Think philosophically

Meaghan P. Godwin

Philosophy Department

What can I say in 500 words that will be worth reading but that won’t get me into any trouble? It might not be possible. Is anything actually worth reading if it isn’t scintillating? People tend to pay little attention to things that 1) don’t matter to them or 2) aren’t sensational. Then we wonder why the news is always so depressing and why the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.

Then again, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it only SEEMS that way because that is how people talk about things in order to get our attention.

This tendency to over-emphasize the negative even works its way into everyday conversation.  Notice the small talk that happens around campus.  How often does it contain language that emphasizes the negative?  Work is “terrible”  or “killing me.”  The weather is “awful” or “horrible.” Someone’s schedule is so “ridiculous” and “exhausting” that the only time they can be happy is when they have time off. Even that phrase, “time off,” makes work sound like a prison sentence. At work I’m doing my time and look forward only to my time off. Again, just as with the news, things may only seem so bad because that is the way we’ve become habituated to talking about them. Unless I’m mining for diamonds by hand in Africa under some warlord’s murderous gaze, it is highly unlikely that my job/schedule is really all that bad.

This is not to say that some people do not have terrible life situations. Some do. As a Pragmatic Buddhist, I understand that life is unsatisfactory and that this unsatisfactory runs the gamut from domestic violence to knowing that even happiness passes. But, I also understand that the way we narrate our experiences, the way we talk about them both to ourselves and to one another, lends and extends meaning beyond naked sensory phenomena. In fact, one of the hallmarks of depression is the tendency to overgeneralize experiences, to think, talk about, and thereby relate to experiences as being part of a larger pattern of a disappointing life rather than momentary happenstance. Such narration can also lead to anxiety and distress. This is what happens when you psych yourself out and choke instead of maintaining calm confidence and performing well.

Just as the Buddha exhorted people to test his theories, I ask you not to just take my word on this. Test it out. Before your next project, test, or paper deadline, instead of thinking about how much it is going to suck the life out of you, tell yourself that it’s not going to be so bad. Change the narration and see if it makes any difference. Try working positive words into your small talk. Alter your habits and see if it doesn’t alter your view of the world. After all, the world of our experience is largely a world of our creation, so if it IS going to hell in a hand basket, who but we have the power to change it?