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Fighting for a Higher Self

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Fighting For A Higher Self

Books, magazines, news articles and programs, talk shows, infotainment, and infomercials, tell us all how to make more money, live longer and healthier, be more physically fit, be more active, and have more fun and excitement. Such self-improvement advice for "success", and the market for it, is pervasive. But with the exception of religious preaching, which is usually quite narrow in its exhortations(1), there is not much in popular culture nor in schools today that beckons or challenges us to "be all that we can be" in regard to nobility of spirit and understanding, and in regard to striving for a higher plane of non-material self-actualization and fulfillment -- along with whatever else we do in life.

It is not that one has to give up worthwhile physical pleasures or material comforts, joys, and goods in order to achieve higher aspirations. Even instant or merely temporary gratifications are not necessarily incompatible with higher pleasures, unless they are all one is seeking. It is that the pursuit of the physical and material need not, and should not(2), preclude thinking and reasoning of the highest order; nor should they prevent the pursuit of what is best for the spirit. Yet, in our culture today, the pursuit of the higher self -- the development of our individual worthwhile talents and abilities, the development of our senses of curiosity, wonder, and awe (which should increase, not decrease, as we gain more knowledge), as well as our senses of humor, the playful, and the ridiculous; the pursuit of understanding and wisdom (as opposed to just specific, factual or technical and practical knowledge), the pursuit of understanding of and appreciation for the good and the beautiful, rather than the possession of the merely currently fashionable and popular or immediately pleasurable(3) -- is neither fostered in schools nor modeled very much in the media, if at all. It is a pursuit that does not occur to many people, and when it does, there are forces at work that discourage it as being impractical, arrogant, too human-centered(4), anti-social, austere, disrespectful of tradition, or subversive of the allegedly more important economic need for specialization whereby people serve primarily to fill instrumental roles within viable organizations. I have titled this essay "Fighting For the Higher Self" because it takes a real struggle to overcome these forces, whether one is trying to do it for one's own inner being or whether one is trying to help others do it, particularly (one's) children. It takes as much of a struggle even to get children, and sometimes adults, to see there can be a higher self, and that it is worth pursuing, because too often, in our daily life, it just does not seem important or necessary to make the effort.

However, it may be in people's best overall personal interests(5), and for society's long term benefit, to pursue their higher selves even if that might cause some temporary conflicts with, or within, existing social and economic institutions. One should not mistake comfort in the familiarity of the status quo with its being the most beneficial condition.

With regard to what is in people's best interests, I think Aristotle had it close to correct when he said that happiness was not in the mere having of possessions nor of reputation or power, though those were useful, but that it is "an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence."

I would argue that happiness also stems from the pursuit of excellence or of desirable (not just desired) ends, even when the pursuit fails to achieve whatever is sought. Psychologically, there is something about the pursuit of the good that gets one's focus off just one's "self", particularly one's more petty or mundane concerns, and onto an ideal "outside" one's self that is, in some sense, more universal and more important, more satisfying and more uplifting --something transcendent.

(There is also a kind of happiness, that stems even from just a virtuous pursuit of desired things, though those things may not actually be desirable, and may end up being disappointing if achieved; and even if the desire for them itself later disappears and is regretted or thought to have been foolish. The happiness arises from the activity of the soul, the quest of the mind. So that one might be glad one strived for something, even if the actual achieving of it turned out to be hollow or disappointing. The endeavor, not the end, was good.)

But a number of things conspire to prevent people from seeking, or even thinking to seek, wiser and nobler pursuits and deeper understanding. I have written about many of these in regard to education, and some in regard to popular religion, in detail elsewhere ( so I will only give the summary view here:

(1) the trivialization of knowledge as a litany of disconnected facts presented as though they were obvious and as though they were somehow important just in themselves, neither of which is usually true (more about this momentarily),

(2) school testing and grading, with the emphasis on memorization and surface recall (rather than the learning and understanding) of material, which learned without understanding is usually meaningless to students, whether it has, or could have, any real significance or not,

(3) school "busywork" assignments that are not productive, except for determining grades for students in what is alleged to be an objective manner, but which is nevertheless arbitrary and subjective because the standard itself is arbitrary and subjective,

The above three elements are common to schools, and foster surface learning without deep understanding by camouflaging the need and benefit of it (particularly perhaps for "better" students when they can achieve A's without having to try to uncover and grasp the underlying foundations of the material). Students come to just accept facts and beliefs as part of the common furniture of the universe instead of having an appreciation for the wonder of discovery, insight, and invention. They are not likely to try to add significantly(6) to the sum of civilization's knowledge and wisdom if they see no particular importance in it. The next five appear primarily outside of classrooms, though sometimes still in school systems philosophically and administratively.

(4) pretentious pseudo-intellectualism that makes reflective, deeper thinking seem contrary to common sense and reason, and

(5) absolutist and simplistic, religious preaching that makes the life of the spirit seem (or actually be) either



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