TRURO — Philosophy trains the mind to take the long view of things. You try to take yourself out of the picture and see things as they truly are, undistorted by your own emotionally charged perspective. It is a lifelong effort.
The philosophical perspective can offer clarity and solace in times of turmoil. But there are circumstances where philosophy is appropriate and circumstances where it is not. For me, the year 2020 offered circumstances of both kinds. It is one thing to use the long view to see your own pain in perspective. It is quite another to use it to distance yourself from the pain of others.
The last year shook me again and again with the thought, yes, be a philosopher, but before that be a human being, alive to the humanity of us all.
Grief is the unavoidable response to overwhelming loss, and this was a year that brought grief to all too many: the loss of a loved one, a job, a home, the good-enough life you thought you had secured for yourself. It is easier sometimes to blame yourself — going through an endless repetition of if only I had — than to acknowledge the limitations of your own control over all the events in your life. We are not gods but humans.
Grief is natural, but so, too, is grief’s gradual modulation. The fact that grief takes so long to resolve does not show your inadequacy. Rather it shows the depths of your soul, anguished at the loss of what you had valued. Those depths that you possess hold hidden resources of strength. In time, they will come to the fore.
The effort of overcoming pain and hardship is too much to be borne alone. You are not meant to go it alone. Grief is isolating. The world outside can seem unreachably far away. It isn’t. There is always help and hope.
Hope is a mild form of self-deception that can feed our best ambitions, allowing us to see the odds for success as being skewed in our favor. Without hope to give us courage, we would never undertake our long-term projects, our life-transforming relationships. I have a friend who is married to her fourth husband — at last, happily! That is the triumph of hope over experience.
I am hopeful because 2020 has forced us to pay attention to some of the darkest aspects of our society. Sometimes our love of hope makes us turn our face away from injustices and inequalities, away from the harmful consequences of our actions for future generations, whom we blithely hope will somehow be able to deal with them. So, paradoxically, I feel most hopeful precisely because 2020 has made it more difficult to blindly hope that somehow the future will take care of itself.
Courage-fortifying hope is different from wishful thinking. What 2020 taught us, in a relentlessly advanced master class, is how important the distinction is. The wishful thinking that ignored scientists’ warnings about opening up the economy too soon; the wishful thinking that utters “herd immunity” as if it had apotropaic powers; the wishful thinking that has grown tired of the coronavirus before it has grown tired of us: none of this is courage-fortifying, but is us trying to wish away reality. Reality always wins in the end.
Spinoza is a wonderful teacher in instructing us to accommodate ourselves to reality rather than imagining that reality will accommodate itself to us. He uses the word nature interchangeably with reality. Nature is everything that there is, and we are a part of nature, subject to the laws of nature. We do not enjoy the special ontological status that we like to imagine for ourselves: “a kingdom within a kingdom.”
And yet, though he strips away some of our dearest illusions, his vision grants us a special privileged place in nature. We are the part of nature that can achieve knowledge of nature. In us, nature comes to know itself! Spinoza, who lived in the 17th century, when the natural sciences were still in their infancy, had only a hopeful glimmer of all the knowledge of nature that the centuries since his death have brought us.
What does this mean for what we have learned from 2020? It means that we should value the knowledge of nature — value it and use it. Self-knowing nature — which is to say we — can use our privileged status as nature-knowers to enhance the flourishing of our own species, of other species, and of the heartbreakingly beautiful planet we are privileged to inhabit. So, there is hope here as well — the hope that a species that allows nature to know itself will value itself in valuing that knowledge.
In the shared pain and anxiety that 2020 has brought us, there is hard-won knowledge. There is the knowledge that we cannot wish reality away. There is the knowledge that the future will not take care of itself but requires our best efforts. There is the knowledge of how precious and fragile our lives are, as well as the lives of the other species, full of dignity and splendor, who are held hostage by our actions. And then there are all the generations yet to come, who have no voices to speak up for their rights, but whose lives will matter to them just as much as our lives matter to us. In our wishful thinking, we are making their lives intolerably difficult, at least as difficult as the awful year of 2020 was for us. It is not as if we lack the knowledge of nature that tells us what we must do in order to give these future generations a fighting chance to flourish.
This has been a year to make us not only know these difficult truths but also feel them deep within us. Thus 2020, with all its horrors, might yet be our salvation, if it succeeds in snapping us out of our wishful-thinking stupor.
Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2014.