“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! 🙂

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on March 2, 2011 - 16:09

    You mean the entire premise of your blogging is not to appease me and my expectations from you??? Well, hell Scott, you’ve totally reversed my theory about the universe revolving around me… LMAO
    Great Post…was nice, despite the bad news on your father, to get to hear about that little exchange.

  2. #2 by henitsirk on March 3, 2011 - 02:20

    Closure with your dad’s acceptance of your choices. Sweet.

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on March 3, 2011 - 07:13

    I like most of what you wrote after the quotation. Frankly the exact meaning of the quotation escapes me. A person is a person and not part of a “structuralized whole” as far as I can tell. A person exists within an environment but I don’t see how the person is a part of the environment.

    And how is the “act of living” the only meaning of life? What does that mean? To me the “act of living” is simply breathing, eating, and excreting. How can a man who wrote a book claim that there is no other meaning to life than just the “act of living”? In that case he undercuts his own act of writing, I think.

    I would sincerely appreciate a further clarification if you feel like giving one. The quotation shows why I do not like most philosophy and most psychology.

    Your story on the other hand was very interesting. It was heartwarming and inspiring and insightful. I was also faced with the choice of doing what I wanted with my life and doing what others wanted, and I chose the former.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on March 3, 2011 - 19:36

      You probably should read the book to really understand it, but I’ll try. He argues, pretty convincingly, that the process of human individuation (which is a well known concept) has progressed rapidly since the enlightenment. Before that most humans were held together by primary bonds, usually nature and community. Our meaning, sense of purpose, and identity came from these bonds — tradition, community, religion and a connection to nature. The enlightenment and the process of individuation removed these bonds and focused on negative freedom — the freedom from authority (either political or that of tradition/culture/religion).

      Those bonds gave us answers about the meaning of life, our own self-worth, the purpose for living, and connected us with a large support system. Our very identity was connected to the larger group. Now as individuals we have to answer those things for ourselves, and most people aren’t prepared to. People often turn to authority (again, it can be political, it can be an ideology or principle one puts above oneself and submits to) or become automatons — simply conform to the expectations of the culture, living a life “expected” of society rather than their own. This leads to internal despair and may be one reason modern times has seen so much material prosperity alongside so much anxiety, stress, depression, and insecurity.

      To psychologically deal with “negative freedom” requires both an individual and a cultural component. We’re never completely separated individuals, we’re always embedded in a culture or society that defines much of what we are, how we think, etc. (My argument back in particle or wave: https://scotterb.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/particle-or-wave-individual-or-collective/ ) The cultural/political component is a system that fosters connections and well being (I won’t get into that here). The individual component is to embrace acting as ones true self, to not be “hypnotize” to follow what society demands but instead live according to ones’ true inner self. That is difficult to do in modern societies as they are currently (he was writing in the 40s of course) constructed.

      Basically, he’s saying the enlightenment erred in thinking you could posit humans as rational, self-interested discrete individuals. Since Freud we know that subconscious drives and psychological forces act stronger than our rational mind. The enlightenment also ignored sentiment and emotion, something we know is an essential part of what drives us. Finally, psychological insights show that we need connections with others, and we are no more totally independent individuals than a cell in our body is completely independent. Human liberation — an enlightenment goal Fromm shares — is harder than enlightenment thinkers anticipated due to these factors. He’s trying, looking at the rise of fascism, to understand what has to happen to achieve that enlightenment goal of true liberty. Negative freedom — just freedom from authority — turned out to be an incomplete and even naive theory of freedom (and one that could not be maintained after the insights of modern psychology and the role of the subconscious).

    • #5 by Scott Erb on March 4, 2011 - 00:21

      One more thing about the meaning of life. He is rejecting the idea that we should be submitting ourselves to an external authority in finding self-worth, value and meaning i our lives. Earlier we got meaning from the primary bonds (nature and community). By trying to find meaning through philosophy and rational thought, we’ve severed those bonds and instead we create ideologies, nationalism, schools of thought, etc, that we put forth as external to us (perhaps rooted in ‘laws of nature’) that we must submit to. They tell us the meaning. To Fromm this is a dangerous move because there really is no clear way to determine what is true, but many ways to manipulate people psychologically (given what I cited in my first response) to do horrible things.

      What we need to do is find a way to replace the primary bonds (nature and community) in a way that does not lead to the psychological difficulties that negative freedom can produce (just release from authority). The way to do that — the key point on how such a society should function — is rooted in human liberty. Does the system and its rules make it more likely for people to be able to live the lives they wish to live, on their own terms, without having to conform to social norms, follow tradition or customary rules, and explore meaning as they define it through how they live.

      That’s more freedom than if the goal is to find out the laws of nature and then live in accord with them, or the laws of a God. So the ideal is a positive form of freedom — not just freedom from authority, but conditions that promote the freedom to be oneself (lack the psychological barriers that often stand in the way now).

  4. #6 by Juliano on March 3, 2011 - 12:33

    the very reason of there being a war against entheogens in this culture is to try and control us and devolve natural spontaneity. This of course is also the purpose of enforced ‘education’. AND the fill-up-every-moment-with-gaudy-fun fun plastic fun-entertainment-1000s of APPs, cetra

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