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Quest-ions

I think the maturity of the mind does not mean that we become more intelligent or know more answers. It is the opposite. We become more mature when experience informs the mind of a number of certainties, just a few, but good enough to hold onto and live by. One can be smart in the head but uninitiated in being human. I hasten to call these certainties principles, virtues or truths; but all the same, to learn how to walk this earth is to learn what you live your life upon, to know what matters, to feel in your bones what you can die for.

And progress does not mean accumulation. One becomes more human as one's questions change, evolve or are left behind. I think this is what it means to grow: to earnestly seek the answers to the most important questions you have; to scrutinize and wring those answers to the last drop; and finally become those questions and answers--to live them and be them.

In college, I had one burning question in my heart. And this was God's existence and essence: does he exist, and if he does, what is he? Not that I was an atheist, as it was fashionable with college students, but more of a healthy skepticism to be expected at that age. It was not theology which provided me with the vocabulary and paths to answering that question but philosophy. I remember my conviction so clearly then: that God was unnecessary for a good man; that one can live without him as long as one becomes human. I left college without a certain answer but with some calm in my heart. Up till now that calm remains not because I had found the answer but perhaps because it was too early to say. So I postponed the question.


When I was in graduate school, I started yet again with one question: What does it mean and take to be happy? In search for an answer, I looked at the ancients--Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics--in order to find out what "the good life" meant. And, to be sure, I got some answers and hints; I even tried out in practice what they said: from Plato, to glorify Reason (the welcome message at my phone that time was "Reason above all, right above wrong"); from Aristotle, to excel and be virtuous (I devoted two years solely on taking philosophy classes); from Epicurus, to live the simple life (I gave up shopping for clothes and shoes); and from the Stoics, detachment (I became more and more alone).

But after a few years, I realized that I was still not truly happy. Yes, I understood what the ancients said and saw much truth in it. But there was something amiss. In hindsight, I now know what was wrong: it was not time to ask that question and it was not time for me to know the answer. As I always say, just when I knew the answer, they changed the question. And so gradually, that question, much like the God-question, receded into the background as I was faced with other questions and other possible answers.

It was when I taught philosophy of man which gave me the real question for now. Obviously, it is the question of what am I? or what is man? and through this Who am I? I know it sounds very romantic and existential--the kind of which you do teach to eager young minds; but I confess that I am an existential romantic. I do not know how else to phrase the question but in that way. With trembling heart, I ask with the Psalmist "What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?" In other words, what is man's place in the infinite (Pascal), and more importantly, what is my place? What does man mean? What do I mean?

Unable again to answer that directly, I was led to man himself and the experiences that make up the human. This is how I went into phenomenology which, in my view, helped me begin again with a clean slate ("erasing" or, better put, "bracketing" all my preconceived notions, my "natural attitudes" and the concepts I had learned) and start with what we actually experience. This gave me the sought-for freedom from all dogmatic philosophy; finally, I had something to hold on to and actually experience in my flesh.

Thus I learned how to describe, how to look at and perceive things, and how to look for the essences of things. The experiences of love, solitude, thinking, the body, moods, pleasure, etc. occupied my mind. Actually, nothing is so insignificant for eyes that wish to see. Phenomenology is not a philosophy itself but a way of doing philosophy; it provides you with the eyes and art of understanding any experience. But there lies the rub: we have an infinite number of experiences. This is why Husserl, the father of phenomenology, says that the philosopher is a perpetual beginner.

I guess one begins with a few big questions only to find out that we cannot yet answer them. But as we move on we end up with a lot of small questions we might not have time to answer. Perhaps maturity lies in knowing the true questions and wisdom in living those answers.

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