Book 1: Introducing Kirism
Book I. Introducing Kirism
1. A philosophy of life is an attempt at a comprehensive answer to the question, “How shall I live as a human being?” It is an attempt at a big answer to a big question. Kirism, which I have developed, is a contemporary attempt at that big answer.
2. Any such answer should not be imposed upon you. It should be of your own choosing. It shouldn’t be your parents, your church, your community, or your government ordering your allegiance. Your philosophy of life should be your own.
3. Kirism demands no allegiance. It presents some ideas and makes some suggestions but has no commandments. It wonders aloud, “What do you think?” If you agree with its ideas, then you nod. If you disagree, then you shake your head.
4. But do you even need a philosophy of life? That must be a first question. Can’t you just wake up, brush your teeth, hop on the bus, go off to work, shuffle papers, come on home, and watch a show? Isn’t life straightforward and easy like that?
5. To a kirist, probably not. If you are reading this, you probably require more from yourself than just going through some repetitive motions. You know that when you just go through the motions, life feels meaningless, empty, and disappointing.
6. A useful philosophy of life ought to help you do more than just go through the motions. It should paint a picture of the world as it is, including the worlds of consciousness and mind, and make suggestions that strike you as valuable and true.
7. Past philosophies and religions have not done an excellent job on either score, either with regard to accurately describing the world or with regard to making suggestions that sound and feel true. That is why a new, updated philosophy is needed.
8. Any useful contemporary philosophy of life should have an historical sense and incorporate an understanding of the last five hundred years of human activity, chronicling how we have arrived at our current sense of meaning—and meaninglessness.
9. 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!
10. 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!
11. 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 blazing hot by comparison. Science, unintentionally and without malice, knocked us down a peg.
12. 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 grand enlightenment, dropped a huge notch in his own estimation.
13. 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.
14. 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!
15. 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.
16. Even more of nothing. And this is where we are today; 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.
17. 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?”
18. Kirists answer that question in the following way: “While we are here, we have the self-obligation to bother and the self-obligation to act as if we matter, a mattering that includes acting ethically and putting the whole world on our shoulders.”
19. To accomplish this, you take as much control as possible of your thoughts, your attitudes, your moods, your behaviors, and your very orientation toward life and you make use of the freedom you possess in the service of your noblest intentions.
20. You identify your life purposes and take responsibility for your life purpose choices, you deal with meaninglessness by making daily meaning investments and by seizing daily meaning opportunities, and you dismiss absurdity as true but irrelevant.
21. I’ve given these various connected ideas a name: kirism. Kirism focuses on adamant personal responsibility set against a backdrop of cosmic indifference. It endeavors to be wise about human nature, psychological reality, and the world we live in.
22. Why the name ‘kirism’? Because ‘kirism’ has many charming associations. The Slavic and Romany word for ‘inn’ is ‘kir ‘c ‘ima.’ You might think of kirism as an inn for existential travelers, a waystation where we cross paths for an evening.
23. 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?
24. But, really, what’s in a name? What matters is what kirism stands for. It stands for radical goodness, radical self-obligation and radical individualism. It stands for self-awareness, powerful self-determination, intentional living and absurd rebellion.
25. Kirists take personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is our north star. Radical goodness is its twin, shining equally brightly. If we live that way, acting ethically and living a life of purpose, we’ll likely also be gifted with experiences of meaning.
26. 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 prefer an orgasm, a tidy income, a little selfishness, and another round of golf? Wouldn’t you?
27. Kirists 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 only comfort, pleasure, and privilege. It is quite the charming picture but it doesn’t work for an ethical being.
28. Kirists can’t take that easy route. We say, “I expect no occult payoffs from acting ethically, no nirvana, no heaven, no enlightenment, no Nobel Prizes of the soul. There is only my life as project, with some self-respect as the main payoff.”
29. 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.
30. 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.
31. This is our species. This is life: concrete, real, and various. Everything human is here. Kirists 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.
32. 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 live.
33. Inside our cocoon of psychological subjectivity, a cocoon that makes it 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!
34. 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.
35. As we reflect, we are likely to come to the following conclusions about living. What follows are some of the main suggestions of kirism. These suggestions, presented here are headlines, are elaborated in the other books in this volume.
36. Kirists actively identify their life purposes. They decide what’s important to them. This sounds obvious enough as a sensible thing to do but few people do it. Most people miss this opportunity at self-creation, for all sorts of reasons.
37. A primary reason is that they’ve been taught that life has “a purpose.” As a result, they keep hunting unsuccessfully for that singular purpose. But life has no singular purpose. It is made up of the life purpose choices that a human being champions.
38. Kirists live their life purposes. This sounds obvious enough. If you knew what your life purposes were, surely you would want to live them. But even people who have a good sense of what their life purposes are have difficulty actually living them.
39. This is because tasks, chores, errands, and everything else is allowed to come first; because juggling multiple life purposes is difficult; and because living our life purposes requires rather more effort than, say, napping or turning on the television.
40. Kirists organize life around their life purposes. When they wake up, kirists hear themselves say, “What are the important things?” Not, “What do I have to get done?” or “What did I leave undone?” but “What are the important things?”
41. These important things might include having that hard conversation with your son about his drinking, making a sharp political statement, or creating your online business. Every day, you tackle as many of these important things as you can.
42. Kirists live as if they matter. The contemporary person has powerful reasons for believing that he or she doesn’t matter. But kirists reject that simply because we may be the product of an indifferent universe, we shouldn’t act as if we matter.
43. We matter by living our life purposes, by acting ethically, and, absurdly enough, by taking responsibility for keeping civilization afloat. This is self-obligation, ordered by no one and ratified by no one, and the primary way that we make ourselves proud.
44. Kirists live ethically. We live in a time when that stalwart phrase from the 19th century, “truth, beauty and goodness,” has been shredded by the analytical knives of linguistic philosophy. Today, it is hard to utter that phrase with a straight face.
45. Yet we are obliged to circle back around to innocence and to stand up for goodness, even though we know that badness is often rewarded, even though we know that our values compete and clash, and even in the absence of absolute moral principles.
46. Kirists retain their individuality. Many forces within the family and society will attempt to constrain you and limit you by bullying you, shaming you, hurling insults, invoking arbitrary rules, and employing every manner of violence and meanness.
47. You may be silenced and made to feel small in subtle ways or you may be told flat-out that you do not count, that you will never amount to anything, that you had better fit in and listen or else. A kirists fights against this subjugation her whole life.
48. Kirists aim for meaning without craving it. The experience of meaning is just that, a certain sort of experience. We can work to have more such experiences: we can try to coax meaning into existence. But we shouldn’t pine too much for meaning.
49. Kirists understand that meaning is merely a certain sort of psychological experience. It comes and it goes; it can’t be counted on; it can’t be ordered up. Kirists do their best to not crave it a lot and to focus instead on living their life purposes.
50. Kirists give life a thumb’s up. Without quite realizing it, many people have given up on life. They’ve made the mental calculation that life has cheated them, that life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, that life isn’t worth the candle.
51. This conclusion leads to chronic sadness. It makes it hard to stick with things or to believe in your own efforts. Kirists make the conscious decision to give life a thumb’s up, even if they have ample reasons to come to a different, harsher conclusion.
52. Kirists start their day with an intentional practice. It is unsettling and unsatisfying to rush through life, doing one thing after another and never getting to the things that matter. One strategy? To start your day by doing something that matters.
53. That might be a creativity practice, a health practice, a recovery practice, a business-building practice, an activism practice, a mindfulness practice, a personality upgrade practice: that is, it might be anything that you deem important.
54. Kirism has no set of obligatory practices. But one suggested practice is a morning practice that helps you settle, quiet your nerves, and attend to your life purposes. A daily morning practice can serve as a sure anchor in the turbulent sea of life.
55. Kirists negotiate each day. Kirists conceptualize each day as something requiring a high degree of mindful organization. Because what’s most important may also be what’s hardest, kirists know to pencil in and underline their important tasks.
56. A negotiated day might include an hour devoted to creating, an hour devoted to relating, an hour devoted to activism, many hours of everyday drudgery, and a bit of relaxation. This might amount to a seriously excellent day.
57. Kirists think thoughts that serve them. If we are thinking thoughts that reduce our motivation, that make us doubt our abilities, that increase our anxiety, or that plummet us into despair, we have become a weakened version of ourselves.
58. Kirists set the bar very high by demanding of themselves that they only think thoughts that serve them. This means that they bravely hear what they are saying, see through their own tricks, and send unwanted and derailing thoughts packing.
59. Kirists indwell with awareness. We see value in the metaphor of “the room that is our mind”: the place that we inhabit, that possesses qualities (like airlessness), and that we can redesign (say, by adding windows that let in a breeze).
60. If we don’t pay sufficient attention, that “room” can become a place where we relentlessly nag ourselves or talk ourselves into despair. If, instead, we serve as self-architect, it can become a place of calmness, contemplation, and creation.
61. Kirists upgrade their personality. We see personality as made up of three constituent parts, original personality (who we come into the world as), formed personality (who we stiffen into), and available personality (our remaining freedom).
62. Kirists use their available personality to reckon with their original personality and to upgrade their formed personality. In the process, they create more available personality. This simple model helps them remember that they are their primary project.
63. Kirists deconstruct the idea of work. Most people are obliged to spend two-thirds of their waking time doing work to pay the bills. Work is a great thief, robbing huge amounts of time and energy. This is as true for kirists as for anyone.
64. Some small percentage of workers love what they do. Some small percentage approach their work with decent equanimity. The vast majority dislike their work or even hate it. Kirists understand the lifelong challenges presented by the need to work.
65. Kirists recognize the power of psychological entanglements. Rather than picture emotional difficulties or troublesome behaviors as mental disorders, kirists point to the entangling nature of experience: how experiences live on in the mind and body.
66. Who isn’t tangled up with thoughts and feelings about their parents, their siblings, their rivals, their career failures, their regrets, their disappointments? Kirists pay attention to their own psychological entanglements and watch out for them in others.
67. Kirists recognize that significant tension exists between their humanistic impulses and their selfish genes. Like all living things, we are self-interested. But nature has also constructed us to conjure with ideas like democracy, justice, and civil rights.
68. This confuses everyone. One second we give to charity. The next second we covet. One second we love our classmate’s story. The next second we hate him for winning first prize. Kirists know that no one escapes this particular rollercoaster.
69. Kirists live as rebels. If you remain individual, thinking your own thoughts, acting ethically, speaking up as required, and living in the fullness of your life purposes, you are bound not to fit into your society very well. So, you will have to be adamant.
70. You will have to deal with the forces of society that want to constrain you and silence you. Kirists live a life of action and courage as absurd rebels who have decided to matter. They live this life openly and proudly, without embarrassment.
71. Kirists appreciate subversive intimacy. Although profoundly alone, kirists understand the value of community, institutions, friendships, and family. They especially cherish intimate relationships. They know that love and a human touch matter.
72. But they need their intimate relationships to work. A too-ordinary relationship, where neither partner really cares for the other, respects the other, or advocates for the other, will not do. Kirists hold out for something more committed and better.
73. This better intimacy has a particular flavor to it. Together the partners create a bastion of safety and sanity in an unsafe world. Their love is subversive, in the sense that a two-person resistance cell hidden away in occupied territory is subversive.
74. The above are some of the ideas and suggestions of kirism. You’ll find many more in the rest of this volume. I hope that you’re beginning to see its outline, its intentions, and its basic thrust. And I hope it speaks to you. I have my fingers crossed!
75. Of course, kirism asks a lot. It is a grown-up philosophy of life short on wishful thinking about the beneficence of the universe, our chances in the afterlife, the goodness of our fellow man, or how easy it will be to fulfil our self-obligations.
76. 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 definitely helps.
77. Kirism is an ambitious philosophy that demands that human beings try their hardest. It asks them to make use of the freedom they possess, look life in the eye, and stand tall as an advocate for—and as an example of—human dignity.
78. It argues that life relentlessly pairs tremendous ordinariness with tremendous difficulty. In the face of all that, human beings must nevertheless adopt an indomitable attitude and work to coax out the measure of meaning they require.
79. 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.
80. But it is also beautiful. It is a way of life that encourages the best in you. It matches the high-bar vision you have of yourself as an instrumental, creative, ethical person who thinks for himself, rejects humbug, and puts the world on his shoulders.
81. Kirism may be for you. You may find it reasonable and true-to-life. You may appreciate its humanistic values and its core principles. And you may decide that adopting kirism as your philosophy of life might genuinely serve you. If so, I’m pleased.
82. Ah, but do any card-carrying kirists actually exist? Well, we have no cards to carry. We have no newsletters, no secret handshakes, no annual conferences. So, it’s hard to tell. It’s likely we just occasionally bump into one another—without knowing it.
83. And remember, kirism is new. We shall see what the future brings. Maybe it will grow. If you embrace it, that increases our numbers by one. If you tell a friend, that might make two. Then maybe someone from Japan will join, and then someone from France …
84. For now, just do the next right thing. And the right thing after that. Then, there you would be, 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!
85. And please do read on. I think you’ll find the remaining books in this volume pertinent and interesting. Kirism is a consistent, contemporary, humbug-free, true-to-life philosophy of life that may, at a minimum, interest you; and might really serve you.