A Self-Taught Philosopher

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

My husband and I are staying at a beautiful beach resort where I will be speaking to a group of educators and parents this morning. I generally wake up early to read and write. But this morning, I am sitting in a tiny hotel bathroom with the door shut tight so as not to wake my partner.

My husband is a voracious reader. When he finishes a book he thinks I would like, he hands it over to me. Last night it was Before the Sabbath, by Eric Hoffer. I wasn't familiar with Hoffer's work but quickly learned he was a self-educated longshoreman/ philosopher. This book was written in 1974 and published in 1979 after he had retired from his work on the waterfront. He died shortly after the book was published.

I knew this author would resonate with me when I read on page 9: "A social order that grants only minimal necessities but asks for little effort will be more stable than a system that offers superfluities but demands ceaseless striving."

The talk I'm giving this morning is about kids. It will focus on helping kids find balance through self-directed skills to pay better attention, see themselves and their environment clearly, and respond to events (both of the mind and in their environment) thoughtfully rather than through habitual reaction.

One of the major stressors facing kids is the implicit message Hoffer points towards. Success, even for kids, demands ceaseless striving. Kids feel the pressure to be the "best" on the soccer field, at the piano recital, and through admission into a "good" school (not only college but there is equal pressure as they apply for admission into competitive middle and high schools). Even in families where striving is discouraged, we cannot shield our kids from the influence of friends, schools and the media.

I do not know how to reverse this trend. Those to whom we have taught mindful awareness activities like them and report that they feel more in control of their own minds. So for now this is what I am doing. But my work and the work of my colleagues is far from finished: To evolve we must maintain an open and curious stance of inquiry. Back to Hoffer who also has something to say on this subject:

"Language was invented to ask questions. Answers may be given by grunts and gestures, but questions must be spoken. Humanness came of age when man asked the first question. Social stagnation results not from a lack of answers but from the absence of the impulse to ask questions."

I am grateful to the teachers who ask the hard questions. Through these questions we further refine only our curriculum and our view of the process.

Lastly a Hoffer quote for my husband sleeping in the next room, which echoes his thoughts about any attempt to quantify and manualize the inner experience:

"It will never perhaps be possible to speak about our inner life in precise scientific terms. Can one laugh at oneself or pity oneself in scientific terminology? The choice is between poetry and aphorism. The latter is probably the less vague."