Read an Excerpt
The Thinker's Way
By John Chaffee
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 1998 John Chaffee, Ph.D.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTRANSFORM YOURSELF THROUGH THINKING
It is never too late to be what you might have been. -GEORGE ELIOT
You are an artist, creating your life portrait, and your paints and brushstrokes are the choices you make each day. How do you feel about the portrait you have created so far? Have you defined yourself as the person you always wanted to be, or are you a "work in progress"? Are you achieving your full potential as a human being, "actively exercising your soul's powers"-the ancient Greek definition of happiness (eudaemonia)? Or do you feel frustrated, incomplete, unfulfilled, and uncertain how to capture the meaning that you most desire in your life? Have you discovered your purpose in life, the mission that only you can fulfill? Or do you feel rootless, unsure about the direction your life should take? Do you possess a clear philosophy of life that acts as a guiding beacon, illuminating the whole of your life and showing you the path to wisdom and personal fulfillment?
Most of us rarely even stop to ask these questions, and when we do, the answers we struggle for are often unsatisfying, sometimes deeply disturbing. But as George Eliot reminds us, it's not too late for you to become that person you had imagined you would be, to create a vibrant life full of sparkling possibilities and rich in meaning. To do so, you must take the first step in this process: You need to make a conscious decision to commit yourself to a journey of self-examination and self-transformation. If your commitment is genuine, and you choose to use your courage and determination to work through the 8 Steps outlined in this book, then you will indeed improve your life in lasting, significant ways. When you complete this journey, you will feel that you are an individual with a mission, not randomly placed on earth, and you will have the personal tools you need to fulfill your mission. You will come to feel in control of your life, effectively steering a course that you are mapping, not traveling along roads others have designated for you.
The key to your journey will be learning to make the fullest use of the extraordinary power of your thinking process. It is your thinking process that will enable you to become the person you want to be, to create a life that is rewarding, fulfilling, and successful. Everybody "thinks"-Homo sapiens means "thinking man"-but most people don't "think" very well. The purpose of this book is to help you reach your full thinking potential. This kind of transformational process is possible because the thinking process is such an integral part of who we are. When we expand our thinking, we expand who we are as human beings: the perspective from which we view the world, and the concepts and values we use to guide our choices. By exploring your thinking process and using it in carefully designed activities, you can develop it into a powerful, sophisticated tool that will enrich all dimensions of your life. Developing the capacity to examine and refine your thinking process-to "think critically"-initiates a process that transforms the way you view yourself and conduct your business in the world. You will learn to live your life thoughtfully, insightfully, creatively-The Thinker's Way.
The Search for a Meaningful Life
Man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.
This insight by the psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl penetrates to the soul of who we are. A well-known Viennese psychiatrist in the l930s, Dr. Frankl and his family were arrested by the Nazis, and he spent three years in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Every member of his family, including his parents, siblings, and his pregnant wife, was killed. He himself miraculously survived, enduring the most unimaginably abusive and degrading conditions. Following his liberation by Allied troops, he wrote Man's Search for Meaning, an enduring and influential work, which he began on scraps of paper during his internment. Since its publication in 1945, it has become an extraordinary bestseller, read by millions of people in twenty languages. Its success reflects the profound hunger for meaning that people are experiencing, trying to answer a question that, in the author's words, "burns under their fingernails." This hunger expresses the pervasive meaninglessness of our age, the "existential vacuum" in which many people exist.
Dr. Frankl discovered that even under the most inhumane of conditions, one can live a life of purpose and meaning. But for the majority of prisoners at Auschwitz, a meaningful life did not seem possible. Immersed in a world that no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, that robbed them of their will and made them objects to be exterminated, most inmates suffered a loss of their values. If a prisoner did not struggle against this spiritual destruction with a determined effort to save his self-respect, he lost his feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom, and with personal value. His existence descended to the level of animal life, plunging him into a depression so deep that he became incapable of action. No entreaties, no blows, no threats would have any effect on his apathetic paralysis, and he soon died, underscoring the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's observation: "Without a firm idea of himself and the purpose of his life, man cannot live, and would sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if he was surrounded with bread."
Dr. Frankl found that the meaning of his life in this situation was to try to help his fellow prisoners restore their psychological health. He had to find ways for them to look forward to the future: a loved one waiting for their return, a talent to be used, or perhaps work yet to be completed. These were the threads he tried to weave back into the patterns of meaning in these devastated lives. His efforts led him to the following epiphany:
We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life, daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and medication, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
We each long for a life of significance, to feel that in some important way our life has made a unique contribution to the world and to the lives of others. We each strive to create our self as a person of unusual quality, someone who is admired by others as extraordinary. We hope for lives characterized by accomplishments and lasting relationships that will distinguish us as memorable individuals both during and after our time on earth. Unfortunately, we often don't achieve these lofty goals. In order to discover the meaning of our lives, we need to understand "who" we are. And we live in an age in which many people are not sure "who" they are or whether in fact their lives have any significant meaning whatsoever.
When we are asked questions such as "Who are you?" or "What is the meaning of your life?" we often lack any idea of how to respond. But an even more revealing symptom of our confusion and alienation is the fact that we rarely even pose these questions, to ourselves or to others. We are too busy "living" to wonder why we are living or who is doing the living. But can we afford to be too busy to find meaning in our lives? Our lives depend on our answer to this question. Not our biological lives necessarily, but the life of our spirit. We so often cruise along on autopilot-days slipping into weeks, weeks merging into years, years coalescing into a life-without confronting these important questions. If we are to become human in the fullest sense, achieving our distinctive potentials and living a life of significance, we must first have what the theologian Paul Tillich characterized as "the courage to be."
There is a terrible price to pay for this loss of wonder and lack of meaning, for it corrodes any life, eating it away from the inside until only a shell remains. Albert Camus, novelist and writer on existential themes, expressed it this way: "To lose one's life is a little thing and I shall have the courage to do so if it is necessary; but to see the meaning of this life dissipated, to see our reason for existing disappear, that is what is unbearable. One cannot live without meaning."
Many people are in fact living with a diminished sense of meaning, and they struggle to fill the void within them by frantically pursuing power, money, pleasure, thrills, mind-altered states, or the latest psychic fad. Yet these compulsive cravings only serve to reveal the lack of purpose in their lives, poor substitutes for a life built around authentic purpose and genuine meaning. Dr. Frankl provided an eloquent analysis of the desperate situation in which we find ourselves:
Modern men and women are caught in an existential vacuum, the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves. The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century.... No instinct tells them what they have to do, and no tradition tells them what they ought to do; soon they will not know what they want to do.
"THE UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING"
The Greek philosopher Socrates made this provocative observation nearly 2500 years ago, and it is even more relevant today. In many respects, we have become a society of nonthinkers and as a consequence, people often express bewilderment when trying to understand the complex forces shaping their lives, and frustration at their inability to exert meaningful control over these forces. Consider how often we have heard people say things like:
Everything in my life is moving so quickly-I just can't seem to keep up. There are so many forces that are pushing and pulling me in different directions. Most of the time I feel that I'm just reacting to situations, jumping from crisis to crisis, not steering an independent course for myself. What choice do I have?
I seem to spend a lot of time pretending to be someone I'm not. I lack confidence in my ideas, my perceptions, and myself. I'm worried people won't like the "real me," and so I try to present an image that I think they will respond to. Who is the "real me"? What values should govern my life? These are essential questions, but I don't have time to think about what kind of person I want to be.
Socrates' message was that when we live our lives unreflectively, simply reacting to life's situations and not trying to explore its deeper meanings, then our lives have diminished value. When unreflective, we are not making use of the distinctive human capacity to think deeply about important issues and develop thoughtful conclusions about ourselves and our world. We skate on the surface of life, meeting our endless responsibilities, bombarded with overwhelming amounts of information, and seeming to be in perpetual motion. We simply don't have the time or inclination to plumb the depths of ourselves, reflect on the meaning of our existence, shape the direction of our lives, and create ourselves as unique and worthy individuals.
The fact that you are reading this book suggests that you recognize the importance of enriching your life by improving the quality of your thinking abilities-a worthy goal indeed. And the truth is that your destiny is in your hands: You can shape yourself into the person you want to be, and you can construct an effective and fulfilling life. In order to do so you will have to think critically, live creatively, and choose freely. You will need to articulate the portrait of the person you want to become, use your creative imagination to invest your portrait with colors and textures, and then commit yourself to making the choices necessary to become this person in reality. Creating this portrait will be challenging work, but it is well worth the effort. Your portrait will be your contribution to the world, your legacy to present and future generations.
This book was written as a guide in your quest to create an enlightened self-portrait. It is intended to give you the conceptual tools to craft a life thrilling in its challenges and rich in its fulfillment. It is not intended to direct you to a specific life-portrait. That is your responsibility: to explore, to learn, to evaluate, to think critically-and then to create yourself in the image you have envisioned. The size of your canvas, the quality of your portrait, will expand in direct proportion to your imagination.
"Man is asked to make of himself what he is supposed to become to fulfill his destiny," Paul Tillich wrote. But how do we discover our destiny, the unique meaning of our lives? If our minds are clear and our spirits enlightened, life makes evident what is required of us.
As you follow your own path through the 8 Steps of this book, you will delve deep within yourself, laying bare the bedrock of truth that forms the core of your identity. Your journey will be a process of selfexploration and discovery, answering profound questions about your life and illuminating the mysteries of your existence. And in the course of your travels, as your mind clears and your spirit becomes enlightened, the meaning that life holds out to you will become visible-you will only have to seize it.
Enlightened Thinking Is the Key to a Successful Life
Over the past two decades I have worked with thousands of people to help them become more informed and enlightened thinkers-the key to living a life that is creative, professionally successful, and personally fulfilling. During my years of college teaching, I have discovered that many of my students-representing a broad social, economic, ethnic, and age spectrum-have repeatedly expressed concerns about their inability to control the forces that shape their lives; they are insecure about their ability to think clearly and independently; and they are frustrated by the challenge of creating lives of purpose and significance.
Excerpted from The Thinker's Way by John Chaffee Copyright © 1998 by John Chaffee, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission.
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