There are some of us who regularly feel a powerful need to go away and think rather more than is typically allowed or taken to be normal. This business of thinking can seem to us like one of the most meaningful things we ever do. After too long in company, we crave (the word may not be too strong) to be alone with our own minds. Raw experience proves too overwhelming, dense, messy, confused or exciting – and, on a regular basis, we long to sort through it. We stay up late, ruminate in the bath, wake up early, write a book, go for a walk – and feel perceptibly lightened and refreshed by the process of mastering emotions and the alchemy of converting feelings into ideas. Without anything grandiose being meant by the word, we are driven to philosophise, implicitly siding with Socrates’s dictum that the unanalysed life is not quite worth living or – at least – is a good deal less comfortable.
We need to remove ourselves and think because, on certain days, we are sad, and yet can’t identify the cause of an upset that lingers powerfully somewhere in our minds, just out of reach of consciousness. The more we leave the sadness unattended, the more it starts to colour everything we are involved with. Our experiences become tasteless, a mute fog descends over consciousness. Or else we feel confusedly anxious. Our thoughts refuse to settle. We try to find relief by escaping from ourselves with our phone or a game. Our eyelid starts to twitch, we gnaw at a patch of hard skin on a finger; our mind knows there are matters we should be focusing on but they elude understanding and spread their nervous electricity across the range of our thoughts. Or we may feel irritable; we snap and fly into sudden titanic rage, knowing it cannot truly be the socks on the floor or the unexpectedly squeaky front door that justify our fury, while hampered by pride or defensive denial from understanding more. Or, in a positive vein, we may feel a mysterious excitement because we hear of a highly original project masterminded by a friend or read of a new kind of enterprise or see an admirable thought-provoking documentary. Something is calling out to us from within our excitement, we are being sensibly, but inarticulately, summoned in a new direction. The excitement doesn’t leave us alone, but nor does it say in plain terms what it wants.
In such contexts, we retreat to think. We have a pen and paper handy on an armchair at home or we are in a train with an expansive view and two hours to talk with ourselves. We return to the contents of our minds and patiently attend to the garbled signals which we patiently submit to the beam of reason.
Of our anxious feelings, we ask what steps we need to take, what others have to do, what needs to happen and when. Of our hurt, sad and angry feelings, we dare to dwell on our constant, surprising vulnerability. Perhaps it was a face we briefly saw in the line at the airport that seemed kindly and understanding and evoked some tender, vital things missing from our current relationship. Perhaps it was a quietly ungenerous message we received from a friend, in which we sensed a bitter and wounding rivalry. Or maybe it was a regret, on seeing a sunny landscape from a window, at how constrained and routine our lives have become. As we reflect, we throw off our customary and dangerous bravery – and let our sadness take its natural, due shape. We dwell at length on the wounds. We give space to our nostalgia. There may not be an immediate solution to the sorrows, but it helps immeasurably to know their contours and give ourselves a chance to square up to them. Our pains need a hearing. Then we give similar attention to our excitements: we stoop down to listen to their animated call. We imagine reforming our lives under their guidance. We take on board the positive, necessary anxiety that arises from admitting how many opportunities still remain to us and how much the status quo can and must be changed.
The more we think, the more our fears, resentments and hopes become easier to name. We become less scared of the contents of our minds. We grow calmer, less resentful and clearer about our direction. We recognise how much we depend – perhaps without quite knowing it – on the practice of philosophy, that is, on the pursuit of accurate, clear and manageable knowledge.
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It’s hard to understand who we really are: what we want, how we feel and why we react as we do. This lack of self-knowledge can be trouble, for it makes us get into the wrong relationships, pick unsatisfactory jobs or spend money unwisely. No wonder Socrates summed up all the counsel of philosophy in just two words: ‘Know Yourself’. Shop now >>