On finding meaning by looking beyond the self – part 2

St. Alphonsus's Church in Chicago. Photo by Chris Smith.
St. Alphonsus Church, Chicago. Photo by Chris Smith.

Candace Vogler spoke about Self-Transcendence, Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning on the Matt Townsend Show. We’re providing this transcript (in 2 parts) to accompany the audio of the program, which aired February 25, 2016.


Matt Townsend: One of the things I found reading your work was that the antidote to selfishness is not naturally what I would think of as the fix; what you’re saying is that it’s virtues, it’s go for the virtues, and not necessarily accomplishment.


Candace Vogler: We think that if you have the right understanding, I mean, virtue is an odd word. It basically points to, in my work and the work we’re doing, a quality in your character, a quality you work to cultivate, that basically allows you to pursue things that are good reasonably, and effectively, and in a way that helps you develop the ability to actually take pleasure in being a good person. Those kinds of things. And so, there’s four of them, four cardinal virtues that are the traditional ones—there’s Justice, which has to do with behaving fairly and decently, and in a right way with your fellow human beings, but more generally just in your external actions. There’s Temperance, which has to do with not overindulging in things, with being reasonable in the ways that you move about with things that you find very attractive or shiny. There’s Fortitude, or Courage, which has to do with being afraid of the right things, and with being willing to take stands, when necessary, for things that really matter. And there’s practical wisdom, or in Latin prudentia, or Prudence, which has to do with putting all these things together in a way that allows you to lend some order to your life.


Now each one of those virtues, in the picture I’m working with, finds its happiest home, it’s natural mode, in pursuing common good. What’s great about them, about having them, is that they help me participate in pursuit of a common good of some kind, which is more than just the added up sum of individual bits of pleasure or happiness or senses of achievement or something like that. It’s a general good that benefits more than just the people I happen to know, and has been the kind of good that people have gone after for some time, usually before me, and probably with any luck well after me.


So that’s the basic structure. Ancient philosophers, ancient Greek philosophers, were hopeful that just working to have a good character all by itself would be enough to give you a very good life. That there was a kind of pleasure to be had in it. The medieval shift in that, which took place largely because of Christianity, which was not a minor thing, broadened the scope of things, and articulated more clearly an account of what it is like to lead a fully human life, a really good, fully human life, and that’s a life that understands itself as being involved in pursuit of good, and that goes way beyond private advantage and individual well being, even if your sense of individual well-being extends out to your immediate family and the people in your neighborhood.


Matt: So instead of you in your little world growing a strong, powerful character, with virtue, and wisdom and all of that, that the newer philosophy was like, ok that’s great, but take your character, and serve the world. Serve the people. Serve the greater good.


Candace: Serve the greater good. It’s not enough to look inward and think, Ah, my soul—it’s so beautiful. If it really is that beautiful, it should be of use to others, too.


Matt: So these others, this is the philosophical side of this, this is the underlying theory, and I just think of today’s psychology, is also still more about you. To thine own self be true, I guess.


Candace: Well that’s certainly one powerful kind of work, although interestingly, a lot of research that has been done around self-transcendence has been done by nurses and clinical psychologists, nurses working particularly with geriatric patients and patients with very serious illness, oncology patients, cancer patients, who have a huge stake in figuring out what kinds of things will improve the health outcomes for their patients, and it turns out that if their patients have this self-transcendent understanding of themselves, they’ve got much better health outcomes. Which is stunning, because one of the things severe illness can do to most people is produce a turn inward, where you become hyper-concerned about your health, and then about what your health trouble is doing to your immediate family.


Matt: Circle the wagons. Protect yourself.


Candace: Exactly, especially if you’ve got one of these very serious illnesses, and what they found was that the patients who were self-transcendent in this sense had this attitude, and were understanding of their lives, got better. The older people who were that way had a real stake in their lives, and were more enjoying themselves, in a way that the other geriatric patients were not. So it’s got its feet on the ground in all kinds of odd places. It’s also part of social psychology, the psychologists who are working on questions about family and generativity and that sort of thing, and just attachment to the ongoingness of human life more generally.


Matt: It’s funny because I hear all these themes, and I am of the persuasion of social psychology, and I had never thought about it, but yeah, it’s about this ability of a human to influence lives, other people around them, and the self-transcended, higher-reaching philosophy could guide me to lift other people around me, even if I don’t know them.


Candace: I think that’s one of the most important things, is just that you live your life in a way that’s prepared to—everybody is put in some place where there is the possibility that they could extend out towards others—towards strangers, even—I mean, everybody will find some moment in their lives where that is a possibility. If you’ve got a self-transcendent attitude, you’ll see those as opportunities, not just slightly alarming moments where you’re surrounded by people you don’t know, or something like that.


Matt: And I guess that one of the things you mentioned as what Aristotle was talking about is about how everybody should be able to reach their fullest level of potential, and I guess we used to think that was my potential in me, but this might be more my potential in the we, in all of us.


Candace: Yeah, it’s my potential to participate, really effectively, in the collective pursuit of good, on the part of human beings. Good is not, I think, a private project to be pursued off in a corner someplace. Human good is human good. And it reaches out past the individual in all kinds of tremendously important ways.


Matt: How do we do it? So I’m a dad, our listeners are parents, grandparents — what can we do—what are some steps we can take just in our lives now, in the next few days, few hours, few minutes that would help us start to turn to this higher level of thinking and being?


Candace: Let’s see. If you are somebody who has religious faith, faith in a personal God, or more than one, who cares about what goes on with you, then one of the things you can do is pray for help, for actual guidance.


But another thing you can do is be alive to all of the ways in which the good in your life is made possible by people you’ve never met, people you might never meet, people who might have died a long time ago, and suffered and struggled a long time ago, to make the kind of life you are enjoying now possible.


And with children, to try to help them understand that they come from somewhere and have gotten these good things, and that they’re fully capable—not, you know, you should be ashamed of yourself and you’re not showing enough gratitude for the struggles of the people that went before you—they are fully capable, you know, of moving this forward in their lives in all kinds of ways, and that sometimes the smallest thing you do for another person can be an enormous thing in that other person’s life, and you may never know what you have done for that person.


So you know, there are all kinds of little ways of just being alive to your fellow human beings and trying to understand them as seeking some kind of good or trying to avoid some kind of bad even if they’re doing some kinds of things that look to you to be pretty questionable. Realize that if you’re going to have any understanding of what they’re doing you’re going to have to see them as trying to go for something good or avoid something bad, that you are trying to go for something good or avoid something bad, and that this is a thing that you have in common with your fellow human beings even if their views about good and bad differ from yours pretty dramatically. And to have a lot of respect for the ways that groups of people try to find to work together on behalf of a shared sense of the good that isn’t just for them, but is for human beings more generally. Does that help?


Matt: That’s beautiful. And great ideas. And I love your wording, “alive to life.” Just be alive to all these ideas, I guess, is just get your mind engaged in thoughts bigger than you, past, present, and future.


Candace: And just move around in a way that treats your fellow human beings as worthy. There’s a Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who basically was of the view that the most important thing about the community he was trying to build was that every human being he met was a human being for whom Jesus died. That’s a way of thinking about your fellow human beings that’s super unusual. If that’s the way you approach your fellow human beings, then you’re approaching your fellow human beings in a really powerful way.



On finding meaning by looking beyond the self – part 1

Silhouette of a girl watching the clouds after sunset.

Candace Vogler spoke about Self-Transcendence, Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning on the Matt Townsend Show. We’re providing this transcript (in 2 parts) to accompany the audio of the program, which aired February 25, 2016.


Matt Townsend: Our guest today, Dr. Candace Vogler, joins us from Chicago to talk about some research she is doing and a project she is undertaking to basically help us transcend ourselves. Dr. Candace Vogler, welcome to the Matt Townsend show!


Candace Vogler: Thank you very much, and thanks for having me.


Matt: You bet. This is to me a really interesting subject. I mean, we tied it to selfies, but this is an age-old issue, right? I mean our philosophers—cause you’re a philosopher, right? And this isn’t a new concept of people becoming too self-absorbed.


Candace: No, I don’t think there’s anything brand new about it. I think it’s a kind of central temptation for a whole lot of people, and has been for a very long time.


Matt: Talk to us about your research. You did just receive some money, a grant to do a research project about getting over yourself.


Candace: What we’ve got is a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation called “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life,” and the inspiration for this grant came from people who are actually leading pretty solid lives, but find themselves at odds with themselves in all kinds of ways. They’re pretty good people, they’ve got something that looks like a solid family—whatever counts as that for them—they’ve got jobs that don’t grind them into the dust, they’ve got some kind of community, and yet there’s this sense that these lives they have worked so hard to put into place for themselves are hollow.


So for me this started as the question about the difference between people who felt like their lives were hollowed out, and people who didn’t have that sense, whether or not they were sort of stunningly privileged by global standards. So what we’re doing is getting together a group of 25 very prominent scholars. They’re cognitive scientists, psychologists, people who do religious studies of various kinds, and philosophers, to think about the hypothesis that part of what is going wrong in these lives that seem empty is that people aren’t looking far enough beyond themselves to find a sense of meaning.


Matt: Interesting.


Candace: If you can understand your life as lived in relation to something that goes well beyond personal expression, personal actualization, and even the safety and comfort of members of your immediate family or community, then you’ve got a much better chance of being able to enjoy what you’ve put in place for yourself, and find it meaningful in a day-to-day way.


Matt: And that is self-transcendence, right?


Candace: And that is self-transcendence. And there’s lots of different kinds of it.


Matt: Well, how amazing! This seems like such a novel idea, but it blows my mind that this is novel, cause you’ve got a headline, one of the headlines was that you received 2 million dollars for this research, and everyone was surprised, but this has been going on, and I know you use Aquinas as a source of kind of your philosophical underpinning of all of this, but talk to us, teach us about why we aren’t naturally moving towards transcendence.


Candace: Well, some kinds of religious positions think that we are. It’s just that we get in our own ways all the time. So the figure I work on a lot is as you mentioned is Thomas Aquinas, and he’s a 13th century philosopher and theologian, and I’m not myself Catholic, but he’s a major source for Catholic theology.


Aquinas’s view is that the interesting thing about human beings is that we have all these different kinds of capacities and powers, and that we have emotional and feeling capacities and powers, and we sense things and perceive things, we have capacities to love, and to think and to reason, but those powers tend not always to cooperate with one another.


So I sometimes say that in my apartment, the cats that live in my apartment , if they’re going for something, it tends to be the kind of thing that’s pretty good for cats—it’s play, it’s food, it’s love, it’s the best place to sit on the windowsill on a sunny day. The humans in my apartment have a much harder time going straight for things that are good for human beings. It’s much easier for us to go after things that are not good for us, in all kinds of ways, and it’s much easier for us to be insensitive to the world we’re inhabiting, to one other, to all kinds of stuff, and it’s much easier for us to get caught up psychologically in being just very, very worried about self-expression, self-actualization, self-enhancement, comfort, all these kinds of things.


Matt: That–that to me is the American way.


Candace: Yes—it’s been the way for a lot of different people in a lot of different times.


Matt: it’s interesting, because one of the things you brought up in one of your articles was the fact that you’re coming at this, so theological scholars would study this more naturally, because it’s related to their religion, like Aquinas, but you’re saying psychologists might even study it, to some degree, but this is a newer idea to study in philosophy.


Candace: Yes—it’s actually pretty new in philosophy, this way of going about it, even though a lot of our historical sources, if you take a look at them are basically saying, you need to be connected to some good that’s bigger than you are for things to go well for you. That’s a fairly common theme in a lot of philosophical work, well, in a lot of European-based philosophy, and certainly clear in a lot of Asian philosophy. It’s really a pretty common thing there. And the thing that was really the most interesting for me is that the term self-transcendence is one that we’re taking from empirical psychology.


Matt: Right—Maslow was the first time I ever heard the word used. Self-actualization, transcendence.


Candace: Yes—self-transcendence is higher than self-actualization, in his most mature work.


Matt: But transcendence is “me” kind of getting out of me and into helping the “thee” in everyone else.


Candace: That’s certainly the way Maslow is understanding it. One of our psychologists, Dan McAdams, who is the chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University, studies it in connection with intergenerational families. So if I understand the good that I’ve got as something that was made possible for me by the struggle of ancestors back there—I may not even know their names, the ancestors back behind me—but I understand what I’m trying to do here as making some good—possibly good I won’t even be able to imagine—as possible for people in the future, that my own life is in that kind of multigenerational context, that is a form of self-transcendence. If I’m working for the environment really hard, I’m working for a sustainability or something, I’m working for something that may benefit people I may never meet, and other kinds of animals I may never meet, as well, or never see. If I’m some incredibly dedicated intellectual who is, like, I’m after truth here, and truth is important, then I’m connected to something, I’m seeing my work in light of something much bigger. And for most people, if they have powerful religious convictions, then some piece of the lives they lead are lead in relation to the divine, or to something sacred, or something that deserves reverence.


Matt: And what’s amazing about this, Dr. Vogler, is the idea that self transcendence the way you just described it can happen in any realm, in any professional endeavor, in any art, it can happen in anything, it’s just more my focus.


Candace: Yes–it has to do with how you understand what you’re up to and what it connects to.


Matt: You don’t need to be a monk. You don’t need to be a devout whatever—you just need a shift in your view.


Candace: Yes I think that’s right. And in the United States probably the poster child for the problem here was American writer David Foster Wallace, who along with a lot of his friends suddenly realized that he was stunningly successful, and leading a completely empty life. Like he had achieved all the goals he wanted to achieve, and his life was completely meaningless. And it was for him a lethal situation; he killed himself, which is terrible.


Matt: Maybe that’s why so many are committing suicide—they’re so lonely. They’re so empty.


Candace: I think that it is just very perplexing if you’ve been raised on a steady diet that lets you think that self- achievement, self-actualization, and self-expression are the highest goals you could have, and then you find yourself feeling like you’ve expressed yourself and actualized yourself and realized your goals, and all of that leaves you alienated from anything that might provide you with a stable and sustaining source of meaning in your life.