It was November, 2011, and I was sitting in the living room of my Paris apartment. The window was open, it was just past dusk, and I could hear the buzzing Vespas on the street two stories below. I was on Rue Vielle du Temple in Le Marais – Paris’s hip, LGBTQ neighborhood and old Jewish quarter.
I was finally where I had always wished I would be: living – studying abroad – in Paris. I was twenty years old, so officially an adult (by most standards). I was attending Sciences Po, a fairly prestigious university located in the Latin Quarter. I lived in a spacious (by Parisian standards) apartment with my best friend. I was healthy and had good grades and a stable family.
Yet here I was, sitting on the edge of an old fold-out futon, googling,
“Am I depressed?”
I had dreamed of living in Paris since I was 15 – since I met a group of exchange students on the top of the Sears Tower during a visit in high school. After that, I ate, breathed, and dreamed Paris. Almost daily, I would conjure detailed experiences of my imaginary life as a twenty-something living, studying, or working in Paris. The city represented so much of what I valued (and, to a large extent, still do): culture, art, beauty, pleasure.
But most of all, from ages 15-20, Paris represented an escape.
In high school, dreaming about my future life in Paris kept me going when I felt alone, disconnected, or angry. It kept me going when I felt abandoned by my older brother and sister who, when they left for college, left me at home with my unhappily married parents. And it got me through what felt like the worst experience of my life until that point: feeling betrayed by my best friend and walking into the high school cafeteria, alone, unsure of where to sit or where I belonged.
Paris was my light at the end of the tunnel. My future life in Paris, which I imagined would become a reality when I would finally get the chance to study abroad there in college, was almost my sole motivating force in high school. When I got to college, I made some friends, got my first serious boyfriend, and joined extracurriculars. But even though those first two years of college were some of the best of my life – I spent most of my mental energy envisioning my life somewhere else.
Paris was the haven I had created in my head to escape all the things I didn’t want to face in reality. So it might not surprise you to hear that getting there and feeling depressed sparked in me a sort of existential crisis.
I wondered – if this habit, this belief that had guided my behavior for so long, had led me so astray, what other beliefs were unproductive or even harmful to my or others’ wellbeing?
The moral of the story is this:
Getting to a place that I had always dreamed of – reaching a goal that had always driven me – and feeling miserable, led me to embark on a journey to explore a few, very important questions:
- What values and beliefs were guiding my behavior?
- How many of these beliefs were misguided, or worse, harmful?
- What habits had I formed as a result of my beliefs?
- How could I cultivate new beliefs, values, and principles to make better, more intelligent decisions?
- Could these different decisions lead to a better, healthier, happier, more meaningful, and more fulfilling life?
I think it’s clear by the existence of this blog that I did, indeed, discover that many of my beliefs, values, and actions were causing me (and those around me) pain. I also, thankfully, worked very hard to cultivate new beliefs and values that led to new, and better, behaviors.
I was twenty years old when I was sitting in that Paris apartment googling, “Am I depressed?” Now, I’m 29 with two master’s degrees, a fiance, a cat and a dog, a condo in Denver, and a full-time job which, among other things, gives me an opportunity to try to “make the world a better place.”
For the past nine years, I’ve studied philosophy, politics, culture, and psychology and I’ve expanded my knowledge of the world’s problems and the pain and suffering that they cause. I’ve also dedicated a significant portion of my emotional energy to reflecting on my own beliefs and behaviors to try to decipher which ones are productive and giving me the life that I want and which ones are harmful or leading me astray.
While it might sound obvious, the following realization has been key to my personal growth and healing for the past decade:
What we believe influences our behavior, and our behaviors are the building blocks of our lives.
After my experience in Paris, I began a search that started with amateur academic research, then led to graduate school, then at last brought me here. During my graduate studies, I learned something important: when we start talking about beliefs, and the practical consequences of beliefs, one field tends to dominate the discussion.
Philosophical pragmatism became my intellectual home in graduate school and, even though I now have a “professional” job, it still guides my intellectual and moral life. This is because, unlike a lot of fields of philosophy, pragmatism doesn’t give us immutable moral, political, or social answers. Instead, it gives us a theoretical framework for crafting answers to these problems ourselves.
Many of us, when we hear the world “philosophy,” think about an old (probably white) dead guy who wrote something very intelligent a long time ago. But philosophy is about so much more than the books we read in school. In particular, philosophical pragmatism – a branch of philosophy formed by thinkers such as John Dewey, Jane Addams, and William James – helps us clarify our thinking about problems as little as “What should I eat for lunch today?” to problems as big as “Who should I vote for?” or “Should I believe in God?”
While we can examine all of our beliefs for their practical consequences, this blog will focus on exploring our most fundamental beliefs, the underlying assumptions upon which all of our other beliefs lie. It will also look at our respective cultures’ dominant beliefs. Our lives take shape around our individual fundamental beliefs as well as the fundamental beliefs embedded in the social, political, and historical context in which we find ourselves. (The realities of our lives, after all, are shaped by so much more than our individual choices).
Thus, this blog is both an individual and a collective project. We will reflect on our own beliefs and behaviors as individuals. And we will also reflect on our society as members of a particular culture, within a particular moment, in a particular time.
Nobody knows better than me that unfettered personal reflection or excessive outward analysis can quickly lead to neurosis rather than enlightenment. Though, like most valuable things that can both hurt us and make us stronger, critical reflection on ourselves and our world is imperative if we are to create the lives, and the world, that we wish to live in and pass on to the next.
I created this blog, guided by a philosophically-pragmatic ethos, to give those of us who need or want it a space to explore these big questions. Above all, this blog is an online community meant to give readers and writers a personal yet collaborative space to explore the answers to the following questions:
What is true?
What is good?
What is valuable?
Answers we come up with here are not meant to be fixed, rigid, or perfect. In fact, this space isn’t meant to give us answers at all. Mostly, it’s meant to help us cultivate and define our values. And
our ability to choose what we value gives us power, and only through individual and collective power comes change.
Importantly, this blog is predicated on the belief that organic, emotional experience is where many of us begin our most valuable journeys of personal and cultural reflection.
After all, it was a failed journey to the City of Light that led me to ask big questions about the nature of my own darkness.
This blog will include posts of short essays that have two parts: the first part will include a personal recount of an experience where the author was prompted to explore a topic related to one of the “Big 3” questions: What is good? What is true? What is valuable? Just as this entry began with my story of Paris, it is my hope that other writers can share their stories as emotional pathways to their intellectual explorations. Emotions may not always be rational, but they can serve as catalysts for rational thought cultivated through critical reflection.
The second part of each entry will explore a topic related to the “Big 3” but can touch on a variety of topics related to philosophy, politics, culture, and psychology. The only requirement is that the topic explored is related to the project of humanity.
Finally, it is my hope that these posts share a creative ethos, rather than a deductive one. This means that their general attitude assumes that humans have the ability to grow, change, or develop in order to become better – in whatever way we define “better.” After all, this blog is called “Creating the Good Life,” not “Finding the Good Life,” and that’s an important distinction.
Essays here will worry less about what is definitively true and more on what is good and how we can bring the true closer to the good. (Check out John Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy if you want to learn more about this.)
This blog will feature my own writing and, hopefully, essays submitted by others.
Like any writer sharing her story for the first time, or any blogger trying to create something she deems valuable, I hope these ideas connect with others and that my readers want to contribute and share. Yet, even if they don’t, I feel comforted knowing this:
This is a space to explore, question, create, and solidify the beliefs, principles, and values that guide my behavior. Even if it only reaches my own computer screen, I will be shaped for the better.
Now, if you’re up for it, let’s start exploring exactly what I mean by “better.”