In our discussions of topics such as racism, environmentalism, and immigration, we often neglect to discuss a key question: “why should I care?”. I had never been challenged with this hard question before, until I was — three times in a row. I fell silent each time. I did have an answer, but not a particularly convincing one. Frustrated, I decided to revisit Stoicism through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Adlerian psychology through The Courage to be Disliked, and was thrilled to gain this insight:
To care or not is a choice we actively make, choosing the type of relationship we want to have with our social community. It consequently determines our relationship with ourselves and how meaningful our lives could be.
Let’s start with this line from Aurelius:
“A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also… so, too, a man, when he is separated from another man, has fallen off from the whole social community. Now as to a brunch, another cuts it off, but a man by his own act separates himself from his neighbors when he hates him and turns away from him, and he does not know that he has at the same time cut himself off from the whole social system.”
Here is another line from Adlerian psychology:
“Being alone doesn’t make you feel lonely. Loneliness is having other people and society and community around you, and having a deep sense of being excluded from them. To feel lonely, we need other people. That is to say, it is only in social contexts that a person becomes an ‘individual’. ”
These two lines of thinking are alluding to the same thing. Humans are social animals living in a social community. In such a context, one has a choice to decide how to participate in the community: to isolate oneself to mind one’s own problems or to care about others’ sufferings. If she chooses to care, she still has to decide whose suffering she cares about and to what extent.
In the case that she chooses to only mind her own business, she has decided to cut off her relationship with the community. She has chosen loneliness. The relationship she chooses with herself is a self-centered one, one without worth. Only by contributing to the communities we are a part of (family, school, work, global community, animal kingdom etc) in big or small ways can we gain worth.
In the case she that chooses to engage, but only what’s beneficial to herself, she has chosen the relationship with the broader community to be transactional: “I am willing to contribute to the extent that the outcome benefits me.” She is less lonely this way, but won’t feel whole. The meaning of our lives depends on the depth of the relationship we can build and the contribution we can make. She will continue to engage in the everyday tit-for-tat game. Life can be quite anxious this way.
There is another way, one in which she not only chooses to engage but engage whole-heartedly, to the extent that she decides to carry the weight of the entire universe on her shoulders. It could be exhausting at times and no one asked her to. But she is compelled by the calling for unity, by the desire to feel whole, by the yearning to become a “self” in relations to others.
The truth is we are here for each other. The meaning of our existence and source of our happiness lies in these complex social fabrics. It is through this engagement, and only this engagement, that we live a fulfilling life. The good news and the bad news is both that the choice is in our hands. We can choose deep meaning for our lives or not.
I want to end this Saturday-morning train of thought with this quote from Aurelius:
“Have I done anything for the general interest? Well, then I have my reward.”
The reward perhaps doesn’t take the form of a material benefit to oneself, but rather a deep sense of satisfaction in the soul: to be in communion, in tranquility, in love and wholeness.
Thanks to Amy Shen and Vincent Yang for the edits.
Follow me to hear my spiritual growth! As I am moving from an external validation model to an internal validation one, I might still appreciate