02
May
13

Other People are like Galaxies

I’m reading Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Emile, which is his lengthy text on how to raise someone to be a happy and capable adult. A lot of the advice is interesting. He thinks humans are happiest when their desires are in harmony with their needs so that they can get the things that they want.

Rousseau also thinks that society as we know it is corrupt and invites us to puff up our desires with vanity (Famously, Rousseau, being French, calls vanity “amour propre”) and attention seeking. This distorted form of society makes us get on a treadmill of desire fulfillment that we can never get off of. Permanent unhappiness is the result.

But Rousseau also has the idea that there is something shocking and difficult about “living in society,” i.e., interacting with other people. His proposal is that children should be raised far away from other people so that they have no notion of trying to please others or needing to be pleased by then.

There is something to this idea, though it may not be satisfactory in every dimension. Here is how it might be valuable.

Today I learned the life story of someone I had met before, but only briefly. It was quite incredibly, which is to say, no different than any life story (I find then all incredible). This guy had lived in an extremely violent environment as a young man. He saw his friends shot, random people beat up. Drugs and crimes of every kind. Yet he got out of his neighborhood and became a philosopher. He liked death metal as a boy, and almost couldn’t become a philosopher because of his fear of public speaking and flying. What a life, and so different than mine. And hence the title of this post. Whenever I meet someone new and learn a good deal of their history, I feel the same way that I feel when I look into the night sky. The feeling is one of wonder and awe. When I look at the stars, I think that I am a very small part of a very enormous universe. When I meet someone new, I feel that I am one sliver of the human experience.

This feeling, without the right training, can be daunting. How should one react to others? Tolerance of some type is a virtue, but how are we psychologically prepared for it. It’s not a given that we will be able to appreciate the life of someone else without losing our grip on our life. People who are xenophobic cannot handle the different ways that people things, and so demonize that way of life. This is a common reaction to difference. Others become relativists. After seeing difference, they reach the conclusion that their own way of living is somehow unimportant or not as fully justified as it was before. Others can become jealous (“you did that? How amazing…”) And so we can see that to appreciate difference for its vastness and immensity without losing one’s commitment to “me and my life” requires skill.

Rousseau’s idea is that part of a good upbringing is one that allows a person to remain in touch with his or her own way of life without forcing him or her to simply reject other life paths.

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