Whether you know it or not, philosophy affects all of your relationships and your thoughts about them. We often think of the discipline as this esoteric thing, but it pervades each of our lives. When I use the term ‘philosophy’, I mean ‘philosophy of life’, defined by Massimo Pigliucci as an understanding of how the world operates and how one ought to live. Since your current understanding of the world and what makes life valuable was likely implanted in you at an early age, you probably haven’t thought too much about it; it just feels right. So, we only begin to question our perspectives, if ever, during emotional crises, when we question our lifestyles and how to move forward.
I recently had a session with a client who’s struggling with deciding on whether to end her marriage; for her husband subscribes to an opposing set of values. Despite loving him, she questions his capacity to become a good father, as his version of meaning and outlook on life encompass an individualistic ideology. In his conception, human value stems from status and status is based on the accumulation of wealth. My client reasoned that he would grow out of his view, eventually, and continue to build on his more lovable qualities. Unfortunately, after years of marriage, she’s beginning to accept the unlikelihood of change. She fell in love with his good qualities and potential for growth; in him, she perceived some fraction of altruism and hoped for its expansion.
Her husband, who appears to struggle with trusting others, believes that, like him, they’re also selfish. Life, in his philosophy of it, is a rat race to the top, wherein individuals climb over each other, at least in my understanding. And my client now has to assess the risk of continuing their marriage. So, she asks, “Can he change?” According to research on political and religious ideologies, the answer is, it’s highly unlikely. While she can accept that political ideology is difficult, near impossible, to alter, it’s somewhat challenging to generalize her belief. I suppose the reason abides in her sense of hope.
If you ask most people about philosophy, they’ll quickly tell you how useless it is, and how they never understood why they had to learn it. Yet, my client discovered how her husband’s philosophy affected his choices and, as significantly, his perspectives of others, which likely include her. I can’t say for sure since our treatment hasn’t progressed any further, but I imagine that her husband finds it challenging to trust her, too, and maybe even believes that she’s selfish as well.
I often mention films that influenced my thinking and, in this respect, I want to turn to Staying Alive, the critically panned sequel to Saturday Night Fever; I loved them both. In the movie, Tony Manero, the fiery protagonist, falls in love with an arrogant and self-absorbed dancer, whom he pursues throughout most of the film. During their initial get-together, after sleeping with him, she requests that he leave her apartment. Confused and hurt, he pleads with her to let him stay, but to no avail. Eventually, she informs him of her philosophy of life. In a pivotal moment, she tells him that “everybody uses everybody; that’s just how it is.” And he goes on to do what you’d expect; he fights for her affection. While romantic, and often recommended by idealists, fighting for another person is often a bad decision, and Tony inevitably learns that the hard way.
Toward the end of the film, after Tony became furious at her for rejecting him, the director pulled him aside and told him, “Stop trying to change people, and worry about changing yourself.” That was it, the aha moment he needed! In a scene that resembled an idealized version of therapy, Tony decided to pursue another potential love interest instead, the girl who loved him from the beginning.
The film concluded with a more mature version of Tony Manero, one who was much more practical. If his first love interest cared about examining her life philosophy, they may have had a happy ending. But, she didn’t want to, and many don’t, especially those with a cynical worldview. If you truly believe that “everybody uses everybody,” then you’re likely to explain another’s kindness in a way that fits your perspective. Remember cognitive dissonance? We feel an unease, or intense discomfort, when our core beliefs are challenged with conflicting evidence. So, despite his efforts, Tony’s attempts were done in vain. I’m almost sure she believed that he was full of shit, even if he was ignorant of it.
So, next time you’re on a date, carefully consider your date’s perspectives. Her or his philosophy of life will tell you most of what you need to know about their values and whether or not a relationship would work.