Another way of thinking and being

I am coming to a new way of thinking about death. Which inevitably also means I am coming to a new way of thinking about life. Writing about Owen is one way I am getting there, and reflecting on an article I read in The New Yorker magazine about a beautiful big idea and the man behind it is another.

Derek Parfit is a living philosopher who recently published a 1600-page book called On What Matters. His very original ideas about self-identity and on, well, things that matter, is so exciting to me I am hesitant to read more, just in case I am wrong about what I think he is saying. So, with all due to credit to Mr. Parfit for these ideas, I take these notions as my own and continue to refine my own thinking.

I am captivated by the idea that there could be a non-religious universal morality. A set of principles that exists whether we (as humans) perceive them or not. I don’t yet want to call myself an atheist (just in case) but I shudder at the trappings of man-made religions – which is to say I shudder at religion in general. So you will see why these ideas appeal to me. Parfit tries to synthesize various philosophical approaches to morality, which include many variations of the old chestnut: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He is not offering a list of commands carved in stone – rather, he suggests that there must be a universal way for us to approach morality, which when adhered to, will have the benefit of serving our collective humanity.

So with the idea of a universal morality in hand I follow the breadcrumb trail to considering an individual life and what it is for.  What does it mean, what does a ‘good’ one look like?   An answer I like: our individual measure can be weighed on what we contribute back into the whole, most notably through the memories and work of others.  And the contribution should be offered with the intention of not harming–or better yet, supporting–future populations.

We could ask ourselves, how will others hold us in their memories?  What will they tell their children about us? How will we leave a mark that in some way, big or small, makes a difference to people who don’t exist yet?  Before you let this stress you out, there is no need to be too literal – rest assured, our actual contributions will inevitably fade over time, as will the memories of us.  But an impression on the organism, humanity as a whole, will have been made.  The one act of kindness or love to another will ripple through and out and down in ways we can’t even imagine.  We just have to trust that it will, and not look to see the results of our influence – otherwise the ego takes over and makes it all about us as individuals again.

Here’s the exciting part for me: I think this is the missing piece that I have been seeking, consciously or not, pretty much since the day Owen was born.  I can articulate in clearer terms now how Owen’s contribution to the world was and continues to be meaningful. And how my work with telling a part of our story, writing a book, offering it back to the whole, matters hugely.

And this, which I am keen to write and talk about more and more:  scurry and panic and individual striving don’t contribute to what matters.  Pushing our selves (or, to bring it back to a topic I know intimately, our disabled children) to meet a ‘norm’ or to keep up with others is literally wasting our lives.

Bodies come and go.  But the human organism will continue to grow, evolve, shift – and all of us here, now, are responsible for its future.   Surely we don’t need religion to tell us how to behave?

(I took these photos on a tour of the Academy of Realist Art in Toronto, where my friend Jen was a student this summer.  Hers is the last painting (a work in progress), created during a Caravaggio class.)



  1. With further investigation into the collective unconscious comes a growing sense of evolution of our species. Unfortunately, (and without knowing one word of the honorable Derek Parfit, we are above all still a physical incarnation, having evolved over countless years, that is only beginning to come to terms with the dichotomy of psyche and evolution. Instinctual behavior can be “all gussied up” but should not be hard to recognize. Despite this, modern incarnations of thinking seem much more concerned with form over content. We are physical beings that must first understand our still voracious primitive instincts for separation and antagonism towards others in order to survive, before we can wallow in the luxury of eclectic thought.

  2. Thanks for your comment Eric! My response in the moment is to say that I have only recently come to appreciate that philosophical discourse is not a luxury, but an important and necessary contribution. I don’t think one set of thoughts must precede another to have validity, or else be deemed wallowing. There are many levels of useful dialogue. Engaging in one does not discount the other, and in fact can elevate or bring understanding to the other.

    As for the content – perhaps I’ve misunderstood you: what is eclectic about the idea that striving is about ego and we might do well to consider our collective humanity in how we make decisions?

  3. Hello Jennifer, always happy to get you to pop out in public a bit more!

    ” I don’t think one set of thoughts must precede another to have validity,” point well taken Jennifer. They certainly exist in there own right, it is true. I’ve simply come to believe that policy and general traits in society are not influenced by philosophical discourse.
    Of course each person is true to his inclination and point of view, on the other hand, I know that without the right “tools” any abode you build will be shoddy.

    In understanding how much FEAR permeates our ancestral/DNA/collective unconscious responses as part of survival, and that it still resonates strongly, despite that ideas, APPEAR, to have taken precedent, since we are so “mind” centered in the development of modern societies, we can harness the energy of fear and exchange it, as it were, for more positive attitudes. But first we need to recognize those instinctual patterns and how they affect our daily reactions before we can move forward. At least that is my take on the matter.

    The eclecticism I was referring to was the rarefied air where ideas are taken to mean how we should behave, that is, towards the zen practice of thought=action, as opposed to ideas as rhetoric, as it is used generally, resulting in the perpetuation of stereotypes and the like, exactly as is the case in reacting to Severely disabled (compromised) children.
    Peace be upon you,

  4. I look forward to reading that article, Jennifer, and to thinking more about it and what you have written here. The first thing I thought of, though, as I read your post and then the comments from Eric and yourself is Spike Lee’s movie “Do the Right Thing.” I think often about that movie, about the simple yet intensely complex phrase.

  5. @Elizabeth – no doubt! And I can feel an undercurrent in Eric’s comments – not stated but I feel a suspicion nonetheless: many atrocities have been committed in the name of acting for the good of the community and the poor/incomplete description I have given above could be seen as a slippery slope to more of the same.

    Fair enough. I have a student’s enthusiasm for something new. I have traveled my journey with Owen from a purely personal place, never looking for changes or differences outside of myself in things I cannot control. (My partner Carsten reviewed my book (here), pointing this out in more detail.) But as I continue to process Owen’s death and life I find myself seeking explanations. There are few that make any sense. I don’t have religion to turn to and I find no solace in the lightweight modern self-help guides from the likes of Tolle and others. I have the luxury of time now and am enjoying the opportunity to finally just sit and think.

  6. I don’t know how I managed to miss this. What you’ve written is very important. Especially, for me, this:

    …scurry and panic and individual striving don’t contribute to what matters. Pushing our selves (or, to bring it back to a topic I know intimately, our disabled children) to meet a ‘norm’ or to keep up with others is literally wasting our lives.

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