foot in the door in DC, and if I threw it away I might never get another chance. I was even informally offered a position in a think tank. The pressure was intense, but one day as I was driving down Pennsylvania avenue, listening to REO Speedwagen, the thought hit: it’s my life, who cares if I throw away an opportunity. I have to do what I want!
So a few months later I’m night manager at a Rocky Rococo’s pizza in Brooklyn Park, MN. My dad is explaining to his friends why his son has fallen from an inside the beltway job to a pizza slinger. I realized I wanted to teach, and soon started applying to grad schools, finally getting into the University of Minnesota. While there my dad was diagnosed with pancreas cancer and a few months to live. At a bar on Lyndale and Franklin avenues as we sipped our rusty nails, my dad told me that he was often disappointed with my choices (when I went back to school he said I was a professional student, and wasting some of my prime earning years) but as he faced the end of his life he said he realized that I was actually very wise — I was doing what I wanted to do, not what I was supposed to do. If ever a son hears something from a father that gives closure on the relationship, that did — my dad now respected my choices.
When I was younger I thought being rebellious was key — and I still think that way. If one isn’t part rebel against society, its expectations and its efforts to program, then one can be become what Fromm calls an automaton. Living according to the expectations of others, afraid that we’ll meet disapproval, or be discovered to be a fraud. It takes a real sense that one doesn’t care about what society or others thinks to be oneself. That requires a bit of selfishness (guilt at not conforming can lead to the idea that one should sacrifice the self), but also a rejection of fear. Fear pushes us to look for security, be it in conformity, an ideology or faith, or the yearning for material possessions. If life’s meaning comes from without rather than within, there will always be a sense of emptiness.
I still get those fears, shyness, and perhaps my biggest weakness is a tendency to escape into imagination and my own world. I don’t think that is necessarily bad — better to lose myself in my imagination than to conform to others’ expectations. But when I get in those moods I may not be depressed, but I can get lethargic. The easy chair is just so comfortable. I can surf the net, post on some blogs, and waste time.
That’s when I need to remember spontaneity, and the fact that life’s meaning is the act of living. Down time is fine, but if I get too lost in my own world, it’s time to connect, focus on the present and what I want to do. Having kids helps in that regard! I hope to encourage spontaneity and some rebelliousness in my kids, so they don’t fall trap to feeling like they have to conform, be successful, impress others or live up to even my expectations. I have to trust them to be themselves and take responsibility for their own lives.
And speaking of spontaneity, this blog post was supposed to be about Fromm’s theories and I went off into a ramble about myself. Oh well, it’s not like I need to live up to YOUR expectations, after all! 🙂