Lessons from a Modern Philosopher

Interview with John Armstrong

JOHN ARMSTRONG: WE THINK WE ARE UNIQUELY CURSED, BUT WE ARE JUST CURSED AS HUMANS, UNIVERSALLY.

There are lots of other ideas that might help us cope better with our human condition. And part of it is accepting this very, very odd feature of being alive – our own transience.

John Armstrong

Life throws us a myriad of dilemmas and hurdles. Dealing with changes in life, self-understanding, relationships and loss, often requires us to make a new start. This can be challenging. We feel like first-timers, trail blazers and are quite often totally clueless as to how we can go about making that change happen. How much influence do past experiences assert on our approach to change? Is seeking perfection in life pointless or energising? Why do we continue with relationships, which frankly should have been shelved long ago? I spoke with philosopher John Armstrong from the School of Life on the quality of modern living and how to get on after life’s shake-ups.

Alex: In a world so ever-changing that the morning newspapers’ news is already ancient past, more than ever we need sages, wise philosophers, to tell us how to live and stay sane. Why did you decide to follow this way of life?

John: When I started thinking about philosophical questions, I was a very young boy. I didn’t even know it was called philosophy. My interest arose from being around my parents, who sadly experienced a lot of conflict within their relationship. I loved both of them very much, and they were amazing people, but somehow they didn’t know how to communicate with each other. There was a lot of tension, criticism and arguing in my house. And I thought, if only I could get my parents to understand one another better, they would be happier together. I really wanted to help them understand their inner selves, to explain this to one another and to help them see what was really going on in their heads. And that is what I see to be the task of philosophy.

Quite a deep level of thinking for such a young boy. You could have become a psychologist too.

As I get older, I see less and less distinction between philosophy and psychology. Both disciplines overlap quite a lot in terms of their real concerns about the human condition. But temperamentally, I was more into philosophical analysis. My dream was to help people clear out arguments and reach the best possible conclusions.

So now, through your books and the School of Life’s practice, you are teaching people that life, unfortunately, cannot be perfect.

In all its glory, life, indeed, is very far from an ideal entity. And philosophy most certainly doesn’t have a nice and clean solution to all of our problems.

In one of my all-time favourite books, The Road Less Travelled, an American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck writes in an opening line: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”

There is a tragic dimension to the human condition, just as all of us have a light and darkness in them. Some religions tell us that when we do the right things, our lives will make sense. But this is, sadly, not true at all.

The knowledge that life is hard for all of us eases our responsibility to feel happy all the time, doesn’t it?

Yes, such a thought can be very liberating. There are lots of other ideas that might help us cope better with our human condition. And part of it is accepting this odd feature of being alive – our own transience. We change over time and sometimes in a dramatic way. One moment we are three years old. We look at our own shoelaces, wondering at how fascinating they are. And then, as if in a flash, we are thirty years old, deep in the world of serious relationships, job prospects and real estate dilemmas. Should we buy or rent, marry or keep on having fun? And then suddenly we are forty sixty… All of our previous problems seem trivial. When we reach our eighties, we start looking at our life with a radically different perspective.

I recently had a thought that it is as if we live on a Mobius strip, cruising through all stages of life: birth, death, decay and rebirth, again and again until we reach our end.

True… and how strange and beautiful it can be, right? Yet there is an ultimate truth: we have to live our life sequentially, going through all of these sudden and incomprehensible changes that we cannot prepare for.

Do you have any words of wisdom on how to stay sane on the journey through life’s ups and downs? And how to cope with the many new beginnings we experience through the years?

My instinct tells me that what is really important here is to focus on continuity rather than difference. Humans are creatures of accumulation. Who we are today is very dependent upon the experiences we have gathered earlier in life. We are constantly collecting: issues, themes, problems, skills and memories, yet we often don’t notice it happening. We should try to view our past as this rich tapestry of events. Then we might be happier with all the new life stages and challenges, seeing them as merely another thread that life is weaving for us.

Humans are creatures of accumulation. We are constantly collecting: issues, themes, problems, skills and memories, yet we often don’t notice it happening.

You also have had a few fresh starts in your life: 17 years ago you moved from United Kingdom to Australia. How difficult was this uprooting?

I tried to focus, as much as possible, on the similarities between my old and new life. Although Australia is in some ways different to the UK, there are many aspects in which these countries are similar, and I held on to them. My family and career stayed the same, for example. I feel that under the surface, many societies are alike. I looked away from differences, and I searched for similarities.

You found your equilibrium in continuity.

Yes, although there was also this very personal dimension, which helped me to appreciate my new life. In my home country I was very exposed to the feeling of envy. When you grow up in one place, you become very sensitive to the markers of success and failure, and where you fit in within them. It lies in human nature to compare oneself with other people. Whereas, when you start your life in a new place, you are a completely new person to everyone, and to yourself too.

You are born again, free. Like a clean sheet of paper.

Yes, nobody has any expectations of you. I find this is beautiful.

In Japan, menopausal women are seen as transitioning. So they don’t ‘lose’ their fertility, but ‘gain’ a new, mature status. That helps them to become really happy at this new life stage, and – curiously – also eases the physical pains of menopause. To deal with the life changes, we have to welcome them as they come by, no matter what they are?

Indeed. There is a whole tradition of thinking of humans as being set free when they grow older. At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Socrates talks to an older man, who explains that he can no longer have sex, as his libido faded. He doesn’t complain, just simply admits: And since I am not chained to my own desires anymore, I feel completely free. That mad part of me, which enslaved me, is now gone. I can live and do other things that were always of interest to me.

How liberating! In the same manner we can think of all life stages. When we get married and have kids, we no longer have to endure the stress of dating. When we get wrinkly, we don’t have to fixate on youthful appearance…

Universally, people are quite vulnerable to the fantasies of what their lives should be. We tend to think: – I should have an ideal job. I need to look my best. I am looking for a perfect partner to have a perfect family with. This constant ‘longing for’ is a major cause of torment.

Can you share one practice that helps you to get on when life becomes just a little too much?

Life always seems to be a bit difficult – at least for me. At the moment one thing I practice regularly is taking a long, hot bath, latish in the evening, around 10.30pm. I also always read something very engaging while I’m lying there. It stops me wasting time online, it breaks the circuit of anxious or irritated thoughts and it leaves me feeling drowsy and ready to sleep. Also, it’s really enjoyable and easy.

I always find it astonishing that we all have similar problems relating to the same stages in life. Just like children – who develop, at their own rhythm, but  similarly – starting from an overdependence on their mothers, a search for individuation, then tantrums and rebellions to finally finding their own identity.

We think that we are uniquely cursed, but we are just cursed as humans, universally (laughing). Yet one of the most beautiful things that humans ‘created’ is an unconditional parental love. Your child doesn’t have to be special for you to love him. You will always think he is special, whatever he may turn out to be.

When I spoke once with Alain de Botton, he told me that as adults we take the memory of our parents’ unconditional love into the grown up relationships. Here it tends to create an insatiable hunger for love. So I feel that such love can be a blessing and a curse rolled in one.

Well, we can wish for unconditional love, but we can never demand it from anyone. However, if we generally want more love in our lives, we have to be less conditional about it. In other words, we should move on from the position of a child, who is a recipient of an amazing adult generosity. A child is loved. But it is a parent who is doing all the loving. That is a very tricky endeavour for the parents, as it requires a lot of effort. The memory of parental love can serve us very well, but instead of thinking: “How can I make my partner love me more?”, we should start to ponder: “What can I do to love my partner just as he/she is?”

*John Armstrong is a Scottish philosopher and writer who lives and works in Australia and Italy. He is currently the global philosopher-in-chief of The School of Life, developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. He authored nine books, including, The Secret Power of Beauty, How to Worry Less About Money, Life Lessons From Nietzsche, and Art as Therapy, his most recent contemplation, which he wrote in conjunction with Alain de Botton.

Published originally in the international fashion magazine Renaissance, issue RESTART, June 2018.