Foundations of a Life Philosophy | Section 1.6

Note: This article is one part of a series, "How to Rethink Your Entire Life | Foundations of a Life Philosophy"

Life philosophies sometimes wobble, crumble, and even collapse.

When that happens, we often call it an “existential crisis.”

There are times when the world just stops making sense.

An existential crisis usually involves a period of confusion, disorientation, and serious questioning. It usually involves asking Big Questions with serious urgency.

These periods can be unsettling, to put it mildly. The strain can be intense. It can feel like living in a pressure cooker.

But it’s not all pressure cooker.

When all goes well, the “crisis” phase is temporary. The “pressure” phase ends, and we come out wiser, stronger, and saner for it. If heat and pressure transforms coal to diamonds, sometimes a crisis can make us a bit more diamondlike.

This can parallel a physical workout. Lifting weights breaks down muscles. Working out involves breaking down muscles deliberately so they will rebuild stronger.

Can the same thing happen with a soul?

The cliché “what does not kill me makes me stronger” might actually apply along these lines. As Hemingway said, “We’re stronger in the places that we’ve been broken.”

Many of us want inner strength, but fewer of us deliberately seek out the kinds of “breaking experiences” that develop strength. It’s not uncommon to hear that a hardship, over time, was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” But it’s less common for us to deliberately seek out the kinds of hardships that lead to those “best things.” We often talk about wanting personal growth. But growth usually involves struggle, and we often avoid struggle. Ultimately, then, we often work to avoid our own growth.

But we have real choices here.

To avoid struggle entirely is impossible, at least on some levels. We have to fight gravity just to stand up in the morning. Even the idea of “peace” has to struggle against the idea of “conflict.” Struggle seems to be baked into the cake.

The trick, then, seems to be choosing the struggle worth enduring. This can mean turning around and facing suffering in order to overcome it.

We can try to avoid hardship, merely endure it, or embrace a kind of hardship that strives to end hardship. It can mean choosing a kind of suffering that leads to less suffering. Life often serves us hardships either way. Our choice is whether to take our arrows in the chest or in the back. We seem to have genuine options along these lines.

If we play it well, a crisis of a life philosophy can sometimes become an opportunity to upgrade. A life philosophy that proves fragile can become an opportunity to strengthen it.

Everyone experiences a collapse of a life philosophy to some degree or other. From a child losing a toy (seemingly minor, unless you’re the child) to the death of a loved one (major), life can test us sorely.

But we can fortify ourselves. We can aim for a life philosophy that’s sturdy enough to survive – and even strengthen – through whatever life might throw at it.

So, how do we know if a life philosophy is fragile?

We’ve already explored how we can tell that a life philosophy is strong and healthy.

Being fragile is simply the opposite.

It can mean any of the following:

It might be found to be incoherent. (It just doesn’t make sense.)

It might be found to be arbitrary. (It’s just a statement, not “backed” by anything.)

It might be found not to be less than comprehensive. (Other experiences or data contradict it.)

An inconsistency might be discovered in it. (It’s trying to force two things together that don’t go together.)

We might find that it isn’t unified. (It might consist of a patchwork of fragmented pieces that don’t really work together.)

We might discover that a life philosophy isn’t actually illuminating. (Instead of explaining, it “explains away.” Instead of answering questions, it dismisses, suppresses, or undermines questions.)

We might realize that a life philosophy isn’t livable. (It might sound great, but it collapses when it ventures out into actual life circumstances.)

We might find that the consequences of adopting a certain philosophy aren’t good. (Instead of making a person wiser, happier, more successful, and more compassionate, it makes a person angrier, meaner, more miserable, more likely to fail, and dumber.)

We might compare it to other intelligent ideas or individuals, and find differences.

A life philosophy can be like a house.

A philosophy that’s strong, healthy, and in touch with reality might get by with relatively minor ongoing maintenance and occasional touch-ups. If we take care of it, it provides a safe, sturdy, comfortable place where we can live and thrive.

Others might need some more extensive remodeling.

Deliberately “rethinking one’s life” and enduring a voluntary existential crisis – or an entire series of them – probably doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a romping good time. But plenty of people remodel a house, or study in school, or work out their physical body – not usually “romping” either.


Because the fruits can prove worth the effort.

The “fruit” of this effort – the ultimate aim – is a life philosophy that makes someone relatively immune to an existential crisis.

It’s better to learn self-defense in a gym with a sparring partner than in the street with someone who is seriously out to hurt you. It’s often better to test, explore, and remodel a life philosophy in a way that’s deliberate and managed than avoid it and leave the whole matter to chance.

The result, if all goes well, is existential strength.

And part of existential strength can involve actually jumping in to this whole "life philosophy" thing and really sorting it out.

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