Inspired and Blessed by Bob Acebedo
Inspired & Blessed

Can Philosophy Provide Meaning To Our Wrenching Times?

Nov 10, 2021, 12:16 AM
Bob Acebedo

Bob Acebedo

Columnist

IN the midst of our lingering pandemic scourge, with palpable suffering and restrictions yet abounding, can we find refuge in philosophy?

Can philosophy – be it theorizing or abstract scrutinizing, mere thinking, or if not, doing or living up – provide meaning to our seemingly meaningless times, certainty to our uncertain world, comfort to our difficult times, or hope to our likely hopeless situation?

Let me offer some philosophical schools of thought that may resonate with our wrenching pandemic times.

Epictetus (c. 50-135 A.D.): From futility to interconnectedness

The Stoic philosophy can be summed up by the former slave turned teacher Epictetus: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about things.”

Epictetus, who emphasized understanding the difference between what we can and can’t control, is the progenitor of the Stoic’s golden rule of “accepting the things that we cannot change” or “accepting the uncontrollable”.

But Epictetus’s philosophy is not all passive acceptance or devoid of active positivity. From his adversity of being a slave, he became a master of Stoic thought and used it to help or teach others. He thus wrote: “If wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

Taking this cue from Epictetus, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.), an avowed Stoic, developed the concept of “sympatheia” (or interconnectedness), the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.”

Now, how can we relate this Stoic concept of “interconnectedness” to somehow alleviate the agony of our times – whence, we tend to think only of ourselves and how we can survive?

Well, it’s important to remember that we and the whole world are all in this together (conspiracy theories or otherwise) – and therefore we can also get through this together. In a sense, our current global predicament is but an opportunity for us to rise above our parochial selves and recognize our common or shared humanity, and thus find ways to thrive (not just survive) supposedly through solidarity and cooperation.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): Suffering is meaningful

Nietzsche, a German existentialist philosopher, whose life has been largely plagued with health problems, posited that humans suffer for a reason. If life has to be meaningful, this meaning can only be derived from suffering: “Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.”

What is the ultimate value or meaning of suffering? For Nietzsche, suffering can propel man to achieve “greatness”, to become a “higher man” or “superman” (Ubermensch) – an ideal and powerful being, one who has overcome all his inner fears, weaknesses, and deficiencies, and thus who soars above all others.

So, from Nietzschean perspective, we can try to understand or deduce the meaningfulness (or indicators of “good things”) of our wrenching pandemic times and thus attain our “greatness”, albeit warts and all.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997): Little things are meaningful

Frankl, who spent three years witnessing the horrible atrocities at the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, wrote: “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see meaning in his life.”

In his all-time bestseller “Man’s Search For Meaning”, there’s an iconic scene where Frankl is engaged in hard labor by a railroad.

Thick snow is pounding the prisoners who are already barely-clothed, malnourished and utterly exhausted. Hours and hours go by, as Nazi officers beat several prisoners for working too slowly, including Frankl.

In such moment of extreme suffering, Frankl begins to daydream about his wife. It wasn’t the major moments in their relationship he thought of.

It was the little things: her smile, the way her hair fell to her shoulders, her laugh.

All of those traits, while they were appreciated and admired in those moments, provided Frankl with the will to continue living despite his desolation.

Now, to our present lingering pandemic agony. In such time of crisis, of lack, of uncertainty, we are sometimes engrossed on stressing what we don’t have or what we have lost, rather than what we still have.

Perhaps so, like Frankl who found positive meaning from “little things” in his incarceration, we can draw out snippets of inspiration or meaning from our difficult times: being grateful for our enduring health, for spending time with our family, for embracing each day as a gift, and by counting more of our big “little things” or blessings.

There’s a Chinese saying, “gan en mei yi tian” (be thankful every day). No denying, these days, waking up fresh each morning from bed, being able to breathe and have our morning coffee are already great things to be thankful for.

Oh, on admittedly nostalgic note, how I miss our waking up moments back in the seminary many years ago – whence once the rising bell is rung, an assigned seminarian loudly intones in falsetto, Benedicamus Domino (Let us bless the Lord)!, and to which we readily respond in unison, “Deo gratias (Thanks be to God)!”


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