Philosophy for Parents Re-boot

Due to a variety of circumstances, I have taken a 5-year hiatus from writing for Philosophy for Parents.

And yet, although I have not posted anything for several years, and have not pushed or promoted this blog on social media in any way during that time, this blog continues to get hits and views almost every day.  In fact, just today, someone from half-way across the world posted a comment on one of my posts that I had published back in 2015.  This on-going interest in my work has been very unexpected, and has made me consider how to re-boot this project.

Should I say a few words about why I stopped writing here in the first place?  Probably.

One major reason was lack of time.  I started teaching philosophy at the University of San Diego in September, 2014, which, outside of my family commitments, required a near-constant amount of my attention in writing lectures and mentoring students.  It’s been exhaustingly fabulous, and so much of what I have taught and learned over the past 5 years is fertile ground for much new material for Philosophy for Parents.

But another reason had to do with something deeper and more personal.  About the same time that I returned to academia, a family member who was very dear to me, and with whom I had enjoyed a close and loving relationship for almost two decades, started to become verbally and emotionally abusive toward me.  I can’t get into the reasons for the abuse here, but I will say that it was sudden, completely unexpected, and frankly, soul destroying.

I’ve spent a good part of the last few years working through the profound sadness that this abuse has brought into my life.  That has taken time. I’ve never had an important relationship in my life break down before.  Of course, there have been people who have come into my life and then drifted away.  But that is not the same thing as when something of fundamental importance breaks between you and another person.  And I guess that with a broken relationship, comes a broken heart.  I never knew that broken hearts could hurt so much, and keep hurting, even after you think you have no more capacity to get hurt. 

So … how does this relate to Philosophy for Parents? I think it gives insight into both the hiatus in writing in the past, and also how I want to proceed with Philosophy for Parents in the future.

One thing I would say is that, when you are the victim of emotional abuse, it often takes your voice away.  Part of the trauma that I experienced from this person was done through social media, so the social media platforms where I knew this person was active became places that I simply could not go.  So, I stayed silent.  I stopped writing my blog.  And I stayed off social media, mostly because I didn’t want to be stalked and viciously trolled by someone who had been such an important part of my life for a such a long time. 

And what can we say about silence?  When ‘silence’ is equated to ‘losing your voice’, then clearly that is a bad thing.  On the other hand, silence is not always a bad thing.  On the contrary, there are times when silence is necessary.  I know I am writing this at the tail end of the tumultuous summer of 2020, when it became  commonplace to say ‘silence is violence’.  And while that certainly can be true, particularly in the context of various injustices, there are times when silence plays a vital role in our moral and spiritual development.  In my own case, silence was a form of protection, a way to give myself space to think without complicating that space with the judgments of other people.

And, I suppose, it was in the silence that I was able to pick up the pieces and start to make sense of something that made no sense. And this is where I found philosophy to be a God-send.  Specifically, during this process, I found philosophical inquiry to be helpful in enabling me to resist being sucked into the ‘cycle of abuse’ – that is, the process of being abused, and then letting that trauma shape you to the point where you pass that abuse on to those around you.   Just as philosophical inquiry helped me come to terms with the difficulties of raising small children, it also helped me to resist returning abuse for abuse.  Because I was trying to protect my children in this process of absorbing the abuse and not passing it on to them, my philosophical thinking often literally became ‘philosophy-for-me-as-a-parent’.

I hope to use the next few months to write more specifically about how philosophy has helped me become a better parent during these past 5 years, but in this initial ‘re-boot’ post, I will mention a few key themes.

First, I have thought a great deal over the past few years about the notion of human beings as ‘ends-in-themselves.’  This is an idea that was best developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was writing at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.  The basic idea here is that human beings are rational, by nature, and so they are self-conscious beings who have the inherent capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong.  So human beings are by their nature morally capable and therefore morally accountable.  Because of this, human beings have an inherent dignity and an inherent worth that needs to be respected. 

This might sound a little abstract, but the upshot of this idea is that human beings have the ability to think their own thoughts, and make their own choices, and we have to respect that about one another.  It’s not that we will all think good thoughts and make good choices all of the time – far from it.  And of course, we must hold one another accountable for the wrong and harmful actions that we do.  But when we treat other people as ends-in-themselves, we see one another as equals.  We recognize and understand that people have their own lives to live, and their own projects to pursue.  They are not tools or objects to be used or manipulated or dominated by us.  To state it somewhat more theoretically, we are not to use other people as a means to our own ends.

I think this is a very powerful idea.  It may be abstract in a way, but it has given me insight, and even comfort.  To treat someone as an end-in-themselves would mean to not abuse, intimidate, humiliate or persecute them.  When you are being intimidated and humiliated, you are being used as a means to your abuser’s end.  Their end is probably something like needing to feel superior to you, and so, they will use you personally – that is, attack you personally – in order to achieve this end.  So, even though I was in a situation where I was not being treated as an ‘end-in-myself’, I found a lot of comfort, and even empowerment, in trying to treat people around me – my children included – as ends-in-themselves:  respecting them, giving them space, looking past their short-comings, acknowledging their individuality.  It was as if I had to find and produce in myself what I craved the most in my difficult situation.    

But still, there was a lot of self-reflection involved.  I’ve walked with God a lot through the recesses of my mind on this one.  And I’ve come to see more how we mustn’t use people as a means to our ends. We mustn’t put words into other people’s mouths, we mustn’t make assumptions about them, we must let them speak for themselves.  Most importantly, we mustn’t use other people as target practice as we fight our ideological battles.  We must hold them accountable, yes, but the flip side to that is we must let them be themselves.  Through all this, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of how to see other people as companions, even in disagreement.  Having been labeled ‘the enemy’ by someone who I thought was my friend, I’ve come to better understand how to not see other people as enemies.

The second theme that I wanted to raise regarding how philosophy has made me a better parent in recent years is something I have been alluding to throughout this piece, which is the self-reflection involved in philosophical inquiry.  I wish I could say that personal difficulties always bring on self-reflection, but I know that’s not true.  There are a variety of ways we can react when our personal circumstances are challenging.  One way is to stop thinking, and close up, emotionally and mentally and spiritually.  But one thing I have come to appreciate more about philosophy over the past few years is the demand that it makes on us to think, and to think in a self-reflective way. 

There’s no question that self-reflective thinking can be painful.  Often when we look in the recesses of our minds, we might not like what we see there.  It’s hard to acknowledge mistakes, bad intentions, and wrong beliefs.  It brings up defensive mechanisms in nearly all of us.  And so philosophical inquiry must be an on-going process, one that we approach when we are ready.

But while self-reflective thinking can be painful, it is also powerfully therapeutic.  For instance, as I have thought of myself as an ‘end-in-myself’, I have become much more aware of myself as a moral agent.  Other people have to respect my individuality, it is true, but I have realized what a responsibility that puts on me, to use my individuality well.  And although I am to treat others as ends-in-themselves, I am not responsible for their actions, only mine.  Which leads me back to reflecting on my own agency – what am I doing?  How am I going to respond? And this line of reflection has led me to be more aware of my relationship with God.  How am I going to use my moral agency to seek God in my life?  I’ve become more interested in the past few years in existentialist thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, who think of the human relationship with God as something very much between just the individual themselves, and God.  According to these existentialist thinkers, you alone are responsible for forging a relationship with God – not your church, not your community, not your spouse, not your parents, and so on.  It is up to you. You bear the consequences of seeking God, or not seeking God.  And, I have to say, I agree with them on this point.

So here, at the moment, is ‘philosophy-for-me-as-a-parent’:   Love your kids.  They are human beings, and human beings are amazing creatures, with inherent dignity.  They deserve respect.  They deserve space – space to think, space to make mistakes, space to figure it out.  If you aren’t getting this respect in your own life, know that when you model that respect toward your kids, it fills a void in your soul.  And you can be happy, knowing that, somehow, everything will work out.