Book I.
 Introducing Kirism

 

1. A philosophy of life is not an attempt at an answer to the question, “How shall I live as a rabbit?” or “How shall I live as a lion?” It is an attempt at an answer to the question, “How shall I live as a human being?” It is a question about us.
2. And the answer must not be imposed. It is not your father, your mother, your pastor or your professor selling you a vision. A pertinent philosophy of life is you staring at the void, you eyeing humanity, and you saying, “Here is how I choose to be.”3. Do you even need such a thing, a philosophy of life? Can’t you just live? Can’t you just wake up, brush your teeth, hop on the bus, go off to work, shuffle papers, come home, and watch a show? Who needs a philosophy of life when life is that easy?4. Ah, but did that sound easy? Or did that sound terrible? If it sounded terrible, what fell short on that eminently functional day? You made some money. You had wine with dinner. Your television show amused you slightly. What was so terrible?5. What fell short was that you didn’t live as a being burdened by consciousness knows that it ought to live. No rabbit or lion would have quarreled with that day. A carrot, a hunk of meat, a nap: just fine! But not you, burdened by consciousness!
6. For you, such a day won’t do. It is too full of nothingness. It is too far from what you sense is possible. It is too short on value and too long on sleepwalking. It stirs no blood, it sings no song, it smells of nothing to love. It just won’t do, at least not for you.

7. Consciousness is such a giant apparatus, like linking a nuclear reactor to a light bulb. Why are we allowed to contemplate infinity? Make subtle distinctions between what I have and what you have? Why put a whole universe in a single brain?

8. But there it is. Consciousness. It is sui generis and impossible to speak about, that puffed up brain of ours generating ideas and phantoms, dreams and guilt trips, intimations of immortality and a fear of spiders. What a taskmaster, evolution!

9. Evolution apparently played its usual tricks. It burdened us with consciousness, including a consciousness of good and evil. Must we be saddled with a knowledge of shallow graves, endless deceits, and our own secret stains? Evolution says, “You bet!”

 10. No one asked for consciousness. On a warm, sunny day, out on the grass, half-asleep, we are as happy as a lizard, and just as unconscious. Then consciousness throws up an image of a rail-thin, starving child. Or nuclear explosions. Consciousness!

11. Or it does something even more startling. It paints a picture of a pretty life, some ideal that no one has ever lived or could ever live, some amazing confabulation of genius, success, adoration, and what-have-you and says, “Here. Go for this. You can have it!”

12. Or it nags you about your mistakes, your shortfalls, your weaknesses, about all the ways in which you are not equal to the tasks of living or equal to realizing your dreams. It nags you relentlessly, while you’re awake and while you’re asleep.

13. Or it pesters you with the understanding that half the human race is dangerous, malicious, conniving, and shaming. Then it hits you with the thought, “How ridiculous to contemplate being good! Remember: villains sleep in the warmest beds!”

14. And it pesters you with a consciousness of meaning and meaninglessness. On that grass, happy as a lizard, you hear yourself say, “Time is passing.” And just like that you feel agitated and on the brink of a meaning crisis. Consciousness!

15. We are not a fish with no knowledge of water. We have consciousness. We know we are swimming and we know what water is and we know about life and death and we see every contradiction, conflict, indignity and absurdity. We see it all!

16. Consciousness sets us up. Then we smack into reality, hitting it like a bullet train crashing into a brick wall. Reality is the impregnable wall. You can beat your head against it until the end of time and cancer will still be cancer. Smash!

17. Consciousness says, “Write a novel.” You sit there. Nothing. You sit there. Something; but it is garbage. That is no pinprick of pain you feel. That is despair. That is the gorgeous dream that consciousness has conjured up colliding with the rigors of process.

18. Tyranny happens. Authoritarians have stormed the gate and taken the castle. Consciousness says, “Evil.” Not a shadow of a doubt: evil. But what are you supposed to do? Fight, die, and make not one bit of difference? Yet another brick wall!

19. Your group is the selected scapegoat of your community. Jews. Gays. Blacks, Witches. Time and again you are harassed, mocked, demeaned, thwarted, and endangered. The specter of ovens! Another brick wall, and this one, ten feet thick.

20. Any philosophy of life that feels true, with the power to serve you, must take into account consciousness and must take into account consciousness smashing into reality again and again. A mind that can dream and a world that can punish!

21. Imagine a philosophy of life that only had puerile things to say about consciousness smashing into reality. “It’s all for the best.” “Get a grip on your mind.” “You are still loved.” “Your next life will be better.” Please! No such philosophy could ever satisfy.

22. And every such philosophy would infuriate you. Part of the rage that each of us lives with is a consequence of the deceitfulness and insipidness of the self- declared wisdom traditions. Your own wisdom tradition must be truer, smarter, and wiser!23. Your philosophy of life should match your understanding of life, not fight with it or fly in the face of it. Why create a philosophy of life that doesn’t embrace the truth of your experiences? Pain, beauty, absurdity, love, pratfalls, all of it included!24. It certainly shouldn’t include gods bossing you around, should it? Do you believe that there are gods who root for football teams and decide which planes should crash? You know exactly where those bullying fairy tales came from, don’t you?25. And it should have a way of thinking about personality, meaning, purpose, ethics and values that makes sense to you and that leads to practical applications. Can any of those reasonably be left out of your philosophy of life?

26. And it must take into account human nature. Selfish genes. Small- mindedness. Whole nations acting in lockstep to avenge made-up slights. Calculated ignorance. Genuine ignorance. Thousands of years of conquests and intrusions!

27. Make your philosophy of life your own. That is the prime directive: that you make it your own. If you walk in lockstep, you will have tossed away your personhood. No sects for you, even if they smell of roses and come with music and incense!28. Your philosophy of life must be your own. But perhaps we can share some common ground, if what we share feels true to you? No sharing just for the sake of sharing! That won’t do. But what if what we share rings true?29. Let’s say that we did want a bit of a shared philosophy of life, our own wisdom tradition, something that honored our first principles, that meaning comes and goes, that our life purposes are ours to choose, and so on. What might that look like?

 

30. Let’s name it. Let’s call it kirism. Kirism could perhaps become our shared philosophy, its focus on personal responsibility set against a backdrop of cosmic indifference. It would be wise about human nature and it might also sparkle a little.

31. Why ‘kirism’? Because it has charming associations. The Slavic and Romany word for ‘inn’ is ‘kir ‘c ‘ima.’ Think of kirism as an inn for existential travelers, a waystation where, each of us on our own individual journey, we cross paths for an evening.

32. In Sumerian ‘kara’ means ‘to shine’ and ‘kar’ means ‘to illuminate.’ ‘Szikra’ means ‘spark’ in Hungarian, ‘gira’ means ‘fire’ in the African dialect of East Cushitic, and ‘iskra’ means ‘sparkle’ in Serbo-Croatian. Aren’t those lovely associations?

33. But what’s in a name? What matters is what it stands for. It would stand for radical goodness, radical obligation and radical individualism. For profound self- awareness, powerful self-determination, intentional living and absurd rebellion. Are you in?

34. Describing it to others would prove effortless. “So, you’re a kirist?” “I am.” “What do you believe in?” “Whatever feels true to me.” “So, every kirist believes something different?” “No doubt.” “What a mess!” “Not at all. What glorious independence!”

35. The Declaration of Independence would become embedded in your being, and vice versa. All declarations of independence would inhabit you and you them. The Magna Carta would become your bedtime reading. Warrior, sleep well!

36. A version of our creed: “I believe that meaning comes and goes, that ‘life purposes’ is a truer idea than ‘life purpose,’ that personal responsibility is the north star, and that doing good isn’t ridiculous. And that I am obliged to decide all the rest!”

37. How does the good get into our philosophy? We consciously add it. We add radical goodness to our personal philosophy. If someone points a finger and says, “You have no values,” you instantly reply, “Of course I do. And they are excellent ones!”

38. And what if that finger-pointer demands, “And where do those values come from?” You would laugh and reply, “Are you joking? You don’t know that freedom is better than slavery? That generosity beats selfishness? Seriously?”

39. And what if that finger-pointer continues, “That’s just you deciding. Billions believe otherwise. Where do you get off?” You would laugh and reply, “Sorry if radical goodness disturbs you. I sincerely apologize. Now go bully someone else.”

 

40. Yes, our intention to be good notwithstanding, on a given day we may be base, cruel, prurient, selfish, weak, and all the rest. We are human, after all. But when we misstep we hear ourselves say loudly and clearly, “That was not okay!”

41. We take personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is our north star. Radical goodness is its twin, shining right beside it. If we live that way, we’ll likely have experiences of meaning. That is one possible payoff, along with a sense of personal pride.

42. Kirism asserts that, like it or not, we have been forced into the role of steward and arbiter of our life. Surely no one asked for that. Who wouldn’t have preferred one orgasm, stock split, and round of golf after another? Wouldn’t you?

43. But we can’t live that way because we know that we ought not to live that way. There is not an ounce of goodness in that picture. There is comfort. There is pleasure. There is privilege. It is quite the charming picture! Just not for an ethical being.

44. And even if we live as we ought to live? There will still be zero occult payoffs. No payoff in a heavenly life. No nirvana. No enlightenment. No Nobel Prizes of the soul. There will only be your life as project, with self-respect the main payoff.

 

45. One Saturday morning I am writing in a small neighborhood park in Paris. The park is full. On a nearby bench, a woman is angry with a man. He tries to mollify her. On the next bench sit a middle-aged couple who have no need to say anything.

46. Near me are two old women, one sprightlier than the other and annoyed at her friend’s decrepitude. Outside the park’s swinging gates a seated woman holding an infant is begging. Around me, a dozen boys are sword-fighting.

47. This is our species. This is life: concrete, real, and various. Everything human is there. We aspire to accept this variety, this concreteness, this reality. Might it be lovely to be another sort of creature with another destiny? But this is who we are.

48. Kirism is an aspirational philosophy. We aspire to do a better job than average of manifesting our values, minding our thoughts, and living our life purposes. We do this not to pass some universal test but to live as we know we ought to.

49. Inside our cocoon of psychological subjectivity, that makes it so hard to see clearly, we aspire to self-awareness. That is another absurdity that we accept as a given. How can such a subjective creature possibly see objectively? But we try!

 

50. We try. We can’t escape our psychological subjectivity, as we are embedded inside of it. But we can wonder about our motives, make guesses about our intentions, and speculate about where we may be fooling ourselves. We can reflect.

51. Self-awareness does not imply perfect self-awareness. Ha! We have more blind spots than a road with hairpin curves. But that doesn’t make us blind or dumb. We understand deceit, we understand goodness, we understand a lot!

52. Sadly, our self-awareness is severely limited by our need to protect ourselves from confusing and painful realities. So, we defensively deny that the mole on our thigh has changed shape. Is that any way to maintain meaning? Or life itself?

53. And, sadly, since it is just too difficult to reinvent ourselves every split second, we repeat ourselves. Early on we settle on repetitive reactions, beliefs, opinions, prejudices and biases. After that, little thinking is needed. We just repeat ourselves!

54. We are hard-pressed to make changes to those repetitive habits of mind. Ever tried to reverse an opinion? So, our ongoing psychological experience of life is more rote and mechanical than it might be, if only we were less defensive.

 

55. But, if we are lucky and adamant, we possess enough self-awareness to reduce our defensiveness, increase our goodness, change our habits of mind, and grow into the person who can say, “I am working on the project of my life.”

56. And radical goodness? Well, first of all, it has nothing to do with playing the patsy or rolling over in the face of tyranny! Kirists stand up. We staunchly uphold our teeming values, including our values of liberty and the right to exist.

57. And we boldly take our place beside any other philosophy, any other psychology, any other tradition, any other mashup of ideas, hopes, speculations and opinions. We do! That is our birthright and maybe even our obligation.

58. “Ah,” you are told, “but all this claptrap means nothing if fate throws you curveballs. It means nothing in the face of chronic stress, in the face of world wars, in the face of lost loves.” You reply, “No, it means everything. Especially then.”

59. “Ah,” you are told, “but there’s no science to support your philosophy. Where’s the independent research? Where’s the blind testing?” And you reply, “And how is it that Plato and Aristotle knew some things before there were microwaves?”

 

60. “Ah,” you are told, “but you are outnumbered. There are a million believers in something else for every one of you. Ha-ha-ha! It’s simple, overwhelming arithmetic!” And you reply, “How many people did it take to be Lincoln?”

61. Living as a kirist helps coax the experience of meaning into existence. You live life as you know it ought to be lived, you stand up, you make yourself proud, and you experience more meaning. Doesn’t more meaning seem likely?

62. Kirism is an ambitious philosophy that demands that human beings try their darnedest. It begs them to make use of the measure of freedom they possess, look life in the eye, and stand tall as an advocate for human dignity. That is a lot!

63. It argues that life relentlessly pairs tremendous ordinariness with tremendous difficulty; and in the face of all that, human beings must nevertheless adopt an indomitable attitude and coax out the meaning they require.

64. This is not really to most people’s taste. It makes work for them; it pesters them to be moral; it demands that they articulate their life purposes and actually live them; and it announces that a kind of perpetual rebellion is necessary.

65. It trumpets that easy pleasures and vices, while nobody’s business but your own, still must be judged by you—and found too easy. It keeps asserting that you must be a hero—an absurd hero, to be sure, heroically keeping meaning afloat.

66. And somehow you are supposed to upgrade and transcend your own personality. But how is it possible to escape the net in which every human being is entangled? This is not only a lot to ask—isn’t it perhaps unfair and impossible?

67. We are even supposed to transcend pride. But humans have rarely come close to such maturity. Scientists haven’t, artists haven’t, philosophers haven’t, parents attending Little League games haven’t. Who has?

68. And appetite! How are people with such unquenchable appetites—for sex, for peanuts, for adrenaline rushes—to put their appetites in their back pocket and approach life with ascetic restraint. Ha! Really?

69. Or take human energy itself. What if you are flying along in a manic way in pursuit of some impossible dream and don’t want to stop to take a measured reckoning? A snail’s pace or our very life force? Who wouldn’t choose racing?

70. Indeed, why make such a Herculean effort when personality hangs like a lead weight around our neck and the facts of existence ruin so many of our plans? Why care so much about radical goodness? Why care more than the universe cares!

71. Starting in the seventeenth century, we experienced four hundred years of the celebration—and inflation—of the individual. Certain amazing ideas bloomed and some even more amazing realities followed. We got individual rights!

72. We got the sense that man might get to know himself and his world. We got scientific and technological progress on all fronts. There we were, beating back disease and living long lives. A wild, strange euphoria arose: man mattered!

73. But disaster was brewing. We pushed the curtain back and stood face-to-face with a reality so cold that the space between the stars seemed hot by comparison. Science, unintentionally and without malice, knocked us down a peg.

74. And holocausts continued. People still starved. With nuclear weapons came our ability to extinguish the species in the blink of an eye. Man, for all his supposed progress and enlightenment, dropped a huge notch in his own estimation.

 

75. The more that we announced that man mattered, the more that we saw that he really didn’t. The better we understood that the dinosaurs could be extinguished by an asteroid strike, the better we understood our own individual fate.

76. The better we understood the power of microbes, and even as we worked hard to fight them, the better we understood that something invisible and endlessly prevalent could end our personal journey on any given afternoon. Boom!

77. The more science taught us, the more we shrank in size—and shrank back in horror. You could build the largest particle accelerator the world had ever seen and recreate the Big Bang—and psychologically speaking end up with only more of nothing.

78. Even more of nothing. This is where we are; and this is what a kirist faces. We had somehow wagered that well-stocked supermarkets and guaranteed elections would do the trick and protect us from the void. They haven’t. This we face.

79. This now shared certainty that we are throwaways has made life look completely unfunny. We can laugh and make small talk but in most of our private moments there is not much laughter. There is only a deep, wide, abiding “Why bother?”

 

80. And kirists answer that question. You take as much control as possible of your thoughts, your attitudes, your moods, your behaviors, and your very orientation toward life and marshal your innate freedom in the service of your intentions.

81. You take responsibility for your life purpose choices, you deal with meaninglessness by making new meaning investments and by seizing new meaning opportunities, and you dismiss absurdity as true but irrelevant. Is this perhaps for you?

82. Ah, but are there any actual kirists? Well, we have no newsletters, churches, secret handshakes, virtual groups, anthems, or annual conferences, so it’s hard to know. We just occasionally bump into one another—as likely as not, without knowing it.

83. So, forget about kirism! Just do the next right thing. And the one after that. There you are, self-aware, purposeful, aligned with your values, in a sea of shifting meaning, aiming for the good and undaunted by human puniness. That will work!

84. Each day we must decide what matters to us. Each day we are obliged to figure out how to deal with life. Our life is our project and we strive to rise to the occasion. None of this guarantees the experience of meaning; but it certainly helps.

85. Maybe you like the idea of kirism. Maybe you can envision its celebrations. Maybe you can supply its details. Maybe you can start the institute or write the song book. Shall we stop for a moment at the inn and spend a good evening together?